Great Games: Afghanistan’s Interlopers
Afghanistan is in the centre of the world. It sits between the Middle East and East Asia, between the cold north and the warm populous south. It has been the seat of empires and exploited by them. It is also a historical troublemaker, harassing more settled societies nearby before retreating into the natural fortress of its geography. It has defeated many occupying powers, including Alexanderâs Macedonians, Victoriaâs Britons and Brezhnevâs Russians. Afghanistanâs future affects the whole world, and so there is huge international interest in Afghanistan. In this article we will look at the foreign powers involved in the struggle for Afghanistanâs future.
Neighbours: Iran and the Stans.
Iranâs history and culture are inextricably interlinked with that of Afghanistan. They share many language and ethnic groups, and Iranian and Afghan borders have ebbed and flowed between the pair of them many times over the centuries. However Iranâs main concern with Afghanistan is more modern: bordering Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east, the Islamic Republic is technically flanked by the US backed governments of Ashraf Ghani in Kabul and Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad. The US could launch airstrikes from Afghanistan like Israel did in 1981 if they are dissatisfied with Iranâs nuclear progress. Trumpâs bellicose words in this regard will not be a comfort. However, this has not translated to support for the Taliban.
Afghanistan is largely Sunni, as are the Taliban. It has a c.10% Shia minority. The Taliban target Shia Muslims and receive covert backing from Saudi Arabians. Saudi Arabia is Iranâs great geopolitical rival in the Middle East. Iran must therefore attempt to influence Ashraf Ghaniâs government in the hope of securing a speedy American withdrawal and a peaceful eastern border. A strong Kabul government would also prevent refugees entering Iran, and would work to counter the opium trade, the product of which kills many Iranians.
Afghanistan is not the only country with an Islamist insurgency. Uzbekistan is afflicted by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is allied with the Taliban, and makes use of safe havens in Taliban-controlled parts of northern Afghanistan. Afghanistanâs instability is Uzbekistanâs chief security concern but the Tashkent remains wary of becoming too involved in its southern neighbour, focusing mainly on development projects between the two countries.
Uzbekistanâs limited involvement in the Afghanistan war includes its role as the final stop before Afghanistan for NATOâs Northern Distribution Network, stretching from Latvia via Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has to an extent softened relations between the West and Tashkent.
The vice president of Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is ethnically Uzbek. Dostum and Uzbekistanâs former president Islam Karimov were close. Afghanistan is home to two million Uzbeks, from whom Dostum draws his support. Dostum is currently under political pressure after violently attacking and abducting a political rival (he has withdrawn to Turkey), and has a large personal army under his command. Should violence break out, and Afghan Uzbeks begin to suffer, Uzbekistan may feel compelled to intervene one way or another.
Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistanâs Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces, both of which are partially controlled by the Taliban (notoriously the Taliban captured the provincial capital of Kunduz, Kunduz City, in late 2015). Fighting in Afghanistan can be heard in Tajikistan. Like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan there are large numbers of ethnic Tajiks in Afghanistan (Tajiks are the second most numerous group after Pashtuns), giving Dushanbe reason and ability to influence events in Afghanistan.
Another reason Tajikistan might affect Afghanistanâs future is that it hosts Russiaâs largest military base not on Russian soil. The Russian army is helping the Tajiks defend their border. It is not inconceivable that the Taliban and Russian soldiers could come to blows if one party or the other makes a navigation error on the frontier, something which could drastically complicate the situation.
Turkmenistanâs main concern with Afghanistan is the TAPI pipeline. TAPI stands for Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. Turkmenistan is blessed with the gargantuan Dauletabad gas field and it wants to sell its gas, especially to India. Unfortunately the parts of Afghanistan and Turkmenistanâs pipeline must cross to reach Pakistan, are in the north, where the Taliban holds a lot of territory. While Afghanistan remains unstable, TAPI cannot progress. Turkmenistan, therefore, has a vested interest in a peaceful Afghanistan.
There are rumours of violence on the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border, with Turkmenistani soldiers being killed. There are also rumours of Turkmenistan arming the Taliban, perhaps as a bribe to keep them away. Perhaps Turkmenistan is seeing an Afghan future involving the Taliban, and is hoping to maintain good relations for peace and TAPI.
With the exception of the occupying powers and the Afghans themselves, Pakistan is the country most involved in deciding Afghanistanâs future. Pakistanâs involvement in Afghanistan is two-faced. The government claims to be an ally of the US in denying the Taliban safe havens in eastern Pakistan. On the other hand it is a fairly open secret that elements of the Pakistani state sympathise with and support the Taliban.
What is motivating this dual strategy? Beside the ideological affinity with the Taliban that some Pakistani officers and politicians possess, Pakistan is involved in Afghanistan because of India. Pakistan is concerned with the problem of strategic depth. It is much smaller than India, meaning that in a war it can lose less territory than its subcontinental foe, giving it less room to manoeuvre. Pakistanâs strategic nightmare is Indian influence in Afghanistan, allowing the smaller country to be squeezed from both directions (this was also a concern during the 1980s, when Islamabad feared a Russian Afghanistan and a relatively pro-Moscow India surrounding it). An Islamabad-oriented Kabul would remove the problem. Failing this, pro-Islamabad Taliban on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would make an Afghan armyâs progress towards Pakistan in concert with India very difficult. It should be noted India has little to gain from an attack on Pakistan, with or without Afghanistan, thanks to Pakistanâs nuclear deterrent.
Waking Giants: India, China and Russia
India has much to gain from a stable Afghanistan. As discussed above, the TAPI pipeline would help fuel its growing economy. Its limited intervention to encourage this has amounted to several hundred million dollars in infrastructure projects and limited arms and training deals between the Indian and Afghan armies. Its restrained involvement is generally believed to stem from a desire not to provoke Pakistan unnecessarily, but we have seen this is unsuccessful.
Russia has a long history in Afghanistan, glancing covetously at it as a route through which it might break out of the cold north into the rich and populous south, and take advantage of land routes to invade India (a plan Napoleon hoped he and Tsar Alexander could complete together). There have been serious allegations made that the Kremlin is covertly supporting the Taliban with arms, with reasons for this including returning the favour the US paid the USSR when it sponsored the Mujahideen in the 1980s and a desire to stymie the flow of opium into Russia the product of which kills tens of thousands of Russians annually, and a belief that ISIS is a threat to the Russian Federation and that the Taliban will help contain the organisation in Central Asia. On the other hand the Taliban have allied with Chechen Islamists in the past, making any Kremlin deal unpalatable. Secondly, Putin has expressed a desire to play a larger role in the global War On Terror (largely as an excuse to prop up Assad). Working with the Taliban might not be worth the diplomatic fallout if the partnership was revealed.
Furthermore, Russia is already flanked on all sides, from Estonia and Japan, by US allies. The last thing the Kremlin wants is a stable and (relatively) powerful US-aligned Kabul facing Russiaâs rather badly behaved central Asian partners. Russiaâs proximity (we have already discussed its enormous military base in Tajikistan) means its influence cannot be discounted given the geopolitical thorn in its side a stable Afghanistan could become.
China is actually a neighbour of Afghanistan: a tendril, the Wakhan Corridor, in the east of Afghanistan just grazes Chinaâs wild west. Chinese military vehicles have been spotted in eastern Afghanistan, though it is not clear if Chinese military personnel were driving them. Chinaâs interest in Afghanistan is twofold. Firstly, China is facing its own Islamist security problem: the Muslim Uighurs are causing headaches for the Chinese state in Xinjiang province. The USA learned the danger of leaving Afghanistan to become a haven for its enemies, and China may have been taking notes. Groups operating from Afghanistan were able to attack the USA, thousands of miles away. Afghanistan and Chinaâs restive Xinjiang province share a border.
Secondly, China has recently announced concrete plans for its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. China is a country which is hemmed in, by wary South East Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand to the south, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and ultimately the US in the Far East India, Singapore and Australia in the Indian Ocean, and the bare steppes of Mongolia and Russia to the north. To feed its growing economy China is dependent on imports of raw material and exports of manufactured goods, so US allies and nearby countries concerned about the behaviour of their gargantuan neighbour could hamper Chinaâs sea trade. Therefore China is developing its overland trade routes, which will pass near or through Afghanistan. The same goes for its energy supplies: at present most of its energy comes by sea, meaning it is vulnerable. A more open Central Asia would allow pipelines and trade to flourish. Afghanistan sits in the heart of Central Asia like a clot, blocking this.
Graveyard of Empires: USA and NATO
The USA and its NATO partners have been involved in Afghanistan for 16 years. It is currently the USâs longest war and its second most expensive. One trillion dollars and hundreds of deaths have yet to buy America its victory. It can avoid defeat in Afghanistan as long as it is willing to prop up the ANSDF and the Afghan government, but victory remains elusive. The Taliban control large amounts of the country and the summer fighting season is about to begin. It seems likely Donald Trump will accept General John Nicholsonâs request for another âsurgeâ of American troops, if only to distract from his domestic problems (Trump presumably would not like to be the president who âlostâ the war in Afghanistan). The war was not an issue during the 2016 election and it seems likely to remain under-discussed, thanks to the prominence of the Syria-Iraq conflict. NATO is likely to go along with this: Trumpâs relative coolness towards the organisation, combined with the organisationâs dependence on US power, means a few hundred more European soldiers in Afghanistan is a small price to pay for continued American commitment in Europe.
Afghanistan remains important to many countries, but its history should make each one cautious about their ability to impose their will. Afghanistan as a country has a short but bloody history, and good relations with its neighbours is an excellent way to make its future better than its past. In the short term, the resurgent Taliban, the weakened government in Kabul and the distracted NATO allies suggest things will get worse before they get better, especially if other countries start to involve themselves too deeply, sparking a new Great Game of proxies, clients and murky conflict. This is the last thing Afghanistan needs, but a weak centre means proxies, clients and warlordism might be the only way for interested parties to get anything done, for example cutting off opium smuggling. For now, Afghanistan braces for the 2017 fighting season. As for the future, to quote a Gandamak elder, âthese are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be the Chineseâ.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-31451201 and https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/06/world/asia/saudi-arabia-afghanistan.html?_r=0
 Dalrymple, W., Return Of A King, p. 609
Report written by Brendan Clifford