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Why Peace Process In Afghanistan Will Be A Complicated Exercise – Analysis


The Trump administration must be looking for breakthroughs in the peace process in Afghanistan as is evidenced by its opening up space for direct talks with the Taliban in attempt to end the American long-drawn entanglement. President Trump wants to see the number of US troops in Afghanistan reduced by half. Meanwhile, the momentum of peace talks to end the prolonged Afghan conflict has been impeded recently with the Afghan Taliban abruptly canceling a scheduled meeting with US officials in Qatar on the grounds of “agenda disagreement”.

The peace process may be complicated viewed from a geopolitical perspective as it is neither Washington nor the Taliban which will be able decide the future of Afghanistan independent of other actors that have their respective geopolitical concerns in the country. Unless their concerns are mitigated, the peace process would become elusive. They may sabotage peace either by strengthening the Taliban to the point of making irreconcilable demands or they may try to destabilize Afghanistan through other measures.

Viewing from a geopolitical perspective, Afghanistan, as a gateway to the landlocked Central Asian region with abundant reserves of natural resources, witnessed a steady rise of influence among regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and China later as they began to carve out independent roles for themselves in the absence of the Cold War constraints such as alliance or ideological commitments. Nevertheless, regional influence of these powers was placed very often at odds with the global influence of the US.

Russia while enjoyed overriding influence in Central Asia- its strategic backyard-due to its monopoly over oil supplies, it remained apprehensive of American efforts at forging close strategic ties with the states of the region from the beginning as part of the ‘War on Terror’. The Bush administration’s policy of diversification of oil supplies by laying down alternative pipelines and military presence in its strategic backyard in the wake of ‘War on Terror’ were viewed with suspicion in Moscow.

In response to the American military bases in different parts of Central Asia, Russia established its own bases with very limited direct contacts between them. Russia’s overriding influence due to its monopoly over oil supplies prompted the Central Asian states to agree to strengthen Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as an alternative to NATO. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said on the 10th anniversary of the CSTO that the leaders of the organization had unanimously agreed that countries outside the regional security bloc would only be able to establish military bases on the territory of a member-state with the consent of all member-states.

Russia, although, did not object to several new transit corridors laid down by the US to deliver goods to its forces in Afghanistan (the routes are collectively termed the Northern Distribution Network) in principle, yet it viewed them skeptically and emphasized that these must not be used to transfer lethal goods. While Russia was earlier lending support to the Northern Alliance (a group led by Tajik and Uzbek warlords) to strengthen its Afghan role, as the group began to fragment Russia allegedly channelized its support towards the Taliban as hedge against growing American influence in the region – an allegation that Russia kept denying.

The US State Department officials, however, expressed their concerns over Russia’s failure to work with the US in Afghanistan and US military officials on ground have not hesitated to accuse Russia of providing arms to and sharing sensitive intelligence with the Afghan Taliban.

Contrary to US statistics on the size of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan which ranged from 1500 to 2000, Russian intelligence pointed to an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters.

There were a series of trilateral meetings between Pakistan, Russia and China primarily aimed at combating the ISIS threat. In one of the trilateral meetings in Moscow they agreed to remove certain Taliban figures from the US sanctions list.

Meanwhile, Islamabad hosted a meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to beef up counter-terrorism efforts aimed at the threat posed by ISIS.

These states although have divergent geopolitical objectives, they seem to share a common interest in propping up the Taliban as a political stakeholder to undercut American influence in the region. Iran, as another regional power with significant stakes in Afghanistan, took concerted efforts at enhancing its connectivity with the Central Asian region using western Afghanistan as a bridge.  It pushed for the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline to supply Central Asian energy resources from the Caspian Sea region to the world market while the US pursued its plan for an alternative pipeline – Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline to undercut Iranian influence in the region which spurred the geopolitical struggle between the two powers. To counter American influence in the region, it was vociferous in stating its opposition from the beginning of ‘War on Terror’ to any arrangement that would allow the US to position itself firmly in Afghanistan with which it shares a 936-kilometre-long border.

Much of the Iranian aid to Afghanistan was spent on infrastructure projects mainly with the objectives of establishing transportation links between Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Apart from its support for Shiite religious groups, Iran has allegedly stepped up its efforts to train, arm and aid the Afghan Taliban in a bid to bring more instability in Afghanistan with the objective of building more pressure on the American government forcing it to roll back its policy of containment, allow it a larger role in Afghanistan and abandon its plan for laying down alternative pipeline route.

From an Indian perspective, Pakistani actions suggest that it has been pursuing proactive policies towards Afghanistan to secure a pliable government in Kabul to acquire military depth against New Delhi by overcoming the limitations of its small size as well as enabling it to forge a common strategic front. Its actions also point to its persistent interests in expanding its sway into the Central Asian region to acquire economic depth against India using Afghanistan as a bridge. Pakistan used the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965 by denying overland route to India to supply goods to Afghanistan let alone Central Asia which has been construed as Islamabad’s attempts at gaining economic depth versus New Delhi.

Since 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly continued to warn that his government would close Pakistan’s transit route to Central Asia if Afghanistan’s entrepreneurs were not allowed to trade with India through the Wagah border crossing.

Islamabad’s geopolitical interest in the Central Asian region was expressed soon after the states of the Central Asian region emerged as independent republics and the government of Benazir Bhutto, under its Interior Minister General Naseerullah Babur initiated steps at utilizing the Taliban in an effort to bring stability to southern and eastern Afghanistan and open routes and trade links to different resource rich Central Asian states.

Pakistan has been accused of lending continuous support to the Afghan Taliban to promote its own interests even while it was engaged in the Afghan peace process and assisted in the American effort of taking on terrorism so long as these did not impede Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.

China has enhanced its stakes in Afghanistan by pouring investment into the development of natural resources as well as expressed its willingness to extend China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the country along with Pakistan. Beijing would see American initiatives in this context.

In order to contain Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, India tried to strengthen relationship with each of the Central Asian states and with Iran. it supported the Northern Alliance  as an antidote to the Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan. However, with the rising influence of the Taliban, India’s dependence on the US has increased manifold. Pakistan, meanwhile, kept on alleging India’s involvement in fomenting insurgency in Baluchistan to weaken Pakistan and undercutting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan by enhancing diplomatic presence, using its intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and anti-Pakistani elements to undercut Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

India to enhance connectivity with the Central Asian region joined with the Iranian effort in developing Chabahar port and building connecting roads. The Trump administration’s decision to roll back nuclear deal with Iran led the Iranian leaders to accuse India-a strategic partner of US-of failing from its commitment to develop the Chabahar port. A geopolitical perspective on the Afghan issue points to the fact that all these countries have significant stakes in Afghanistan and the peace process in order to reap results must aim at addressing their concerns.

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Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

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