Merkel Successor Given Poisoned Chalice?

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer attends her swearing-in ceremony as German defense minister in Berlin, July 20
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer attends her swearing-in ceremony as German defense minister in Berlin, July 20 (Bundeswehr)

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman Angela Merkel is grooming to be her successor, was sworn in as Germany’s defense minister last week, replacing Ursula von der Leyen, who was elected president of the European Commission.

The appointment came as a surprise, for two reasons:

  1. Kramp-Karrenbauer, who was elected head of the ruling Christian Democratic Union in December, has claimed she had no interest in a cabinet position.
  2. The defense portfolio is considered a poisoned chalice in Berlin. Read more

Germany Seeks Active Role to Ensure Inclusive Afghan Peace Process

A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, November 26, 2009
A UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan, November 26, 2009 (David Alvarado)

A week after a Taliban attack in Kabul left six people dead and over a hundred wonded, an all-Afghan peace summit is due to start in Doha on Sunday. Germany is co-sponsoring the meeting with Qatar.

Markus Potzel, Germany’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, made the announcement and said, “only Afghans themselves can decide the future of their country.”

Potzel has become a familiar face in Afghanistan. Just a few weeks ago, he held meetings with key stakeholders across the Afghan political spectrum. In May, he had at least two meetings with the Taliban.

Germany wants to play an active role in the peace process and ensure that it is inclusive. The Afghan government’s exclusion from bilateral talks between the Taliban and the United States is a concern in Berlin. The Germans believe only an all-Afghan process can pave the way to a sustainable settlement. The hope is that the Doha meeting will be a step in that direction. Read more

German Policymakers Worry About Losing Afghan Gains

German foreign minister Heiko Maas attends a memorial service at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, March 11
German foreign minister Heiko Maas attends a memorial service at Camp Marmal, Afghanistan, March 11 (Auswärtiges Amt/Thomas Imo)

Despite American president Donald Trump earlier ruling out negotiations with the Taliban, recent talks in Qatar could pave the way for a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The prospect is welcomed by many here in Germany, although policymakers worry about the impact on civilian engagement and developmental assistance. Read more

Pakistan’s Political Star Imran Khan Down, Not Out

Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in  Karachi, December 25, 2011
Pakistani politician Imran Khan watches a rally in Karachi, December 25, 2011 (Tehreek-e-Insaf)

The political tsunami that Pakistan’s Imran Khan promised, and was so sure of achieving, never came. His party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, fell almost a hundred seats short of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Muslim League which is now set to form a government.

The former cricketer’s meteoric rise in the past few years was perhaps the most notable feature of this month’s election. The massive turnout at his rallies in politically significant cities including Karachi and Lahore and the apparent appeal of his proclaimed “new Pakistan” led many to believe that he would be able to challenge the dominance of the Pakistan People’s Party and Sharif’s Muslim League.

Two things seemed to work in Khan’s favor: his personal reputation and a general anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan. The latter was restricted not only to the People’s Party government but extended to the entire political system which included Sharif, a former premier. Khan exploited it well by focusing on issues that were bound to find a receptive audience. In particular, he launched a strong critique against corruption, the perks and privileges enjoyed by government officials, especially the unofficial exemption from paying taxes, and Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and the resultant drone strikes on its soil.

The fact that Khan had little of a political career also benefited him as he was viewed as an outsider. His lack of ties with Pakistan’s political elite set him apart from the rest of the field. His successful management of a cancer hospital in Lahore, in a country where much of the health sector is in shambles, was applauded even by his critics.

However, as the initial euphoria about him waned, flaws became apparent. While he rightly identified Pakistan’s problems, he offered little in terms of comprehensive solutions, his proposals being deemed “idealistic to the extent of being simplistic.”

Khan proposed to solve the country’s revenue collection problem by setting a better example which supposedly would have inspired Pakistanis to pay more taxes. He seemed to blame the United States entirely for fueling Islamic insurgency by targeting suspected terrorists with unmanned aerial vehicles while refusing to speak out against the Taliban, alienating urban voters who were otherwise his main supporters.

Khan’s talk of a “new Pakistan” and promises of “change” were further tainted by his party’s inclusion of defectors as well as stalwarts of the old political system. Others resigned from the party, claiming that it had strayed from its original ideology.

In the absence of a convincing platform, Khan’s own reputation and widespread anti-establishment sentiment could only have taken him so far. The Muslim League and Pakistan People’s Party, for all their flaws, still have strong foundations in their respective strongholds, evidenced by their performance in Punjab and Sindh, respectively.

All is not lost for Imran Khan. He may not have succeeded in “sweeping the elections” but his performance was a significant improvement from his previous outings. From having secured only one seat in 2002, his party emerged with a plurality in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where dissatisfaction with American drone strike is highest. Khan will be able to form the provincial government there.

Nationally, Khan’s may yet morph into a credible alternative to the major parties. It won’t have to compromise on its positions in a coalition government, rather develop its platform more comprehensively and prepare to pose a more formidable challenge in the next election.

Indo-Iranian Cooperation in Afghanistan Faces Challenges

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29, 2012
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India shake hands in Tehran, August 29, 2012 (Presidency of Iran)

India reaffirmed on Saturday its willingness to develop Iran’s Port of Chabahar during the seventeenth meeting of the India-Iran Joint Commission in Tehran. With an initial investment pledge of some $100 million, the move further strengthens the emerging partnership between the two countries in Afghanistan.

The Chabahar port is critical to India’s Afghanistan policy. In the absence of direct physical access to the country and a hostile Pakistan denying Indian goods transit, the Iranian harbor is the most viable access point India has to Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia.

India has already signed agreements with Afghanistan and Iran that grants preferential treatment and tariff reductions to Indian goods bound for Afghanistan and Central Asia at Chabahar. It has helped build the Delaram–Zaranj Highway, which connects Iran to the main Kandahar-Herat Highway in Afghanistan, as well as a road from Chabahar to the Iranian border.

Given Iran’s vital role in providing access to Afghanistan for Indian businesses, the government in New Delhi has resisted American pressure for the country to join international sanctions against the Islamic republic, designed to dissuade it from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

Before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, India and Iran both supported the Northern Alliance, a group of mostly minority ethnicities that opposed the Islamist Pashtun regime.

The two neighboring powers’ interests in Afghanistan still converge. A spillover in violence could have negative repercussions for both, including refugee flows, a particular concern for neighboring Iran, increased narcotics smuggling and terrorist attacks, which mainly concern India.

A return of the Taliban or some other radical Islamist group taking control of the country would serve neither India nor Iran. In such a case, the former would fear that the country once again becomes a safe haven for Muslim extremists who will be more susceptible to Pakistani interests.

From Tehran’s point of view, a Sunni bloc comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia poses an ideological as well as security challenge. India’s and Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan has, for the past decades, been aimed at reducing the Pakistani, Saudi and, in Iran’s case, American influence in the region.

Finally, for Iran, cooperation with India in Afghanistan serves a symbolic and economic purpose as it allows the country to appear less isolated in the world and ease some of the pressure that international sanctions have brought.

Iran’s standoff with neighboring and Western nations does pose a problem for India which has to balance its relations with Iran against its interest in deepening relations with the United States. Collaborating with American initiatives in Afghanistan or Central Asia that exclude Iran might persuade the latter to sever ties, for instance by removing the preferential treatment given to India at Chabahar.

Linked to the standoff is Iran’s response to the American troop presence in Afghanistan. While it does not want to see the Taliban return to power, it has extended support to the group in an attempt to keep the United States preoccupied in Afghanistan and distract it from attacking Iran. It is likely to reduce this support once the United States and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. For now, though, it threatens to strike at the very foundation of what brought India and Iran together in Afghanistan.

Moreover, this Iranian sabotage, along with its treatment of Afghan refugees and its tendency to fuel sectarian or ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan, is damaging its reputation in Afghanistan. It is increasingly seen in the same light as Pakistan. India, then, may want to be more cautious in being seen as a willing “partner” of Iran’s.

Pakistan’s possible response to such collusion cannot be ignored. The Northern Alliance was, and possibly still is, viewed in Islamabad as an Indo-Iranian attempt to thwart its influence in the country. The memory of such collaboration is likely to play a part in Pakistan’s strategic calculations, especially as increasing Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan, at Pakistan’s expense, could stoke its fears of strategic encirclement. Indian projects and targets have been attacked in the past and such attacks could extend to Iranian interests as well.

How the administrations in New Delhi and Tehran manage to navigate around these roadblocks over time will determine the viability and durability of their alliance in Afghanistan.

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared at the The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, August 22, 2012.

Pakistan Releases Taliban for Role in Afghan Peace Process

A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010
A Special Forces soldier in the mountains of Bakwa, Farah Province, Afghanistan February 25, 2010 (USAF/Staff Sergeant Nicholas Pilch)

During a recent visit to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul secured the release of several Taliban prisoners in an effort to push the political reconciliation process forward in his country. The announcement came only a few weeks after Pakistan’s decision to release Taliban prisoners during the visit of an Afghan High Peace Council delegation to Islamabad.

Both countries have also agreed to provide a safe passage to travel for talks and work jointly to get at least key leaders of the Taliban removed from the United Nations sanctions list.

Pakistan, through these talks, is attempting to safeguard its strategic interests in Afghanistan and once again using the Afghan Taliban to facilitate it. As far as Pakistan is concerned, the Taliban, whatever its past experiences with them, still form the only political faction in Afghanistan that could possibly ensure its interests there.

Pakistan, however, does not expect the Taliban to be capable of securing a military victory or controlling the country as it did before the 2001 invasion. It is unlikely that Pakistan itself would want to see complete Taliban domination in Afghanistan in the future either. A broad based government representing the various political factions, including the Taliban, would be more acceptable.

Thus, by showing an eagerness to assist the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan is seeking to secure a place for the Taliban in a future representative political setup without a protracted armed struggle that could see the insurgents completely excluded from the process.

At the same time, by maintaining control over the release of the prisoners, Pakistan can ensure that only Taliban members who are amenable to its interests get to play a prominent role in the talks. Hence its refusal to release Mullah Baradar, despite repeated requests from the Afghan government, as he is believed to be staunchly opposed to Pakistan.

Moreover, the playing of a “constructive” role in the process helps Pakistan achieve the additional objective of somewhat allaying the allegations of its duplicity in the Afghan war and thereby ease the international pressure on that count.

Pakistan has always wanted to play a role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation efforts and resented attempts to isolate it from them. Mullah Baradar, for instance, was arrested when he rouched out to the Afghan government on his own.

It is possible that the release of further prisoners or any assistance in the peace talks depends on Pakistan’s own sense of its level of involvement.

The belief that Pakistan would be able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is based on the assumption that it holds a massive sway over the group. This influence may be overestimated. Pakistani relations with Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura, the faction with which the Afghan government and the United States wish to negotiate, are tenuous at best and restricted to the provision of physical refuge. The relations between Pakistan and the Taliban government were similarly strained. It may not be possible for Pakistan to play a bigger role than it already is.

Pakistan’s significance lies more in its capability to play a destructive role than a constructive one. It is capable of scuttling the peace process and can stoke violence by supporting groups like the Haqqani network and engineer attacks against the government or foreign troops in Afghanistan.

It is therefore worrying that Pakistan has yet to provide access to the higher echelons of the Taliban leadership as demanded by the Afghan government. Nor has it released all of the high-profile Taliban prisoners which the administration in Kabul believes can play a crucial role in reaching a final settlement.

Any progress with Pakistan on these scores would be contingent on how both countries deal with their deep rooted mutual distrust. There is a widespread skepticism, even hostility, in Afghanistan toward Pakistan and its role in fomenting violence. The continuous volley of accusations back and forth of providing safe haven to insurgent elements and traditional border disputes flare up from time to time and could derail the progress.

India’s Future Role in Afghanistan Severely Limited

President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, November 12
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan inspects an honor guard during a ceremonial reception at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, November 12 (MEA)

Afghan president Hamid Karzai reiterated the importance of India’s assistance for his country during his visit to New Delhi this month. He urged the country, and in particular its private sector, to further increase its investment in Afghanistan. The importance of Indian engagement in Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the Americans as well who are pushing India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan post 2014, especially in the security realm.

There is no doubt that India has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001. Having contributed close to $2 billion in aid over the past decade, India is the fifth largest donor nation to Afghanistan.

Although India has committed to increase its involvement in Afghanistan, there are some major limitations to its engagement that need to be highlighted.

For starters, there is no geographical contiguity between the two countries so India depends on others, notably Iran or Pakistan, for access. Both options are contentious.

Although there has been some easing of trade restrictions between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani military is still wary of Indian influence in Afghanistan and keen to prevent it from playing a larger role in what it sees as its traditional backyard.

Denying access to Indian goods that are meant for Afghanistan is one strategy for inhibiting Indian influence and there seems to be no inclination on the part of Pakistan to change this approach. This has prevented the maximization of the commercial relations between Afghanistan and India.

India, consequently, has relied on Iran to facilitate its trade. However, the port facilities at Chabahar in southeastern Iran still need to be developed and expanded, thereby requiring massive investment, to enable it to support trade on a large scale. More importantly, the use of such facilities will always be contingent on good relations with Iran which could be strained if India does not tread carefully when it comes to collaboration with the United States in the region, particularly in Afghanistan. Any developments in the region that India is a part of, including the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline or the “New Silk Road” initiative of the United States, that isolates or excludes Iran is likely to be resented by Tehran. This could ultimately prompt Iran to deny India access.

The main thrust of the Indian approach to Afghanistan has been the provision of socioeconomic and humanitarian assistance which has enabled it to earn significant political capital among both the Afghan political elite and the Afghan people. However, its positive engagement has been possible on account of the semblance of security created by the United States and their NATO allies. It would be difficult to maintain the same level of commitment when international security forces withdraw in 2014.

The future uncertainties have already begun to derail India’s commitments to Afghanistan. No new projects have been started for the last two years. Reports suggest that India is planning to scale down the allocation of both human and monetary resources to Afghanistan post 2014. Work on a number of existing projects has stalled due to the prevailing insecurity in Afghanistan. For instance, work on the Salma Dam project in the Herat Province, which was to be inaugurated two years ago, has been delayed on account of the prevailing insecurity in the area and constant attacks on the construction site by insurgent forces.

The problem is compounded by India’s inability to fill the security vacuum that will be created after 2014. For instance, India is not going to contribute directly toward enhancing security in the country as it will likely continue to resist sending in troops into Afghanistan.

This has been to avoid antagonizing the Pakistani military which in the past has resented even the deployment of a small noncombat contingent of troops to provide security to India’s own projects and workers. An Indian military presence in Afghanistan in the future would be counterproductive as it could make India’s presence in Afghanistan actually more vulnerable.

Similarly, it could serve to undermine the goodwill that India has earned over the past decade given the negative perception in the Afghan psyche associated with a foreign military presence. For all these reasons, there is unlikely to be consensus within India for sending troops.

India has limited itself to providing equipment and training to the Afghan National Security Forces. Although it has agreed to increase such activities, it will not train more than 1,000 Afghan troops per year. This is too low a number since the envisioned strength of the Afghan army is about 350,000.

Policymakes in New Delhi will be keen to protect and expand upon the clout they have garnered in recent years through assistance and investments and use it as a springboard to further their interests and influence in Central Asia. But given the absence of an alternative security arrangement, tense relations with neighboring countries and the future uncertainties in both Afghanistan and the region, India’s ability to advance this agenda is severely limited.