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About Us

The Sources of Tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan: A Regional Perspective (STAP RP) policy research project started in July 2011 with initial funding by the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). Shortly after its inception, it received grant funding from the Norwegian Peace Building Resource Centre (NOREF) which enabled the publication of the initial policy research papers, including which sources of domestic tension have regional implications. These formed the basis for an in-depth examination of a range of aspects of these sources of tension, and their regional implications. In 2012, the STAP RP received grant funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, which went on to provide continued support for the project till its closure in November 2016.

The project explores the main sources of tension and “fault lines” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the role played by regional actors vis a vis these. Mapping the interests and objectives of India, China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia aims to contribute to clarifying the understanding of what sort of regional, comprehensive approach is required of the international community in this strategic region.  Using a “process” approach, the development of which benefitted considerably from a series of dialogues with regional and international experts, the project has produced case studies led primarily by  local experts, which explore key issues from new perspectives, including those relevant to the post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The project aims on the one hand, to add to contribute substantially to the the existing body of knowledge on the regional perspective on domestic sources of tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and on the other hand, to assist European policymakers in dealing more effectively with the region  -including through identification of areas where dialogue and negotiation could prove useful.

Project activities consisted of a series of consultations with its NETWORK of regional experts; production of a mapping document and policy research papers that identify, analyse and track the dimensions of, and issues in relation to, the sources of tension with regional dimensions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as their regional and domestic impacts, that are all available in our PUBLICATIONS section. A compilation of the thirteen STAP RP papers which in our view best illustrate the most critical thematic issues for both countries and for the region, from a regional standpoint, can be found in the section TELLING THE STORY. In addition, the STAP RP has monitored Track II diplomacy in the region, the development of regional organisations as mechanisms for dialogue such as the Heart of Asia, Istanbul Process, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and RECA; monitored and analysed the shifting alliances in regional economic projects. In a series of quarterly monitoring briefs on both Afghanistan and Pakistan, it provides a time series of their bilateral relations with key regional powers, from 2013-2016.

External Actors

The policy research project Sources of Tension in Afghanistan & Pakistan: A Regional Perspective examines and maps the main domestic fault lines in each country which have implications regionally, and analyses the interests of the key involved regional actors, during the period 2011-2016.

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20012 & 2013 Interests

  • The maintenance of functional governance in Afghanistan, to obviate the need for direct engagement to counter radical Islam in the region after Afghanistan experience in the 1980s
  • Continued cultivation of close ties with the former Northern Alliance groups to avoid the expansion of Islamic militant groups influence in Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia
  • Countering US efforts to politically and economically draw Central Asia away from Russian influence and using US-NATO withdrawal in this objective avoiding a long term US military presence in Afghanistan while benefiting from it as a buffer against Islamist terrorist groups.
  •  Stemming the flow of narcotics (seen as a large-scale domestic security challenge)

Additional Interests

  • Expanding its security presence in Central Asia
  • Developing ties with Iran as an important economic partner, including for combating the rise of US economic interests in Afghanistan
  • Deeper Russian involvement in Afghanistan seen as inevitable, given security concerns and the prevalence of radical Islamist forces, combined with recognition of economic and political limits to any Russian role
  • Direct military intervention in Afghanistan appears still to be excluded
  • De facto Taliban participation in a coalition government is accepted
  • Russia’s approach is thoroughly regional, with a growing focus on regional multilateralism
  • Strong emphasis placed on the essential, central role of Pakistan for the solution of the Afghan question, as indicated by an increased attention by Russia toward the former witnessed in 2013. (see: Perspectives from the Region 2013:2. Russia ; and E. Stepanova )

Red Lines

  • The return of a Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan
  • Pakistan controlled by Islamist m
  • A substantial increase in the inflow of narcotics onto Russian territory
  • ilitants
  • Rising instability in Central Asia as a result of an increased Islamist militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Central Asia dropping out of its “sphere of influence”
  • Concerns over the extent of the US presence in the region post-2014

2016 Interests & Red Lines

  • Strengthen military cooperation through the delivery of hardware to the ANSF
  • Increased military cooperation with Pakistan including hardware sales
  • Moved beyond the previously traditionally adversarial relationship with Pakistan to collaborate on counter-terrorism and achieving stabilisation in Afghanistan; nomination of Pakistan by Russia for membership of the SCO
  • Cooperation and investment in Pakistan´s energy sector
  • Supporting efforts to reach a negotiated solution to the Afghan conflict through quiet diplomacy
  • A new dynamic in Afghan-Russian relations over meetings with the Taliban and potential financial and weapons support for the Afghan government to fight Da´esh
  • Containment of militant groups (IMU and affiliates, as well as ISIS) in Northern Afghanistan

2012 & 2013 Interests

  • Access to raw materials in Afghanistan for growing internal demand
  • Impeding the training of Uighur separatists in Pakistan and FATA in particular due to internal security concerns
  • Using close relations with Pakistan as a lever of influence with Afghanistan and US and as a “soft” challenge against India
  • Maintaining Gwadar port as a quasi-Chinese naval outpost to protect oil supply lines from the Middle East, and to counter both the US presence in Central Asia and India’s influence in the region
  •  Protecting China’s mineral and infrastructure interests in Balochistan

Additional Interests

  • Increased military cooperation on China-Pakistan border, including in Gilgit-Baltistan, due to its incomplete incorporation into the Pakistani state and the resultant institutional vacuum and  growing Sunni-Shi’a sectarian violence and tensions
  • Apparent intent to establish one or more military bases in FATA and thus potentially to increase China’s security role in Pakistan, creating a military network across Pakistan from Gwadar to FATA to oversee the transit of goods to Xinjiang
  • Keeping the SCO primarily focused on economic (vs political and geostrategic) issues
  • Pakistan -including as a Muslim nuclear state- is a far greater interest and concern to China than Afghanistan, despite its interests there.
  • Pakistan represents an key energy corridor for China to the Gulf and Central Asia, whereby political and security risks trump economic assessments alone.
  • Afghanistan, notwithstanding China’s economic interests, is seen as a business concern not a state one.
  • Key Red Lines Identified by Chinese Interlocutors in 2013
    • The broader regional relationship between China, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan and the potentially negative repercussions of a negative fall-out from Afghanistan is a top priority
    • Stability in the region is predicated on a stable Afghanistan that does not become an exporter of violence and instability: (see Perspectives from the Region in 2013 No 1. China).

Red Lines

  •  Pakistan controlled by Islamist militants
  •  Growth of (Uighur) Muslim extremism on Chinese territory, supported from across the border with Pakistan
  •  The return of a Taliban emirate in Afghanistan
  •  Confrontation with the US over Pakistan

2016 Interests & Red Lines

  • Strengthening and protection of the Silk Road economic belt project as well as China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) projects, particularly in Balochistan
  • Brokering a political solution to the Afghan conflict through multilateral and quiet diplomacy
  • Avoiding the fracture of the Taliban movement
  • Demonstrated strong political support for Pakistan; joint military exercises undertaken
  • Preventing Pakistan becoming a haven for IMU extremists
  • Fundamental change in policy towards Afghanistan from 2015 onwards, from the economic to the political, due to ETIM and Islamist threats with blowback on China: direct involvement by China in the Quadrilateral peace talks in Kabul and Islamabad, alongside the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan; facilitation of Track 2 meetings by China on Afghanistan
  • Use the SCO as a vehicle for furthering a peace process in Afghanistan
  • Work with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to contain and stem the Islamist threat both in both countries to avoid contagion in its own western provinces, which would impair China´s development plans for the region

2012 & 2013 Interests

  • Avoiding a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan
  • Undermining the success of the US military presence in Afghanistan, yet simultaneously seeking international recognition by the US at the international level through cooperation on regional issues
  • Maintaining contacts with all relevant Afghan actors
  • Countering the rise of Taliban influence in Afghanistan, which has close links to  Saudi Arabia
  • Combating Saudi-Wahhabi involvement in Pakistan as a counter-influence to that of Shi’a Iran
  • Countering threats from growing Sunni extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan
  • Combatting the drug trade stemming from Afghanistan
  • Continuing to maintain simultaneous apparently contradictory stances with some regional partners (Pakistan, China)
  • Expanding economic ties with Afghanistan and India
  • Securing energy and communication routes to India, China etc.
  • Preventing Sunni Jundullah terrorists from operating across the border with Iran in Pakistani Balochistan
  • Avoiding negative spillover from Balochi nationalism in Pakistan
  • Maintaining regime security in Afghanistan to avoid a situation of chaos which could alter its own domestic situation
  • Within Pakistan, counteracting the effects of Pakistan’s reliance on the US and Pakistan’s support for the Taliban
  • Continued vested interest in stability, security of Afghanistan and the prevention of terrorism and the cross-border activities of radical jihadis
  • Continuity of the “Herat model” of soft power influence in Afghanistan
  • Does not see its relationship with Pakistan as inherently ideological; likely to continue to ignore sectarian violence against the latter’s Shi’a population; likely to continue to avoid open confrontation
  • Institutional means of communication such as the Joint Ministerial Commission on Security likely to continue as vehicle for political and security levels
  • Co-operation on the illicit drug trade and expansion of energy and trade are necessary but not sufficient elements in creating a positive dynamic with neighbouring countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Rivalry with Saudi Arabia does not seem to directly impact on stances towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, though this could change depending on how the prevailing situation in Syria and the related activities of Hezbullah play out: (see R. Parsi and G. Steinberg & N. Woermer)

Additional Interests

  • Avoiding an increase in, and decreasing the number of, Afghan refugees in Iran
  • Curbing the illicit drug economy, which badly impacts Iran’s populati
  • Furthering its “soft-power” regional influence in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia
  • Reducing its own energy burden through transit fees and benefits

Red Lines

  • The return of a Taliban Emirate (with close historical links to Saudi Arabia) in Afghanistan
  • The US using military bases in Afghanistan against Iran
  • Pakistan controlled by Islamist militants

2016 Interests & Red Lines

  • Preserve and strengthen the historical, cultural and religious sphere of influence in Afghanistan’s western provinces, whilst countering Saudi Arabia’s growing influence in the country as a whole
  • Despite concerns over sectarianism, Iran continues not to engage with direct the issue in either Afghanistan or Pakistan, notwithstanding the increasingly sectarian wars in the Middle East, where Iran has interests
  • Expand economic and trade ties with Pakistan post-sanctions; re-engagement with Pakistan on stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline
  • Consolidate trade, technology and cultural cooperation with Afghanistan
  • Contain any advance of ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially in the former’s southern provinces bordering Iran, but Iran has shown restraint over increased border incursions into Iranian Baluchistan from Pakistani soil
  • Avoid potential conflict and seek a sustainable solution to severe irrigation problems affecting Lake Hamin’s wetlands (in Sistan-Baluchistan) as well as the Hari River region (due to the Salma Dam project)
  • Water conflicts with neighbours, particularly Afghanistan and Pakistan, are a potential future red line

2012 & 2013 Interests

  • Ideological
  • Promote itself as the unifier of the Sunni community; officially promoting the Wahhabi variant of Sunni Islam (closely associated with the Salafi school of thought, which justifies the use of violence, though Wahhabism does not)
  • Preventing ongoing war within the Sunni community, partly because it considers this would benefit Iran
  • Containing Iran, demonizing its role as a Shi’a threat in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a proxy battleground between Riyadh and Teheran
  • Continuing to “externalize” the radical Islamist threat, fomented outside and repressed inside
  • Minimising the threat from an Al Qaeda-Taliban axis, regarding the latter as heavily linked to the former, and hence as a threat to its own  internal stability
  • Maintaining its close relationship with Pakistan including through large aid donations, investments and oil concessions
  • Maintaining the status quo in Pakistan: specifically, avoiding the rise to pre-eminence of democratic forces capable of re-establishing the authority of Pakistan as a Muslim, but secular, state
  • Maintaining the Kingdom’s privileged relations with the US
  • Likely to be an important party to any political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan
  • Pakistan represents an key energy corridor for China to the Gulf and Central Asia, whereby political and security risks trump economic assessments alone
  • Pakistan is of greater concern than Afghanistan, despite the spread of soft power in the latter (mosque endowments etc), including due to ease of access to possible nuclear warheads
  • The “zero sum game” with Iran has increased, regionally, as a consequence of the prevailing proxy war situation in Syria (see G. Steinberg and N. Woermer ) paper on Saudi Arabia 2013

Additional Interests

  • Bringing peace in Pakistan (ending violent terrorist activities, cross border insurgency), which is regarded a by-product of peace in Afghanistan
  • Extending its sphere of political influence, by using its support of the mujahedeen against Soviet forces in the 1980s and its early recognition of the Taliban regime, to play a role in mediation talks in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Capitalising on investment opportunities for Saudi Arabian business in both countries
  • Containing intra-Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) rivalries (eg with Qatar over the latter’s new role in regional security issues and Saudi Arabia’s desire to be seen as a strategic lobbyist)

Red Lines

  • A civil war in Afghanistan following the departure of foreign troops, leading to the return of a Taliban Emirate linked to Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan; or a victory of warlords united in a renewed “Northern Alliance” supported by Iran, Russia, and India
  • A substantive increase in Iranian influence in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan
  • An increase in al Qaeda’s strength and influence in the region
  • Pakistan’s implosion and resulting regional instability

2016 Interests & Red Lines

  • Secure continuing support from Afghanistan and Pakistan in its campaign against Shi´a groups (Yemen and beyond)
  • Avoiding the spread of proxy war with Iran into Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Development of its strategic partnership with Afghanistan

2012 & 2013 Interests

  • Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven
  • Countering increased Pakistani influence over events in Afghanistan
  • Preventing rising radicalism and Islamic militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan from influencing its own Muslim minority population, thus putting India’s social cohesion in danger
  • Obtaining access to raw materials in Afghanistan to meet the needs of India’s growing population
  • Ending the reported use of the Lashkar e Tayyeba as a proxy by the Pakistani ISI to act against India
  • Reportedly engaging with the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan and across the border in Afghanistan, regarded by some observers as a counterbalance to Pakistani ISI pro-Taliban support
  • Competing robustly on economic competition with Pakistan in Afghanistan, which also provides India with a rationale for support to the Afghan government and for active Indian outreach to Iran
  • Gaining the upper hand in Indo-China rivalry, which spills over into Pakistan
  • The Kashmir issue, in dispute with Pakistan (unresolved since 1947)

Additional Interests

  • Increasing coordination with Iran, possibly to counter Sunni Islamist militant groups in   Afghanistan and Pakistan and to establish commercial and energy routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia
  • Using international cooperation in Afghanistan to project India as a key global power with geo-strategic pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean basin; shaping regional security and economic arrangements; and creating regional fora such as RECCA.
  • Avoiding escalation in water disputes with Pakistan (eg Wullar Barrage) with water shortages being blamed on India by the anti-India elements on the Pakistan side
  • Deep grievances towards Pakistan remain, specifically around perceived support of extremism in Afghanistan and in India.
  • Insistence on cooperation against prevention and repression of terrorism on Indian territory is combined with pragmatism that this cannot be a pre-requisite for improved dialogue with Pakistan on bilateral issues of concern.
  • A total collapse of the Pakistani state, with a consequent scenario of anarchy and even territorial division.
  • A new episode of a major terrorist attack in India that could be traced to Pakistani agency. In such a case, the remarkable self-restraint that was shown by the Indian government in 2008 at the time of the Mumbai terrorist attack would be impossible to repeat: (see Perspectives from the Region 2013:3. India)

Red Lines

  • A Taliban government in Afghanistan with close ties to Pakistan
  • Pakistan controlled by Islamist militants
  • Escalation in conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir
  • Further high-scale terrorist attacks in India organised from Pakistan territory (such as the Lashkar e Tayyeba 2008 attacks in Mumbai)
  • A major escalation in other potential conflict triggers with Pakistan, such as the Sir Creek boundary, Siachen, and water issues including the Wullar Barrage

2016 Interests & Red Lines

  • Strengthen Afghanistan’s military capacity to contain the Taleban and extremist threats thus expanding further bilateral strategic and military cooperation
  • India´s long-term commitment to a politically stable, economically independent and militarily strong Afghanistan underlined, including by Prime Minister Modi´s visit to the country in 2015
  • Improve and secure connectivity between India, Central Asia and Iran with Afghanistan and the Iranian port of Chabahar as cornerstones of this transit strategy
  • Water “wars” over Indo-Pakistani control of water flows between the two are becoming more volatile and are a potential flashpoint
  • Meeting India´s energy needs is becoming increasingly urgent, and has implications for cooperation with Pakistan
  • Increased use of the SCO as a vehicle for talks, even when direct talks with Pakistan repeatedly stalled in 2015