Regional actors are filling the gap left by the US, leaving minimum room for the latter in Afghanistan. A lot has been written about the US withdrawal and its consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the region as a whole. The focus of these analyses has been the different policy options the US could adopt to gain maximum benefit out of the current situation. But not enough has been written about what Afghanistan is doing. As a matter of fact, the up-coming withdrawal has brought a marked shift in Afghanistan’s own geo-politics, especially in its relations with other regional countries and in its deliberate policy of leaving minimum room for the US to be the sole arbiter of Afghanistan’s future. Although the US would, to a great extent, be the most important factor in determining the possible political trajectory of Afghanistan, however, it is also almost certain that Afghanistan is establishing close relations with other regional powers to effectively limit the US power. In other words, Afghanistan is diversifying its relations, and is using this very ‘diversification card’ as a bargaining chip against the US demands put forward in the shape of the Bi-Lateral Security agreement, which is still to be signed.
On the one hand, if Afghanistan is improving its relations with Russia, China and Iran, on the other hand, regional countries are also using this very agreement and the situation of Afghanistan as a tool to pressurize the US. For instance, in December 2013, Iranian deputy foreign minister expressed deep concern about the negative impacts of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul for the Afghans and even the entire region, saying that Iran and Afghanistan have their own bi-lateral plan to widen their mutual security cooperation in order to confront, in a proper manner, the BSA’s unpredictable outcomes. Tehran has repeatedly called for withdrawal of the US-led foreign troops from Afghanistan, stressing that the establishment of peace and security in the war-ravaged country is possible only through cooperation among the regional states, thereby suggesting a full exclusion not only of the US but also its Western allies.
Apart from supporting Afghanistan’s stance on the BSA, Iran has also been making modest investments in Afghanistan. By 2009, Iran was already one of the largest investors in Afghanistan. It has built several roads, power transmission lines, border stations and many other infrastructure projects, especially in the western Afghanistan, to better link the two nations. Iran has also contributed more than 50 million dollars annually to Afghan anti-drug efforts during the last five years. The impression that is being conveyed to the US through this alliance is that the US help would not be essential for reconstructing the war torn state.
But there is also another side of the picture as well. The fact cannot be categorically denied that Iran might have decided to oppose the BSA and to emphasize the need for the inclusion of regional states in Afghanistan’s peace process as a means to exert pressure on the US for gaining some concessions to lessen the intensity of sanctions imposed on her. On the other hand, the possibility should also not be ruled out that Iran may ultimately stop pressing its opposition to BSA if the US offers Iran a politico-economic space in the US’ desired set up in the post-2014 scenario. As a matter of fact, both Iran and the US are opposed to the possible emergence of the Taliban as the most important political factor in Afghanistan. Iran did not want the Pakistan-oriented Mujahideen to come to power in 1989; and now she again does not want Pakistan-oriented Afghanistan Taliban to have any place in the post-Karzai government. This convergence over interests over a very critical issue can unite both Iran and the US, as far as establishing a desired political set up in the post-2014 scenario is concerned.
Apart from such geo-political maneuvering of Iran and Afghanistan, Afghanistan has also made a lot of headway in improving its bi-lateral relations with Russia, with the latter making a lot of headway into Afghanistan. Like Iran, Russia has also repeatedly shown its concerns over the permanent stationing of the US military in Afghanistan under the BSA. A number of reports have shown that local people of Afghanistan have also shown interest in Russian investments in Afghanistan primarily because of the kind of policy she is following. For instance, instead of allying either with the Taliban or with other militias, Russia has been focusing on areas like education and investment. According to Russian estimates, a total of over 15,000 Afghan citizens have been educated in Russia, of which about 1400 Afghans have graduated from Russian civilian and military universities. Similarly, to promote pro-Russian sentiments in Afghanistan and also to counter US hegemony, Russia has been giving scholarships to Afghan students in recent years. The number of students going to Russia has been steadily increasing ever year. For example, in 2004 there were 50 scholarships per year; 75 in 2007, and from 2008, the number grew to 80 scholarships. For 2010, 100 scholarships were prepared, and 115 for 2011. And since then the number of students studying in Russia and number of scholarships being awarded have been doubled.
At current stage, apart from education, Russia is also investing in economic projects. At the outset, the Russian government has compiled a list of 140 Soviet-era projects that it intends to rehabilitate, according to the Russian embassy in Afghanistan; and, the estimated cost of these projects is millions of dollars. The proposal for launching this rehabilitation programme was actually given by Russia as late as 2010 in London conference on Afghanistan, which was then rejected by the Western powers. However, Russia has now decided to go ahead with it as a means of establishing its position, although moderately, in Afghanistan.
Similar sort of case is China’s. From a policy of disengagement, China has moved on to adopting a policy of full active engagement in Afghanistan. The visible change in China’s policy can be had from the fact that it was after almost five decades that any Chinese high official, Zhou Yangkang, visited Afghanistan in 2012. Broadly, the renewed Chinese policy does not fundamentally run counter to that of the West. It aims to play its part in establishing a ‘peaceful’ Afghanistan, where it could make economic gains. It has already invested $3.5 billion in Aynak copper mines, and it also supports the `Afghan-owned and Afghan-led` peace process. Reluctant though Beijing is to assume responsibility for preventing any of these scenarios, it has accepted that sitting on its hands is no longer an adequate strategy. No wonder that instead of getting more involved directly, Beijing is instead using its economic clout and its leverage over Pakistan and the Taliban to expand its influence in Afghanistan. China’s relationship with the reclusive head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, goes back to his rule over Afghanistan in the late 1990s. Among the only non-Muslims to meet with Omar, Chinese officials promised political recognition and support in the shape of telecom projects and other investments. In return, the Afghan side promised that its territory would not be used by “separatist forces” to launch attacks against China. The 9/11 attacks curtailed the relationship, but the essential elements of the deal remain in place. Although Beijing fears the radicalizing consequences of a full resumption of Taliban control, it seems to be in a far more comfortable position than any Western actor in dealing with the Taliban essentially as a political force.
The increasing involvement of regional actors in Afghanistan is a remarkable development as far as Afghanistan’s political future is concerned. Not only is it a glaring indication of the way the US is losing its edge in the region, but also shows the extent of ingress these states have already made in Afghanistan. This development involves inverse geo-political equations. That is to say, involvement of Iran, China and Russia—three primary adversaries of the US hegemony—means a defeat for the US; for, it could be either the US or the regional states in Afghanistan, not both. And, when we take into account the original objective—militarization of the Eurasian region to gravitate the US’ geo-strategic hegemony — that led the US into this war, we can reach an easy conclusion: the US has failed in Afghanistan in achieving its primary and secondary objectives, that is, both in attaining that hegemonic position and then in retaining whatever position it had gained in a more than 13 years long war. In other words, the US has been defeated on two fronts separately. The first front involved defeating and eliminating the Taliban as a means to develop unchallenged supremacy in Afghanistan. The second front involved using that supremacy to check regional states, control supply of energy from the Eurasian region to the world and thus to control a big part of global economics. A look at today’s situation shows diametrically different situation. Not only are the Taliban still the most effective and active force in Afghanistan, but the regional states have also successfully countered, by making large scale economic investments, the US’ twenty-first century grand objectives.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.