The two-day visit of the President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani to India and his talks with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that took place in mid-September 2016 are a good reason to discuss the new trends in Afghanistan’s territory control – it is one of the most important elements in the current stage of the geopolitical game.
Let us remember that the problem of territory control in Afghanistan and Central Asia in general stretches back over a long history. 200 years ago, it was in the centre of the Great Game between the two largest empires of that time (Great Britain and Russia), which lasted until the second half of the 1930s. The importance of the struggle for influence in the region faded away when both its participants faced a much more serious threat in Europe.
The second half of the 1940s onwards and during the 50-year long Cold War, the USA and the USSR were involved in a similar conflict. Its most acute stage occurred in the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Pakistan played an active role as it was Washington’s main regional ally at that time.
After the collapse of the USSR, Afghanistan was left to its own devices for about 10 years. Early in the last decade, it once again turned out to be the focus of “external” attention. By that time, it had become clear that the full course of history had not fully unfolded after the end of the Cold War and it would be “pushed” by a new global conflict, whose key players would be the USA and the rapidly developing China.
Though the major zone of the direct opposition between the USA and China was the marine belt adjacent to the coast of China, the temptation to gain strategic positions behind Beijing’s “back” remained rather strong for Washington. In late 2001, right after 9/11, it acquired these positions in Afghanistan.
However, the various expenses of its Afghan adventure proved to be excessive for the USA. Its consequences were perhaps the main reason for the outbreak of fatigue in American Society brought about by two decades of almost uninterrupted “overseas” military actions led by the United States, the need for which became increasingly less clear to the average citizen.
Barack Obama tried to take into account the problem of “overzealous imperialism” that had been discussed by American experts in the late 1990s early on in his presidency in the then US foreign policy. As a result, the military presence of the USA in Afghanistan reduced by 90%.
Whether this trend will be brought to its logical conclusion (which is quite reasonable from the standpoint of US interests) depends on the result of the upcoming presidential elections.
The joint statement published in mid-September 2016 – Advice to the Future US President, prepared by 19 prominent American experts on Afghanistan, proposes refraining from public discussion of “departure” and focussing on the search for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
However, the current Administration has been engaged in a similar “search” for a long time. The negotiations undertaken by the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group, which includes designated representatives of the foreign affairs departments of the USA, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, might become an important step in this direction.
Since early 2016, such negotiations have been conducted in Islamabad and Kabul. No positive result has been reached so far.
The major obstacle is the reluctance of one of the major participants of the Afghan conflict – Taliban followers – to come to the negotiating table with the Group before foreign troops leave the country’s territory.
The aforementioned letter of advice to the future US President recommends not harbouring illusions about possible progress in backstage talks with Taliban. It remains unclear how to implement their advice to settle the conflict peacefully in this case.
Due to the intractability of the Taliban, the official leadership of Afghanistan is increasingly clearer pointing the finger at Pakistan, which is allegedly playing a double game. On the one hand, Islamabad participates in the work of the Group, but at the same time, it blocks the Group’s activity using its (again, allegedly decisive) influence on the Taliban.
During his visit to Delhi, the President of Afghanistan A. Ghani explicitly made similar accusations against the leadership of Pakistan. However, this statement requires some explanation.
Indeed, during the period when Soviet troops were in Afghanistan, Pakistan (the key regional ally of the USA at that time) was practically the main organizer of Taliban movement. This movement united many Afghan Pashtuns under a quasi-religious ideology.
The situation with the Pashtuns is as complicated as that with the Kurds. More than 40 million Pashtuns in several tribal alliances (like 40 million Kurds) live in different neighbouring states, primarily in Pakistan (28 million) and Afghanistan (13 million).
Similar to the Kurds, various Pashtun movements fail to maintain unity. Some experts distinguish the Afghan and the Pakistani Pashtuns in Taliban. Thus, the level of the Pakistani leadership’s influence on some (uncertain) integrated Taliban is hardly absolute.
The factor of Pashtun segregation is likely to affect the complexity of the entire process of the peace talks with Taliban. The practical significance of some (hypothetical) agreements with these or those persons who introduce themselves as Taliban leaders is not clear.
Finally, let us focus attention on the role of India in the Afghan conflict, which is one of the leading regional (and prospectively global) players. Owing to certain circumstances, India is not a member of the Four-Party Coordination Group, but its importance in the specified conflict is doubtless and it will increase in course of time.
In particular, the fact that the President of Afghanistan visited Delhi proves so, as well as the results of his negotiations with India’s Prime Minister N. Modi. Let us recall that this is not the first act of an increasingly apparent convergence between India and official Afghan authorities.
In late 2015, N. Modi visited Kabul. In June 2016, N. Modi met with A. Ghani in the Afghan Herat Province at the ceremonial opening of the dam that was modernised with the support of India and then named the Afghan-India Friendship Dam.
In the joint statement adopted following the results of the last meeting of the two leaders in Delhi, several issues are noteworthy.
First, India is obliged to allocate about 1 billion dollars to Afghanistan for the purposes of implementing several infrastructure projects. Second, there was a “productive discussion” in May 2016 in Tehran in a three-party format with the participation of the leaders of India, Iran, and Afghanistan.
The statement mentions the three-party agreement on the reconstruction of the Chabahar port in Iran concluded at the same time. Afghanistan will gain access to the port via the modernised transport infrastructure. India will allocate 500 million dollars to provide for this project.
Third, Kabul promises to keep Delhi informed of the activities of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group. Finally, they plan to organise a meeting between the leaders of India, Iran, Afghanistan, and the USA in New York in late September (apparently, on the sidelines of the next UN General Assembly).
Summarising all the facts, we can confidently state that the official leadership of Afghanistan, which is aiming to provide at least an illusion of state subjectivity, decisively does not want to play the role of “backyard” (“the strategic rear”), which Pakistan is trying to assign it in its confrontation with India. Therefore, the Afghan leadership is seeking support in India, as well as in Iran and the USA.
However it remains unclear what the rather “uncertain” Taliban thinks about the problem of Afghanistan statehood. In any case, the President of Afghanistan is apparently taking into account Pakistan’s varying influence over the Taliban. Primarily, he is paying attention to the fact that Pakistan’s objectives in the “Great Game” that is being resumed around Afghanistan are directly contrary to Afghan goals.
All the major external players of this game have been specified above. It just remains to add that the role of Pakistan and its foreign policy preferences are radically changing in comparison with the Cold War period. As the USA increasingly relies on India (apart from Japan) in the course of geopolitical confrontation with China, Islamabad has no choice except to reorientate towards Beijing.
As for the mixed population of Afghanistan, they will not be left in peace in any new format of the regional game, because they happened to live in the territory that is all too important to the “Great” players.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.