(This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website.)
Keywords: Af-Pak region, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran-Afghanistan relations, Russia-Afghanistan relations, Central Asian Republics-Afghanistan relations, India and post-2014 Afghanistan, Russian Domain 2.0, New Great Game, Continental Silk Route
Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
Armageddon is the mythical site of gathering of armies for battle that will end all. Its geographical location is shrouded in biblical lore and considerable controversy exists of its mercatorial coordinates; but its implications of the eventual catastrophic destiny of mankind (as revealed) are becoming less indistinct. Our study is far removed from eschatology, it is however, keenly concerned with the settings and geography of an impending geo-political upheaval caused by the withdrawal of American forces from the Af-Pak region. Inconclusive American abdication leaves in its wake a weak, nuclearised and failing Pakistan unable to reconcile a will to modernity with Jihadi aspirations; an Afghanistan whose writ does not prevail beyond the edgings of Kabul; a resurgent Iran that seeks domination over west and northern Afghanistan; Central Asian Republics whose civilisational, ethnic and cultural roots in northern Afghanistan exert fissiparous pressures; and an incensed and isolated Russia that sees in the region an opportunity to impel its own influence as a limiting factor to that of the US and the Saudis. Such competing external dynamics and interferences will work against central control from Kabul rather than in support of it, leaving bare a ‘gathering of armies’ driven by motivators in persistent friction with each other.
When states involve themselves for years on end in irregular, decentralized warfare such as the Afghan-Pakistan situation which has been in a state of violent chaos since 1979, the idea of central control is anaemic. The breakdown of the region into several ‘Tolkienesque’ warring worlds for causes that can only be termed antediluvian, has opened the geography of the expanse to historical fractures that the politics of the last century failed to reconcile. Today, a simmering Baluchistan finds little mutuality in a Punjab-dominated Pakistan; Pakthunwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) ferociously cling to religio-ethnic links with eastern Afghanistan that refute the modern idea of statehood within Pakistan; inside the rest of Pakistan is a smouldering Jihadist sentiment against India and the West; and finally, Afghan resistance to US occupation in the post-al Qaeda defeat has left an insurgency engorged with modern weapons and enabling technologies.
Iran’s Intriguing Inclination
In understanding Iran’s contemporary posture towards Afghanistan, it is long forgotten that it was an early supporter of the 2001 invasion, played a key role in the ‘Bonn’ process that gave a constitution to the latter and has been historically wary of the radical militant ways of the Taliban and the manner in which it has been sponsored, fuelled and given sanctuary by Pakistan. While the seemingly endless supply of narcotics across the porous Baluchistan border and through the Nimruz and Herat sectors, along with linked violence, remains an abiding source of societal distress, illegal finances and arms trade, all of which has generated a strong impulse in Iran to control and affect stability in the Western region of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and Iran have been tied by culture and geography over centuries. Approximately one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population is Shia—a focal point for strife, for Iran views itself as the guardian of Shiites. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Khomeini dispensation created a sphere of influence by organizing and materially supporting the Shia community there. Soviet inabilities permitted Iran to form a network of Afghan Shia organizations in the Hazarajat region.
When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the country became a battleground for a proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Saudi’s sought spread of their brand of Islam throughout Central Asia and Pakistan connived to install a Sunni dominated government and gain “strategic depth” against India. Iran, having ended its eight-year war with Iraq, sought to establish a friendly government in Kabul encouraging non-Sunni groups to form a united front. These contrary interests spurred a civil war, frustrating Iran’s policies in the region. This time of confusion saw the rise of the Sunni Taliban. In 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and overthrew President Rabbani, arousing the creation of a military front comprising Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Pashtuns, called the Northern Alliance, that sought to counter the Taliban. Iran, India, Russia, Tajikistan, and the USA supported the Northern Alliance with material, training and sanctuaries.
It was only after 9/11 that support of the Northern Alliance extended to military intervention by the United States to defeat the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) and establish a new Afghan government. Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are in conflict with Pakistan’s single track preference of an Islamist regime in Kabul (the purpose being to foster its misshapen policy of “Strategic Depth” both geographically and ideologically to confront a rising India). Pakistan also believes a weak and fundamental Islamist government in Kabul may be the best way to keep ethnic, irredentist claims at bay, while at the same time expanding its own influence. Such a policy only paves the way for increased military involvement by all parties including Iran.
Russia’s Part in the ‘Novaya Great Game’
There is a veiled attempt by Russia to fill the current void in Afghanistan despite the probability that destabilization of the region may be the outcome. Greater competition between neighbouring powers, in Russian perceptions, may set the stage for a new “great game” for the so-called heart of Asia. Russia has need to enter this contest and vie for influence in Afghanistan against other, more motivated external players, not only to reawaken and accentuate its great power status (as it has done in Ukraine and in Syria) but also, understanding the positions these countries hold and taking their conflicting postures into consideration, the unfolding situation in Afghanistan will affect Russia’s security indirectly by way of Moscow’s allies in Central Asia. Central Asian nations fear the possible consequences of destabilization in Afghanistan, which may include an influx of refugees or an upsurge in Islamic extremism, drug trafficking, and transborder crime, and they may well turn to Moscow for help. It is also difficult to portray a Russia of the immediate future, blind to the emerging Chinese influence in the region by way of their grand scheme of the ‘Continental Silk Route’ and their efforts to corner strategic mineral resources (1400 mineral fields including rare earth elements and over three trillion USD in untapped deposits) that Afghanistan abounds in. The probability of competing politico-socio-economic interests morphing into security concerns is real.
The Central Asian Republics
The Central Asian Republics (CARs) worry about how instability in Afghanistan affects the survival of their own political regimes. These concerns are also symptomatic of their existential weaknesses. But reality would suggest that Central Asia’s economic prospects depend more on China, Russia and India rather than on Western military presence in Afghanistan, if only internal stability could be assured. And here lies the rub, CARs have historically depended upon centrally administered authoritarian rule such that even today they are unable to view a globalised world through any prism other than that provided by a distant Moscow, advancing a possible return of a ‘Russian Domain 2.0.’ Recent moves by Putin to build greater security cooperation among the CARs particularly with Kazakhstan (key regional player), consolidating military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, would underscore the prospects of revisiting privileged partnerships and the return of the Super (Capitalist) Commissar. More worryingly, the stage will be set for enhanced friction in the region.
The Thing about Gathering Armies
The thing about ‘gathering armies’ is that it puts in stark relief the dangers that a policy drift can inflict upon a designated region. India cannot treat the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan as a potential Armageddon for its security in South Asia. An Islamist takeover of Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent turn into a hotbed of international terrorism is not a certainty. India will have to take more responsibility for regional security. This heightened responsibility must first close out the possibility of armed intervention and put in place a dispensation that promotes cooperative engagement in economic development and institution building. Under all conditions the use of geography to further strategic security interests by any of the stakeholders must be abhorred. This approach is consistent with idea of placing strategic stability above strategic competition.