Endgame for Afghanistan

Last month an extraordinary diplomatic development occurred in Rome with the potential to seed a long-term solution for Afghanistan’s security and stability.

By Sreeram Chaulia (Geopolitics)

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Published: Tue 23 Nov 2010, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:29 AM

For the first time, the government of Iran sent a special representative to a multinational forum on transition of power to the Afghan government, ahead of the impending drawdown of NATO troops from mid-2011.

Given the long chill in US-Iranian relations, the welcome for the Iranian representative from the US and Europeans grabbed attention. The American delegate declared ambivalently that he had “no problem with their presence so far,” while the German chairperson remarked that having Iran at the table is “good news” and “proves that we are on the right track.” For interested regional parties like Iran, India and Russia, the challenge is to forge common ground to ensure that the fledgling Afghan state does not fall back into internal chaos or become a playground for machinations of neighbouring states with a pedigree of weaponising Islamist fundamentalism.

By virtue of geographical location – as well as historical, cultural and political influence, Iran is an indispensable power for securing an Afghanistan that remains free from domination of any single regional power such as Pakistan. Iran has a fervent anti-Taleban and anti–Al Qaeda posture because these two movements appeal to Sunni zealotry and threaten Iran’s control over its southeastern Sunni majority province, Sistan-e-Balochistan. Abdolmalek Rigi, the executed former leader of Jundullah, a secretive Sunni terrorist outfit trying to overthrow Iranian rule in Sistan, sought joint training and assistance from the Taleban and Al Qaeda. He was a product of Pakistan’s Binoria seminary in Karachi, a hotbed of jihadi elements from around the world and notorious as the school of the Taleban.

The haze around Iran’s nuclear programme and its tussle with the US has somewhat clouded memories of Tehran’s pragmatic cooperation with Washington in 2001 to unseat the Taleban after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Notwithstanding Iran’s subsequent decrying of the US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran found the American-initiated ousters of Saddam Hussein on its western frontier and of the Taleban on its eastern frontier strategically advantageous.

The still violent conditions in Sistan province imply that Iran and the United States have a common interest in an Afghanistan where the Taleban should not once again become de facto authorities. Washington’s mildly encouraging response to Iranian presence at the Rome confabulations is tacit recognition of this confluence.

India’s involvement in Afghanistan is similar in logic to that of Iran. Although India and Afghanistan are non-contiguous and separated by the breadth of Pakistan, the fungible relationships among Pakistan’s military intelligence complex, Kashmir-oriented Punjabi terrorist organisations and the Afghan Taleban have meant that the war in Afghanistan has had a direct blowback effect on New Delhi’s determination to hold on to the portion of Kashmir it has administered since 1947.

India happens to be the second largest development aid donor in Afghanistan after the US, a reflection of New Delhi’s conviction that strengthening the current Afghan state apparatus through capacity building is a step towards weakening the chances of a full-fledged Taleban comeback in Kabul.

Western anxiety that an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, starting next year, will leave the country to the whims of the Taleban and Al Qaeda is an existential threat not only to Iran and India but also to Russia because of its proximity to the war zone and its own history of confronting Islamist separatism in the Caucasus.

Over the years, Moscow has found that Islamist guerrillas in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan have depended on men and materials from the ranks of the Taleban and Al Qaeda. Sensing this sinister nexus, Russia has set aside its characteristic suspicion of NATO encroachment and permitted land transit through its territory for food and fuel supplies reaching Western troops fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan. Moscow has also hosted a “regional cooperation” meeting in Sochi in August, bringing together the presidents of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, as a move towards reinserting Russia into the likely vacuum that would emerge once the Americans begin a pullback from Afghanistan.

Theoretically speaking, Pakistan should be in the same boat as Iran, India and Russia in wanting a neutral Afghanistan where influences of all regional actors are roughly balanced so that cross-border jihadi furies do not tear apart Pakistan’s already-frayed security. But the military establishment in Rawalpindi has sadly pursued a scenario of Pakistan’s monopoly over Afghanistan’s fate after the American military footprint is downsized.

Revelations that NATO forces are escorting senior Taleban leaders for secret reconciliation talks with the Hamid Karzai government without the imprimatur of Pakistan show that Washington is not sanguine about Islamabad’s schemes to dominate a post-US Afghanistan. Pakistan scuppered previous behind-the-scenes rapprochement efforts within Afghanistan through untimely arrests of Taleban negotiators or by dangling Islamabad’s own Afghan assets to the Americans as more reliable interlocutors.

China is a potential regional problem-solver, which should, on paper, prefer a concordat with Iran, India and Russia to guarantee a safe transition to the Afghan state and society once US President Barack Obama begins pulling troops. But the strategic alliance between Beijing and Islamabad suggests close coordination of their policies on Afghanistan’s eventual political makeup.

China has often relied on implicit guarantees from Pakistan to ensure that jihadi elements do not endanger Beijing’s control over restive Xinjiang. China is likely to defer to Pakistani designs over a post-American Afghanistan on a quid pro quo basis. In the process of letting Pakistan set China’s policy towards Afghanistan, Beijing would buttress its old strategy of containing expansion of Indian influence in the region.

Since Pakistani and Chinese interests lie in restoration of Taleban rule, it’s up to Iran, India and Russia – states with convergent interests about a peaceful, unified Afghanistan – to brainstorm as a smaller group about converting their visions into reality. Large multilateral forums like the one in Rome show promise of spinning off into coherent caucuses of fewer likeminded states. A Moscow-Delhi-Tehran axis to prevent Afghanistan’s capture by a single neighbour could materialise – if the US visualises that such a formation can provide safe and dignified exit from its longest overseas war commitment.

An informal alliance of Russia, Iran and India can be scuppered by the domestic anti-Iranian lobby in the US, which muddies the waters with scare stories of alleged plots and funds from Tehran aimed at weakening the American hold in Afghanistan. Incredulous claims that Iran is financing or arming the Taleban also circulate, quoting anonymous sources. Should the Obama administration overcome these confounding voices and unequivocally endorse Iran’s role in a final settlement of Afghanistan, Moscow and Delhi can take cues and start planning the regional endgame of the war.

Sreeram Chaulia is vice dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonepat, India© Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

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