Afghanistan and Regional Powers 3/5 (4)


Devmani Yadav,

Research Scholar,

School of International Studies,

JNU, New Delhi

Afghanistan is a unique country surrounded by Central Asia, West Asia, China, Pakistan and India. Due to its unique strategic location, Afghanistan has always been a centre of great power conflict. During 19th century, Afghanistan became the central point of Great Game between the British and Russian empire to limit each other’s region of influence. Again in late 20th century, Afghanistan got trapped in Cold War rivalry between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States. After the end of the Soviet intervention, Afghanistan witnessed a civil war among different centres of power that ultimately led to the formation of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under Taliban in 1996. The Taliban rule witnessed gross human rights violations and possible threat of the expansion of extremism and terrorism worried not only the western powers but also the regional and neighbouring countries. The terrorist attack of 9/11 by Al-Qaeda, which was provided shelter by the Taliban, led to the overthrow of the Taliban rule by US-led NATO forces in 2001.

After the Taliban regime was overthrown, Afghanistan witnessed a new government under the Northern Alliance with support and patronage from the USA, Russia, India and other countries. Afghanistan’s war-torn history has had serious repercussions on its society, economy, politics and civil life. Afghanistan’s reconstruction process needs the contribution not only of the western powers but also of regional countries to achieve social harmony, political stability and economic development. Every country in the region like Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Iran can contribute in its peculiar way for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has witnessed an ongoing struggle for power and influence by global and regional powers. The presence of NATO forces received mixed response from regional countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran etc. These countries to some extent felt relaxed on the ousting of Taliban due to possible challenges of terrorism, extremism and separatism posed by Taliban in their respective region like Xinjiang, Chechnya, Kashmir, Pashtunistan etc. The other side of the coin is that these countries were sceptical about growing American influence in the region. All these countries are of the opinion that peace and development can be brought in Afghanistan only by the collective regional efforts. But these countries are not able to work towards Afghanistan’s reconstruction due to conflict of interests arising out of their vested national interests and policies. Every country in the region wants such a solution of Afghanistan that maximises its national interests. For example, Pakistan wants the establishment of a favourable government in Afghanistan to protect its regional sovereignty (Pashtunistan issue) and to curb India’s influence in Afghanistan.  By the 1896 Agreement between British India and the Russian Empire, Pashtuns, who always considered themselves as single ethnicity, found themselves divided on both side of Durand line. Pashtuns never accepted this line and always demanded for a separate Pashtun homeland. India wants a peaceful, democratic and Taliban-free Afghanistan to bring peace in the region which is also favourable to its regional integrity and development. China and Russia view growing influence of the United States of America as against their regional aspirations. Both Russia and China wants to tap Afghanistan’s natural resources like oil, natural gas etc. Also by investing in Afghanistan’s infrastructure development programmes, these countries wants to maximise their influence in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s issue has been viewed and analysed by different scholars in different perspectives. This article firstly discuss Afghanistan’s relations with regional powers before 2001 and then also presents different viewpoints on regional engagement in security, strategic, economic and energy aspects.

Afghanistan’s relations with regional powers before 2001

Afghanistan’s relations with main regional powers after Afghanistan’s independence in late 1940s till 2001 will provide an important background to understand its relations with regional powers since 2001. Collins (1986) is of the opinion that after its independence, Afghanistan wanted to develop warmly its relationships with the United States of America considering it as a logical successor to Britain. Ghaus (1988) writes that although Afghanistan received modest economic help from the USA, but it could not garner American support on the issue of Pashtunistan and military assistance. Arnold (1981) is of the view that America did not support Afghanistan on Pashtunistan issue due to fear of antagonizing Pakistan.

In fact, the lack of expected support from the USA to Afghanistan, led Afghanistan to look for alternative available options especially the USSR. Anwar (1988) writes that once America agreed to give military assistance to Afghanistan on the condition of joining the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), but Afghanistan chose to seek military assistance from the USSR. Even Rasanayagm (2003) thinks that the main two reasons of increasing Soviet influence in Afghanistan are the negligence by the USA on Afghanistan’s situation and the aggressive attitude of Daoud on Pashtunistan issue. Rubenstein (1982) writes that the USSR intended to prevent Afghanistan from serving as a base for a hostile power and thus encouraged its policy of non-alignment. The decade of 1980s also witnessed increasing Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Hussain (2005) is of the opinion that the USSR’s efforts to strengthen its sphere of influence resulted in the coup of 1978 and the Soviet intervention from 1978 to 1988.

Afghanistan’s relations with another important neighbor Pakistan has been bitter since its independence due to controversial Durand line and Pashtunistan issue. Burke (1973) considers the Pashtunistan issue responsible for Afghanistan’s opposition to Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations as one of its members. Afghanistan’s contentious relations with Pakistan also resulted time and again in breaking down of diplomatic relations and adverse impact on trade relations between both neighbours. Hussain (2005) was of the opinion that Afghanistan posed the greatest threat to Pakistan’s integrity since the creation of Bangladesh in the year 1971. Afghanistan’s relations with Pakistan deteriorated during the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Commenting on Pakistan’s policy of supporting Afghan Islamists, Hilali (2005) wrote that Pakistan wanted to use them as a counterweight to India and Moscow. During the Taliban regime, Afghanistan had warm relations with Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s relations with its important neighbor China have been eventful. Weitz (2010) is of the opinion that although Afghanistan-China relations were cordial between 1949 to mid-1970s, but these ties were adversely affected after Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. According to Hilali (2001), China avoided direct military conflict with Soviet Union along its border and backed Mujahideen and Pakistan to counter the Soviet encirclement around it. Weitz (2010) considers that the decade-long period (1993-2002) affected Sino-Afghanistan relations adversely.

Afghanistan has had strong multi-dimensional relations with India. Pant (2010) thinks that after independence, India had no reason not to have good relations with Afghanistan, given the bitter India-Pakistan relations. In the Cold War politics, both the countries followed the policy of non-alignment, but as Ghosh and Panda (1983) opine that India’s attitude towards the Soviet invasion severely damaged its credibility. Swami (2008) writes that due to Pakistan’s troublesome attitude and action regarding Jammu and Kashmir, India supported each and every Afghan government till the victory of Pakistan-based Mujahideenin 1992. Coll (2004) rightly says that Afghanistan’s relations with India were at their lowest point during seven-year long Taliban regime, when India continued to provide money and material help to the Northern Alliance.

Strategic and Security Dimensions

Afghanistan has been a constant source of concern for region’s security due to its image as center of terrorism, extremism, drug-trafficking and migration crisis. China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran have been affected by instability in Afghanistan. These countries’ interests can only be protected in stable and peaceful Afghanistan on their neighbourhood. So these countries not only have strategic and security connections from Afghanistan, but also have contributed in Afghanistan’s strategic and security areas.

Like any other neighbouring countries, Russia’s security is also dependent on Afghanistan’s security environment. Brattvoll (2016) is of the opinion that in post-2001 period, Russia’s Afghanistan policy is centered on its concern for a possible spillover of terrorism and extremism from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia. Tenin (2014) has a different opinion that Afghanistan does not pose a direct military threat to Russia, even after possible Taliban government in future. He, however, considers drug-trafficking to Russia through Central Asia as an important indirect threat to Russia’s security. He is in favour of Russia’s working relations with all political forces in Afghanistan to avoid problems even in unfavourable situations.

Since 2001 China consider peace and stability as a desirable condition for maintaining social order in its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Chene (2015) writes that the Chinese leaders consider Afghanistan as the epicentre of Islamic fundamentalism and are fearful that Afghanistan’s radicalism can encourage unrest in Xinjiang. In line with its policy of non-interference of neighbours’ internal matters, China did not engage in security and defence matters of Afghanistan. Its engagement remained limited to security aid and training of the Afghan security forces. But recently, after the establishment of the National Unity Government (NUG), China is trying to play more active role in Afghanistan’s security matters. Fazil (2014) is of the opinion that China is trying to play more dynamic role in Afghanistan’s security and strategic realm than in the earlier period. The Chinese region of Xinjiang is witnessing the problem of separatism, extremism and terrorism posed by Uighurs. The security of Xinjiang and that of Central Asia and Afghanistan is interlinked. China wants peace in Afghanistan to avoid contacts between Afghanistan’s extremists and Uighur separatists. In the background of the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, possible Russia-China-Pakistan alliance indicates growing Chinese strategic engagement in Afghanistan. China is trying to garner Afghanistan’s support and engagement in the matters of ‘One Belt One Road’ and China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China had become the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan by securing mining rights in Aynak copper mines in 2007. Even China had also shown interest in becoming part of the Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project.

Afghanistan’s western neighbor Iran is also important for Afghanistan’s security. According to Nader (2014), Iran has some interests to protect like securing its eastern border, preserving the flow of water from Afghanistan, countering narcotics, and dealing with the large Afghan refugee population on its soil. Iran is not only against a total Taliban victory and expansion of Pakistani influence, but also against a long term U.S. military presence in its vicinity. Iran has also provided training to Taliban forces on Iranian soil to fight U.S. forces.

During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Pakistan maintained good relation and strategic depth in Afghanistan. The term strategic depth means that Pakistan wants to exert influence in Afghanistan’s internal matters by supporting anti-India elements to use them against India’s increasing influence in Afghanistan. To Siddiqi (2009), the establishment of India-friendly Northern Alliance government was considered a profound strategic threat to Pakistan.

Indeed Pakistan traditionally considers Afghanistan as being within its sphere of influence and an opportunity to gain strategic advantage over India. According to Khan (2015), ‘Strategic depth’, in military terms, refers to the distance from the frontline to its centre of gravity or Heartland, its core population areas or important cities or industrial installations. It enhances the natural capacity to absorb a military aggression from the defender’s point of view, and also burdens the aggressor with the problem of maintaining a long logistical tail. There is also a political dimension of the strategic depth which deals with the treaties and alliances with different friendly countries based on trade, economic, social, cultural, demographic, political and military factors. Tenin (2014) is of the opinion that Afghan-Pakistan border is a source of serious conflict between Islamabad and Kabul. Hussain (2011) opines that a long history of both Afghanistan and Pakistan providing shelter to the other’s insurgents has fueled hostility between the two countries. It is remarkable that Pakistan has adopted double standards on eliminating Taliban. According to Hussain, Pakistan viewed the US approach as a tilt towards India and saw no strategic advantage in eliminating Taliban safe havens on its territory, or in acting in full cooperation with the coalition force.

India-Afghanistan relations witnessed a complete rupture during Taliban regime but after 2001, Indian influence in Afghanistan is rising. Tenin (2014) opines that India’s presence in Afghanistan is not merely part of a region­al geopolitical strategy vis-à-vis its rivals, Pakistan and China. It is also an important example of New Delhi’s attempts to assert itself as a great Asian power. About India’s cooperation with regional powers, he views Russia and Iran as one of the few partners in Afghanistan. Ganguly (2012) was of the opinion that although the US was content to allow India to pursue developmental activities within Afghanistan but did not want India to assume any security-related tasks for fear of alienating Pakistan.

Economic and Energy Aspects

Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development is possible only by the cooperation of regional countries. These countries will also be get benefitted by Afghanistan’s stability and development.

China’s economic growth has resulted in its increasing economic involvement in various countries including Afghanistan. With a 3.5 billion dollars investment in copper mining, China is the larg­est single foreign direct investor in Afghanistan.Hussain (2011) states that of all the neighboring countries, China may currently have the least direct influence on Afghanistan, but its growing economic interests in the country makes it an important stakeholder in the regional security. Afghanistan’s importance for China has increased in recent years. Huasheng (2016) is of the opinion that under the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative, China’s interests in Afghanistan have expanded, particularly in the area of transport; it has started seriously to consider Afghanistan as a transport corridor.

India’s involvement in Afghanistan has increased since 2001 due to favourable Northern Alliance government and comparative stability. India’s assistance include in the field of education, health and infrastructure. Ganguly (2012) views that all Indian efforts became possible due to the United States of America (USA) and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military presence, which provided security umbrella for India. Pant (2010) enumerates various reasons for improving India-Afghanistan relations like non-existence of contiguous and contested border between them, India’s support to the Northern Alliance during the Taliban regime, India’s balanced relations with different ethnic groups and political affiliations in Afghanistan, Karzai’s educational background in India etc. India’s move to support Afghanistan’s entry in SAARC also aimed to Afghanistan’s economic development. India’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan, signed on October 4, 2011, not only has security dimensions, but also covers the areas of trade and economic cooperation, capacity development and education, social cultural & civil society and people to people relations. This is in the line with India’s position on Afghanistan that the wider security and strategic concerns can be dealt with only by greater economic development, social harmony and cultural ties.

Tenin (2014) states that presently, Russia has no significant economic interests in Afghanistan but after the stabilization of the situation, Russia might take part in rebuilding the Afghan economy within the framework of international assistance efforts. However, Tenin considers it to be inexpedient for Russia to finance the rebuilding effort in Afghanistan on its own. Menkiszak (2011) opines that Russia’s image in Afghanistan was improved due to significant Russian humanitarian aid for this war-ravaged country. So far, however, the number of significant economic projects and transactions carried out by or with the participation of Russian companies remains insignificant, although the figure is slowly rising. Russia seems to be giving its offer in the energy sphere high priority. He gives many reasons for low Russian investment in Afghanistan like Afghanistan’s debt to Russia, security concerns of Russian companies, Afghan government’s reluctance to Russian capital, lack of support from the Russian government, fierce competition from China, Pakistan, Iran etc.

Afghanistan’s economic relation with its important neighbour Iran is substantial. But Nadin (2014) is of the opinion that although Iran has used its economic advantage for political influence, but overall Iran’s trade relations with Afghanistan are positive and Iran helps other regional powers develop Afghanistan as in the case of Chabahar port. He also states that Iran has substantial soft influence in Afghanistan and its regional and cultural ties to Afghans gives it an edge over other powers. The main issues of concern between Iran and Afghanistan are water dispute, flow of narcotics and refugees from Afghanistan into Iran. To Stepanova (2009), the movement of Afghan labourers to Iran as beneficial for the Afghan economy and society in the form of remittances. Fazeli (2016) considers US-Iran nuclear deal as a positive step in the direction of Afghanistan-Iran relations.

Afghanistan’s economic ties with its largest trading partner Pakistan are very important. Husain and Elahi (2015) are of the opinion that although the Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) was redesigned in 2010 to strengthen trade relations and facilitate Afghan transit trade through Pakistan, but its implementation has been problematic. Hussain (2011) rightly says that the development of highways and the end of militancy in the FATA would increase economic and trade opportunities between these two countries. He writes that the utilization of untapped mineral and energy resources will be helpful in the development of sustainable Afghan economy and its integration with the region.

Although Afghanistan’s relations with its regional neighbours have been dealt separately by many scholars but there seems to be a lack of desirable comparative study. Most of the literature deal these issues from the perspective of regional powers. There is a need to write more from Afghanistan’s perspective and ambitions. The voice of general people also should be reflected in the literature. As a matter of fact, Afghanistan’s problems and solutions can be understood only by analyzing the role of regional powers in Afghanistan. In the present context, Afghanistan’s relations with its regional powers can also play a significant role in its reconstruction and development. Afghanistan needs to balance its relations with these countries, so that it can maintain its independence and sovereignty.




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