By Najam Rafique
Aug 29, 2014
Who says that the ‘Great Game’ is over? On the contrary, it is very much a part of the ‘Grand Chessboard’ of the ‘unilateral superpower’ that still chooses to play the game of geo-politics and geo-economics in a number of arenas around the world. For the time being, the ‘pivot’ of this game revolves around the ‘draw down’ of the U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. While many of the ‘coalition of the willing’ partners have already substantially withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan, the choice of keeping a permanent military presence in that country primarily remains that of the United States.
In our recent living history, for over three decades, Afghanistan has been an arena where international and regional rivalries have, and still continue to be, played out with devastating results for that country. While it is true that Afghanistan suffers from great internal problems that require much attention, peace can only be ensured if the regional actors choose to abandon their own conflicting agendas in order to ensure that there may be peace in Afghanistan post-2014. The important question is, will it be possible to disentangle Afghanistan from the geostrategic games that have been its fate since the times of Alexander the Great and beyond.
In recent history since the 19the century, the country has been a stage of the famous ‘Great Game’ between the European powers, over bipolar world of the 20th century. It then became a battleground of the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, with several regional powers playing out their rivalries in that country. Afghanistan remains severely affected by external rivalries acted out on Afghan soil and, although there are several dimensions to the conflict, some of the foreign and regional stakeholders have the potential to make or break the peace process currently underway in that country. A summary of the major actors’ interests and motives may help provide an understanding of the complexities of the geostrategic puzzle that is Afghanistan.
Assessment of policy and responses of different countries to the unfolding situation in 2014-post U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan
The United States:
The main reason for the United States’ getting involved in Afghanistan was to “Disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al -Qaida and its violent extremist affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the world.” Since the beginning of the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ after September 2001, many U.S. officials believe that the power of Al-Qaeda has been diminished in Afghanistan, and that the U.S. must now turn its attention elsewhere. In November 2011, speaking to Australian Parliament, President Obama declared, “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning its attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific region .”
Announcing a new defence strategy on January 5, 2012, he repeated the message, and added that the “tide of war is receding.” Obama vowed to end the long war in Afghanistan and set the withdrawal date of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Nevertheless, with the Taliban having set up shadow governments in 33 of the 34 Afghan provinces, with that announcement, the U.S. policy remains caught between ‘zero option’, i.e., total withdrawal of its forces or a significant ‘draw down’ to a force of between 10,000 to 30,000 that will continue to oversee the ‘fight, talk, and build’ strategy to push back the insurgency and support reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
For the time being, the U.S. plans on effective Afghan National Security Forces – the Afghan army and the police – to ensure security in all areas of Afghanistan, with U.S. troops playing a supportive role both on land and from the air, at the request of the Afghan government. Currently, the Obama Administration hopes to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the Afghan government that would guarantee a long-term presence of the U.S. to deal with the insurgency and support pro-government factions in a ‘Resolute Support Mission’.
The BSA is being negotiated pursuant to the broader “Strategic Partnership Agreement” (SPA) signed by President Obama and the then President Karzai in Afghanistan on May 1, 2012. The SPA signalled that the United States is committed to Afghan stability and development for many years even after the transition is complete.
It is not completely clear what the U.S. engagement would look like after 2014, but it has been established that those troops that are to remain would do so in a supportive capacity, giving day-to-day advice on planning operations, as well as calling in artillery, close air support and evacuation operations.
According to the finding of the National Intelligence Estimate in December 2013, Afghan security is likely to erode significantly by 2017 as both insurgents and pro-government faction leaders increase their geographic and political influence. Reports suggest that the ANSF is not performing as well as some assess, even with international forces still present in Afghanistan. The pessimistic views appear to take into account the ANSF deficiencies in aircraft and medical evacuation capabilities and other shortcomings, although the United States is likely to continue to transfer to the ANSF capabilities such as mortars, long-range artillery, and unarmed remotely piloted vehicles.
It is likely that, based on Obama’s new defence strategy and the public opinion at home, any U.S. presence beyond 2014 will be limited in scope. One of the most important issues facing the U.S. policy-makers is the economic vacuum that will be created after U.S. troops draw down. According to the World Bank predictions, Afghanistan will need USD 7.2 billion a year in aid for the next ten years. The United States hopes that Afghanistan’s neighbours will be able to help stabilize the country. In an attempt to implement this strategy, the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan, held on November 2, 2011, focused on the regional aspect and how Afghanistan’s neighbours could contribute to turning the negative developments around.
In this regard, the New Silk Road Initiative has been launched by the United States as a measure to increase regional cooperation and stability through economic development. The idea is to re-establish Afghanistan as the Asian hub of trade that it once was. The strategy includes building infrastructure such as roads and railways, energy pipelines and electricity supply-lines to enable extensive regional transport and trade.
Pakistan has been at the centre of the geostrategic game in Afghanistan and, together with the United States, has a pivotal role in what will happen to Afghanistan. A contending narrative on Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan has gained momentum in recent years in the context of Washington’s publicly expressed frustration over Islamabad’s unwillingness to comply with U.S. demands and accusations that Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership that has been looking after the country’s Afghan policy since the 1970s, is playing double games by providing covert and active support for the Taliban insurgency behind the back of the United States.
Any policy that Pakistan will adopt post-2014 will be done with India as the pivot, and the U.S. tilt towards that country as a ‘strategic partner’ in the region post-2014. Pakistan’s troubled relations with India have caused it to seek ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, meaning political influence inside Afghanistan in order to keep the country from falling under the influence of India.
Till now, with the Karzai government’s tilting heavily in favour of India, Pakistan’s policy responses have been geared towards an assistance or passive support to insurgent groups such as the Haqqani network, Gulbandin Hekmatyar and the Quetta Shura of Mullah Omar inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s complex domestic situation and its own foreign policy considerations, including its adversarial relations with India, a tense relationship with the Karzai government and a difficult relationship with the U.S. after the raid in Abbottabad and the Salala incident have thrown up some very difficult policy choices for the political leadership of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that need to be evolved before the draw down at the end of 2014.
The policy choices and responses of Pakistan post-2014 are still in the process of evolving and need to deal with at least four issues:
- Dealing and developing relations that are designed to promote friendly interaction with whoever comes to power in Kabul after the April elections.
- Cultivating relations with the entire spectrum of the political and ethnic leadership in Afghanistan, including the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras along with the Pashtuns. Reports indicate that along with factions of the Afghan Taliban – Mullah Omer and the Haqqani network – Pakistan has been in negotiations with the elements of the Northern Alliance in order to find a workable solution for a future political setup in Afghanistan to include all the elements of Afghan society. A clear indication that Pakistan, including its military, would prefer and support an intra-Afghan government post-204 rather than a fundamentalist government.
- Establishing full control over its tribal areas before the U.S. drawdown.
- Making sure that the traditional religious groups and madrassas of the Wahabi/Salafi brand it had supported do not function as linkages for the Taliban after 2014.
Both Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership have come to the realization that the country can contain the spill-over of any post-2014 civil strife in Afghanistan only by establishing the state’s writ in the tribal areas and not giving in to the temptation of tampering with internal problems of Afghanistan. There seems to a realization among the political leadership in particular, that Pakistan can no longer use the militancy card to pursue its foreign policy agenda, and the focus of the country’s Afghan, India and U.S. policy needs to move away from the military domination of foreign policy direction towards these countries.
India’s interests in the post-Taliban period in Afghanistan have been mostly of developmental and reconstruction type. Its investment has been in priority areas like:
- Infrastructure development to make Afghanistan a viable economy in terms of trade and transport, and to provide alternative routes for Afghanistan to trade and transit, while reducing its dependence on Pakistan. India’s reconstruction efforts include the building of roads, schools, bridges, the parliament house, electricity generation and the laying of transmission lines. The Border Roads Organization has already built the 218-km Delaram–Zaranj road link. This road links Afghanistan’s Garland Highway to the Iran border through the Milak Bridge. This would link Iran’s Chabahar port and provide Afghanistan with another outlet to the nearby port. India has medical missions in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.
- Capacity-building through various training programmes.
- Various developmental activities, including mining. The Karzai government has awarded three blocks of Hajigak iron ore mines to an Indian consortium.
- Training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to make them capable of managing the country’s security. India has made it clear that it would help train the Afghan troops, but not have a military footprint on the ground to protect its vital interests
The government of India has made it clear that in order to deal with the post-2014 scenario in Afghanistan, it is pragmatically exploring options to have contact with all groups in Afghanistan and is not hesitant to talk to anyone, including the Taliban, to protect its interests there. According to a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), India supports Afghanistan’s quest for peace and reconciliation and is not opposed to talks with the Taliban who abjure violence because the reconciliation process is not only about power sharing, but also about their reintegration with society.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Afghanistan signed in October 2011 provides a roadmap of the above objectives and the nature of India’s engagement in Afghanistan post-2014. The overall Indian Afghan policy post-2014 would be geared towards the economic development of Afghanistan in line with the policy of the Obama Administration of developing regional economic cooperation that envisages assisting Afghanistan as a trade, transportation and energy hub connecting Central and South Asia and enabling free and more unfettered transport and transit linkages as part of the New Silk Road Initiative that are in tune with the current strategic relations between India and the United States.
Iran has long sought a stable, friendly Afghanistan and it has worked assiduously to protect this key interest prior to and since 2001. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has always been seen in the context of the encirclement of Iran, and the war in that country has presented problems in terms of increase in drug flows and refugees. Today, Iran plays host to the second largest refugee population. In light of these problems, Iran has several strategic objectives that are non-negotiable.
First, it desires a pro-Iranian government in Kabul. The formation of a conservative democratic government in 2014 that abides by Iran’s core preferences would satisfy the Supreme Leader Khamenei. A pro-Iranian Afghan government is seen as a probability that would not only distance itself from Washington but also refuse to be dominated by Pakistan and its Taliban proxies.
Second, with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iran seeks to minimize the physical threats to its financial investments in western Afghanistan and to its varied personnel engaged in commerce and industry throughout Afghanistan.
A third policy objective is to increase its ability to leverage particular ethnic and religious (read Shia) communities as vectors of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. The protection of the interests of traditional Iranian allies such as the Hazara Shias, the Farsiwan Heratis, and the Tajiks against elements of the Taliban and, at times, even the Afghan government, remains a core strategic objective of Tehran. Should the security situation deteriorate after 2014, Iran will likely deepen its involvement to protect these client communities. In recent years, the Iranian government sought to cultivate relations with a diverse portfolio of Afghan political factions that span Afghan’s political spectrum, even while it sought to solidify its relations with the then President Karzai and his supporter networks.
Fourth, Iran wants to maintain economic influence by emerging as a favoured transit route to Central Asia and Europe. In doing so, Iran aims to be an essential partner in regional integration, particularly economic integration. Iran has long touted guaranteed land and sea access to Central Asia and beyond as a trade route essential for landlocked Afghanistan. This vision includes the preservation of both trade with and investment within Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, as well as transit trade through its southeastern port of Chabahar and possible future gas pipelines.
The introduction of a U.S.-backed competing regional economic framework – the New Silk Road initiative – threatened to undermine Iran’s ambitions. Consonant with its own economic interests, Iran resists development initiatives in Afghanistan that proceed outside the context of Afghan-Iranian relations, such as the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) transit infrastructure and any network of roadways and railways linking Central Asia to the Indian Ocean that circumvents Iran. Iran is supporting reconstruction efforts and is currently building a railway from Khaf to Herat, which will connect Afghanistan to Iran’s railway network.
The Iranian leadership under Hassan Rouhani sees the potential to increase trade with Afghanistan and the rest of Asia only if Afghanistan can be stabilized. The so-called Afghanistan-Iran Strategic Cooperation Agreement was formalized in August 2013, after Iran’s newly-elected President, Hassan Rouhani, assumed office. Iranian officials played down the controversial agreement, calling it merely an MoU on security and law-enforcement cooperation.
The Afghan government that emerges after the presidential elections will be dealing with Iran’s current President, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate centrist, who is expected to temper down the anti-U.S. rhetoric and adopt more conciliatory policies in his foreign policy agenda. It remains to be seen if Rouhani will steer Iran away from Ahmadinejad’s hallmark aggressive posturing and towards one of greater moderation and cooperation in the region.
Three of the five Central Asian republics—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—border Afghanistan, and their people share long-standing cultural, religious and linguistic affinities with their Afghan neighbour. The risk of jihadist spill-over from Afghanistan is seen as the most pressing concern post-US withdrawal/draw down. Since 2013, the most debated policy issue among these states has been the effects of the many destabilizing forces it might unleash on the region—among them trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, but also Islamic radicalism.
Local leaders and many analysts predict that a severe deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan after the U.S. departs would encourage Central Asian jihadists who had fled their home countries to return and destabilize local regimes. For some times now, the three Central Asian states have been in discussions with the U.S. aimed at agreeing on the handover of equipment linked to the NATO drawdown in Afghanistan.
Russia has reacted with concern after learning about the ongoing talks. Russian officials fear that such equipment donations to the armed forces in the Central Asian states would not only go way beyond the existing arrangements to assist in reverse transit using the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), but could upset the strategic balance in Central Asia post-2014. In diplomatic circles in Moscow, this development is portrayed as entirely unacceptable to Russia. A potential diplomatic crisis between Washington and Moscow is brewing precisely in this area due to a number of inter-related factors, but with President Vladimir Putin under pressure domestically, he may choose to use this at some stage to boost his image at home by confronting the United States more directly.
However, Russia’s concerns run much deeper. It fears any move that may undermine its traditionally strong security ties with the Central Asian states, while also remaining anxious about future U.S. military basing policy in the region. In this regard, Moscow has criticized Washington’s plans to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia after the completion of the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. The appearance or strengthening of foreign military infrastructure close to the country’s borders with Central Asia remains one of the most pressing policy concerns for Russia post-2014.
Russia’s Defence Ministry has declared strengthening stability in Central Asia as an objective of state security policy by making the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) a genuinely combat-ready organization, capable of repelling existing and future threats. According to reports in January2014, Moscow has begun construction of a high-tech command and control centre to oversee Russia’s military. Construction of the centre is expected to be completed by the end of 2014 and is intended to serve as a round-the-clock nerve-centre to coordinate Russia’s military, including its nuclear missiles and Special Forces units.
While Chinese officials remain concerned about a possible collaboration of Afghan radicals with Islamic Uighur separatists in its north-western region of Xinjiang, their primary concerns regarding the endgame in Afghanistan revolve around discussions of regional stability because of its geographic position, economy, centrality in Central Asian politics and relations with Pakistan. Conferences discussing Afghanistan have multiplied in China in the last year or so, and discussions with Chinese officials give a sense of increased Chinese concern as the final withdrawal of U.S. forces draws nearer. However, there is no clear sense of how Chinese leaders might manifest their concern in actions other than undertaking economic projects in Afghanistan.
Thus far, Chinese involvement in Afghanistan has been primarily economic. They won a large and important copper investment contract, but for various reasons, have done little development of the resource. A newer exploration contract for petroleum may be more active. But, China is neither a major donor nor has it chosen to use its relationship with Pakistan to articulate any particular views on Afghanistan.
To summarize Chinese policy options, one can conclude in discussions with Chinese academics and officials that the country’s policy remains one of cautious passivity, which could evolve once the security and economic situation stabilizes in Afghanistan. Chinese options on Afghanistan, for now, do not suggest a great deal of activism other than increasing Chinese investments in development projects , particularly in the context of its president’s vision for the “Silk Road Economic Belt” project linking countries from China to Europe through expanded flows of trade and investment, and enhanced infrastructural links.
The writer is Director (Americas) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI).