Three researchers discussed why the regional perspective on Afghanistan and Pakistan is relevant and why, given the economic, social and geopolitical challenges, the role of the five key regional powers—India, China, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—is likely to become increasingly important in shaping the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On June 9, 2014 the Middle East Program and the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted a discussion on “Shaping the Future? The Role of Regional Powers in Afghanistan and Pakistan” with Eduardo Soler i Lecha, Research Coordinator, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs; Emma Hooper, Senior Research Associate, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs; and Roberto Toscano, Former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar; Senior Research Associate, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs; and former Ambassador to Iran (2003-2008) and India (2008-2010). Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Soler i Lecha opened the discussion by providing a history of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs—Spain’s oldest non-profit, non-partisan think tank for foreign affairs—and explained the origins of their project in 2011 to explore the sources of tension and regional powers in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area. He went on to discuss the recent emphasis on accommodation and change, specifically in Pakistan, that he and his colleagues were focusing on in 2014.
Hooper introduced the five key powers in the region: China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. According to Hooper, Iran’s main goal is to prevent the return of the Taliban and other Islamist militants, whereas China’s goals are primarily economic and security based. Saudi Arabia also has economic interests in Pakistan and has bailed the country out financially a number of times. Hooper stated that India’s main goals include ending the Taliban’s presence in the region, preventing terrorist attacks in India, and expanding its economy. Another key goal is to improve relations with Pakistan. However, the Indian government has its own internal tensions with the army, which may prevent the realization of this goal. Furthermore, it will be difficult for the new Indian government to meet the expectations of its constituency on economic development, and, should the government fail, the blowback will affect Pakistan. This is significant because the lack of a strong Western presence in Afghanistan means that the manner in which the issues in Pakistan play out will be regionally significant.
Finally, Toscano discussed the roles of Iran and Russia in the region. While Iran is willing to cooperate with the United States in eliminating the Taliban, they do not want a permanent U.S. presence on their border. To Iran, Afghanistan is a means to an end, with the ultimate goal being Iranian recognition by the United States. According to Toscano, Iran seeks recognition via inclusion and is willing to demonstrate that exclusion has a high price. He then discussed Russia’s role in the region, stating that its main criticism of the United States was that Russia wanted the United States to eliminate the Taliban and leave, but the United States did neither of those things. Russia realizes, however, that as the United States lowers its profile, other regional countries must step in to fill the void. Toscano noted that Russia is willing to fill this role, but not militarily. Russia intends to focus on issues such as stopping the trafficking of drugs and narcotics and preventing organized Islamic radicalism from spreading to central Asia. Like Iran, Russia uses its participation in such issues to be recognized as a key player in the region.
By Meg Kaiser, Middle East Program
- Former Public Policy Scholar, Wilson Center; Senior Research Associate, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB); and former Ambassador to Iran (2003-2008) and India (2008-2010)