Terrorism, extremism and militancy are the three foremost challenges that threaten the collective peace, stability and prosperity of the countries in the broader region of which Afghanistan is an important part. Of all the countries that are scattered throughout the South Asia to Central Asia corridor, including Iran, Afghanistan has been the largest victim of an unending cycle of militancy, terrorism and extremism at a massive political, economic and human cost. For Afghanistan, the long saga of death, destruction and violence continues unabated.
For other countries in the region the threat of instability, terrorism and extremism are still hovering overhead with the prospects of escalation and full-fledged chaos not a distant possibility. The infamous "Arc of Crisis", propounded by Zbigniew Brzezinski and later adopted by a host of other scholars in the West, encompasses a stretch of volatile and unstable regions from the Indian Subcontinent all the way to the Middle East and from there to the Horn of Africa.
Afghanistan, interestingly, lies at the heart of this arc, to an extent being a confluence point of a number of other regional and extra-regional conflicts that directly play into the larger dynamics of this part of the world. The characterization of "Arc of Crisis" remains today as relevant as it was in the 1980s and 90s; perhaps more so than ever as various crises that make up this "Arc of Crisis" continue to burn with a threat of escalation and engulfing of the broader region.
In the eastern end of this Arc of Crisis, the long-standing hostilities between India and Pakistan with the threat of a nuclear confrontation is the single largest destabilizing factor that has kept the Subcontinent on the edge. The devastating attacks in Mumbai in 2008, apart from shattering a tedious and long process of rapprochement between the two neighbors that preceded the attacks, showed the extent of presence of powerful vested interests – some being extra-regional actors – who do not wish to see a final resolution of hostilities in the Subcontinent in spite of their public pronouncements to the contrary. Unfortunately enough, bringing lasting peace and stability to the Subcontinent will remain an incredibly difficult task as long as these vested interests see their well-being in promoting and prolonging the hostilities.
Coming Northward on his Arc of Crisis, the situation in Afghanistan remains far from stabilized. Over the past one decade, the efforts of the government of Afghanistan and the U.S.-led international coalition have fallen way short of being able to douse the flames of war. As the government in Kabul struggles to take control of the situation and continues to be heavily dependent on security and financial assistance provided by the West, the hyped-up peace efforts are leading the stakeholders nowhere.
The proposed long-term/permanent American military presence in Afghanistan along with the aforementioned factors guarantee that the conflict in Afghanistan will be condemned to becoming a long war of attrition to continue indefinitely into the future. This invariably means that the very factors of extremism and militancy that have been responsible for reducing Afghanistan to rubble will prolong Afghanistan's security, governance, economic, political and social crises. Therefore, the government of Afghanistan and its international partners including the U.S. should fasten seatbelts for a particularly turbulent period in which militancy and extremism will continue to pose serious challenges not only to the security and well-being of Afghanistan but also that of the world.
Going Westward on this Arc of Crisis, the situation in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, perhaps, has never been as turbulent as now. The Arab Spring has proved to be a fountainhead of political, social and economic upheavals that has further compounded the myriad crises that many Arab countries were struggling with for years prior to the onset of the uprisings. The Arab societies' economic, social and political crises, having come to the fore in recent months in a burst of popular outrage, provide a fertile ground for growth of extremism and instability. While the Arab Spring, in the long-run, carries the promise of emancipating the young Arab societies from the curse of stagnation and decline, its destabilizing effects have already worked to complicate these societies' myriad challenges.
Many of the problems and challenges that Afghanistan faces, including the strong threat of militancy, extremism and terrorism, are also faced by other countries in the region where Afghanistan is located. Undoubtedly, there is strength in unity and this has been shown many times in the past when countries have joined hands in fighting common challenges that threaten their collective well-being. For example, an anti-terror structure created by China, Russia and the Central Asian countries has been successful in undermining many terrorist groups that operate in these countries.
There is no reason why this success story should not be replicated elsewhere in the region with the participation of Afghanistan which stands as the largest victim of terrorism and extremism in the region. In the absence of greater cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbors in Central Asia, it is highly likely that unfavorable developments in Afghanistan spread into these countries which continue to be vulnerable.
The need of the hour is breaking the ice between the governments in Kabul and Central Asia and taking concrete steps towards greater political and institutional contacts towards combating the scourge of terrorism and extremism. The "Arc of Crisis" might further encapsulate the vulnerable Central Asian countries too if they fail to work towards an inter-state structure of combating terrorism that will also involve Afghanistan.
The odds are loaded against Afghanistan with the ongoing saga of militancy and extremism having no quick fix contrary to what many would like to propose. However, what is inescapable is that the long-term support of the international community to Afghanistan must continue on a long-term footing to enable the country find a measure of self-reliance and in a position to persist against the onslaught of internal and external challenges.
The process of transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces need to be followed up with a long-term plan of economic assistance to enable the country find the resources needed for uplift of its poor masses. If the U.S. and other Western countries have no interest in launching a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan – which is actually what Afghanistan desperately needs – at a minimum, they must sustain assistance to Afghanistan over the long-term and after 2014. Preventing Afghanistan from going down the cliff would ultimately be in the best interest of the world.