August Issue 2011
Influencing Afghanistan: Neighbours and Faraway States Jostle for Position
Many Afghans and those following the political situation in Afghanistan sometimes liken the country to their national sport, buzkashi. In this free-for-all game, sturdy horse-riders grab a headless goat and drag it to a circle to score a goal.
The situation in war-ravaged Afghanistan over the past 33 years has become something of a buzkashi game. It features numerous players in a vast, almost boundary-less arena, with no proper rules governing their behaviour. One has to be tough and ready to suffer injuries while playing this exciting game.
An added feature: super and regional powers, neighbours and faraway states, all consider it their right to interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs and play favourites among the many warlords and politicians with dual nationalities. One major reason for the endless conflict in Afghanistan is the foreign military intervention and brazen interference in its affairs.
The nation is preparing for a new game of buzkashi as the US and NATO announced plans to start withdrawing troops from the country last month and complete their uncertain military mission by 2014. The phased drawdown has already begun as 10,000 American troops have to be sent home by the end of this year and another 23,000 by September 2012. A security transition also started in July, with NATO soldiers handing over responsibility to the untested Afghan security forces in seven relatively secure places: four cities and three provinces. However, foreign contingents are staying back in these areas to reinforce the Afghan security forces just in case there any emergencies.
Watchful neighbours are keen to find out if the US will be maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. If the embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai is to be believed, the US is interested in retaining some military bases in Afghanistan, and this is one of the issues under discussion as part of the proposed strategic partnership agreement between Kabul and Washington. The slow-moving talks have reportedly hit snags as the fragile Afghan government, punching above its weight, is making impossible demands on the US: have American troops bound by Afghanistan’s laws, halt night-time raids and refrain from taking prisoners and maintaining American prisons. Kabul also wants Washington to respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and pledge continued military and economic assistance, both critical in sustaining the Afghan government and meeting its financial needs.
What is critical from the Pakistani point of view is the impact Iranian, Saudi and Indian interests in the country could have on its eastern neighbour. Iran must be considered first, as its role, like that of Pakistan, is critical in stabilising Afghanistan. Tehran and Islamabad have often been at loggerheads with regard to their Afghanistan policies in the past. They could assume similar roles if they don’t reach an agreement on the limits of their genuine interests in the war-affected nation.
Till now, Iran and Pakistan have been supporting different Afghan armed groups in the country’s conflict. Iran primarily backed the Shia factions and the non-Pashtun groups during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, while Pakistan served as the headquarters of the mostly Sunni and Pashtun-based parties. Pakistan has, however, also strived to be on friendly terms with the Shia groups, and the Hezb-i-Wahdat leader Karim Khalili, now Afghanistan’s vice-president, shifted to Peshawar during the jihad days to escape Iran’s suffocating embrace in Tehran.
A pragmatic Iran also maintained working relations with the Afghan communist regimes until 1992, when the mujahideen captured power. Despite acute differences and occasional flare-ups, Iran’s diplomatic and trade ties with the Taliban regime never broke down. Even now, there are reports that Iran is providing support to the Taliban to fight their common enemy, the USA. The American government seems to staunchly believe this. The regional Afghan authorities in Herat, which borders Iran, also occasionally come up with such accusations, but the Afghan government in Kabul has downplayed them, and instead highlighted the positive aspects of the Kabul-Tehran relationship. President Karzai, who the US media once reported to have received bundles of cash in a briefcase from Iranian officials in his plane at the Tehran airport, is particularly keen to maintain and strengthen Afghanistan’s relations with Iran, despite US pressure.
This relationship could, however, turn sour if the US was allowed to maintain permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Iran has objected to both the continued US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and the establishment of American bases, especially those close to the Iranian border, like the one in Shindhand in Herat province. In 2001, Iranian and American interests coincided in Afghanistan and both sent military advisers, money and weapons to help the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban. But the situation has changed. Iran now desperately wants the US and its NATO allies to pull their troops out from Afghanistan.
Both Iran and Pakistan have certain disputes with Afghanistan, but Tehran’s relations with Kabul don’t suffer from the kind of distrust seen between Islamabad and Kabul. Iran and Afghanistan have yet to resolve their disagreements over the sharing of river waters, while the trafficking of Afghan drugs through Iran remains a contentious issue and the treatment meted out to Afghan refugees in Iran often draws criticism in Afghanistan. A sign of such friction was Iran’s decision to cut down fuel supplies to Afghanistan by arguing that its petrol and diesel were being illegally provided to NATO forces, a move that sparked an outcry in Kabul.
Islamabad has been unable to persuade Kabul to formally recognise the Durand Line as an international border and bury, once for all, obsolete issues such as Pakhtunistan and the rights of the Pashtun and Baloch people in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Kabul River water issue could create future problems between the two countries if not addressed in time. The ongoing fight against militancy and Kabul’s allegations that Islamabad was backing the Afghan Taliban will also probably continue to draw fire in the foreseeable future. Though a new Afghan transit trade agreement has been signed, the products and the quantities that are imported via Pakistan is another possible breeding ground for tension due to smuggling and the perceived negative fallout of Afghan imports on the Pakistani economy.
Both Iran and Pakistan have genuine interests in Afghanistan, but the two countries often step on each other’s toes. They need to resolve not only their long-standing issues with Afghanistan but also the disagreements they have with each other if they are to avoid the friction of the past. No real effort has been made by Islamabad or Tehran to address such problems.
Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in Afghanistan, beginning with its deal with the US to share half the cost of funding and arming the Afghan mujahideen, and then recognising and assisting the Taliban regime until their refusal to abandon the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Still, the Saudis haven’t gained much in terms of influencing the events in Afghanistan, despite all their investment and support for certain hardline Afghan Islamic groups.
Though President Karzai and the Americans are eager for them to play a role, the Saudis are reluctant to become involved in Afghan peace-making due to their unpleasant experiences in the past. They demand that the Taliban cut all ties with Al Qaeda, as they want the Kingdom to play the role of mediator between them and the Karzai government. But as the Taliban are refusing to talk or to cut any deal with President Karzai, who they see as a powerless US puppet, the idea that Saudi Arabia can facilitate peace talks is a non-starter.
Saudi Arabia does not threaten Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan the way Iran or India do. In fact, Riyadh and Islamabad could potentially complement each other’s efforts to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. They have aligned their Afghan policies in the past, consulting each other at every step. It is possible that they will again move closer once the issue of the Afghan Taliban’s future ties with Al Qaeda is resolved. Following bin Laden’s death, many believe that the relationship between Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda has weakened. That would open the way for a breakthrough in the stalemate between the Saudis and the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia could then coordinate closely on finding ways and means to end the Afghan conflict. The US would have to be on-board and the Afghan Taliban would have to be persuaded to join the peace process if such an initiative is to succeed.
For Pakistan, the biggest worry is the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. By pledging two billion dollars for Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development projects, India has become the sixth biggest donor to the war-torn country and has far outpaced Pakistan, which has only managed to give a paltry $330 million. India has also been clever about funding projects that benefit the common people, or those that are visible or of high symbolic value such as the parliament building in Kabul. In the past, Pakistan and India both wasted their money by funding warlords and armed groups, including the mujahideen, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Now, even Pakistan is executing projects in the education, health and other social sectors, as well as focusing on road infrastructure. India had lost influence in Afghanistan in 1992 when the communist regime of Dr Najibullah, its ally, collapsed and was replaced by the mujahideen, with their ties to Pakistan. The subsequent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan solidified Pakistan’s influence and kept India out, though India tried to gain a foothold through the Northern Alliance, primarily through the Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Masood.
However, the ouster of the Taliban following the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, enabled India to stage a comeback. It is now close to most of the elements that make up the Afghan government, including President Karzai, who studied in the Indian hill-station, Shimla. Some Indians claim that a number of public opinion surveys show that India is the most-liked country in Afghanistan as it doesn’t interfere in Afghan affairs and provides economic assistance to rebuild and develop the country. Pakistan, on the other hand, has lost influence, particularly among the non-Pashtuns, who consider it to be the major supporter of the (primarily Pashtun) Afghan Taliban. Many Afghan Pashtuns are also critical of Pakistan for taking sides in the conflict and interfering in Afghanistan’s affairs.
Some Afghans are also wary of the proxy war that India and Pakistan are playing in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan already have many unresolved disputes and now new ones have been added to the list. One addition is their rivalry to gain influence in Afghanistan. Another is the use of Afghanistan’s soil to destabilise Balochistan. Unless New Delhi and Islamabad are able to make headway in resolving some of their less contentious disputes, such as those over Siachen and Sir Creek, and build enough good will to tackle their other disputes, there is little hope that they will be able to agree not to come in each other’s path in Afghanistan.
This article was originally published in the August issue of Newsline under the headline “The New Great Game.”
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.