With US President Donald Trump announcing the withdrawal of half of all US troops in Afghanistan, the alarming specter of an unstable, war-torn Afghanistan looms large over Southwest and Central Asia. The US, China, India, Iran and Russia want stability in Afghanistan. But their respective roles in any peace parleys will be shaped by their own national or regional interests. What are their concerns? If they could agree on a strategy, could they yet open the door to a stable Afghanistan?
President Ashraf Ghani is clear that any peace process must be “Afghan-owned and Afghan- led”. In principle he is right, but he seems to be giving a tall order. After all, Afghanistan is economically and militarily dependent on the US. Moreover, Ghani must contend with the propensity of both Russia and the US to sometimes exclude his government from talks with the Taliban. By holding direct talks with the Taliban, both countries display their perception of Ghani’s government as weak and incapable of creating a viable peace process. But he has a strong case. Foreign powers, bypassing an elected government, could delegitimize the Afghan government and legitimize an armed group whose destructiveness has harmed Afghanistan for decades.
At another level, any regional diplomacy will face an uphill climb in persuading extremist-exporting Pakistan against fomenting instability across South, West and Central Asia. Unfortunately, Trump’s announcement that the US will pull 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan signals “victory” to the Taliban and Pakistan. If this interpretation of Trump’s statement turns out to be correct, those regions could see many more years of instability.
Region Interest in a Stable Afghanistan
Afghanistan is a strategic and commercial gateway to the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia, the Far East via China, and South Asia via Pakistan. Countries interested in a secure Afghanistan include its neighbors such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — and slightly further afield — India. They are fearful that continued instability in Afghanistan could spill over across its borders into their countries. India will be adversely affected if negotiations break down. In that event, extremist exports from Pakistan to Afghanistan or Indian Kashmir would probably increase.
As the leader of the international military coalition against the Taliban since 2001, the US has blocked this Pakistani-based group from returning to the helm in Kabul for nearly 18 years. The US will not want to surrender the gains it has made in Afghanistan — even if it withdraws its forces. For example, having acquired bases in Afghanistan, the US will want to preserve its military foothold there. So it will be interested in dialogue with all parties seeking to stabilize Afghanistan.
The China Factor in Afghanistan
China has influence in Teheran, Kabul and Islamabad. Significantly, it is China that has the most leverage over extremist-exporting Pakistan — which is its all-weather friend. China supplies 70 percent of Pakistan’s arms and has made massive investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Reports of Pakistan’s indebtedness to China and of Chinese arrogance continually emerge, but Pakistan will find it hard to replace Chinese help — militarily or economically.
Could China work with the international community and persuade Islamabad to stop its extremist exports and to drop its insistence on having a Taliban-dominated government in Kabul? China would gain from such diplomacy. For, like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan are on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So China has simultaneous economic and strategic interests to advance in all three countries.
China is strengthening ties with Afghanistan — and talking to Kabul and the Taliban — with two key considerations in mind. First, it has continually blamed Pakistan for exporting extremists to its north-western Xinjiang province, which shares a border with Afghanistan. So China wants to block contact between the Taliban and what it says are Muslim Uighur extremists. The Uighurs seek independence from China.
At the strategic-economic level, since Afghanistan joined the BRI in 2018, China has counselled Kabul and the Taliban that peace could change their country for the better. Afghanistan could link the Central Asian states and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. All sides would benefit from an increase in trade — especially landlocked Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries, which could earn large revenues generated by trade. This trade would be facilitated by their use of the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in southwest Pakistan.
India’s Options in Afghanistan
India — which has border disputes with both China and Pakistan — is popular with Afghans. But it has limited influence in Afghanistan, since it neither a troop contributor to NATO, nor a major donor or investor like the US or China. And it has since long refused to talk to the Taliban. Given that Presidents Ghani and Hamid Karzai have said that the Taliban, as Afghans, should take part in peace talks, will India rethink its refusal to engage with them if it wants to play a major diplomatic role in political parleys on Afghanistan’s future?
There are signs that India may be reconsidering its attitude on no-talks-with-the-Taliban. For the first time, two retired Indian diplomats attended, in a “non-official” capacity, a November 2018 Moscow meeting with the Taliban. But that cannot suffice to enhance India’s diplomatic influence in any negotiations with the Taliban.
India had always hoped that the US would stay the course in Afghanistan — which is “diplomatese” for putting the Taliban to rout. This is unlikely to happen. But India stands a good chance of increasing its influence in Kabul by offering Afghanistan as much aid and investment as possible. Its soft power — ranging from constructing the Afghan National Assembly building in Kabul to escapist Bollywood films and music — has already made it popular in Afghanistan. It could build on that popularity.
India should also explore all diplomatic options to stabilize Afghanistan. It would be helped by its good ties with Afghanistan, the US, Iran and Russia. More importantly, perhaps, India also supports China’s role in the peace process. So it can make its diplomacy acceptable — maybe even welcome — to all these countries.
Iran’s Stake in a Secure Afghanistan
Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, Iran is keen to see a stable Afghanistan. Sharing part of its border with Afghanistan, it has welcomed India’s development of the Chabahar port in southern Iran. Chabahar has enabled India to overcome Pakistan’s refusal to grant transit through its territory, to bypass Pakistan, and to send wheat to landlocked, war-torn Afghanistan. This cooperation will promote security in southwest Asia.
At another level, Iranian and US interests on Afghanistan have sometimes coincided. Iran joined India in backing America’s overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the installation of Hamid Karzai as president.
Nevertheless, as the sands of international politics shifted, the UN imposed sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2016 to express its disapproval of any militarization of its nuclear program. Tehran then perceived the Taliban countering American influence on its borders and gave them arms. Since November 2018, unilateral American sanctions have prompted Teheran to oppose the US presence in Afghanistan, largely because it fears that American troops in Afghanistan could be used against Iran.
To allay Iranian fears, Afghanistan has stated that it would not allow the US to use its bases in the country to attack Iran. And Iran recently held talks with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government. But over the last few months, Afghan officials have accused Iran of providing the Taliban with money, weapons and explosives. Iran denies the charge.
At the economic level, trade is a reason why Iran would be interested in Afghanistan’s stability. In 2017 Iran supplanted Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner. At a time when its economy is weighed down by American sanctions, it needs to strengthen trade ties with neighboring countries.
The China factor is again visible — this time in Iran. By defying international sanctions on Iran for a decade, China gained economic and diplomatic clout in Teheran. The question is how it could use its diplomatic and economic connections with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to craft a settlement that would be of interest to all three countries — plus further its own interests in advancing the BRI through southwest Asia.
Russia’s Game in Afghanistan
Russia has also been engaged in talking to the Taliban. Defeated by the Taliban after a ten-year war in 1989, Russia “returned” to Afghanistan a few years ago, largely it seems, to advance its global interests in Syria. Shoring up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad with a view to staking a claim to be a Middle Eastern power, Russia surprised the international community by announcing in 2015 that its interests “objectively coincide” with those of the Taliban over their common enemy, ISIS.
Political need has shaped Russia’s new perception of Pakistan. Like China, its main Asian friend, and the US, its global foe, Russia swallowed Islamabad’s claim that Pakistan’s Taliban clients were indispensable to achieving peace in Afghanistan. It also dismissed Indian and Afghan allegations about Pakistan’s terrorist-training as wrong and totally baseless.
In fact, Russia has been contemptuous of America’s failure to stabilize Syria and Afghanistan. That was one reason why the US was excluded from the talks in Moscow in the last week of December 2016 between Foreign Secretaries of Russia, China and Pakistan. Neither the US — which then had more than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan — nor any representative of Ghani’s government was invited to the Moscow talks.
Seeking to engage with the Afghan Taliban against ISIS, the three countries called for the promotion of a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban, and flexible approaches, including the lifting of UN sanctions against select Taliban leaders, to broker peace with the group in Afghanistan.
Russia then wanted to take its own initiatives to settle the Afghan and Syrian crises and enhance its global status — in line with its Foreign Policy Concept of November 30, 2016. Its logic was simple. ISIS, which sought to overthrow the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria, was making headway in eastern Afghanistan, where it challenged the Pakistani-trained Afghan Taliban. America’s “superpower” had failed to halt the growth of either the Afghan Taliban or ISIS in Afghanistan — or Syria. So why should Russia include the US in any talks in the first place?
All told, however, Russia has proved no more successful than China or the US in persuading Pakistan and the Taliban to make a peace deal. Changing tack in November 2018, it invited the US and the Taliban for the first time to a conference which sought to promote a negotiated solution to achieve peace and national reconciliation in Afghanistan. No peace agreement emerged, but Russia and China, like the US, will continue to engage in dialogue with Pakistan and the Taliban.
Dealing with the US
Trump’s perception of Iran, China and Russia as foes of the US could complicate regional diplomacy on Afghanistan. Trump’s stance is at odds with America’s engagement with all three countries to stabilize Afghanistan. For instance, from 2014 to 2016, Washington and Moscow quietly arranged talks on the Afghan peace process. The meetings, known as the 6+1 group, included representatives from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. The 6+1 process assumed that each of these countries was essential to the achievement of a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Withdrawal statements by great powers have always spelt retreat. Trump came to power vowing to continue America’s military campaign against the Taliban. Angered that Islamabad has done nothing to help the US in Afghanistan, he cut military and development aid to Pakistan. Apparently, those strategies have failed to convince Pakistan that it should stop promoting terrorism.
So now Trump is planning to pull US troops out of Afghanistan after an indecisive war, at a time when the Taliban reportedly control at least 40 percent of Afghanistan. It is precisely such a situation that will challenge regional powers to craft an agreement that could help stabilize Afghanistan. Will they rise to the occasion?