Addressing Common Challenges Together- Paradigm of Shared Security for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan

Posted: November 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm, Last Updated: April 11, 2013 at 5:01 pm

Author: Nazia Hussain, PhD Candidate, George Mason University, School of Public Policy

In Nimruz, the remotest province of Afghanistan, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, and Baluchi migrants come from all over the country to cross into Iran. Some have humble dreams of becoming wage laborers in Iran; others dream big to go to Europe and Greece. However, instead of crossing directly into Iran, they travel ten hours south into Pakistan and from there onwards to Iran.

In this journey, they are in the adept hands of smugglers who, despite being scattered in three countries (Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan), have learnt a useful lesson – that they stand a chance of survival only if they stand united. By virtue of joining hands, pooling their resources, and sharing intelligence, they have not only prevailed over their respective governments, but also seem to be prospering more than ever before.

Baluch tribes, to whom this lawless (and borderless) region is home for the last several centuries, and who rely on all sorts of smuggling for their livelihoods, have learnt to single-handedly defeat Iranian border guards and Pakistani checkposts. Adroit coordination and intelligence sharing among these transnational Baluchis eases the process of migrants changing hands between smugglers belonging to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, respectively. It is not only that smugglers facilitate movement of war weary Afghans slipping into Iran and onwards to make a living; they are also engaged in trafficking of drugs, weapons, goods, fuel, and currency, especially in the recent aftermath of fall of Iranian currency.

Map of Ethnic groups in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan (Source: University of Texas

 That tribal and ethnic linkages recognize no boundaries, and writ of the state is not present in border areas of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan is not a new finding. UNODC has long noted that ethnic linkages spilling across borders are effective in facilitating transport of narcotics from Afghanistan to rest of the world.

What cannot be emphasized enough is the fact that the three countries face common problems. First, the legal authority of not one, but all three countries is undermined on a regular basis. Second, Afghanistan’s drug problem has become a nightmare scenario for both Iran and Pakistan; more than 70 percent of Afghan opiates are trafficked through these countries. Third, absence of licit economic opportunities and non-provision of basic amenities by governments push local populations in the arms of non-state actors. Fourth, crushing secessionist movements in their respective provinces of Baluchistans has long been the agenda of the states of Iran and Pakistan. As history has been witness, winning hearts and minds of people is easier by addressing their needs, rather than silencing them with gunfire. Fifth, the three countries need to establish security in their restive border provinces to ensure construction of lucrative gas pipelines through these areas, be it Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (US favored), or Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (Russia favored). Sixth, a nexus between crime and terror has been formed already in the border badlands of Afghanistan-Pakistan (for example, between Taliban and drug smugglers). In Iran, ties between the Quds force (an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Hezbollah (allied with the Quds force) that has been linked to drug trafficking around the world, including Latin America, have been reported. Crime-terror linkages will become strengthened and multifaceted in case of political instability in any of the three countries.

As is, Pakistan is facing crises on many fronts; Afghanistan will be in even more challenging times in the aftermath of impending withdrawal of troops; and Iran is experiencing unprecedented economic and political challenges. It becomes need of the hour for the three countries to design and implement policies that have a regional outlook, and which are cognizant of the fact that, instability in one country will spell disaster for the other.

Such a concept of mutual interest in maintaining the stability of each other has been spelled out in international security literature. John Steinbruner notes,

“The contention is that the massive forms of aggression that have been the traditional concern are very unlikely to occur because no country has either the incentive or the capacity to undertake them. Instead, the primary source of threat is said to come from civil violence and associated terrorism, apparently arising from conditions of endemic economic austerity. Those forms of violence, the argument holds, undermine basic legal order necessary to support global economic performance and thereby threaten the dominant common interest all countries have in assuring their own economic performance. If so, then cooperation for mutual protection can be expected to emerge as the primary imperative of security policy…”

In light of this argument, one can make the case that primary source of threat for countries of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan emanates from civil violence and terrorism. This threat becomes complex in light of the fact that ethnic and tribal linkages in the three countries are facilitating smuggling of contraband, especially from and into regions with history of civil insurgencies and where state authority is almost nonexistent. Non-state actors in these countries work together to bypass laws and borders, as they know that it is their only chance of survival. Added into the mix is the factor of extremist religious ideology of Al Qaeda that has been playing an active role for the past two decades in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Thus it becomes necessary for the governments of these countries to recognize that in order to ensure their own security, they too need to cooperate with each other. Especially, in the aftermath of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the governments of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan need to realize that now more than ever, it is time to recognize common threats and suggest common solutions.


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