Future of the Regional Struggle over Afghanistan after the American Withdrawal

Ahmed Diab | 27 Jul 2020

After nearly 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, and after negotiations that lasted for more than a year, the Americans signed on 29 February 2020 a peace deal with the Taliban Movement. Under that deal, the US forces would withdraw from Afghanistan. President Trump announced that he intends to withdraw all US soldiers (nearly 12 thousand soldiers) positioned in Afghanistan by May 2021 in return for guarantees offered by the Taliban Movement that include cooperation in counterterrorism and a pledge to negotiate a deal for a permanent ceasefire and power sharing with the Kabul government.

In light of the facts and complicated conditions that will result from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, new international and regional inclinations and policies are emerging regarding the future of that country. Peace talks between the Taliban Movement and the Afghan government are expected to be complicated and protracted, probably extending for years. In case a political settlement is not reached between the Afghan government and the Movement, the US withdrawal could lead to the eruption of a large-scale civil war, some of whose protagonists would be supported by regional and international powers such as Russia and China which have political, economic and security interests that converge at times and conflict at others in Afghanistan. Some neighbouring countries such as Iran, Pakistan and India also have conflicting interests. The influence of India and Pakistan over actors in Afghanistan is well known. Besides, the two countries have mechanisms and means to influence the state of affairs in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s strategic importance

Afghanistan occupies a location of an extremely sensitive geostrategic importance. It is located in the middle of major Asian regions such as Central Asia, South and West Asia, and the Far East. This makes it, together with the Central Asia region, two pivotal regions for dominating other different areas. As indicated by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book entitled The Grand Chessboard which he published in 1997, both Afghanistan and the Central Asia region constitute a “geopolitical pivot”. Geopolitical pivots “are the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequences of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geostrategic players”.

With its geographical location, Afghanistan is an important transit corridor for the exports of oil and natural gas from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. With regard to energy pipelines in Afghanistan, the TAPI pipeline extends from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. The second line is the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) line. A few days prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, it was mentioned in a report presented by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that from the energy perspective, Afghanistan’s uniqueness stems from its geographical location as a potential route to transport the oil and natural gas exported from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. This potential includes the construction of a pipeline to export oil and natural gas through Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has many natural resources and wealth, namely oil and gas, and mining wealth such as gold, copper, iron, cobalt and lithium, in addition to uranium and rare-earth elements. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had estimated the value of his country’s wealth at one trillion dollars. He based his estimate on a geographical survey carried out by US institutions late 2006. He said in a press conference in the Afghan capital Kabul in 2010 that this wealth, if utilized, would raise Afghanistan to the ranks of rich countries. A 2007 internal Pentagon memo had stated that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”.[1]

Features of international and regional conflict over the future of Afghanistan

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was backed by most countries of the region which shared the goal of ousting the extremist Taliban regime and eliminating its allied al-Qaeda terrorist organization. The governments of Tehran, Moscow and Islamabad readily helped the US fight the two extremist movements. Iran provided crucial intelligence to support the US special forces and teams of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrating the invasion. Russia supplied Soviet-era maps and intelligence and later allowed the US military to send supplies to Afghanistan through its territory. Even Pakistan, the chief backer of the Taliban Movement, offered its assistance in hunting down al-Qaeda militants, and became the main supply line of NATO forces.

However, in subsequent years, the regional consensus favouring the US troops in Afghanistan had eroded, and Washington’s relations with many regional players became controversial, perhaps even hostile.[2]

1. Pakistan and attempts to enable Taliban to govern again in Kabul:

Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban Movement date back to the 1990s when it provided arms, training and intelligence to the Movement’s militants. Islamabad was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government when it assumed power in Afghanistan in the autumn of 1996. After the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001, many Taliban leaders fled to Pakistan, which is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan. If the withdrawal leads to a peace process that results in a settlement, then Pakistan would benefit as this would likely entail that Taliban get a fair share of power. If the peace process collapses, Taliban’s chances of taking hold of power in Kabul would be even stronger.[3]

Pakistan considers that the Taliban Movement is an insurance policy to reach Islamabad’s long-term strategic goals in Afghanistan, namely:

  • The border issue between Afghanistan and Pakistan based on the disagreement over the Durand Line, which separates Pakistan’s tribal areas (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) from Afghanistan. No Afghan regime, including the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani of the mid-1990s, has ever accepted the legitimacy of the border drawn by the British in 1893 - the so-called Durand Line.
  • Pakistan has faced the issue of Pashtun nationalism which demanded a separate Pashtunistan state since the 1940s. Control and influence over Afghanistan by a Pashtun-dominated government (essentially Taliban) would, therefore, reduce the demand (within Pakistan) for a separate Pashtun.
  • Pakistan holds that a pro-Pakistan government in Afghanistan is necessary to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan.
  • At present, the US-Taliban deal has brought Pakistan enormous diplomatic, financial and strategic dividends. Pakistan is cherishing a revival of US support and the acknowledgement of its role as a facilitator of the deal. Pakistan certainly views Taliban as a reliable partner compared to the fractured political leadership in Afghanistan.[4]

2. India between Taliban’s risks and Pakistan’s gains:

India has achieved a growing influence in Afghanistan since Washington ousted the pro-Pakistan Taliban regime late 2001. In this framework, India has relied on offering assistance and investments to the Kabul government, amounting to nearly 3 billion dollars. India has sought to develop a stable partnership relationship with the post-Taliban regime, which was launched by the partnership agreement between the two sides in October 2011.[5]

However, India responded cautiously to the agreement that Washington signed with Taliban in late February 2020. New Delhi called for a permanent political settlement through a process run by Afghanistan and controlled by Afghans. It was by no means enthusiastic about Washington’s convergence with Taliban. India views the recent Afghan developments with a fear that is mostly justifiable. India has concerns about the outbreak of a Kashmir uprising on the eve of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan as it had witnessed for sure on the eve of the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The armed Islamist groups fighting in Afghanistan will seek a new ground for themselves to exercise their operations with nowhere closer than Kashmir in view of the common religion, race, language and geography with Kashmirians.[6]

On the other hand, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring about changes in the dynamics of South Asia, especially that the US has used Pakistan as a starting point to reach a peace deal with Taliban. There is a strong feeling that India is the main loser in Trump’s deal with Taliban. First, that deal enhances the positions of Pakistan and Taliban, thus creating an adverse environment at India’s western border. Second, the deal has weakened the Ghani government which might shortly cease to exist in light of the possibility of forming a government with Taliban as an integral part of it. This means that India’s role in Afghanistan’s development will greatly diminish.[7]

3. Iran between opening up to Taliban and supporting the anti-Taliban alliance:

It is well known that Tehran took a hostile position towards Taliban since the latter assumed power in Kabul in 1996. Indeed, Iran and Taliban were on the verge of war in 1998 after eight Iranian diplomats were killed in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance prior to the US-led invasion in 2001. Iran also backed its traditional allies in Afghanistan, namely the Shiite Hazaras minority and the Tajiks. That is why Tehran welcomed the ousting of the Taliban regime by Washington in November 2001, and contributed in one way or another to creating this event.

Nevertheless, over the last few years, Tehran has made relentless efforts to initiate a new relationship with Taliban. This is attributable to multiple reasons, namely:

On the one hand, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, Daesh) drove the two sworn enemies Iran and the Afghan Taliban Movement to join forces to counter the danger of the organization’s expansion. Iran seeks to secure its 572-mile-long border with Afghanistan and create a buffer zone extending from the Helmand province in south Afghanistan to the Kunduz province in the country’s north. Taliban controls large areas of both provinces. Iran believes that the threat posed by Taliban is less serious than the one posed by Daesh in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Tehran seeks to play a role in Afghanistan’s future through opening up to all Afghan components and powers, including Taliban, in view of the Movement’s continuous dynamism and activity in the balances of the Afghan interior. In its turn, the Taliban Movement does not deny its ties with the Iranian government, considering it as part of ties that have emerged within a regional understanding. The Movement denounced the killing of the commander of the Quds Corps Qasem Soleimani who was accused by the US administration of offering financial and logistical support to Taliban.[8]

4. Russia between fighting terrorism and containing Taliban:

Over more than a decade after the US-led invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin commended Washington for bearing the “burden” of combating terrorism in Afghanistan and urged it to launch “a campaign till the end”. Russia has long viewed Taliban as a significant terrorist threat. Between 2009 and 2015, Russia had been a vital supply corridor for US forces fighting Taliban in Afghanistan. It even contributed to this effort with military helicopters.

However, a significant shift has subsequently taken place in the relationship between Russia and the Taliban Movement as the two sides became allies. The fluctuations of politics have transformed yesterday’s enemy into today’s friend. Moscow is wary about the transition of the danger posed by the Daesh organization to the republics of Central Asia. On the other hand, the tension in the Russian relations with the West and the imposition of strict economic sanctions on Moscow after its decision to annex the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 have contributed to this convergence between Russia and Taliban. Indeed, Russia exchanges roles with the US in Afghanistan.[9]

In the last two years, Moscow hosted two international conferences on the Afghan peace process, to which it invited Taliban leaders and Afghan opposition parties. In July 2020, US media sources indicated that the Russian military intelligence unit offered secret rewards to Taliban for killing US or NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. While Moscow and Taliban denied those reports, the disclosure contributed to shedding light on Moscow’s ambiguous dealings in Afghanistan. Currently, it seems that Russia’s interests in Afghanistan are twofold: containing Taliban to prevent the outbreak of chaos at the border of what it considers its domain of influence in Central Asia, and using Taliban as an opportunity to prove and assert its claim of being a superpower.[10]

5. China between combating terrorism and expanding investments:

After the withdrawal of US forces, China may be expected to play a more active role. Beijing seeks to achieve at least two key objectives, namely:

First, China seeks to block any contact between the Taliban Movement and hardline Uyghur Muslims seeking independence from China, especially that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a militant movement of Uyghur fighters in China’s Xinjiang region, is currently active in Afghanistan.[11]

Second, China seeks to expand its influence on and ties with Afghanistan within the framework of its ambitious global project “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). China is currently Afghanistan’s largest trade partner and the largest investor in projects in that country. That is why Afghanistan’s stability is in  China’s interest. Beijing sees Afghanistan as a primary link between the Central Asian republics and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan constitutes the shortest road between Central Asia and South Asia, and between China and the Middle East. It can also be a gate to the Arabian Sea.

China is likely to deepen its strategic partnership with Pakistan and Afghanistan to form the “Pamir Group” for the construction of a new Silk Road that connects the Caucasus with western China. Historically, Pamir Mountains are considered a strategic trade road linking Kashgar in China to Kokand in Uzbekistan on the Northern Silk Road.

To achieve its objectives, China has pursued positive engagement with the Taliban Movement that controls more than half of Afghanistan’s territory. These ties have increased over the past couple of years. For example, Taliban representatives paid at least two visits to Beijing (in June and September 2019) for talks with Chinese officials.

Both geographically and geopolitically, China boasts a favourable environment to increase its influence in Afghanistan. China has a small common border with Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor (70 kilometres). In addition, the regional powers surrounding Afghanistan generally maintain good relations with China and favour China’s increasing engagement with the war-wrecked country: for instance, Pakistan is China’s closest strategic ally and hosts the huge CPEC programme; Iran seeks to deepen its strategic relations with China amidst rising tensions with the US; while Tajikistan is one of the first countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).[12]

Possibilities and conceptions

  • Virtually all observers of Afghan affairs believe that a total international withdrawal of military forces would result in an Afghan civil war whose violence would be even worse than the current level. According to those observers, about 60,000 full-time Taliban fighters, various militia groups, and remnants of the Afghan National Army would jockey for power locally and for the control of Kabul. In the resulting civil war, the major fault would be between the Pashtun-dominated Taliban and the so-called Northern Alliance, composed mainly of Tajiks, Uzbeks in the north, and Shiite Hazaras in central Afghanistan.   
  • The current Afghan government would almost certainly collapse if the international community withdraws its current financial support or finds it too difficult to distribute for different reasons. In this context, it is worth mentioning that the former Soviet-backed Afghan government survived the Soviet military withdrawal in 1989 only to collapse in 1992 when Moscow ended its financial support.
  • An extended civil war or the collapse of the Afghan central government would exacerbate regional rivalries, particularly among Iran, China, Russia, and India. With the withdrawal of the international coalition, there would likely be a major geostrategic competition over Afghanistan between outside powers seeking to increase their influence in Afghanistan as had been the case in the 1990s. Iran would probably favour the Tajiks and Hazara, Turkey the Uzbeks, and countries such as Russia, India and other Central Asian Republics and perhaps even the United States might back all of the Northern Alliance parties.
  • Conversely, Pakistan would attempt to extend its influence in Afghanistan through the Afghan Pashtuns, including the Taliban (accounting for nearly 40 percent of the population, traditionally the country’s dominant ethnic group). However, Islamabad is unlikely to support the Taliban as aggressively as it did in the 1990s, when it sent military officers to help them take more than 90 percent of the country. Pakistan today has its own opposition group, unlike in the 1990s. Some experts on Afghanistan believe Islamabad would be more measured in its support for the Afghan Taliban, preferring a weak coalition of various forces in Kabul.[13]
  • On the other hand, one of the major effects of the deal between Washington and Taliban is that the latter will no longer be dependent on Pakistan for safe havens. Taliban realises that the majority of Afghans aspire for a moderate Islamic nation, which is peaceful, prosperous and connected to the region and the world. The moderate elements in the Taliban want India to be a strategic partner as a counter-balance to the influence of Pakistan. As for the foreign fighters in Afghanistan and their links with India-centric terrorist organisations, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Taliban has never said that it wants to take its “jihad” outside Afghanistan nor does it want any of those fighters to plan for it from inside Afghanistan. Historically too, India has had ties with the Afghans through trade and culture while Afghan youth relate to Bollywood and cricket. More importantly, the Pashtun way of life is older than Islam, and is still predominantly prevalent amongst the Pashtun tribes, or Pathans, as they are known in India.[14]
  • Recognizing that Afghanistan is an underdeveloped country where tribal, ethnic and sectarian loyalties are still prevalent, Afghanistan is unlikely to continue as a unified central country. Attempts to establish a central rule in the country were rarely successful, and that for short periods. While Afghans agree on striving to maintain their country’s independence, they are divided when it comes to the loyalty to a central government. According to some Western decision-making circles, the approach or conception that could bring about a solution is for Afghanistan to become a “decentralized” country that strikes a balance between the centre and the periphery, uphold the rights of all components of the Afghan people in the political decision making and resource sharing, and satisfy neighbouring countries in their attempt to preserve the influence of their allies and ethnic and sectarian extensions in the Afghan equation.
  • The only way to resolve the Afghan problem would not come about except by “neutralizing” it. That is, regional and international powers would have to refrain from interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs and merely diffuse the danger of extremism, terrorism, and opium and drug traffic originating from its territory. This danger is agreed upon by all regional and international parties and was the source of the support received by Washington in its war against Taliban and al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks. At the same time, international efforts have to be made under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to rebuild Afghanistan and ensure its political and security stability, particularly if Afghanistan’s main neighbouring countries agree to abide by the policy of self-restraint and counterterrorism and draw on the lessons of history that underline the failure of unilateral efforts to project hegemony on Afghanistan in the face of the intervention by external powers.[15]   

Endnotes

[1] “Why do major powers scramble for the Afghan swamp?”, Masar Online for geopolitical studies, Wednesday, 11 September 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/39urEOW

[2] Frud Bezhan, “As US Moves To Exit Afghanistan, Rivals Prepare To Swoop In”, Eurasia Review, July 13, 2020, available at: https://www.eurasiareview.com/13072020-as-us-moves-to-exit-afghanistan-rivals-prepare-to-swoop-in-analysis

[3] Idem.

[4] Shalini Chawla, “Pakistan’s Afghanistan Policy And A Troubled Peace Process”, Eurasia Review, May 6, 2020, available at: https://www.eurasiareview.com/06052020-pakistans-afghanistan-policy-and-a-troubled-peace-process-analysis

[5] Mohamed Fayez Farahat, “Forthcoming conflict over Afghanistan”, al-ain.com, 9 May 2020. Available at: https://al-ain.com/article/afghanistanindiachina

[6] Zikrur Rahman, “Withdrawal from Afghanistan and the danger of the return of Taliban”, alittihad, 1 February 2014. Available at: http://www.alittihad.ae/wajhatdetails.php?id=77210 

[7] Prakriti Gupta, “India and the confusion about involvement in the Afghan swamp”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 25 March 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/30PzdvV

[8] “Dimensions of Iranian penetration into Afghanistan”, Barq, 3 February 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3jJi9jL

[9] Ahmed Taher, “Russia and the Afghan Crisis”, The Majalla, 31 August 2018. Available at: https://bit.ly/2X1Sp8r

[10] Frud Bezhan, op. cit.

[11] Peter Korzun, “Why is China building a military base in Afghanistan?”, Alkahaleej, 4 February 2018. Available at: http://www.alkhaleej.ae/alkhaleej/page/fd068234-ca89-4d26-998d-9609fab8fdcd

[12] Syed Fazl-e Haider, “China’s Deepening Diplomatic and Economic Engagement in Afghanistan”, April 1, 2020, available at:   https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-deepening-diplomatic-and-economic-engagement-in-afghanistan

[13] Thomas Parker, “Regional Implications of a U.S. Pullout from Afghanistan”, The Washington Institute, 15 June 2020. Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/USA-Troops-Military-Pullout-Afghanistan-Taliban

[14] Sumeer Bhasin, “US-Taliban Deal: India In Strategic Role – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, March 11, 2020, available at: https://www.eurasiareview.com/11032020-us-taliban-deal-india-in-strategic-role-analysis

[15] Ahmed Diab, “Afghanistan’s neutrality and the principle of mutual deprivation”, London-based Al Hayat, 4 April 2019. Available at: https://www.sauress.com/alhayat/4431

 

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