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Stability in Afghanistan: Why it matters

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COMMENTS

25 February 2010 13:16

Hugh White is right to worry about the prospects of Sino-Indian strategic competition in Afghanistan, but I disagree with his argument that whether or not Afghanistan is a robust and stable state is immaterial to avoiding that outcome.

We do have an interest in the future of domestic stability within Afghanistan, but we need to think much more clearly about which countries build and guarantee that stability. An Afghan state built just by the US and its allies will be inherently unstable because, as we demonstrated after the Soviet Union withdrew, we have little stomach for any continued strategic involvement in the region. Pakistan, India and China, on the other hand, have deep and enduring strategic interests there, and their competition would soon undermine anything ISAF and NATO leave behind.

Understanding the dynamics of strategic competition among Asia's rising behemoths has to be the first step in trying to figure out how to mitigate it.

Great power competition in the twenty-first century will be different because of the depth and extent of the dependence of national economies on the global economy. National economies are now less self-sufficient and more vulnerable to the disruption of trading and investment relations than at any time in history. What stops great power confrontations getting out of hand these days is not so much the fear of nuclear annihilation as the fear of global economic ruin – and the resulting national ruin.

This dynamic has changed the nature of strategic competition towards a competitive manipulation of interdependence. Moscow, in that very Russian way, has made this explicit by trying to perpetuate Europe's reliance on Russian gas. The flip side of Pax Americana is the threat of a crippling blockade against those with whom Washington is displeased.

The countervailing impulse is to try to reduce one's rivals' ability to manipulate one's own interdependence. Witness Europe's witless attempts to construct an internal energy market, America's quest for energy independence, and China's decade-long diplomatic campaign to avoid possible containment.

There are two regions that have become the focus of this strategic dynamic. Both are vital strategic thoroughfares and resource basins. Both are shatter-zones of smaller, internally fragile states wedged among the Asian giants. They are Central Asia and Southeast Asia. And given where they are located, the stability and independence of these sub-regions is a global public good.

The danger is that in the heat of the competition, the great powers will lose sight of this fact. This is why instability and weakness in Afghanistan is so dangerous – because in the fog of proxy war, intensely jealous great powers will assume their rivals have the upper hand and redouble their own efforts to exert influence and control.

China and Russia realised this danger in relation to Central Asia's northern tier in the mid-1990s and eventually created the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The SCO is founded on a shared fear – the emergence of either Western-leaning democracy or Muslim theocracy in the 'stans – and a shared hope – that Moscow and Beijing can mitigate their strategic competition and collectively reap the gains from Central Asia's resource holdings while directing their strategic attention away from their Central Asian frontiers.

But Central Asia's southern tier has benefited from no such clear thinking. Beijing's support for Pakistan has kept India strategically bottled up under the Himalayas for decades, while Indo-Pakistani hostility has led Islamabad to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan. India's response has been to try to deny that strategic depth, and China has every reason to try to block the recent countermove by New Delhi into Afghanistan. This is a complex and dangerous dynamic made chronically unstable by its cyclical structure.

To avoid the worst possible outcome, all three rivals must be engaged in the process of building a stable Afghanistan – and collectively guaranteeing it. The most realistic route is to actively involve the SCO in the future of Afghanistan while broadening that organisation to include India and Pakistan. This solution ties the stability of the northern and southern tiers of Central Asia to each other, thereby broadening the stakes of those involved. The one hope and one fear that bind China and Russia together are also remarkably relevant to the SCO's proposed new members.

This leaves Southeast Asia. This region has nowhere near the dangerous dynamic or instability of Central Asia, but this does not mean we should take the prospect of great power rivalry to our near north lightly. This is why the engagement of North and South Asia's great powers – and I see the US as a great power in North Asia – in Southeast Asia's institutions of stability and mutual guarantee should be taken so seriously.

Photo by Flickr user rob7812, used under a Creative Commons license.

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