By Gabriela Marin Thornton and Arwin Rahi
For much of its history, Afghanistan has been a battlefield for conflicts over regional influence in what has been called the Great Game. Now a weak state with deep ethnic divisions, located in a challenging security environment, Afghanistan is a key front in the pushback against terrorism. Once again, the country has turned into a battleground for great powers, mainly in the form of proxy wars.
But if the goal is to build lasting peace in the region, the rules of the game must change. As the US withdraws its forces, regional powers such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and (a more recent aspirant) China should stay out of Afghanistan politics. The Afghan government, for its part, needs to reclaim its sovereignty and oppose foreign interference in its internal politics.
President Obama has announced that the US will maintain 9,800 troops through at least the end of 2015. The US has signed a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan. However, the BSA does not guarantee US support in the case of a foreign invasion of Afghanistan. Therefore, US influence in Afghanistan likely will diminish. But Afghanistan’s economy is dependent on foreign aid, which has come primarily from the US and the World Bank. Some analysts contend that China has the capacity and the will to stabilize Afghanistan.
Indeed, Chinese interests are already making investments in the country. In 2007 China agreed to invest US$4.4 billion in the Aynak Copper Mine, and, in 2011, invest $400 million in the Amu Darya Basin to explore oil and gas. Practical work, however, on both projects has yet to begin. In addition, China pledged to help Afghanistan to enhance its counterterrorism capabilities and offered nearly $330 million in aid through 2017. Such funds are seen not only as giving Afghanistan a most needed economic boost, but also as creating stability. Yet, the notion of China as Afghanistan’s stabilizer may prove to be elusive.
First, China has no record of involvement in long-term stability operations. Second, China has no knowledge of how to bridge ethnic divides, a fact demonstrated by looking at how Beijing has treated its own minorities. Therefore, it is unclear, to say the least, that Chinese investments can bring stability to Afghanistan. If the Kabul government wants to keep its independence, it cannot allow Afghanistan to become fully economically dependent on China. Chinese investment should simply be one of many investments that the government should strive to attract.
Over the last two decades, foreign interference in Afghanistan, including support for proxy wars, has mainly been manifested in the India-Pakistan rivalry. The competition between India and Pakistan over Afghanistan has been driven by strategic calculations. India does not want another front in its conflict with Pakistan. What is more, India wants to disrupt Islamist extremist groups and prevent the Taliban from taking power, because of the link between such Islamist groups and militants in Kashmir.
On the other hand, Pakistan wants to exert its influence in Afghanistan because of its need for strategic depth. The Pakistani government wants Afghanistan to remain a territory where Pakistan could retreat and regroup its military in the eventuality of an Indian attack. According to Amrullah Saleh, former director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan spy agency, Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani has allowed the Pakistan army to conduct military operations in Afghanistan. This is a risky move given its potential to influence Afghanistan’s long relations with India in a negative way.
It is time to have an internationally recognized border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and British India was demarcated in 1893 and was named after the British diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand. Afghans, however, believe this border was imposed on them. After Pakistan’s founding, Afghanistan refused to recognize the Durand Line, demanding Pashtuns living on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line be given the right to self-determination. Indeed, the Kabul government still refuses to accept this border. A shift in Kabul’s position on the border could bring greater political stability.
According to reports released in April of this year, Pervez Musharraf, the former Pakistani president, told a Pakistani Pashtun leader to ask former Afghan president Hamid Karzai to recognize the Durand Line as the Afghan-Pakistan border, claiming that in exchange, Pakistan would stop supporting the Taliban. The bottom line is that recognition and reinforcement of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border could foster better relationships with Islamabad, and possibly prevent Taliban incursions into Afghanistan.
In early April 2015, Afghanistan announced its declaration of support for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Houthi rebel forces – a sect reportedly backed by Iran – in Yemen. But because of the internal divide between President Ghani and the government’s Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan subsequently retracted its support. There are historical, religious and economic reasons that explain why Afghanistan has been fostering closer relations with Saudi Arabia. However, backing the Saudis’ foreign interventions indubitably could alienate Iran, which – if the nuclear deal goes through – will emerge as the key player in the Middle East.
Iran is believed to be supporting certain factions within the Afghan Shia community. There are also accusations that Iran is spying on the Afghan government through its Afghan agents. Ominously, Iran has reportedly been supplying arms and money to Afghan Taliban fighters, to counter both US and ISIS influence. Moreover, Iran is also home to about one million Afghan refugees who can be used to put pressure on the Afghan government. Afghanistan’s oil and gas imports from Iran can also be either completely banned or restricted by Tehran. If necessary, Iran may use its supporters and intelligence assets to further destabilize Afghanistan internally, as it has done in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
This is why staying out of the geopolitical competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran would prove beneficial for Afghanistan. In fact, our wider point is that given the winding down of Western involvement in Afghanistan, Kabul needs to stay out of power politics in the region and to keep foreign influences at bay. Any aggravation of ethnic tensions provoked by the involvement of foreign powers in Afghan politics could lead to the return of high levels of terrorism, and could dash any hope that Afghanistan can overcome the chaos that has prevailed since 2002.