On December 27, 1979 Russian forces invaded Afghanistan through a direct military intervention, commencing a disastrous epoch of Afghan history. Exactly 37 years later, Russia was once again meddling in Afghan affairs by hosting a trilateral meeting involving China and Pakistan in Moscow on December 27, 2016. The aim was to discuss Afghan security issues, but Kabul was neither invited nor consulted.
Since the first intervention to this day, Afghanistan has been a physical battlefield for a number of enemies: the United States versus Russia, India versus Pakistan, and Iran versus Saudi Arabia. China, the latest addition to the list, is also pursuing its regional economic and political interests. Turkey, too, has joined in, supporting Uzbek ethnic groups based in Northern Afghanistan in a bid to expand its influence.
No doubt there have been ups and downs in terms of benefits for the interfering nations; but the only consistent loser has been Afghanistan itself. The country has suffered the collapse of its social, economic, and physical infrastructure, lost over two million human beings, and has inherited over 800,000 disabled people while millions more Afghans are living as refugees.
The post 9/11 intervention of international community under the auspices of United Nations (UN) brought hope that Afghanistan could return to normalcy, reconstruction, and economic development. Afghans started thinking about taking a sigh of relief after more than two decades of destruction. However, once again, regional neighbors started intruding into Afghan affairs through their proxies.
The interfering countries have used different pretexts to pursue their agendas in the country. The Soviet Union intervened in 1979 in a bid to further its regional presence under the guise of supporting the Afghan Communist government against insurgency. At the same time, Pakistan played the role of broker for the United States, utilizing Saudi money to confront the Russians in Afghanistan. Once the Russians were defeated in late 1980s, the Americans and Saudis left the country at the mercy of the same warlords created by Washington during the face-off with the Russians. This was followed by interference from Pakistan in the fate of the post-communist regime, resulting in civil war. Iran, India and Pakistan picked their favorites among the warring groups. While Afghanistan kept bleeding during all those years, no one cared much about it, except as the chaos impacted their own regional strategic objectives.
The latest trilateral meeting hosted by Moscow is a fresh sign of such meddling. The recent diplomatic maneuvers by the meeting participants — China, Pakistan, and Russia — were based on their concerns about regional security and stability being threatened by the militant groups operating inside Afghanistan. And yet the meeting asked for the Taliban leadership — the largest militant group operational in Afghanistan — be removed from the UN sanctions list. Interestingly, the three countries discussed Afghan matters and the effect on the region without engaging Afghanistan, a common practice of the key stakeholders for the last four decades.
As usual, the pretext is regional stability and security, but purpose is pursuing strategic agendas. The Russians want to contain expansion of the U.S. influence in the region as well as highlighting Moscow’s role on the global political scene as a superpower. China aims to bring the regional economy under its control and continue its rise as global economic giant. Pakistan, as usual, is playing the role of broker. It is trying to once more gain a stronger hold on Afghanistan and its affairs, besides remaining a key player in the region, which will allow Islamabad to further its rivalry with India. The three countries are more worried about presence of the United States in the region than overall stability and security.
The expanding relationship between India and the United States in the region has alarmed regional powerhouses, motivating them to band together. With the aim of hindering U.S. influence, they have even voiced support for Afghan non-state actors, i.e. the Taliban. A group that challenges the Afghan state has become the darling of Moscow after enjoying patronage from Pakistan for the last two decades. So much for upholding regional stability.
The changing global and regional political dynamics often see regional partners shift sides. Pakistan now sees much in common with Russia, its foe from the 1980s; India has joined hands with the United States; and China is joining Russia. The only constant is that Afghanistan will again be on the losing side. The fear is that the regional wrangling may once more bring misfortune on Afghanistan; the country may return to open civil war of the 1990s after enjoying an era of relative development during 2000s.
Afghanistan has never been at the table, setting the regional political agenda. Rather, the country has been a passive viewer of regional events. The Soviet Union invaded the country unilaterally; the United States backed warring groups and confronted the Russians using jihadi outfits and then left the groups at the mercy of Pakistan — all without consulting Kabul. During Afghanistan’s civil war, regional players again interfered, supporting non-state groups at the expense of the Afghan state. In 2001, the world decided to invade Afghan soil in order to bring the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice.
Afghanistan has suffered badly during the last 37 years as battleground of global and regional players. Now is the time to give a break to the aggrieved nation. Instead of pushing the country into instability by building relations with anti-state elements, a supporting hand will help the whole region and globe.
A constructive role played by the far and near neighbors of Afghanistan can result in security, stability, economic prosperity, and development for the whole region. Afghanistan’s historic geographic location at the crossroads of Asia has always been a linchpin to the regional economy. Even in the modern era, Afghanistan remains a gateway to Central Asia for South Asia. Hence, a stable and secure Afghanistan can be beneficial for the whole region. Regional partners should bring the Afghan government into the mainstream rather than practicing the traditional approach of deciding on strategies without involving Kabul. It is wiser to engage with the state government rather than non-state actors, which are unpredictable and lack formal accountability.
The Afghan government is actively seeking regional economic reintegration and greater partnership building. President Ashraf Ghani on numerous occasions has offered Afghan land as route for transit and trade between South Asia, Central Asia, and Europe. A dialogue between the Afghan government and regional neighbors on Afghan foreign policy vis-a-vis its international partners would certainly help in identifying options for the Afghan government to balance its international and regional relations without harming the interests of any of its partners.
In addition, Afghanistan should be engaged in the development of all regional counterterrorism strategies. Any strategy devised without Afghanistan would remain hollow; after all, the terror outfits in question, such as Islamic State (ISIS), are based in Afghanistan. Tackling regional terrorism certainly needs input from Afghan security agencies, who have greater understanding of the context and also have intelligence about state-sponsored moral and material support for terrorism. Such a well-informed strategy can help the effective anti-terror efforts of regional partners.
Afghanistan’s neighbors should allow the country break free of its past and proceed on the path of development and stability. A self-sustaining Afghanistan will be able to make its decisions more independently and as such pursue its global foreign policy in the best interests of the South and Central Asian region. On the other hand, a weaker Afghanistan might turn out to be an Achilles heel for the region. A repeat of the 1990s will have far-reaching impact on the region in today’s globalized world. A destabilized Afghanistan today might cause far bigger losses than collapse of the Soviet Union and the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Mushtaq Rahim (twitter: @mushtaq_rahim) is a conflict management and peacebuilding expert engaged in post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan for the last 14 years. He has a Master of Arts in Conflict, Peace and Security from Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre, Ghana and a Master of Business Administration from Pakistan.