Wednesday, 19 December 2001

REGIONAL POWERS AND THE PROSPECTS OF DURABLE PEACE IN AFGHANISTAN

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By Hooman Peimani (12/19/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The establishment of a broad-based and widely-acceptable Afghan government, requires a consensus among all the major ethnic and political groups to end the civil war and to ensure stability in Afghanistan. It also requires the cooperation of external states that have backed rival Afghan groups over the last two decades. Their pursuit of conflicting interests contributed to the prolongation of civil war.

BACKGROUND: The establishment of a broad-based and widely-acceptable Afghan government, requires a consensus among all the major ethnic and political groups to end the civil war and to ensure stability in Afghanistan. It also requires the cooperation of external states that have backed rival Afghan groups over the last two decades. Their pursuit of conflicting interests contributed to the prolongation of civil war. Without such cooperation, the creation of a truly representative and durable Afghan government is unlikely to materialize. Recent developments in Afghanistan have not significantly changed the long-term objectives of foreign powers in that country. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States in 1994 helped the creation of the Taliban through different means and to a varying extent, with later support from the UAE. They sought to contain Iranian influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and to secure access to Central Asia via a friendly territory. Exporting Central Asia’s oil and gas via Afghanistan and Pakistan was also an objective for the U.S. and Pakistan. However, the commonality of interest did not last long. The U.S. withdrew support from the Taliban after the 1998 bombing of two American embassies in Africa. Pakistan remained the main supplier of arms and the main provider of military training to the Taliban, and were also the major beneficiaries of the group. Through its backing of anti-Iranian and anti-Indian armed extremist groups among other means, it has helped the Pakistanis seek their regional objectives, including weakening Iran and India, Pakistan’s arch regional rivals. The Northern Alliance, now known as the United Front, has owed the backing of Iran, India, the Central Asian countries and Russia to their shared concerns. Such concerns include their fear of the Taliban’s spread of extremism directly or through its support of extremist and terrorist groups in their countries and in neighboring regions. Other shared concerns have been their fear of growing American and Pakistani influence in Central Asia through the Taliban.

IMPLICATIONS: While the rapidly changing political environment has made the formation of a new government feasible, it has not changed the major objectives and interests of regional states, who have sought to influence the government-making process. The stakes are especially high for Pakistan, the U.S., Iran and Russia. While they all appreciate the virtues of a broad-based government as a prerequisite for peace and stability in Afghanistan, in practice, they also hope to see a government dominated by their protégés. Common long-term interests have made Pakistan and the U.S. ‘natural’ allies. Having lost its preeminent status in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, Islamabad’s is left with few assets in influencing the formation of the Afghan government to secure its interests. With a Northern Alliance-dominated government, Pakistan is now faced with mounting Iranian, Indian and Russian influence in Afghanistan at its expense. This drastic change has led Pakistan to take sides with the U.S. Thanks to its military presence in Afghanistan, the U.S. can play a role, albeit limited in comparison to Iran and Russia, in the formation of the future Afghan government. Washington is also concerned about the growth of influence of Iran, India and Russia in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Among other, such a scenario would deny the Americans the possibility of bypassing Iran and Russia for the long-term export of Central Asian gas and oil via Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Washington and Islamabad have sought to secure a strong position in the incoming Afghan government through Pashtun groups close to Pakistan. Most blatantly, they have raised the idea of the participation of “moderate” Taliban in the government. Only the sharp objection of Iran and Russia forced them to give it up. Resentful of losing their traditional dominant political power to the mainly non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, certain Pashtun tribes and groups are becoming closer to Pakistan and the USA.  This development could lead to an ethnic war should Mr. Hamid Karzai fail to keep the government together. If that happens, the British-led peace-keeping force will also serve to offset the influence of the Northern Alliance and to force it to accept major compromises, i.e., giving a major share of power to the pro-American an pro-Pakistani Pashtun forces. This situation risks cementing opposing Pakistani-American and Russian-Iranian-Indian alliances. If Pakistan and the USA continue their pro-Pashtun policy, Iran, India and Russia may join forces to secure a dominant position for the Northern Alliance. This could delay the creation of a durable Afghan government, if not precipitate another round of civil war. Despite areas of disagreement, Iran and Russia have extensive and multi-dimensional relations cemented by their opposition to Western (particularly American) influence in that region. Massive Iranian-Russian military assistance contributed to the rapid advancement of Northern Alliance forces and their control of the majority of Afghanistan’s territory. The entry of these forces into Kabul, despite American and Pakistani objections, indicated both the Iranian-Russian determination and capabilities to resist their exclusion from Afghanistan and to deny Pakistan and the U.S. the prerogative of creating a new government. While Iran and Russia have pledged support for a broad-based Afghan government, they are determined to prevent their Afghan allies from becoming junior partners in such a government. 

CONCLUSIONS: The backing of all major Afghan ethnic and political groups is an absolute necessity for the creation and the survival of any new Afghan government. Otherwise, civil war and its byproducts, i.e., terrorism, drug-trafficking and instability, will be the fate of Afghanistan. However, should the major foreign players in Afghanistan – Iran, Russia, Pakistan and the United States  - and other interested states, including China, India and the Central Asian countries, help the Afghan groups establish a government acceptable to the majority of the Afghans, this is not an inevitable fate. These states’ conflicting interests are well knows. But their common interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and their common suffering from terrorism and drug-trafficking and other evils that an unstable Afghanistan brings, may incline them to help the Afghans achieve this objective. The alternative would be disastrous both for them and the Afghans.

AUTHOR BIO. Dr. Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with United Nations agencies in Geneva, Switzerland, and does research in International Relations. His writing has centered on the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Persian Gulf.

Copyright 2001 The Analyst All rights reserved

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