Prospects of an Afghan Peace (Part III): Afghanistan's neighbors - Stabilizers and Spoilers

Analytics | Philip Roehrs-Weist | 8-03-2019, 08:30

With the Doha talks showing significant progress over the last couple months, Afghan opposition leaders negotiating with the Taliban in Moscow recently and President Trump once again floating the idea of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in his state of the union address, it seems like Washington's military disengagement is just a matter of time. With the main security guarantor of the Afghan government out of the picture, will peace be possible in the war-torn country? After the second part explained why global powers historically retreated and why regional powers will inevitably increase their future engagement, the third and fourth part will explain the predicted engagement of Afghanistan's neighboring regional powers.

Read the first part here

Read the second part here.


Afghanistan as a battleground: The India-Pakistan rivalry

The most predictable, yet most troubling factor in the international system surrounding Afghanistan is the historic feud between India and Pakistan. Since their early days of independence in 1947 until the skirmishes over the recent days, both countries share a long history including several hot wars, numerous smaller incidents, and a nuclear stand-off. Afghanistan takes a major role in the struggle between the two South Asian powers. It is strategically valuable for India as it is seen as a potential launchpad for Indian influence into the Eurasian heartland and provides an opportunity to encircle Islamabad. From Pakistan's perspective, controlling Afghanistan or keeping it in turmoil keeps India landlocked and ensures that there is only one front to defend, which is important if we consider the relative weakness of the Pakistani military compared to India's. Additionally, Afghanistan's border region is sometimes pointed to as a potential fall-back space for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, in case its military would be overwhelmed by superior conventional Indian forces, providing additional strategic depth. Therefore, both sides have a strong interest in expanding their influence and containing the other whenever possible.

India, since the beginning of the U.S. state-building efforts, has provided significant economic and military support for the Afghan government. The Afghan National Army, as well as the Afghan police forces, are being trained in India and the Indian government is one of the main donors with 3bn U.S.-Dollar of aid provided by the end of 2017. Due to its efforts as the biggest regional sponsor of the Afghan government, the Trump administration seems to have picked out India as the main substituting player after the U.S. retreat. The U.S. President indicated this when he called India „the linchpin of the U.S. South Asia strategy“, to the detriment of Pakistan.

Islamabad on the other side has deep ties to the Taliban and smaller Islamist groups in the country. These connections run mostly through its intelligence service (ISI) and were established during the Mujahedin's insurgency against the Soviet Union and the Afghan communist regime. The military and logistic support provided by the ISI in combination with the use of the Pakistani federally administered tribal areas, especially Waziristan, as a safe haven outside of Afghanistan are identified by experts as key factors that enabled the Taliban to keep its insurgency against Kabul alive. For this kind of support, Islamabad is often criticized internationally as a state-sponsor of terrorism. There are also fears that this „deal with the devil“ could destabilize Pakistan itself, as the Pakistani regime frequently clashes with the Taliban and other groups in the tribal frontier region. Yet, Islamabad seems to prioritize the containment of India, as the past wars and nuclear stand-off indicate this to be a far greater threat to Pakistan's survival than any internal threat. It is often times forgotten that Pakistan's Cold War engagement in Afghanistan was also in accordance with this strategy because it was mainly aimed to prevent encirclement by a Soviet-Indian alliance. Even though these radical groups cause a risk, they serve as an efficient spoiler to India's advances.

With the conflicting security interests of both rivals explained, it has to be mentioned that there is one common denominator, which could potentially ease the tension and create a common interest in Afghanistan. South Asia generally suffers from a lacking supply of hydrocarbons. This hampers economic growth and results in high energy prices. India, for example, is forced to import large amounts of expensive LNG via sea routes and most people in Pakistan have limited or no access to the power grid. There have been several attempts by different combinations of actors to solve this problem. The most commonly known initiative is the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI). The project aim is to link the immense hydrocarbon reserves of the Caspian Basin to the developing economies of South Asia, while at the same time benefiting the rebuilding of Afghanistan with transit revenues as well as affordable energy. Plans for building TAPI have first been floated in the 1990s and actually put the Clinton administration in direct negotiations with the Taliban in 1997 until the these abruptly ended after the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Dar-E-Salaam and Nairobi. After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, negotiations between governments and companies over the pipeline resumed but constructions were delayed because the Taliban controlled the planned route through southern parts of Afghanistan. In 2018, construction nevertheless started in Afghanistan. Later that year, the Taliban vowed to protect TAPI in its efforts to be seen as a legitimate political actor in Afghanistan. The prospect of operating TAPI might bring New Delhi and Islamabad together in an effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, this sounds like a long-shot to most observers as long-term economic interests are often trumped by a short term scramble for survival in a security dilemma. The ongoing clashes between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue serve as a reminder for this and TAPI could end up as a mean for Islamabad to gain leverage over India rather than a moderating factor. For Afghanistan to be stabilized, Pakistan would need to use its influence over the Taliban in a more constructive way to incentivize moderate faction to uphold the peace. This is doubtful, considering how high the containment of India lands on Islamabad's strategic agenda, it will always be tempting to Islamabad to use its Taliban allies to spoiler India's efforts.

Regardless of the course which Islamabad will take, India would have to step up its efforts to strengthen the central government in Kabul. This might happen as India looks out to expand its growing economic cloud into Central Asia. Nevertheless, there is an imbalance of interests. While influence in southern Afghanistan is a vital security issue for Islamabad, New Delhi is only motivated by secondary strategic goals. Because of that, India might not be willing to match Pakistan's engagement in order to stop a destabilization or power grab by the Taliban.


Stabilizing the border: Uzbekistan and China

Uzbekistan, the main Central Asian player bordering Afghanistan, and China, the prime rising power on the Eurasian landmass,  have overlapping interests in stabilizing Afghanistan and are therefore predicted to act in a similar matter. Both countries are interested in economic gains and securing their Afghan border. The secular regimes in Beijing and Tashkent have been historically plagued by fears of Islamic fundamentalism and ethnic separatism. The repressive measures by Uzbek's security forces against any „Islamist“ actors since the end of the Cold War and Beijing's recent efforts under Xi Jinping to harshly curb any Islamic influence - both cultural and political- in it's majority Mulsim province of Xinjiang are a testament to how important a (relatively) safe border with Afghanistan is to them. Validating fears of a safe haven for extremists, both the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and several Uighur groups have already been operating and training in Taliban-controlled territory.  China's and Uzbekistan's security goals will go hand in hand with broader economic goals, as both will mainly try to achieve stabilizing Afghanistan through economic investments and infrastructure projects. These will come first and foremost in Afghanistan-specific undertakings as the troublesome country is often excluded from broader concepts of Eurasian integration, like China's „One Road – One Belt“.

In 2017, the trade volume between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan has been around $350 million in total. In January of that year, Uzbekistan's foreign minister Kamilov visited Afghanistan. This constituted the first high-level visit by Uzbek officials in the last 20 years. During his visit, the countries signed a provisional roadmap for further cooperation with the aim to reach $ 1.5 billion in annual mutual trade turnover. In July 2017, both sides entered bilateral security talks and president Mirzoyev visited Kabul in December to talk about the expansion of the rail links between Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. China on its part is already one of the biggest investors in the Afghan economy. The mining sector, as well as infrastructure links to Pakistan and Iran, are of particular interest to Beijing. Already in 2007, a Chinese company took a $ 3 b,illion 30-year lease for the Aynak copper mine. In 2016, China and Afghanistan established a rail link between Eastern China and Hairatan (located along the Uzbek-Afghan border), enabling freight transport and an increase in future trade. Beijing's and Tashkent's investments in Afghanistan are complimentary and provide ground for cooperation, especially when it comes to infrastructure. Their engagement is likely to pick up in the future and there are hopes that Afghanistan will increasingly be included in broader concepts of Eurasian integration.

Most importantly, both neighbors will certainly undertake their economic initiatives in cooperation with the Afghan government or local entities that are not aligned with the Taliban, because both regimes will try to keep north-east Afghanistan free from any actors that would potentially support or provide safe havens for Uzbek and Uighur Islamists. Even though China came to be known for its opportunistic foreign investments without any regards for a partner countries' internal affairs, particularly in  Africa, Beijing's strategy will differ when it comes to Afghanistan. As a neighboring country with a Muslim population, instability or the reign of Islamist fundamentalists could have a serious spill-over effect into Xinjiang and wider Central Asia. While Pakistan tolerates this along its Afghan border as a trade-off for containing India, neither Uzbekistan nor China would have any benefits from a strengthened Taliban.

Like it was mentioned above, Chinese and Uzbek engagement in stabilizing Afghanistan against a renewed Taliban offensive will primarily be economic in nature. Nevertheless, along with growing investments in the country comes a growing overall interest and more direct security measures might follow in order to guard these already committed resources. Uzbekistan has long-established ties to Uzbek groups and warlords, like Abdul Rashid Dostum. These connections will likely be utilized in one form or another in order to contain Taliban advances into the north.  In 2017,  several reports surfaced about a Chinese military contingent in Afghanistan that is conducting joint patrols with Afghan forces along the border. Both sides have denied this, but if it would turn out to be true, one could interpret this as a preparation for a potential military involvement once NATO forces leave the country. Frequent Chinese complaints about the risks of a decreasing U.S. footprint seem to support this assumption. Furthermore, Kabul is keen to increase it's participation within the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO) and shows frequent interest in joining the group  (both Uzbekistan and China are members).  One of the proclaimed goals of the SCO is to combat terrorism, extremism and separatism, so taking in Afghanistan would theoretically make sense. Anyway, substantial involvement of the SCO is unlikely, as the organization has very limited capabilities. At the same time, it's members are fully aware of the complexity of the Afghan problem. Therefore, the SCO states will probably refrain from entering legal treaty obligations with Kabul, regardless of the spill-over threat. Especially Russia, who is not directly affected by the countries instability and widely seen as the leading SCO member besides China, would veto this. Therefore, it is up to China and Uzbekistan to establish a working bilateral relationsship in regards to their Afghanistan policies.

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Philip Roehrs-Weist

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