Afghanistan and regional interests
By Salman J. Borhani
July 1, 2004
inception, the forbidding country has had to deal with a
harsh terrain, severe underdevelopment, great power meddling,
and incessant war. As a result, weak Afghani governments
have always been at the mercy of localized sources of power
and the intrigues of foreign governments. Afghanistan is
many things to many people. Because of its history of underdevelopment
and the decentralization of power structures, it has mostly
served as a playground for foreign power ambition.
2001 Bonn Agreement, setting a course for the new, post-Taliban
government, offered the nation a rare chance at optimism.
Yet, its success depended largely on the acquiescence and
prodding of the same regional powers that helped arm and
maintain the warring Afghan factions. These powers, temporarily
forsaking realist notions of zero-sum gain in Afghanistan,
forced a quick agreement to set up Hamid Karzai's interim
government. The purpose of this report is to prove the following:
the success and viability of the new government in Kabul depends
on regional actors believing that a stable Afghanistan is
in their interests. This determination is directly related
to the calculations of the two dominant regional actors in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
Each will have to decide whether to revert back to the realist
stances that helped tear apart Afghanistan,
adopt the theories of neoliberal institutionalism that would
seem to restrain ambition in order to develop a viable government
or to settle for balance of power approaches that would merely
continue today's unstable status quo. The constantly shifting
nature of exactly what the neighbor's interests are seem
to suggest that regional support for a stable Afghanistan
may be fleeting.
Ethnic Medley: Defining
very notion of Afghanistan is
a creation of the Anglo-Persian Treaty of 1801. It is of
no surprise then that the population of Afghanistan compromises
55 distinct ethnic groups that speak 45 different languages. It
is a state where every major ethnic group has special historical
and cultural ties to every neighboring state. Such relationships
are outlined in the appendix. Ethnic and cultural ties are
also geographically based, extending across every border
of this landlocked nation.
successive Afghani governments have been unable to assert
control over ethnic enclaves far from Kabul. Afghanistan's
unforgiving terrain is indeed a factor in the central government's
lack of institutional control. Yet,
the underlying reasons behind localization transcend transport
difficulties. What Anderson termed
as educational "pilgrimages" to a national center
and the development of "print nationalism" never
occurred in Afghanistan. Post-Taliban Afghanistan continues
to bear such characteristics, as even aid from foreign governments
is routed to regional centers based on historical ties. For
example, American aid has been flowing primarily to the mainly
Pashtun region of Kandahar region
for over 50 years, while Iran has
historically lavished funds on the Persian speaking Heart
primacy of localized institutions and the timidity of the
governments in Kabul retarded
the development of national institutions. Consistently throughout
Afghani history, local leaders wielded power by offering
basic services based on ethnic affinity. Invariably,
these local actors have had foreign powers as patrons. The
concept of Afghani national interests is thus often ignored
by localized power centers and self-interested foreigners.
have been made to exert an element of Afghani nationalism.
The most notable were various attempts by the ruling Pashtuns
to exert nationwide hegemony. Ruling through a historic grip
ruling elite, various governments have tried in vain to "Pashtunize" Afghan
efforts, however, have largely been met with derision by
the nation's sizable non-Pashtun minorities. The struggle
to define the Afghani has continued in current times, with
the Pashtun dominated Taliban's efforts to stamp out the
influence of the mainly Tajik Northern Alliance.
Interests of Afghanistan's
such an environment, filled with instability and rife with
mistrust, foreign forces are often welcomed as a way to gain
strategic advantage over rivals. Afghanistan's
neighbors have artfully used deficiencies in the country's
state structure for their own advantage. Although every neighbor
has a stake in the future of Afghanistan,
it is generally accepted that two wield the most direct influence: Pakistan and Iran.
Their influence on events in Afghanistan was
underlined by the intensive diplomatic attention given to
both nations before the toppling of the Taliban by American-led
understand these two countries' intentions, a careful analysis
of their historical actions must be taken into account.
long attempted to influence successive Afghani governments.
It served as the United
conduit for aide to mujahadin rebels fighting the Soviet
invasion. In fact, Pakistan was
instrumental in the creation and maintenance of the Pashtun
dominated Taliban through high-level commanders of the Inter-Service
Intelligence (ISI) agency. Strong
cultural ties between the Pashtun minority in Pakistan and
their brethren in Afghanistan serve
as a rallying point, especially in Pakistan's
Northwest frontier province. Additionally,
Pakistani sponsorship of Pashtu intentions fomented support
from Pakistani minorities for the struggle in Kashmir. Yet,
such high-level contacts between Islamabad and
forces in Afghanistan have
centered around two much more vital goals: strategic depth
and economic opportunity.
an Afghani Buffer
main challenge facing both Pakistan's
military and foreign policy apparatus is the conflict with India.
The long border with India and
the formidable size of the Indian plateau have always been Pakistan's
main worry. In the same vein, establishing friendly governments
in Kabul always
served as geo-political counterweights to India's
superior military power and inherent strategic depth. A boxed-in Pakistan feels
more at ease with an Afghani "backyard" it can
operate, covertly and overtly, out of. Considering the recent
strategic partnership established by Iran and India,
and the Central Asian states' predilection to counter the
Taliban, Pakistani unease may be warranted.
amity toward the Taliban never amounted to a shared ideology
or vision. The relationship was mostly based on Pakistani fears
of strategic encirclement by the Indians. Indeed,
Taliban control of Afghanistan created
a neighboring proxy that was willing to serve as a conduit
for Kashmir-bound militants. Furthermore,
Taliban control of Afghanistan kept
establishing a government tilted toward India.
The long-term strategic alliance between Islamabad and
Mullah Omar's fighters made Pakistan loathe
the establishment of any sort of broad-based government. Such
a government would by definition decrease Pakistan's
role in Afghanistan and
would serve to curtail the idea of a bulwark against a powerful India.
long-term goals include promoting the nation as the spigot
for Central Asian oil. Additionally, Pakistan's
leaders propound the importance of its long shoreline in
serving as an entry point for the world's goods that the
newly freed republics desperately seek. Laying claim to being Central
gateway is fraught with challenging competition. Next-door Iran,
with ports on the Persian
a developed transport system lacks something that Pakistan has:
an unstable land-locked barrier to Central
riches. Thus, Pakistan advocated
the rule of the Taliban in order to bring stability under
a friendly government and encourage the foreign investment
needed to pursue Pakistan's
influence in Afghanistan is
also based on historical ties and current strategic needs.
Policy makers in Tehran have
largely abandoned the idea of exporting political Islam in
favor of pursuing attainable nationalist goals abroad. The
most striking example of such Iranian foreign policy pragmatism
is evident in Afghanistan.
All out support for the Sunni groups that dominate the Northern
been based on historic ethnic and linguistic ties rather
than religious activism. Tehran's
long arm currently permeates the Herat area,
where Iranian businessmen and diplomats are a fixture on
the local scene. Iran's
interests in Afghanistan center
on creating a sphere of influence in the western half of
the country, encouraging the return of millions of Afghan
refugees, and stemming the tide of narcotics from Afghanistan's
Bringing Afghanistan inside
the Iranian orbit
presence of the Soviets to the north of Iran engendered
a sense of predictability for the Iranian regime. Accommodations
were reached with Moscow several
times and Tehran focused
its efforts on expanding its influence in the Persian
The swift collapse of communism brought a whole new set of
concerns for the Iranians and Afghanistan suddenly
became the key for the maintenance of Iran's
instability allowed easy penetration by Iran until
the fall of the Rabbani government. The rise of the anti-Shia
Taliban posed almost as grave a threat to Tehran as
Saddam Hussein's unpredictable rule. In
fact, Tehran saw
itself being encircled by enemies and thus stopping the Taliban
onslaught became the prime objective of Iranian foreign policy.
Back Afghan Refugees and Afghan Opium
average Iranian did not think about the geopolitical effect
of instability in neighboring Afghanistan.
She was much more worried about the perceived tide of Afghan
refugees flooding Iranian towns and cities as far away from
the border as Tehran.
By the late 1990's, in fact, Iran had
become host to a full 2 million Afghan immigrants and refugees. A
classic anti-immigration tide swelled and Iranian officials
came under increasing public pressure to do anything to reverse
the tide of Afghan immigration. The
Afghan immigrant became a symbol and scapegoat for every
socio-economic ill facing Iran.
This included the rising number of Iranian drug-addicts that
consumed enormous amounts of Afghani opium every year.
instability in Afghanistan created
unsustainable pressures on Iran and Tehran embarked
on a headfirst rush to end the Afghan war on its terms. It
curiously found itself on the right side of international
public opinion by demanding an end to the Taliban's rule
and the establishment of a broad-based government. Of course,
such a result was calculated to inevitably place more power
in Persian speaking minorities fighting Taliban rule.
effects of 9/11 through the lens of IR Theory
Although Pakistan and Iran,
along with six other regional and international powers, had
discussed Afghani issues for years at the United Nations' "6+2" contact
group, their interests were always at odds. Both
stood to gain immensely from peace in Kabul.
The problem lay in the distribution of power in a peaceful
post-war Afghanistan. Pakistan intensely
mistrusted the ethnic minorities that made up the Northern
backed by Russia and
the Central Asian states, vowed never to acknowledge a Taliban
government. Thus, realist notions of mistrust ruled the day,
as the level of anarchy in Afghanistan increased
seemingly concurrently with the increase of tensions between Islamabad and Tehran.
recent world event effected Afghanistan as
directly as September 11. Indeed, the event served as a catalyst,
some would say a wake-up call, to Afghanistan's
neighbors. In particular, Pakistan's
interests radically shifted under the heavy pressure exerted
by the United
Pakistani intelligence, quickly and quietly purged by Musharraf
of pro-Taliban forces, resumed intensive cooperation with Washington.
Musharraf justified the policy U-turn by claiming that it
was needed to prevent an Indian alliance with the United
American retribution against the Taliban was insured and
if Pakistan remained
recalcitrant, it would have been severely isolated between
anti-Taliban Iran and India.
also forced to make concessions in Afghanistan. Tehran gave
up hope of re-instating the friendly former Tajik dominated
government of Rabbani. In fact, Iran was
instrumental in pressuring Rabbani not to make claims on Kabul after
its fall to Northern
Alliance forces. Nevertheless, Iran's
interests lay in supporting the American offensive that was
set to unseat the Taliban. It actively participated in the
Bonn Agreement that brought Pashtun Karzai to power and even
donated a stunning $500 million to the fledgling government.
Actors and Their Motives In Bonn
cooperation between factions inside the country and between
regional actors in Bonn was
remarkable and a broad based, interim government was quickly
established. Bonn was
a result of a rare convergence of the interests of Pakistan, Iran,
and the United
establishing a representative government in Afghanistan.
However, the permanence of the agreements between the powers
influencing Afghanistan is
not guaranteed. In order to realize this, one must compare
the different rationales made for accommodating a solution
the Bonn Agreement because of a need to release itself from
the stigma of supporting the Taliban and therefore re-establishing
the trust of a wary ally in the United
Its decision saved Islamabad from
worldwide condemnation and blistering isolation. The Peshawar
Group of Afghan exiles was guaranteed a seat at Bonn in
order to calm Pakistani fears that the new government would
only heed the Northern
deal represented something less than Pakistan's
worst fears and Islamabad calculated
that the goodwill created by the abandonment of the Taliban
would be compensated by the resumption of superpower aid.
The Taliban regime may fail, but it is not realistic to think Pakistan will
give up support of ethnic Pashtuns.
encouraged the creation of the interim government because
it represented the best chance to do away with the hated
nemesis of the Taliban while offering a rare opportunity
in shaping a new, friendly government in Kabul.
It further aimed to halt the incessant flow of narcotics
that emanate from Afghanistan. Iran's
decision was also heavily influenced by reformers aiming
to present a responsible face to the international community,
albeit with considerable opposition from the fundamentalists. However,
if the Karzai government tilts toward ethnic Pashtuns or
if drug lords continue to be active in Afghanistan, Iran could
easily renege its support.
Afghan parties themselves accepted the deal because of a
combination of war-weariness and the sudden compulsion of
patron states to end the conflict immediately. It seemed
various warlords had learned that Afghanistan would
forever devolve into a perpetual state of backwardness if
peace were not to be established immediately. In any case,
without the will of friends abroad to sustain active warfare,
the rag-tag militias of the warlords could not continue to
fight. The American intervention represented for them a dramatic
opportunity to forsake the past and build anew.
may venture to say that the fall of the Taliban initially
encouraged a sort of neoliberal institutionalism in both Islamabad and Tehran.
Both capitals acknowledged the role of international organizations
in the establishment of the interim government. Indeed, the
very values of a broad-based Afghani government were chiseled
out during the secretive "6+2" meetings at the
United Nations. The
toppling of the Taliban was sanctioned by the United Nations
and other international organizations. Further, there has
been repeated three way diplomatic activity between Kabul, Tehran,
and Islamabad in
addition to coordination with the United
States and Great
various levels since the end of the war. Proponents of such
cooperation believe that such interactions could propel the
governments to resolve outstanding issues, which essentially
is at the core of neoliberal institutionalism.
cooperation between important players would seem to serve
to create stability in Afghanistan and
lay the groundwork for increased socio-economic development.
Yet, the cooperation that was evident in the early days after Bonn has
seemed to have slipped. Increasing tensions various warlords
and the inability of the central government to extend its
reach to the the provinces have borne a new reality: the
current situation in Afghanistan resembles
more a balance of power stalemate that has served to freeze
the development of civil society. Behind the veneer of cooperation
evident at Bonn,
both Iran and Pakistan have
continued to try to exert influence in their respective historic
sphere's of influence. Each attempt to exert power by a regional
actor has resulted in counterbalancing actions by the opposing
actor. The resultant balance of power in Afghanistan has
created two tectonic plates: a western Afghanistan sympathetic
to Iranian interests and an eastern Afghanistan with
continuing affinity toward Pakistan.
In the middle, both figuratively and literally, lies Karzai's
tenuous government. The strains that the balance of power
arrangement engenders have slowly become evident.
To The Stability Of The Karzai Government
ultimate fate of the Kabul government
lies in the hands of the various Afghani factions that sat
down together in Bonn.
One of the main goals of Bonn was
to reverse the tradition of de-centralization in Afghani
governance. This necessarily would depend on the cooperation
neighbors, especially Pakistan and Iran.
Although Bonn witnessed
the convergence of regional power interests, the underlying
reasons for meddling in Afghani affairs remained constant.
The geopolitical strains that both and Iran and Pakistan feared
did not change after Bonn.
Indeed, in certain ways, they have been exacerbated.
For A Return To Realism
in 2001 and 2003, saw the swift destruction of two mortal
enemies by American firepower: Baghdad's
Baathists and the Taliban. What many reformers in Tehran saw
as perfect opportunity to mend relations with Washington was
severely hampered by Bush's 2002 State of the Union speech. The
hard-line security establishment slowly asserted control
of Afghanistan policy
and some determined that the Americans were, in fact, using
proxies to surround Iran.
Thus, to at least part of the Iranian leadership, the administration
in Kabul began
to be seen as more of a threat to Tehran's
interests than a blessing. From the conservative leadership's
vantage point, Kabul has
again begun to be seen as the seat of a weak government
controlled by a hostile power.
sphere of influence around Heart was already in a particularly
precarious position, as both Pashtun leaders and U.S. officials
began to loudly complain about Iran by
early 2002. Iranian support of the Karzai government has
continued nevertheless. Yet, it is doubtful to last if Pashtun
leaders gain an upper hand in Kabul or
if the U.S. exerts
greater pressure on Iranian influence in western Afghanistan.
The situation would be further complicated by the new fundamentalist
parliament or a reformist loss in the 2005 presidential elections.
Hard-liners remain deeply suspicious of American involvement
in Afghanistan and
Karzai's intentions in particular. Thus, the final incarnation
of Tehran's Afghanistan policy
is intricately tied to the domestic struggle between reformists
and extremists in Iran.
only consolidation to losing its power in Afghanistan stands
in the renewal of Washington's
considerable aid package. Its
long sought strategic depth was lost and Pakistani recoiled
in horror as India quickly
opened a diplomatic mission in Kabul.
Additionally, Pakistan may
find it difficult to substantially support the Karzai government
without undercutting the cause in Kashmir. The
Pashtuns of Pakistan, who are enthusiastic supporters of
Kashmiri interests, are concentrated in the unwieldy Northwest
Frontier province. They have increasingly turned against
Musharraf's military government. The first free Musharraf
era elections in 2002 resulted in the takeover of local government
in the northwest by Pashtun extremists. Their
influence on future national elections could easily reverse
the sacrifices and commitments made in Bonn. Musharraf's
government remains highly unstable and a coup or a popular
revolution are not out of the question.
Both Pakistan and Iran feel
somewhat threatened by the new realities of post-Taliban Afghanistan. The
current impasse that Pakistan and Iran face
in Afghanistan can
be described as a sort of de facto security regime based
upon a degree of implicit trust between Islamabad and Tehran.
The biggest threat to such an arrangement is the possibility
of one of the sides engaging in "cheating" behavior.
In fact, cheating is regarded as the greatest threat to neo-liberal
cooperation. Cheating is allowed to take place in the presence
of anarchy, or the lack of organizations to enforce rules
against cheating. Afghanistan,
with a weak central government that effectively rules only
the capital city, where international peacekeepers are hesitant
to leave Kabul,
whose borders are porous, and where security still depends
on virtual fiefdoms spread across a fractured landscape barely
resembles a nation-state. As in the past 300 years, its does
not have any type of institutional structures to prevent
cheating on any kind of security arrangement. Thus, the peace
in Afghanistan depends
largely on the dwindling attention span of the United
the benevolence of increasingly worried leaders in Pakistan and Iran.
Of A Possible Implosion
is no doubt among observers that Afghanistan is
a far safer place today than any time in its recent history.
The country has established a semblance of relative peace
and the Afghani population is slowly embarking on the difficult
task of reconstruction. Yet, the line between recovery and
implosion is extremely narrow. Even though the nation's various
warlords have presumably put down their weapons and donned
politician's suits, the very essence of Afghani society has
not changed. Afghanistan is
still plagued by a weak center, rival ethnic groups with
a history of deep-rooted conflict, and the potential to become
the target of neighboring states' security ambitions.
signs of discordance have gradually resurfaced. The 2002
murder of Abdul Rahman, the minister of tourism and civil
aviation, dealt a huge blow to the new government in Kabul. Matters
were made worse several months later when bomb blasts went
off in Kabul and
when Karzai himself was nearly assassinated in Kandahar. The
events showed that powerful forces were willing to use violent
means to attack the central government, even with U.S. troops
on the ground. The political vacuum in the countryside, meanwhile,
has allowed the same warlords that planned peace in Bonn to
adopt independent policies from Kabul.
the government itself, rivalries have emerged between Tajik
General Fahim (the defense minister) and Pashtun Karzai. Fahim's
Jamiat Islami party is desperately trying to keep a hold of
the new national army while courting Russian aid. Ismail
Khan, in Herat,
continues to sign economic deals with Iran and
has a somewhat circumspect relationship with Kabul. All
the while, regional leaders maintain private standing armies
with tens of thousands of soldiers that do not answer to Kabul. The
nation has not fallen off the precipice yet, but there seem
to be enough actors that would love to give it a good shove.
long as the status quo remains, regional powers will have
the opportunity to directly influence what goes on in Afghanistan. Bonn did
not end regional power meddling in Afghanistan.
It still exists in a sort of benign, suspended state. Neither
did Bonn eliminate
the localized nature of Afghan governance. The provinces
radiating around Kabul are
still vulnerable to the will of Afghanistan's
neighbors. Yet, interests shift and, as was evident during
the fall of the Taliban, they may shift very quickly.
recent history has shown that when regional actors determine
that stability in Afghanistan is
not in their interests, they can easily orchestrate events
on the ground through allied parties not under the control
The success of governance in Afghanistan depends
directly on Kabul's
ability to project power throughout the country. True independence
for Afghanis can only be accomplished by the neutralization
of power in the periphery and the denial of regional access
to these peripheral powers.
J. Borhani has a master's degree from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy
and International Relations and is currently studying law in
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