Walking the Political Tightrope

Regional politics in south-central Asia make a complicated maze for any politician and especially for Afghanistan’s newly emerging democracy’s leaders. One of the biggest functions of Afghanistan’s president who bears the banner of Afghan politics mostly on his own shoulders, especially at this stage where the country does not have the benefit of the balancing effect of an elected parliament, is to devise and direct Afghanistan’s political course in a region that acquires increasing importance in Asian affairs. The situation gives rise to speculations that the person of the Afghan president, therefore, is vulnerable to influences by a variety of interest groups, most of them from abroad. It is also of concern that he lives apart from his people in a presidential palace that is surrounded by eight security circles. Although these circles are devised for the physical security of the president, it is feared that they also isolate him from close contact with his countrymen.

Nevertheless, while Karzai’s government has been extremely slow in the implementation of the promised reconstruction of the country, he has taken bold steps regarding his country’s political standing in the regional and international circles.

The social, economic and political situations in the region are getting complicated. Nuclear powers, India and Pakistan on the east, China in its northeast and Iran that is drawing world attention to its nuclear program, on the west and the energy rich young countries in Central Asia put Afghanistan at the hub of an interesting geopolitical wheel that is gaining more momentum by the passing of each day.

It is therefore not surprising that a leading US senator, Senator McCain calls for the need to establish permanent American military bases in Afghanistan. The comment has already drawn comments in Afghan free press that any decision in this regard must have the approval of the Afghan parliament.

On the other hand, gas and oil, as always try to dictate regional and international relations among countries in that part of the world. The story of the extension of a gas pipeline from the rich gas fields of Daulatabad in Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India now seems an old story. Yet, no one has written a “happily ever after,” clause to that story. Indian foreign minister during his recent visit to Kabul was very cautious in the expression of any official support to the project. Some news items suggested that India feels there is not enough gas to be carried by the pipeline from Turkmenistan as that country’s gas has already been committed to be exported to Europe and elsewhere. Economic considerations together with political maneuvering have already influenced a reshuffling of positions by Pakistan, Iran and India regarding the need of India for the extension of a gas pipeline. On the other hand, Iran would like to see that the gas pipeline is extended from Iran via Pakistan to India and thus Afghanistan might lose the opportunity of a lifetime to benefit from the Turkmen gas pipeline going through its soil. Also recently, in view of the pressures on Pakistan by the United States in the war against terror, Pakistan’s nuclear know how and technology of nuclear weapons, relations between Iran and Pakistan had reached a critical point. To appease Iran, Pakistan is willing to agree and extend a guarantee for a gas pipeline from Iran to India via its soil.

It was in this context that the Afghan president made a three-day visit to India. It was assumed that he would press for getting Indian agreement to the extension of the gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Indian authorities have continued to express a diplomatic happy face stance in this regard, without giving any firm commitment. India is also weighing the possibility of another gas pipeline from Myanmar via Bangladesh.

In the meantime, the Afghan president took a bold step in applying for membership to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC. The association consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. President Karzai argued that Afghanistan’s membership to this regional economic cooperation grouping would provide a link between South and Central Asia. He has further stated the need for a trade corridor for Afghanistan through Pakistan, an issue very close to the hearts of those in favor of Afghanistan’s economic independence as a landlocked country.

Coupling the above with the ambitious project by the Asian Development Bank to extend an Asian Highway from Kabul to Bangkok and on to Hanoi would bring many countries in the region and beyond together in a critical time in the beginning of the 21st century.

Maintaining of a balanced stance in these conditions, considering the rivalries between the nuclear powers Pakistan and India, Iranian competition for securing not only of markets for its oil and gas, but pushing for a gas pipeline from its soil and thus huge economic gains, Afghanistan’s need for a peaceful region with friendly relation with its new democratic government and opening up of a new silk route and a route of economic prosperity for all, seem like walking on a political tightrope for a single Afghan politician who has been put in the position of making huge decisions for his country single handedly and without the benefit of political allies or at least a parliament. Yet, it seems that he has the political courage and the foresight to attempt at walking the rope. It is only to be mentioned that no ropewalker does his piece without help from a team that look out for his well being and the success of the show. The question is who are Karzai’s advisors? 2/27/05