THE REGIONAL AND THE EXTRA REGIONAL PLAYERS AND THEIR ROLES
“Besides a common religion, Islam, foreign invaders- from Alexander the great to British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century – have united the Afghans”.
-Insight Magazine, 09 April 1990.
- Afghanistan was the only country in the world to launch a strong protest in United Nations against the induction of Pakistan in 1947 and also to lodge a border dispute with Pakistan when it claimed that Durand Line is no more a binding contract as now there is no British Raj present in the region. It also incited a major incursion in Bajur Agency, NWFP in 1961 with hope to have it annexed with itself and led then Prime Minister Dauod Khan to resign from his post, it plunged Afghanistan into a long spiral fall from which it has yet to recover. Top of Form
Bottom of Form
Afghanistan soon proved to be a tough neighbour and sided with India on every matter which could hurt Pakistani interests using an India-Soviet favouring group. In December 1979 Russia invaded the Afghanistan with the pre-text of supporting the pro-Soviet Government. The USA weary of spreading Communism, Saudi Arabia indebted to the American cause coupled with sense of Muslim power and Pakistan worried of increasingly unstable and hostile Afghanistan combined together to exploit the Islamists waged a “Jihad” against “Soviet Invaders”. The Pashtun grievances and warlordism gave way to Taliban (literally meaning students) who rose from Kandhar and took 95% of Afghanistan under control by year 2000. Taliban were the friends of Pakistan and safeguarded the Western frontier of Pakistan against not only Indians but even Soviets.
- USA have tried to render peace in Afghanistan, but it has become more complicated due to inability of U.S. and NATO forces to understand the environmental realities peculiar to this region and being alien to the culture and traditions of the people. To have peace requires patience and right priorities. Before peace is attempted we need to understand some hard facts :-
(a) The continuing influx of Afghan youth trained in Pakistan’s madrassas now comprises the bulk of Taliban and Al Queda cadres. They are hooked to glorified violence in the name of jihad, and imbued with robotic discipline. They are an army beyond redemption and reasoning.
(b) The silent Pashtun majority is terrorized into submission by Taliban and Al Queda.
(c) The internecine warfare between the warlords for the past decade has created an unbridgeable divide between the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Persian speaking Shiites of Herat. The past mutual ethnic cleansing and betrayals have created visceral hatred among different tribes.
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(d) The Pashtun dominated Taliban still cling to the idea of Pashtuns ruling over all Afghanistan which the minorities no longer countenance. This has led to a growing friction between ethnic groups, specifically the Pashtuns and their northern Tajik and Uzbek contemporaries.
- Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan pursued a policy of neutrality and nonalignment in its foreign relations. After the December 1979 invasion, Afghanistan’s foreign policy mirrored that of the Soviet Union. The fall of the Taliban in October 2001 opened a new chapter in Afghanistan’s foreign relations. Afghanistan is now an active member of the international community, and has diplomatic relations with countries from around the world.
Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan (900kilometres) and has provided shelter to roughly 1.5million Afghans. Afghanistan’s relations with Iran have fluctuated over the years, with periodic disputes over the water rights of the Helmand River as the main issue of contention. Initially, due to its war with Iraq, Iran was not actively involved in Afghanistan but later the Shia groups who were bitter due to meagre support from Pakistan became close to Iran. Following the Soviet invasion, Iran supported the cause of the Afghan resistance. Iran shares a cultural, linguistic affinity with northern Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun elements, which suffered the most under Taliban rule. Tehran resents the atrocities regularly visited upon the Shiah Hazara minority by Sunni fanatics in Afghanistan. It’s relations with Afghanistan have improved since the fall of the Taliban and has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts, particularly in the western portion of the country. Presently, Iran has adopted a more aloof posture and appears to be avoiding overt commitments – or opposition – to any single Afghan faction.
- Iranian policy makers have long sought to prevent an alliance between Pakistan and a Sunni-dominated Afghanistan, which would destabilise it’s entire eastern border. Besides Iran’s competition with Pakistan for access to the CARs, Iran’s Afghanistan policy is largely motivated by sectarian ties to Afghanistan’s Shia minority.
- A territorial collapse of Pakistan, or domestic instability that threatened to draw in Afghanistan has always tended to be contrary to Iran’s interests. It has always been perceived that the nationalistic developments of Pashtunistan could spill over to neighbouring Iran, destabilizing its Baluch population, thereby activating the anti-Iran elements in the form of the establishment of a Greater Balochistan. Thus, Iran is against both formation of a Pashtunistan within the Afghan confederation as it would give greater dominance to Sunni Pashtuns and further deteriorate the conditions of Shias, and also of an independent Pashtunistan which would result in similar demands of independent areas within Iran by other sub nationalistic communities. Prolongation of Afghan instability restricts Pakistan’s capability to export its light industrial goods in Central Asia and the Caucasus, where government subsidised cheap Iranian consumer exports have proliferated. A peaceful Afghanistan would also offer an unwelcome alternative for carrying Caspian basin oil and gas across Afghanistan to South Asia. Iran may also be concerned that an Afghan settlement could provide a larger opening for American and Turkish economic and political influence in the region.
- The main concern of the three CARs (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan) bordering Afghanistan was the spill over of militants into their territories. Uzbekistan and Turkey had contacts with General Dostum who had argued that a confederation of autonomous states is the only solution for the chaos in Afghanistan. He warned that the Uzbeks will never again live under Pashtun domination and demanded a separate state, which would be a secular entity and act as a buffer for Central Asia against the spread of Islamic fundamentalism from the Pashtun-dominated area in the south. Afghanistan’s relations with Tajikistan have been complicated by political upheaval and civil war in Tajikistan, which spurred some 100,000 Tajiks to seek refuge in Afghanistan in late 1992 and early 1993. Also disenchanted by the Taliban’s harsh treatment of Afghanistan’s Tajik minority, Tajikistan facilitated assistance to the Northern Alliance. The Karzai government has sought to establish closer ties with its northern neighbours in order to capitalize on the potential economic benefits of increased trade.
- During the 1970s, the Soviet influence in Kabul, and later their invasion ofAfghanistan, has been perceived by Beijing as the purposeful encircling of China by the Soviet Union. Thus, support to Pakistan’s western border security has been a major feature of Beijing’s policy. China also has keen interests in Central Asia’s energy resources and, thus, supports a moderate government at Kabul, because it is believed to be least likely to foment any sort of extremism and disturbance in neighbouring countries. China’s strategic concerns in the area are mirrored by the security of its lines of communication, which tends to counter Afghanistan’s rhetoric on Pashtunistan. The ethnic-religious civil wars in Afghanistan have caused rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Just as America has a vision of a modestly stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists, China has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. So if America defeats Al Qaeda and the irreconcilable elements of the Taliban, China’s geopolitical position will be enhanced. This is not a paradox, since China and America have convergence of interests with difference being that whole direction of America’s military and diplomatic effort is toward an exit strategy, whereas the Chinese hope to stay and profit.
- In late seventies, Saudis were facing severe criticism for their close alliance with USA from Arab governments. Saudis used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a springboard to portray their commitment to Muslim causes and brush up their Islamic credentials. In early eighties in close cooperation with America, Saudi Arabia provided a large amount of financial aid for military and humanitarian purposes for Afghanistan. Pakistan had close working relations with all Sunni groups, and never tried to bring Shia groups into the coalition to avoid friction with Saudis. After the cut off of U.S. funds, Saudis became the largest provider of funds for Afghan adventure. The direct role of Saudi Arabia also dramatically increased. Later, especially post 9/11, the warm relations between Taliban and Saudis hit the bottom when Taliban refused to cooperate on Osama bin Ladin issue. Saudis had funded the most conservative individuals and organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ironically, most of them turned against the Saudi royal family and had openly criticized the royal family for its close relationship with USA.
- Russia though major player until 1991 had markedly reduced influence since its disintegration into many independent states. It has given limited military help to the Taliban opposition and deployed troops in Tajikistan near the border of Afghanistan. It is suspicious of increasing US influence in the area traditionally seen by them as their area of influence but not in a position to challenge the USA. Since the fall of the Taliban, the Karzai government has improved relations with Russia, but Afghanistan’s outstanding foreign debt to Russia still continues to be a source of contention.
- While the campaign against international terrorism is a key area in which U.S. and Russian interests converge, Moscow is also wary of growing U.S. influence in especially the oil-rich Caspian Sea basin. Russia is providing military hardware to Afghanistan and is aware of the fact that fragile nature of central authority in Afghanistan, torn by chronic infighting among rival ethnic factions, requires U.S. presence as it’s disengagement would likely spur renewed competition for influence. Russia has became more interested in confining Pashtun dominated Islam to the south and creating a Tadjik and Uzbek entity as a buffer area for the Central Asian states, which also suits Russia’s ‘near abroad’ policy.
- Pakistan shares a border of some 2,400 kilometres with Afghanistan and has 10 million Pashtun citizens of its own. The main aim of Pakistan’s Afghan policy was to have a friendly government in Afghanistan to secure it’s Western border. Pakistan’s policy since its inception has been focused on maintaining a situation that could help it avoid controversy over the Durand Line. It has been trying to force a fusion of communities along own side and inciting separation of those on the other side of the line. Islamabad sought to offset Afghan territorial claims by supporting Afghan Islamic parties. Unfortunately, the policies, which it adopted, had exactly the opposite effects. None of the Afghan governments were willing to subordinate its actions to Pakistan’s wishes. Many Afghans say Pakistan has exacerbated the ethnic component of their conflict by supporting Pashtun Islamic rule. There was a domestic political incentive as well, linked to Islamabad’s fears about irredentism. “Pakistan saw in the Taliban, and other fundamentalists, the opportunity to undermine support for Pashtun nationalism”.
- Pakistan was the first country to recognise Taliban rule in Afghanistan and initiated efforts to persuade the Taliban to accept a broad-based government in Kabul in which all major ethnic tribes would share power. September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA changed everything and presented Pakistan with a stark choice: either make common cause with Washington in its war against bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network based in Taliban-controlled neighbouring Afghanistan, or persist with its pro-Taliban Afghan policy and as a consequence suffer international condemnation of guilt by association. On September 13, 2001 then President General Pervez Musharraf announced that Pakistan would lend its ‘unstinted cooperation’ to the international coalition against terror. General Pervez Musharraf address to the nation on 19 September is attached as appendix B.
- More recently, Pakistan has been alarmed by India’s growing political, military, and economic ties to Afghanistan, and sees its establishment of consulates in the Pashtun-majority cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar as provocative. Many Afghans feel Islamabad’s insistence on Pashtun representation in the post-Taliban political order as the “crying of crocodile tears”, reflective of an inability to give up strategic designs on Afghanistan. Infact it is widely believed “When push comes to shove, Pakistan is unlikely to hold back, and will use its long border and deep ethnic links with Pashtuns to alter the balance in its favour”, says a senior Pashtun leader in the present Hamid Karzi’s government.
- Even though there are more Pashtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and Pakistani Pakhtuns are better educated and more affluent, Pakistan has always been nervous about its Pashtun population. Does that mean Pakistan and Afghanistan will forever remain condemned to instability and seek security by dependence on outside forces? This may not be true, but to bring stability in the region by uniting the furious Pashtuns divided by the Durand line may be a viable option. A weak non-Pashtun dominated state in Afghanistan has never posed any threat to Pakistan because it has neither had any ideological bearings or religious extra-national ambitions nor any ethnic or sub-nationalist stirrings. On the other hand, whenever there has been a strong Pashtun dominated state in Afghanistan, it’s government has supported Pashtun separatism (refusal to accept the Durand Line) and pose a threat to the territorial integrity and political solidarity of Pakistan. Pakistan has no effective control over a large swath of territory along its border with Afghanistan primarily dominated by Pashtuns. Dangerous extremist groups that are intent on attacking the U.S. such as al-Qaeda, enjoy safe haven in these border areas.
“…had we looked deeper, we might have found that the root causes behind the enduring and resilient nature of the Taliban have very little to do with religion, and much to do with an ancient ethnic struggle…… we [the United States] should consider the prospect of creating a Pashtunistan which reflects the tribal boundaries. This would be a new state, carved from parts of both Afghanistan and Pakistan… This new area would be composed largely of ethnic Pashtuns, similar to what we have created in Kurdistan or Bosnia, and it would therefore very likely have the consent of the population on the ground…”
-Major Michael D. Holmes
Following the Soviet invasion, the United States supported diplomatic efforts to achieve a Soviet withdrawal and contributed to the refugee program in Pakistan to assist Afghans. After the Soviet withdrawal, CIA let Pak ISI deal with the ugly mess of Afghanistan. The USA initially gave a free hand to Pak to build up the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The US wanted the Taliban to develop as a counterweight to the Iranian regime and to check USSR’s influence in the region. A favourable govt in Kabul would help USA in numerous ways. With the emergence of CARs as independent countries in 1991 and the prospects of availability of huge oil and gas reserves again brought that area to international focus. Meanwhile, the Taliban on capturing Kabul, imposed a strict Islamic code and practiced fundamentalist policies. This led to the USA gradually distancing itself from the Taliban. Post September 11, 2001 events of cosmic proportions have resulted in world focusing on Afghanistan with a renewed interest to deal with Osama Bin Laden, who was responsible for the acts of terror originating from Afghanistan.
- The Osama Bin Laden Factor. Osama Bin Laden was once one of the star recruiters of the US intelligence agency the CIA. He enrolled thousands of jihad volunteers from the Middle East for a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Ironically after winning their jihad against the USSR, these fundamentalists turned their attention onto the other superpower. Post 9/11 led to U.S. GWOT as the Taliban refused to hand over Osama Bin Laden to the USA.
- Pashtun Factor. U.S. policymakers recognised early on that Pashtun support was needed to create a broader-based moment to replace the Taliban and provide a degree of stability in the region. This approach appears to have long term goal of stabilising effect as U.S. has demonstrated that America supports the Pashtun desire for a stronger position in relation to the Punjabi-dominated government in Islamabad in the Af-Pak border area of Durand Line. U.S. understands that Pashtuns in FATA treasure their long-standing autonomy and do not like to be ruled by Islamabad. What they want is integration into the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and FATA to form a single unified “Pashtun” province that enjoys the autonomy envisaged in the inoperative 1973 Pakistan constitution. Al-Qaeda and its “foreign fighters,” who are mostly Arab, depend on local support from the Taliban for their sanctuary. Unlike Al-Qaeda, with its global terrorist agenda, most of the Taliban factions focus on local objectives in Afghanistan and FATA; they do not pose a direct threat to the USA. On March 1, 2007, Pakistani ambassador to Washington the Maj. Gen (retired) Mahmud Ali Durrani, said at a seminar at the Pakistan Embassy, “I hope the Taliban and Pashtun nationalism don’t merge. If that happens, we’ve had it, and we’re on the verge of that.”
- Afghanistan remained the focus of Indian regional policy because of its geo-strategic proximity to Pakistan and the Indian foreign policy was centered on maintaining very cordial relations with it. India in 1950 signed “Friendship Treaty” to promote bilateral co-operation with Afghanistan to enhance Indian influence. In 1967, the United Pashtunistan Front (UPF) was formed in New Delhi. The then Indian Foreign Minister Swaran Singh told the Indian Parliament that “we are fully aware of the fundamental freedoms and natural aspirations of the brave Pashtuns which have been consistently denied to them, and their struggle has got our greatest sympathy and we will certainly support the efforts that Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan might undertake in that direction.” After the Soviet invasion in 1979 India doubled up its efforts to further strengthen its relations with Afghanistan. Over the years Indian political elite maintained close contacts with Pasthun leaders on both sides of Durand line. The two countries have always shared a healthy relationship but with the Soviet withdrawal and its disintegration in 1991 and Mujahedeen’s control of Kabul in April 1992 the relations reached its nadir.
- During Taliban rule more than 30,000 Afghan refugees moved to India. India is helping Afghanistan rebuild itself and with an ever-increasing belligerence in all fields, including military, intelligence, humanitarian, and economic. India is the largest aid provider to Afghanistan and in the coming few years India likely to project as a regional power is appropriately following a pro-active approach and take the right initiatives on Afghanistan. By fostering greater economic ties with the pro-Indian Northern Alliance dominant Kabul government, New Delhi has dramatically increased its involvement in Afghanistan, and is seeking to marginalize Pakistan. India would prefer a separate Pashtunistan rather than a neo-Taliban ruling over Afghanistan, as this would frustrate Pakistani strategy. India has good relations with Tajikistan and would continue to have good relations with the Tajik section of Afghanistan as well as with a newly formed Pashtunistan.
- The geo-strategic importance of Afghanistan has a great bearing on India and it’s approach is primarily Pak focused. India’s economic interests in Afghanistan are secondary to its strategic interests. Apart from the desire to restore Pakistan’s two-front problem, some of the factors that govern Indian approach to Afghanistan are :-
(a) A pro Pak government in Afghanistan is likely to support Pakistan in case of any future Indo-Pak Conflict and would provide them necessary ‘Strategic depth’.
(b) Pak has been using Taliban militia to wage a proxy war in Kashmir.
(c) Afghanistan is the hub of drug trafficking and narco-terrorism.
(d) A peaceful and stable Afghanistan will be in the economic interests of India as it will raise the prospects of Indo-Afghanistan trade and also provide greater access to the Central Asian markets and important centers for gas and oil.
(e) A fundamentalist Afghanistan is likely to encourage the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in the region which would affect India.
- Afghanistan constitutes a new battleground for Indo-Pakistani hostility. Credible U.S. media leaks indicate that Pakistani linkages to the car bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul on July 7, 2008.India, thus needs to convince Pakistan that Islamabad instead of exporting hatred and destruction, should seek positive parity with India and others in terms of improving the quality of life of its citizens in an inclusive manner.
- There is no formal international position on the Durand Line, simply a de facto one that recognizes it as a real border. No other state has accepted Afghanistan’s position that it is not such a border. The question arises so why should there be any international pressure on Pakistan and Afghanistan to negotiate about Durand line? The reason is that since September 11, 2001, FATA and the area alongside the Durand line has been viewed as a site of global insecurity that can be controlled only when Pakistan takes responsibility for its territory and extends the structures of the state into the region through expanding opportunities for economic development and education in the FATA region. This is quite difficult because the security situation is currently poor, which makes launching large development projects difficult. Afghanistan’s refusal to give de jure recognition to the border therefore stands in the way of a comprehensive development program that would have much more impact than would parallel developments in each country.
- Having driven the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, the United States and its allies are particularly keen to end FATA’s (and to a lesser extent Baluchistan’s) along the Durand Line to serve as center of Islamic radicalism that promotes international terrorism and seeks to destabilize Afghanistan. The presence of U.S., International Security Assistance Force(ISAF), and Afghan troops gives the border issue some practical urgency as the insurgents they fight retreat back into Pakistan in the belief that they will not be pursued or attacked across an international boundary. From the perspective of the international community the discussions limited to recognition of the Durand Line as a de jure international boundary would not bring stability in the region even if they succeeded as no government in Afghanistan would be willing to pay the political price for accepting the border unless such an agreement were part of a broader package designed to make the country more secure. Pakistan also has much to gain as it’s economy will get a boost. While Afghanistan is concerned about Pakistan’s support of the Taliban, in times past it has been Pakistan that has been concerned about Afghanistan’s tacit support of Pashtun separatists.
- Afghan Nationalism. On a functional level, Afghanistan cannot be subjectively examined under the Western conception of either a state or a nation. The country simply does not operate in any sense of either definition at this time. Both a limited security apparatus and stalled international support have done little to cultivate ancient divisions based on ethnic and religious elements.This relatively low level of Afghan nationalism is a result of internal conflict of last two decades with atrocities committed by all sides on ethnic rivals and forced displacements and makes the task of rekindling the flame of nationalism more difficult. Political reconstruction is the essential pre-requisite for the economic reconstruction of the country. Afghanistan is at a major crossroad of its history today. The chain of events, which has led to the present situation, was beyond the control of Afghans. But now, it is Afghans who will have to do soul searching and make some difficult choices.
- Afghanistan’s neighbours need to understand and digest the fact that the entire region will be the net winner in case Afghanistan and Pakistan are good friends. The old theories of using Afghanistan as a pawn to open a second front against any third country need to be buried. Any state which has any motivation to incite sectarian or ethnic divisions in any of its neighbours is following a zero gain policy as far as the long term interest of the entire region is concerned. This is the age of globalisation and not of any “Forward Policies”. Afghan history has proved that great issues of the day cannot be settled by fighting but by consultation and consensus. Many regional and extra regional powers are trying to retain their respective spheres of influence in Afghanistan but no regional power can afford to antagonise Washington by working openly at cross purposes with its military campaign, it has to be supportive to U.S. goals and objectives in the region to meet it’s aspirations. The international community, including the U.S. government, has long avoided taking a clear position on the border issue, but its ambivalence is beginning to change.
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