Unstable convergence

An Introduction

          Since Afghanistan 's 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.

The 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 in Afghanistan , 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.    

Afghanistan 's Ethnic Medley:  Defining a Center

          The 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.     

          Historically, 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 . 

The 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.

Efforts 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 on Afghanistan 's ruling elite, various governments have tried in vain to “Pashtunize” Afghan society. Their 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 .

The Interests of Afghanistan 's Neighbors

In 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 forces.  To understand these two countries' intentions, a careful analysis of their historical actions must be taken into account.


          Islamabad has long attempted to influence successive Afghani governments. It served as the United States ' 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.   Yet, such high-level contacts between Islamabad and forces in Afghanistan have centered around two much more vital goals: strategic depth and economic opportunity.

Creating an Afghani Buffer

          The 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.

Thus Islamabad 's 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.  Furthermore, Taliban control of Afghanistan kept the Northern Alliance from 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 .

Pipelines and Markets

          Pakistan 's 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 Asia 's gateway is fraught with challenging competition. Next-door Iran , with ports on the Persian Gulf and a developed transport system lacks something that Pakistan has: an unstable land-locked barrier to Central Asia 's 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 trade ambitions.


          Iranian 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. 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 poppy fields.

Bringing Afghanistan inside the Iranian orbit

          The 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 Gulf region. 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 security doctrine.

          Afghanistan '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.

Sending Back Afghan Refugees and Afghan Opium

          The 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. 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.

          Thus, 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.

The 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 Alliance . Iran , 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 .

          No 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 States . 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 States . Indeed, American retribution against the Taliban was insured and if Pakistan remained recalcitrant, it would have been severely isolated between anti-Taliban Iran and India .

          Iran was 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.


Regional Actors and Their Motives In Bonn

          The 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 States in 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 in Bonn .  

Pakistan supported 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 States . 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 Alliance 's orders. The 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.

Iran actively 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.

The 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.

We 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 Britain at 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.

Such 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.    

Threats To The Stability Of The Karzai Government

 The 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 of Afghanistan 's 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.

Ingredients For A Return To Realism

Iran , 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.

Iran 's 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 .

          Pakistan 's only consolidation to losing its power in Afghanistan stands in the renewal of Washington 's considerable aid package.

          Additionally, Pakistan may find it difficult to substantially support the Karzai government without undercutting the cause in Kashmir .

          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 States and the benevolence of increasingly worried leaders in Pakistan and Iran .

Hints Of A Possible Implosion

          There 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.

          Ominous 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 .  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 .

Within 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. 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.


As 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.

Afghanistan 's 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 of Kabul . 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. 


Salman J. Borhani has a master's degree from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations and is currently studying law in California.  



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