Print Edition - 2013-07-28  |  Free the Words

Endgame Afghanistan

- Zulfiqar Shah
Endgame Afghanistan

Jul 27, 2013-

The largest and most diverse military movement in the globe after World War II will come to an end this year in Afghanistan. Unlike the messy world wars of the last century, the conclusion of this mini world war against proxy war-making groups promises neither sustained stability in South Central Asia nor offers a by-product similar to the League of Nations that emerged after World War I. Amid the well-received news in Afghanistan regarding the quitting of international forces, Afghans and neighbouring countries are still uncertain about the Afghan endgame.    

Strategic centre

Why is Afghanistan so important that attempts have been made to capture it for the last couple of centuries? It seems that the world has reached the conclusion that whoever rules Afghanistan will rule the world. In 2012, a Chinese company outbid a Russian company for the biggest copper reservoirs in the world in the Lugar province of Afghanistan. Consequently, a friendly race between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of the former Soviet Union states began. Similarly, the conflict between Pakistan and India has been the central point of the Afghan drama in which Pakistan used the ‘strategic tool’ of the Taliban in an attempt to undertake a major neighbouring role in the post-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) scene.

Meanwhile, Iran has kept its unnamed relations with the US in the Afghan context using its Persian demographic presence. China and the US have never been on the same page whenever the issue of the Red Army’s engagement arises; however, the Chinese have never stepped back while economic engagements as well as benefits are still central. Many players like Turkey, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been yearning for their roles too, no matter how low profile they may be. The contest over neighbourly engagement claims are between Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. The three, besides sharing borders, also share an ethno-linguistic demography with Afghanistan.  

Global failure

The failure in the costliest war of our times is mainly due to competing interests amid strategies that are alien to the ground realities of warfare as well as state building. All the major stakeholders have their own interests, issues and limits in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been at the core of Afghanistan's war troubles. Its notion to install a Pakistan-friendly Pashtun government in Kabul created a battlefield of an entirely different nature in the broader strategic arena of the war game. The Taliban were a major factor behind the destabilising war in Afghanistan and consequently invited counter proxy wars from the other side. Besides, Pakistan has played a minimal role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. On the other hand, India has used its soft power in Afghanistan by avoiding a military presence like China and Iran. Besides, it has played a vital role in infrastructure development, strengthening of democratic institutions and human resources enhancement.

   Furthermore, the Taliban phenomenon is deeply rooted in the matrix of the India-Afghanistan foreign policy of Pakistan. Statecraft in Pakistan is dominated by an ethnic Punjabi majority; and the invasion of Afghanistan was an old Punjabi dream of Raja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) who captured Peshawar from Afghanistan in 1818. Peshawar is now capital of the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa. Contemporary Pakistan's Afghan policy is based on the issue of the Durand Line which it wants Afghanistan to officially recognise as an international border. Besides, Pakistan wants a Pashtun-dominated government in Kabul to minimise the Indian, Iranian, Tajik, Russian and US roles there, especially the Northern Alliance. Pakistan has attempted to regain its centrality regarding Afghanistan; however, India has attained strategic superiority by establishing its first foreign  airbase in Farkhor, Tajikistan and supporting electricity transfer to Afghanistan and road construction to Post Abbas in Iran.    

China’s internal security interests in Afghanistan are peace and political stability. While maintaining a low profile, China has professed support for an “Afghan-led and owned peace process” and reconciliation for sustainable sovereignty. China has also rendered infrastructure support. Meanwhile, Russia has been tactically supporting the ISAF by opening its territory for non-lethal supply to NATO, sharing intelligence and providing financial support. Russia, along with the Central Asian States (CAS), considers Afghanistan directly proportionate to their internal security regarding narcotics smuggling as well as the infiltration of Islamist terrorists. Besides, the landlocked CAS can only access the warm waters of the Persian Gulf via Afghanistan from either Port Abbas in Iran or Karachi and Guwadar in Pakistan.

The US position is the most important which envisions an economically integrated Central South Asian region where Afghanistan plays a central role. This is the point where engagement with or without the Taliban is the only option. On the southern borders of Afghanistan, Iran has remained on the edges. The Taliban, who follow the Salafi school of Saudian Islam, does not ideologically suit Iran. Besides, Iran's traditional Arab rivals have supported them. There are still possibilities of Iran’s cooperation with the US in Afghanistan; however, Iran has serious security concerns over US military bases in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif.   


The international community has always underestimated the Afghani capacity for governance, and international forces have either been reluctant or extraordinarily slow in their capacity building and transferring of authority before 2014. Meanwhile, transparent, free and fair elections in Afghanistan are another issue of contention. Besides, the ethnic composition of the state apparatus in Afghanistan has not been inclusive. Today, the structural and institutional framework and the development of Afghan national governance is a matter of high importance along with transparency in governance. Besides, local governance would be the only way for the Afghan people to defend themselves from instability and rogue elements.     

The most important issue is the federal structure of Afghanistan. Until a highly inclusive federal structure with proportionate inclusion of ethnic groups is made possible, there will be no full stop to civil wars. The UN along with other stakeholders should play a vital role in this regard. Afghanistan is still on a razor edge with various possible scenarios of post-ISAF sustenance including a Taliban partnership, Taliban takeover of Kabul or the shirked rite of Kabul over the country. Three factors are highly important. They are global support for the Afghan government in comparison with the Taliban, the role of a secular Afghan majority in the state field, and logically debasing the Taliban’s anti-foreign sentiments after the ISAF's withdrawal.

Shah is a research scholar affiliated with Tribhuvan University and Institute of Advanced Studies in Education Deemed University, India

Published: 28-07-2013 11:54

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