Donald Trump, in an interview with the New York Times during the campaign in 2016, articulated a desire to play his foreign policy cards close to his chest. “We need unpredictability,” he said and argued that an effective negotiator should be an enigma: no one is to know the bottom line and the ability to make a credible bluff is to be prized.
Now-President Trump reiterated the same thinking in August 2017 when he unveiled his new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan. He emphasized “how counterproductive it is for the United States to announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options. … Conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.”
In the same speech he put forward a transactional approach to foreign policy when he said that India had made “billions of dollars in trade with the United States” and called on that country to do more in Afghanistan, “especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” The reference to India was puzzling since it is the most generous regional donor to Afghanistan, with $2 billion already provided and over $1 billion pledged in the coming years. However, the speech did make clear the president’s interest in upending traditional approaches to foreign policy and redefining national security in more purely economic terms, with allies (like India) as well as adversaries (like China) being asked to answer the question of “what have you done for us lately?”
In Afghanistan the uncertainty generated by the Trump policy has translated into a situation where there is no time line for an exit but there is urgency. Trump is interested in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan (where their presence is seen as costly and ultimately unproductive) and his military commanders are responding by moving quickly to consolidate the gains they have made and put in plans for “finishing the job.” The U.S. military is building up the strength of Afghan units with a re-energized air campaign and new advisory units emplaced with Afghan army battalions while the administration pushes for talks with the Taliban in order to bring a negotiated end to the conflict.
For the other actors in the region, there is no uncertainty about the bottom line. The White House is looking for an exit and with the departure of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who authored Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, and the appointment of John Bolton, whose focus is on Iran and North Korea, the time line has shortened considerably. China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India — the other powers in the region — are responding to the uncertainties of the Trump administration policies by aligning their interests, recognizing the limitations of the Afghan government in Kabul, and exploring security options if the United States fully withdraws.
The defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and the exodus of fighters from the region into Afghanistan and Pakistan have led China, Iran, and Russia to recognize that they share a common concern about the growth of Islamist movements that have pledged allegiance to the caliphate of the Islamic State in their neighborhood. The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), founded in 2014 and comprised of former members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda as well as Central Asian groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has provided a foundation for realigning the interests of at least some of these regional powers.
China is dealing with a restive Muslim Uyghur population in Xinjiang, where a vicious government crackdown after 2009 led young Uyghurs to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in droves. Some of these young men have now returned to join the ISKP. China’s interest is also due to its $60 billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has resulted in projects scattered across the region.
Not surprisingly Beijing recently signed a defense agreement with Afghanistan to build a base in northern Afghanistan and set up a trilateral contact group with Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat terrorism. China has made it clear that it will support Afghan government-led efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict with the Taliban – an approach which is supported by the United States. China’s influence on Pakistan is also considerable due to the investments it has made as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of the BRI. China is viewed as an honest neighbor with the ability to reach understandings with Russia, the United States, as well as Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Iran and China share similar concerns about ISKP in the region. The two countries have close economic ties and in November 2016 signed a military cooperation agreement, which allows them to engage in military-to-military exchanges as well as joint counterterrorism training. Iran views the idea of an Islamic caliphate as a distortion of the faith and inimical to its interest in the region. The Islamic State attack on the Iranian parliament and the shrine of Khomeini last year served as a timely reminder of this threat.
Iran’s concern about ISIS can be seen in its move to cement relation with Pakistan, which it views as essential for any solution to the problems in Afghanistan. In the past this would have been difficult because Iran and India have traditionally worked together. However, as India has moved closer to the United States and Israel, Iran has begun to take on a more adversarial tone vis-à-vis India. This was evident in 2017 when Iran criticized Indian military actions in Kashmir (much to the delight of Pakistan) and rejected Trump’s call for greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan. Iran’s relations with Pakistan are not without problems, however. When Pakistan joined the 41 country Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) set up by Saudi Arabia, it had to reassure Iran that it was not joining an anti-Shia body and followed up by signing a counterterrorism pact with Iran to address the problems posed by the ISIS.
Russian concerns about ISKP have led it to work with China, Iran, as well as Pakistan to limit the growth of Islamist movements, which could spill into the five Central Asian republics on Russia’s southern flank. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have joined Russia and China in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and conduct regular military and counterterrorism exercises with both. Russia is the dominant military partner for Central Asia while China takes the lead in economic activities – a division of labor that has worked to offset any tensions in the immediate future.
Russian concerns about the infiltration of ISKP into Afghanistan has also led to increased cooperation with Pakistan in recent years. As a result of the work done by the Russia Pakistan Joint Working Group, a Russian military delegation visited North Waziristan in the Pakistani tribal belt in March 2017, months after Russia and Pakistan conducted joint military drills. The seventh meeting of the JWG held in March this year ended with both countries expressing concern about the rising threat posed by ISIS. It is not surprising then that in February of this year, Moscow appointed an honorary consul in the city of Peshawar. The heightened cooperation between Russia and Pakistan is literally visible in the addition of Russian language signage in the tribal belt and even around Islamabad. This is coming at a time when the United States has blocked the release of military assistance funds to Pakistan pending certification that it has taken specific actions against the terror networks it is accused of harboring.
India is the odd man out in the aligning of interests in the region. It has a long and troubled relationship with both China and Pakistan and has fought wars with both. Its relations with Iran have become more difficult in recent years as it has deepened its relationship with the United States. However it is also one of the most financially invested regional powers in Afghanistan and is therefore critical for long term stability in the country. The Trump call for increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan led to greater tension between New Delhi and Islamabad, which often accuse each other of supporting the militants responsible for instability in that country. India’s admission (as a result of Russian intervention) to the SCO last year coincided with Pakistan’s admission (as a result of China’s intervention) and it is to be hoped that the inclusion of these two countries to an organization whose goals explicitly call on member states to coordinate activities against the three evils of terrorism, separatism, and extremism will help them identify common ground.
Recognizing the Limitations of the Afghan Government
China and Russia are concerned about the ability of the Afghan government to keep control of its territory and contain the Taliban as well as the Islamic State. They also recognize the importance of the role Pakistan must play in reigning in the militants who operate from within its borders. Both countries have adopted a two track policy: providing support for the Afghan government while trying to get Pakistan on board vis-a vis the Taliban.
China has tried to use its influence in both countries to increase cooperation between the two in order to promote effective counterterrorism mechanisms. The lack of success with these efforts has led China to pursue negotiating with the Taliban as a strategy and it was very supportive of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s call for the Taliban to come to the table earlier this year.
Russia for its part has involved itself in hosting multilateral talks on Afghanistan since 2016 when it parted ways with NATO on policy in Afghanistan. As these efforts have stalled it too has raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. Moscow recently offered to host U.S. talks with the Taliban (banned as a terrorist group in Russia) just as U.S. military commanders accused it of arming the group. Russia and the Taliban reject these accusations and say that most of the weapons are flowing from stockpiles of the Afghan army and the police. If the claim is true, it is yet another sign of the limited strength of Afghan institutions.
Iran is the least invested in the Ghani government, which it sees as being weak and incapable of managing the ethnically diverse Afghan state. Iran continues to maintain links with powerful Tajik and Uzbek leaders who are not happy with the Ghani government. Tehran is accused of providing financial and military support for the Taliban, which Iran sees as a proxy to fight the rise of the ISKP while at the same time raising the costs of continued Western military intervention in Afghanistan. Iran has denied these charges but the death of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a 2016 drone strike in Balochistan as he was returning from a meeting with Iranian officials makes it difficult to believe the denials.
The weakness of the Afghan government has also led to problems with getting economic traction on projects that could turn the economy around. The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline has been in the news this year because of the inauguration of the start of work on the Afghan portion of a pipeline, which is designed to bring much needed natural gas to South Asia. However, as with the UNOCAL project in the 1990s, security is the biggest concern even though the Taliban has promised to protect this line (like they did the earlier project). It is not clear who is going to pay the estimated $10 billion price tag given the security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and threats from other groups like al-Qaeda, ISKP, the Pakistani Taliban, and Baloch separatists among others.
The inability of the Afghan government to address security is having a negative impact on economic development and leading the major regional powers to look for other options to stabilize the region.
The Security Options in the Event of a U.S. Withdrawal
Neither China nor Russia want to take on the U.S. military role in Afghanistan. China is concerned enough to have signed an agreement in December last year to build a base in northern Afghanistan and provide assistance to the Afghan National Army by way of training and resources. However a larger role is unlikely; China is much more interested in the economic initiatives underway as part of the BRI and it has no desire to antagonize Russia, with whom it partners in the SCO.
Russia, for its part, has little interest in putting boots on the ground in Afghanistan after its 10 year experience in that country between 1979-1989. The most that can be expected is that Russia will continue to invest militarily in the Central Asian Republics in order to prevent problems in Afghanistan from spilling over into its neighborhood.
Iran is interested in seeing the United States leave the region but will limit its military commitment to adventurism of the sort we are seeing currently with its support for the Taliban. Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech on his website, recently accused the United States of helping to transfer Islamic States to Afghanistan and of being responsible for a rash of terrorist attacks in that country. While these are false accusations, they lay the groundwork for Iran to support efforts directed against the ISKP. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has helped create an Afghan Shi’ite militia (the Liwa Fatemiyoun) which has gained fighting experience in Syria. It is possible that, while ISKP does pose a threat inside Afghanistan, groups funded by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps activity might further destabilize the country in the future.
Pakistan and India have the least interest in seeing the United States leave the region. For Pakistan, the U.S. military presence is a source of revenue for both the Pakistani military and the larger economy and provides an additional safeguard against India. The uncertainty created by Trump’s complaints about Pakistan have simply made it even more likely that its support for groups like the Haqqani Network will not be disappearing any time soon. Funding the insurgents is guaranteed to keep Afghanistan destabilized – and hopefully keep the United States engaged in the region. India for its part sees the U.S. military presence as essential if it is to focus on economic development issues in Afghanistan. India will not put boots on the ground because it has its own failed experience with intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and the geography of the region precludes an easy way to do this given the uneasy relationship with Pakistan and Iran.
The only viable regional mechanism for taking on security issues in Afghanistan post-U.S. departure is through the SCO, since all of the major regional powers are now in that organization. However, this is unlikely given the existing antagonisms between China and India or India and Pakistan, among others, as well as the fact that Afghanistan only has observer status in the group.
In the absence of better leadership in Kabul and at the regional level a U.S. withdrawal in the current climate could send Afghanistan into the kind of downward spiral that brought the Taliban to power in 1996.
Professor Sudha Ratan teaches courses in International Relations at Augusta University She has served since 2013 as a consultant on the AfPak region doing workshops for JUSTRAC Interagency Training through the Rule of Law Consortium at the University of South Carolina.