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Afghanistan’s future - a haven for international terrorism?

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Doubts about the future stability of Afghanistan and fears of its revival as a hotbed for international terrorism are on the rise as hopes fade over a US deal to leave behind some troops.

A major concern is who will fill the security vacuum left by the withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014?

The Taliban and its allies, such as the powerful Islamist insurgent group the Haqqani network, are poised to re-take territory in the south and east.

But countries like India, Russia, and China - aware of the dangers Taliban resurgence poses to their countries - are plotting strategies to cope with the new challenges.

Beijing and Moscow have, for more than a decade, resented the US’s substantial footprint and influence in Afghanistan. However, now that the US is poised to pull out troops altogether, they are nervous about the impact of an emboldened Taliban on regional security.

If the Taliban re-establishes its influence in Afghanistan, it will provide safe haven and a base of operations for other terrorist groups - such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that poses a threat to the central Asian nations; the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen that focus on attacking India - and even, potentially, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement which represents Uyghur separatists from China’s western Xinjiang province.

US President Barack Obama told his Afghan counterpart President Hamid Karzai in February 2014, that if the Afghan leader fails to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) – which would define the terms of a residual force presence - the US will plan for a complete withdrawal of its forces by the end of 2014.

The prospect of the US pulling out completely from Afghanistan and not guaranteeing a continued counter-terrorism role would carry significant risks for the White House, which is conscious that the US has spent nearly 13 years trying to stabilise the country during which time more than 2,100 US soldiers have died.

And without the BSA between Washington and Kabul, Nato countries would also pull out by the end of 2014, said Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in February 2014.

Observers believe Mr Karzai is unlikely to budge in the run up to the presidential elections on April 5, 2014.

Even though most of the election candidates support the international troops remaining in the country, thumbing his nose at the US scores political points for Mr Karzai and is a way to maintain his relevance despite being constitutionally barred from running in the election.

Meanwhile, countries such as Russia, India, Iran, and China are developing plans for dealing with the likely security vacuum.

India and Iran have focussed on improving their ties to the Afghan regime. New Delhi has completed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Kabul and has agreed to provide training for the Afghan military, while stopping short of supplying weapons.

Russia is bolstering the security forces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to deal with any threats from Islamic extremists crossing from bases in Afghanistan into the Central Asian countries. Russia has pledged more than US$1 billion in military aid and debt relief to Kyrgyzstan, and the Tajik parliament has voted to allow Russia to extend its deployment of 7,000 troops in the country for 30 more years.

Russia and the Central Asian nations are particularly concerned about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has increased its presence in northern Afghanistan.

China also is increasingly concerned that Afghanistan could become a training ground for Uyghur separatist militants that China claims have conducted attacks both in its western Xinjiang province, which shares a short border with Afghanistan, and in Beijing. A senior Chinese official said in November 2013 that Uyghur militants constituted the country’s ‘most direct and realistic security threat’.

Those fears were realised in early March 2014 when a terrorist attack at a railway station in the southwestern city of Kunming left 29 dead and 140 injured. China blamed extremists from Xinjiang region. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said after the attack that Beijing will work with the international community to fight terrorism and promote political reconciliation in Afghanistan as well as support reconstruction efforts.

It is still possible that the US can negotiate a Bilateral Security Agreement with Mr Karzai’s successor. If the BSA is not completed by late summer, it is doubtful Nato countries would have the time necessary to plan for a residual force.

But should the US and Nato completely withdraw troops, it would not take long for the Taliban to reassert its power across southern Afghanistan and for Haqqani forces to take over large swathes of territory in the eastern part of the country.

 - Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.  

Originally appeared in World Review

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