Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Saving Afghanistan from its neighbours
Walking into a giant tent at the foothills of Kabul, you are conscious of the importance of jirgas throughout Afghanistan’s troubled history. These assemblies of tribal elders have been called at key moments in the country’s history from whether it should participate in the two World Wars to a call for a national uprising against an Iranian invasion in the 18th century.
Next week’s jirga is aimed at building a national consensus behind Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s effort to seek a negotiated settlement of the nine year conflict now that the Taliban have fought U.S. and NATO forces to a virtual stalemate and the clock on a U.S. military withdrawal has begun.
But the question is how much of an influence Afghanistan’s half a dozen direct neighbours including Pakistan and Iran and near ones such as India, Saudi Arabia and Russia will exert on any possible settlement of the conflict. At one level Afghanistan has become a battleground for India and Pakistan on the one hand, and the United States and Iran on the other. At another level there is also China’s deepening economic engagement and Russis’s concerns of the arc of instability radiating from Afghanistan into the Central Asia republics.
Here’s how some of the big regional players are approaching a U.S. military withdrawal stated to begin from mid-2011 and Karzai’sbid to seek reconciliation with the Taliban who have fought U.S. and NATO forces to a virtual stalemate.
Of all of Afghanistan’s six direct neighbours, Pakistan arguably has the highest stake in the country. The insurgency is largely driven by the Pasthun Taliban and there are Pasthuns on both sides of the Durand Line, the border between the two countries. Many of the early Taliban, who swept through southern Afghanistan in the 1990s after years of civil war, grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan which hosts the largest number.
Above all, Pakistan considers Afghanistan its sphere of influence, offering it strategic depth against its much bigger traditional enemy India. It built close ties with the Taliban as they brought the fractious nation under their control and along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was one of the three countries that recognised the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
It had to cut its ties to the group following the U.S. invasion but if any of the regional players has any degree of influence over the hardline Islamists, it is Pakistan. It wants to be main channel of any peace negotiation withthem; it doesn’t even want Afghanistan to conduct separate negotiations with them, says Kamran Bokhari, regional director Middle East and South Asis for global intelligence consulting company STRATFOR.
“For Pakistan, all roads to Kabul must lead through Islamabad.”
India does not share a border withAfghanistan, but has over the years built close ties with the country. It sees Afghanistan as a potential ally against Pakistan and over the longer-term as a gateway to Central Asian energy resources. Its immediate concerns are security : it worries that the return of the Afghan Taliban will further embolden anti-India groups based in Pakistan such as the Lashkar-e-Taibato carry out attacks, with or without a nod from the Pakistani security establishment tied to these groups.
It therefore opposes any dialogue with the Taliban, but especially any negotiation that has the Pakistanis as the fulcrum. It was seriously rattled when the U.S. and NATO agreed at the January 28 London conference on Afghanistan to begin re-integrating Taliban fighters. Karzaiwent further by demanding reconciliation with the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar.New Delhi has since stepped up regional diplomacy, reactivating links with Iran and Russia – the three countries that backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s.
“The interests of India, Iran and Russia are aligned, and that will be a factor going forward,” says Bokhari. At the same time the Indians are telling Washington that while they recognised its dependency on Pakistan in tackling Afghanistan, there were limits to putting all its eggs in one basket.
For Iran, Afghanistan is part of a high-stakes tussle it is engaged in with the United States, analysts say. Its message to the Americans is if you want to leave Afghanistan, you have to recognise Tehran has a stake there, just as it has in Iraq as United States winds down military involvement. “Afghanistan is tied to the whole scope of U.S.-Iran negotiations, its about regime security” says Bokhari. In the shorter term, though, members of the Iranian intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guard have been backing elements of the Taliban. The Iranians, who supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, want to have broad-based connections. Helping the Taliban in a limited way is a tool directed at the United States.
Afghanistan shares a tiny sliver of border with China, and there have been security concerns over Islamic extremism spilling over into China which is battling an uprising in its predominantly Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang. But analysts say these concerns are overstated and that Beijing’s expanding involvement in Afghanistan is almost entirely driven by commercial interests. It sees Afghanistan as a potential source for mineral resources and energy to feed its vast demand. China is already developing the world’s largest unexplored copper deposits in Logar province and is a bidder for an iron ore project. Stability in Afghanistan is key to its economic interests and unlike the West pushing for democracy, the Chinese would rather have the Afghans choose a type of government based on local culture, customs and domestic conditions. It is also content to let all weather ally Pakistan lead the policy to Afghanistan, and has in the past not been overly critical of approaches to the Taliban.