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Political Stability in Afghanistan & Emerging Regional Alliances – Saad Malik

June 16, 2022

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After the USA’s unceremonious exit from Afghanistan following a long, tiring and fruitless war, a political and diplomatic vacuum may add to an already volatile situation. This concerns the immediate neighbors and regional powers in particular, and world powers in general. To fill this void and to guard their interests, regional players and international powers have stepped in. This all may lead to the emergence of new blocs and regional alliances with the USA and India on one side and Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia on the other side with Turkey playing the role of a mediator and facilitator in order to safeguard its economic, political, and security interests (Sakhi & Pforzheimer, 2021). There is a political vacuum in Afghanistan leading to regional players and international powers thinking about the region’s future to safeguard their interests. There is also uncertainty concerning the impact on Pakistan’s security and stability (economic as well as political), along with some optimism that a stable Afghanistan under the Taliban will contribute to a peaceful western border. It is also hoped that the Taliban will fulfill its promises of forming an inclusive government, giving the Afghan population due rights like freedom of expression and civil liberties to women and minorities to an extent that becomes acceptable to the international community, and they will eventually be recognized as a legitimate government (Ashraf 2021). Right now, it is in the interest of Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the USA (to be debated) to have a politically stable Afghanistan because of various reasons like threats from Al-Qaeda, ISIS, TTP, East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jundullah, and other extremist and terrorist groups. The spillover effects on neighboring countries may include the disruption of CPEC, sectarianism, extremism, and terrorism. That’s why all the above mentioned states have sought assurances from the Taliban to not allow Afghan soil for terrorism against other countries (Noorani 2021).

Experts believe that when the US realized that it cannot win this war, instead of negotiating a political settlement involving all stakeholders, it decided to leave Afghanistan in chaos to keep the region unstable and turbulent to counter China’s influence (Khalek 2021). This is evident in the verbiage of the Doha deal which repeatedly mentioned the Taliban as someone the US did not recognize while at the same time stated and that the Taliban would not let Afghan soil to be used against the US and her allies (State 2020) The way the US directly initiated peace talks with the Taliban under President Trump, also created a sense of betrayal in the minds of the ruling Afghan government. Few even term it as Zalmay Khalilzad’s coup against Ashraf Ghani’s government since they both have a rivalrous background since their university days (Khalek 2021). At the time of US withdrawal, almost all neighbors and regional powers had concerns in terms of terrorism, drugs, weapons, and a refugee crisis. These concerns continue to persist and can only be mitigated if a stable government is formed in Kabul. Given the current situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, the crisis situation can also be transformed into an opportunity if the US and regional players can devise a common strategy to root out terrorism and extremism. It is said that the enemy of the enemy is a friend. Right now, Al-Qaeda, TTP, ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province), IMU, ETIM, Jandullah are common threats to the USA, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian Republics (CARS), Russia, and China. The Taliban has time and again committed in the Doha Accord and after taking over the reins of Afghanistan that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other states. So instead of repeating the mistakes of the 1990s and 2000s of not engaging with the Taliban diplomatically and not recognizing them as a stakeholder, it is time to correct past mistakes and fight against the common enemies which do not include the Taliban government (Dar 2021). However, evolution of a common strategy may be wishful thinking given regional and international rivalries. Thus, we also need to take into account divergent interests and state rivalries which may give rise to competing regional blocs. During the last twenty years Pakistan has suffered from terrorism by entities like Al-Qaida, Tehrik-e-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) etc. which resulted in the loss of innocent lives and an economic meltdown. The environment was ripe for extremism and gave space to sectarian outfits that targeted minorities. Pakistan’s fear of India using Afghan soil to spread terrorism in former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan through TTP, and additionally, former Afghan government’s backing of nationalist Pashtuns against the state has been neutralized. On the other hand, there is a lot to be negotiated like the mechanism to deal with the TTP, the presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and, the issue of Durrand line (Khan 2021). Iran can cooperate with the Taliban to protect the minority Hazaras in Afghanistan (Ali, Afghanistan: Proxy Conflicts 2021). Chabahar port can also be connected to China through Afghanistan. China wants greater connectivity towards CARs through Afghanistan. Central Asian states want to have greater access in the region to exploit their untapped resources. Projects like Turkmenistan Afghanistan Pakistan India (TAPI) gas pipeline and CASA1000 will benefit a number of countries (Parwani 2021). USA’s exit from Afghanistan is the event Russia was looking forward to since a long time. The events which took place during the Cold War like the first Afghan war furthered the disintegration of USSR leading to a unipolar world. Russia lost its superpower status and remained merely a spectator afterwards. After decades Russia has found an opportunity to assume a dominant role in the region. So, it wants to contribute towards a stable Afghanistan under the Taliban Government because of multiple factors. Firstly, it sees USA’s exit as an end to its regional hegemony and wants to assume the role of a security guarantor for CARs. Secondly, it fears ISIS might collaborate with other terrorist groups and use Afghan soil to spread terrorism in CARs which might pose a threat to Russia in the near future. In case of civil war, the flow of drugs and refugees is another concern. Therefore, Russia has sought assurances from the Taliban which include distancing itself from the terrorist groups and secure the borders (Fisher & Stanzel, 2021). China also sees USA’s exit as an end to the latter’s dominance in the region. Keeping in view the diplomatic engagement with the Taliban in recent years and particularly after its takeover of Kabul, it wants to use this opportunity for taking forward its economic ambitions by extending the Belt and Road Initiative towards CARs. It wants to explore the mineral resources in Afghanistan. Most importantly, it wants to stop the terrorists from inciting any violence by using Uyghurs Muslims in Xinjiang province. For that China has asked for assurances from the Taliban to keep the Wakhan border secure and to achieve the above mentioned objectives. Like Russia, China is also concerned with the flow of refugees and drugs in case of unrest in Afghanistan (Fisher & Stanzel, 2021). Here, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) led by China intends to play a constructive role too. Recently, Iran was given full membership in SCO after 15 years, and it was stressed upon that member states should guide Afghanistan to stability by encouraging smooth political transition and ensuring an inclusive government to pave the way for moderate internal and external policies (Fathi 2021). Turkey also has stakes in war torn Afghanistan owing to the investments it has made, ongoing projects and the presence of its citizens. It has an interest in protecting the Afghan Uzbeks because of their historical cultural ties with Turkey. Hosting of Afghan warlord Dostum of Uzbek origin was something the Taliban was not comfortable with. Turkey was seen as a supporter of the Afghan government in the past two decades and also maintained a non-combat NATO presence. This has created a trust deficit (Saifullah 2017). But, Turkey along with Qatar is close to making a deal with the Taliban to secure Kabul’s airport which is in their mutual interest. An operational and secure air corridor is really important for Turkey to secure its interests and connect Afghanistan with the world. The reason being a secure Kabul airport will ensure smooth diplomatic missions of which NATO may be a part of in the future. This will in turn mend Turkey’s ties with NATO which were strained because of the S-400 missile system it bought from Russia. Thus, if a deal is brokered, it will be a win-win situation for both Turkey and the Taliban. Turkey will be able to present a softer and moderate image of the Taliban which will pave the way for the latter’s international recognition and legitimacy. Turkey will be able to improve its relations with NATO and other western allies by acting as a bridge between Afghanistan and the West (Basit & Ahmed, 2021). Logically, the role Turkey wants to play is supposed to be played by Pakistan. Instead Pakistan, a key US ally during the Cold War, in the Afghan Jihad in the decade of 80s and in the War on Terror stands as the most discredited state by her perceived support to the extremists and terrorists who harmed Western interests in Afghanistan. The USA takes Pakistan as a country responsible for her defeat in Afghanistan. Pakistan through diplomacy should improve its international image and emerge as a bridge between Afghanistan and the West just like it did in 1971 between China and USA when President Yahya Khan facilitated a meeting between the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Chinese government. Pakistan needs to be aggressive in her diplomacy (Desk 2021). As far as Indian interests in the region are concerned, we have to look into the role its consulates are playing. They are aggressively using economic diplomacy, development and community engagement at the sub-national level to fulfill their foreign policy objectives which include becoming a hegemon or policeman of South Asia. So the way they invested in Afghanistan by engaging in cultural diplomacy, maintaining liaison with the Afghan government and minority Afghan groups and by undertaking infrastructure development projects (Xavier & Nayar, 2021), the Taliban takeover has been a huge blow to its investments (Ali 2021). This is because in all these years India maintained a hard anti-Taliban posture projecting them as the proxy of Pakistan. That’s why they had to immediately close their missions after 15th August 2021. To assess USA’s role and how it will act after being defeated badly in Afghanistan, we can take a cue from President Biden’s speech at the climate conference in Paris where he countered China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) terming it hazardous to the environment and hinted at funding environment-friendly initiatives instead. This can be one way of countering China’s influence instead of going for armed conflicts to achieve hegemony (Lee 2021). Further, his recent statement of ending the USA’s role of nation building across the world through military might indicates a change in US foreign policy (Rashid 2021). It is therefore in the interest of all the regional players to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into another civil war because if it does, this will have serious repercussions for the neighbors who have suffered since long. There still exists a fear till a stable inclusive government is formed there. In this context, the visit by Pakistan’s spy master, Lt Gen Faiz holds importance (Ashraf 2021). In the wider interest of the region in general and Afghanistan in particular, the Taliban must be assisted in achieving political stability and economic prosperity. The Taliban will have to cooperate with the world and fulfill its promises in order to be recognized as a legitimate government because this will pave the way for cooperation with the West which will be instrumental in providing economic aid (Baluch 2021). After the US withdrawal, there are a lot of challenges ahead for the Afghan Taliban which includes counter terrorism. To gain international support Taliban will have to project a softer image and come out as a changed entity as compared to its previous stint in power. In doing so it might face backlash from terrorist groups like Al-Qaida, ISKP and, other hardliners and the group might even face defections from within. If the Taliban do not act against the terrorists, it will again face international isolation which also became the reason for post 9/11 US invasion of Afghanistan (Ullman 2021). In this tricky situation, prospects of engagement between the US and Taliban increase since there is a short history of cooperation between the two on combating ISKP in the provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar. So, this common threat can bring these two together at least in fighting terrorism which can in turn add stability to the unpredictable and volatile situation. Moreover, there is another issue of countering narcotics that both can work on (Threlkeld 2021). On the other hand, the way the USA, NATO, and India backed Afghan government and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) collapsed, there is a question whether they will opt for constructive engagement through non-military means or again initiate a proxy by arming and funding various ethnic groups and factions of the former Northern Alliance to counter Pakistan and China’s influence in the region? It is yet to be seen but keeping in view the ground realities and the role of Russia in restricting Central Asian Republics (CARS) from being used for this purpose, it is highly unlikely (Sehgal 2021). Either India can accept the reality of Pakistan and China in the region and can continue with its development projects as proposed by the Taliban or continue to support and fund ethnic minority warlords against the Taliban. Here the joint statement in the last QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) meeting holds importance. QUAD is a strategic alliance between the USA, India, Japan and Australia. It has reiterated its concerns regarding Afghanistan being used for cross border terrorism and has denounced support for proxies and any kind of military, logistic, and financial support to them (Lakshman 2021). Whether Afghanistan will again become a proxy for regional and superpowers is yet to be seen. Will this situation lead to another civil war or towards greater cooperation and stability? In both cases the emergence of another bloc consisting of the USA and India seems to be on the cards. There are few policies and interests where international and regional players converge and diverge. Both SCO and QUAD called for the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan in their respective meetings. This is a policy where both the alliances converge in spite of all the rivalries. Economic dominance in the region is a point of divergence between China and the US. As far as regional players are concerned and if we particularly talk of an anticipated alliance consisting of Pakistan, Russian, Iran, and China, it was thought they will recognize the Taliban government right away paving the way for their international recognition but keeping in view the concerns they have with the Taliban, this did not happen. Pakistan along with China has the greatest stakes as far as stability in Afghanistan is concerned since CPEC/BRI is dependent on it. Then there are issues which are becoming a reason for divergence amongst the member states of this emerging alliance. Russia is critical of China’s influence over CARs, similarly China is uncomfortable with a possible Russia-India strategic alliance (WISHNICK 2021). Iran had been apprehensive of the alleged Pakistan backing of the Taliban against former Northern Alliance and also absence of her proxies from the newly formed Taliban government. It is evident from the above discussion that there are two emerging alliances after the USA’s exit from Afghanistan. One consists of China, Pakistan, Russia and Iran and the other constitutes Quad countries. The former countries are eyeing regional dominance in anticipation of an emerging multipolar world. For that they are consolidating their strategic and diplomatic ties through different bilateral and multilateral forums. Regional integration through CPEC like projects is another common interest. There is a strong realization that an unstable Afghanistan will make their borders insecure, will spread terrorism and make it extremely difficult to manage the turbulent region. Keeping in view the interests of the first alliance, it is evident that they all want a stable Afghanistan under Taliban government while influencing them to fulfill their commitments to the international community. So to ensure the dominance of this alliance, the Taliban will have to honor their commitments to gain international legitimacy. On the other hand, the way the USA abruptly exited from Afghanistan ending its two decade occupation, it has a strong need to regain its dominance in the region to counter this new emerging alliance which can prove to be a threat to the hegemony of India in South Asia and USA’s status of a sole super power ruling a unipolar world. Both the USA and India are dependent on each other to achieve their objectives. QUAD can play a role in the realization of these ambitions.

About the Author

Saad is a CPPG Mphil alumnus from the 2014-16 cohort. He is currently a lecturer at the University of Management Technology’s (UMT) Department of Political Science & International Relations (DPSIR). His research interests are in Afghanistan: shifting geopolitical situations and regional impacts.

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