Switch your TV on, you will watch news on Afghanistan; look at the newspaper, you will read about Afghanistan; scroll home pages of Facebook and Twitter down or up, you will find dozens of news stories, articles and features related to political and military developments in Afghanistan. Amidst this flux of news, one question that arises in everyone’s mind is: “Why Afghanistan, the war-torn, poverty-stricken country, matters so much for, virtually, every nation of the world. The answer warrants thorough analysis of historical and strategic significance of Afghanistan, as well as the unearthing of geostrategic and geo-politico-economic advantages the country offers to regional and global powers.
Afghans have long been mired in violent cycles of civil wars, sectarian and ethnic conflicts, terrorism and foreign invasions. These are the factors that never allowed them to establish a stable political order that is a sine qua non to undertake coherent and comprehensive reforms in a society. Except 1920s, when King Amanullah attempted to bring about radical reforms, the winds of change that swept across the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent found Afghanistan impregnable. Bonn Conference of 2001 was widely considered a milestone in political history of Afghanistan as the , with the backing of Afghan political forces, except the Taliban, envisioned democratic reconstruction in the country with presidential form of government, a constitution and a bicameral legislature. Since then, the Afghan government, which massively depends on US aid and donations from the West, has been struggling to enforce its writ in the country. Major reasons behind an abject failure of efforts were the mighty Taliban.
Afghanistan is a strategically located, landlocked country in South Asia. It consists of rugged mountain ranges – most notable being the Hindu Kush – and is inhabited by people that are independent-minded, religious and traditions-bound. The geostrategic importance of Afghanistan arises out of its centuries-old position of a buffer state, long-coveted position of being a crossroads to Asia, vast untapped natural wealth, proximity to major nuclear powers and its potential of being an energy corridor for Asia, and the world at large.
1. A Buffer State
Historically, Afghanistan has been a buffer state; first between Tsarist Russia and Indian British Empire, then between the Soviet Union and US-sponsored military alliance known as Baghdad Pact (Central Treaty Organization), and today it is a buffer between fundamentalism and Western liberal democracies. This is due to this unique strategic position of Afghanistan that no Western imperial forces could occupy the country even though more than 85 percent of the Earth’s total landmass was colonized by them at the peak of the colonization wave.
2. Gateway to the Indian Subcontinent
Afghanistan, being the gateway to vast Indian riches, was seen by many great emperors as a coveted prize throughout the history. Alexander the Great termed Afghanistan as a stepping stone to India. Later on, Aryans, Ghaznavids, Ghoris and Mughals used Afghanistan as launching pad for their invasions of India through Khyber Pass. It is also pertinent to mention here that during World War One, the German empire decided to contact Amir of Afghanistan to fan insurgency in British India and it even sent a delegation with close collaboration of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey. It is widely believed that the Silk Letter Movement (Tehreek-e-Reshmi Rumal) – a movement organised by the Deobandi leaders between 1913 and 1920, aimed at freeing India from the British rule – was instigated by Turks and Germans. Nowadays, it is generally believed that the United States would continue to deploy its troops in Afghanistan so as to provide bases to its Central Command (CENTCOM) in order to pursue its strategic objectives like containment of China, surveillance to Pakistan’s nuclear installations and all-time availability of logistics in case a war breaks out between Iran and the United States.
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3. Natural Wealth
Afghanistan possesses abundant reserves of barite, chromate, coal, copper, iron ore, gold and other semi-precious minerals. As per a report, published in 2010, Afghanistan has untapped mineral resources worth US$1 trillion; so huge that they can sustain the Afghan economy for long.
4. Bridge that Connects the World
Afghanistan can provide the transit services between energy-starved South Asian countries and energy-rich Central Asian Republics (CARs) – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Potential significance of Afghanistan as energy corridor has increased its strategic importance and a lot of projects like TAPI and CASA 1000 are being executed and much more are in pipeline that can only be materialized if Afghanistan provides enabling political and security environment.
5. The Opium Threat
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer and exporter of opium (a major cash crop for Afghans having an annual export value of up to $3 billion) and heroin (a narcotic that is considered a hard drug). The drugs produced here are then trafficked largely to Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia using Iran as the transshipment point. Stopping the production of opium and drugs has proved such a colossal challenge that in spite of spending an amount of nearly $8.3 billion during its 17-year-long occupation of Afghanistan, the United States has failed to curb its production. An ever-increasing drug addiction in countries that fall in the drug trafficking networks compel the policymakers to pay attention to what is going on in Afghanistan. They have a great stake in successful anti-narcotics and anti-insurgency operations because, with its ability to ensure continuous supply of funds to the so-called militants, this menace plays a critical role in sustenance and resilience of militancy.
6. Battleground of Superpowers
This considerable geoeconomic and geostrategic importance of Afghanistan has increased stakes of regional and global powers in stability of the country. In this regard, the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan are using their diplomatic, economic and military muscles to bring peace and stability in a bid to secure their national and regional interests.
a. The United States
The United States attacked Afghanistan to deprive Al-Qaeda of any sanctuaries and safe havens. Now that it has spent more than $2.4 trillion in nation-building of the Afghan state, and is paying all of military budget of Afghan National Security Forces as well as 60 percent of the civilian budget, it has failed, by and large, to curb Taliban insurgency and eliminate the challenges posed by militants to the National Unity Government (NUG) of Afghanistan. The stated objectives US intends to further in Afghanistan are preventing the country from reemerging as a base for international terrorism and extremism, combating heroin production and keeping US bases as potential instruments against Iran, Russia and China.
Russia considers peace in Afghanistan vital to calm down its restive Muslim-majority region of Chechnya. It is worth mentioning here that the independence of Chechnya was recognized only by Taliban regime in the 1990s and they trained and supported Chechan fighters to wage Jihad against Russia. Resultantly, Russia suffered massively; the attacks on Nord Ost theatre and on a school at Beslan that caused the death of more than 400 people can be cited as example. Therefore, Russia is endeavouring to create consensus among all the stakeholders about the political setup in the much-feared post-US-withdrawal scenario to avoid the power void in Afghanistan that may plunge the nation to a cataclysmic civil war that would have serious ramifications for regional countries.
China is struggling with the secessionist movements in its western frontiers such as Xinjiang and the Tibetan region. One of the many militant outfits operating in Uighur-dominated area is East Turkestan Islamic Movement whose fighters often seek refuge in areas under Taliban’s control, much to the concern of China. China aspires to eliminate the threats to its sovereignty and urges all parties concerned to sort out the issues through dialogue. Besides security concerns, President Xi Jinping’s signature project “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) that fosters connectivity across the Eurasian landmass through development of inland and maritime transnational transportation networks cannot materialize unless Afghanistan assumes its historic role of linking Asia to Europe through CARs. For this to happen, bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan is inevitable and it is the objective for which China has launched a number of bilateral and trilateral mechanisms for peaceful conflict resolution among warring parties in the country.
Among all stakeholders, Pakistan is the one that would benefit massively from political stability in Afghanistan, and would be affected adversely if Afghans remain embroiled in bloody civil wars. Apart from hosting more than 3 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees, Pakistan has long been struggling to cope with the adverse impact of drug and Kalashnikov culture spread on its soil by Afghan refugees. In addition to refugee issue, Pakistan shares with Afghanistan a 2610-km-long largely porous border that is straddled by Pashtun tribes which share common ancestry and culture. In this background, the intelligence, military and political influence on both sides of the Durand Line is essential to maintaining law and order on our side.
To achieve this objective, the military establishment of Pakistan has always maintained close intelligence and diplomatic ties with Pashtun-dominated Afghan Taliban with an aim to placate the Pashtun community. Although our security establishment may abandon the doctrine of Strategic Depth, we cannot afford a hostile regime on our western border. Establishment of a pro-Pakistan or a neutral regime is our strategic requirement as the rule of Hamid Karzai-led Northern Alliance provided sanctuaries to anti-Pakistan militants and allowed metastasis of Indian consulates along the Af-Pak border from where flames of extremism and terrorism in tribal belt of Pakistan were fanned. Now that the Pakistani security forces have successfully eliminated the physical and ideological infrastructure of militants and have restored peace to a large extent, we cannot allow the resurrection of militancy supported by a pro-India government in Kabul. Moreover, Pakistan is finalizing many projects with Central Asian Republics, e.g. TAPI and CASA 1000, to name a few, the execution of which is impossible sans a complete support by Afghan government as well as other militant groups. Therefore, Pakistan would continue to maintain close links with Taliban as leverage to checkmate Indian influence there.
e. Iran and India
Both India and Iran fear a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, out of their sectarian and geostrategic considerations. Afghanistan hosts dozens of ethnic minorities out of which Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras wield considerable influence in country’s political as well as military circles. Even the establishment of the NUG in 2014 was a power-sharing between ethnic communities: Pashtun-supported Ashraf Ghani was made President and Tajik-backed Abdullah Abdullah was compensated with the newly-created office of the Chief Executive. Hazaras are predominantly Shia and have remained the targets of Taliban and ISIS. The community always looks to Iran for support and gets enthusiastic response even it went to the extent of waging war against Taliban regime in 1998 – to protect Hazara community. The security of Hazaras in post-US withdrawal scenario is a major cause of concern for Iran’s top political and spiritual leadership. The invincibility of pro-Pakistan Taliban has always scared India that would definitely loathe the Taliban’s ascent to power in Kabul. India is also executing different projects to import oil and gas from CARs through Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is widely alleged by the latter of operating clandestine terrorist networks to destabilize its FATA and adjoining areas. India, Iran and Afghanistan are also building Chabahar Port in Iran to decrease Afghanistan’s dependency over Karachi port, and to downplay the strategic Gwadar port.
Efforts to Bring Peace
It is due to these vital stakes of regional powers in Afghanistan that a flurry of diplomatic efforts is being made to hold a dialogue with the Taliban in order to carve out peaceful solution to the Afghan imbroglio. The United States, Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran are putting in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral efforts to end the 17-year-old bloodbath and conflict in Afghanistan through a politically negotiated settlement. Out of all bilateral approaches, Pakistan’s outreach to Taliban seems more result-oriented and productive as far as the mutual trust of both parties is concerned. In past, Pakistan worked with Qataris, Russians and Chinese to hammer out peaceful settlement of the issues, earning thereby global recognition for its multiple peace initiatives. The latest one is the facilitation of a direct meeting between the Taliban representatives and US officials in Abu Dhabi in mid December 2018, in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s letter to Pakistani premier Imran Khan. It is widely believed that Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw half the US troops stationed in Afghanistan is a confidence-building measure, intended to gain Taliban’s trust in the meaningfulness of the dialogue process. Pakistan has also engaged Turkey in Afghan peace process and a summit would be held in Istanbul during current year. In last year, Pakistan started close collaboration with Afghan government under the framework of APAPPS (Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity) to formalize cooperation in peace and negotiation, war against terrorism, intelligence sharing, refugees’ repatriation and joint supervision of border areas. Side by side Pakistan, Russia also launched Moscow Format to offer multilateral platform to regional stakeholders. The latest summit invited, for the first time, Taliban and it elevated their standing in international arena. Indian participation was a turning point as by attending the summit, it acknowledged Taliban as potential power-sharing force in future scheme of political arrangement. China is also flexing its diplomatic muscles to sort the Afghanistan imbroglio out under the Foreign Ministerial Dialogue process and two meetings have been arranged to discuss the issue trilaterally and the third would be held in Islamabad soon.
Stability in Afghanistan is prerequisite for regional and global security. The recent developments have rekindled the hope that regional approach would yield productive outcomes and decades-old bloodbath would be replaced with peace, stability and prosperity for the people of Afghanistan.