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Afghanistan: EU Should Gather Regional Support for Viable Peace

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Credit: NTM-ABy Clare Castillejo*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

MADRID (IDN) - The 27-nation European Union (EU) has invested heavily in Afghanistan. EU civilian assistance to the country is approximately €1 billion per year; the EUPOL mission has been in place since 2007 to strengthen the Afghan police force and the rule of law; and EU member states have contributed extensively to the NATO military mission.

However, this investment – like that of the U.S. – has not significantly improved Afghanistan's governance, development or security situation. This failure is not only due to ineffective western strategies or corruption within the Afghan government. It is also because Afghanistan’s neighbours have undermined progress.

Given that the Afghanistan endgame is controlled by Asian powers, the U.S. will have limited influence on the outcome and the EU even less. The challenge for the EU is that, while it has minimal influence within Afghanistan's neighbourhood, that neighbourhood’s future is vitally important for European security.

This means the EU must continue to search for modest ways in which it can promote regional support for a viable negotiated peace in Afghanistan. The EU must use quiet diplomacy, mediation and targeted support to key actors within Afghanistan and the region to help foster such agreement. The EU institutions have so far failed to take up this challenge.

While Brussels provides assistance to Kabul, it has not developed any strategic approach to promote a regional solution to the conflict. Its role has primarily been as an aid donor, with limited political engagement.

However, this is beginning to change. Recognising the importance of Pakistan's future to European security, the EU increased its aid to Pakistan by 50 per cent from 2011-2013 and in February 2012 signed a five-year engagement plan with the country. The EU is strengthening political dialogue with India and the issue of regional cooperation on Afghanistan featured in the February 2012 India-EU summit.

Piecemeal

At present, the EU pursues separate policy initiatives in different parts of the region with limited inter-linkages. For example, the EU’s security assistance in the region has been piecemeal and mostly has not addressed the regional aspects of insecurity, apart from one initiative under the Instrument for Stability to support increased civilian anti-terrorism cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Likewise, while the EU provides support to democratic institutions and civil society across the region, this support could be better joined up. In particular the EU could help link progressive actors from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and India in dialogue on the future of Afghanistan and the region. In contrast, the U.S. recently launched its New Silk Road initiative, which aims to strengthen regional linkages through region-wide infrastructure and other projects. However, this initiative lacks funding and remains a somewhat imprecise vision.

The EU's greatest leverage in this region is arguably through trade. The EU is the largest trade partner of both India and Pakistan and could potentially use this position to wield greater political influence. Although an EU waiver on tariffs for Pakistan was recently approved, Pakistan is desperate for a free trade agreement (FTA). The offer of rapid progress on a FTA could perhaps provide incentives for improved regional cooperation by Islamabad.

Through support to regional trade cooperation initiatives the EU could also possibly help strengthen economic links and ease tensions between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, in these tough economic times, Brussels' trade dialogue with India is inevitably more focused on Europe's economic needs and  finalising the drawn out EU-India FTA negotiations than on the security challenges of South Asia.

Pakistan

The EU must make every effort to encourage Pakistan to give up its spoiler role in Afghanistan. This requires reducing Pakistan's sense of external insecurity and encouraging Pakistan and India bilaterally to resolve some of the outstanding tensions between them. It also means encouraging India to step back from more provocative aspects of engagement with Kabul.

The EU should also encourage Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together to address their differences and reduce suspicion. This includes addressing their long running border dispute and agreeing on how the border can best be managed. It could also involve working jointly to address the anxieties of the Pashtun community – who make up the bulk of Afghan and Pakistani insurgents – on both sides of the border. As a major donor to both countries the EU can support governance reforms, institution building and development initiatives that address the grievances of Pashtun populations.

China

It is difficult to imagine that the EU could wield any influence with the Chinese government regarding its role in Afghanistan. However, it should certainly raise the issue of Afghanistan and related regional security challenges as part of its political dialogue with China.

Disappointingly it appears that Afghanistan was not discussed during the latest EU-China summit on February 14, 2012. The EU should provide technical  support to Afghan  authorities to help ensure that contracts with Chinese investors provide the best deal for Afghanistan; more transparent governance would also temper growing Chinese unease over investment conditions in the country.

Iran

The EU must seek opportunities to draw Iran into international dialogue on Afghanistan. Iran's interest in regional level engagement can be seen in President Ahmadinejad’s participation in three way discussions on regional security and trade issues with Afghan and Pakistani leaders in February 2012.

Despite deteriorating relations between the EU and Iran, the two share some interests in relation to Afghanistan. Both want to avoid the return of the Taliban, would like to curb drug trafficking and want to see the Afghan economy and trade routes developed. It is important that growing tension over Iran's nuclear programme does not completely close the door to EU engagement with Iran on the future of Afghanistan – even if this looks a remote prospect in the current climate.

*Clare Castillejo is a senior researcher at FRIDE, a European think tank for global action based in Madrid. This Viewpoint is extracted from a stimulating study titled Regional implications of NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan: What role for the EU? [IDN-InDepthNews – March 04, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: NATO Training Mission Afghanistan | Credit: NTM-A

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