Why We Couldn't Change Afghanistan

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Away from the Pashtun South and East, individuals such as Atta Muhammad Noor, governor of Balkh, have established security, provided the basis for local stability and economic growth, and denied the Taliban a foothold. This model of governance, rooted in local conditions and society, is inherently more sustainable than models imposed by the West. Governors such as Noor command respect and raise effective militias, and warlords such as Ismail Khan in Herat have sufficient authority and capacity to provide the basis for coherent resistance to Taliban encroachment. Crucially, they also have overriding personal and ethnic incentives to do so.

As Western military disengagement approaches, preventing the Taliban from persuading individual northern power brokers to change sides will be critical. This gives added significance to the northern Pashtun pockets and eliminating Taliban shadow governance within them. In its mid-1990s advance, the Taliban established almost unstoppable momentum by developing local shadow governance before launching military operations. This expedited its military success. In this way it captured Herat (which cut direct links from Iran to the Hazarajat and Mazar-i-Sharif) in September 1995, and then reinforced the Pashtun pocket of Kunduz (by air from Kabul) in 1997. This laid the foundations of its campaign against Mazar-i-Sharif.

Almost all the key players of the 1990s remain active today.

The revival of the National Front after the assassination of Rabbani indicates an appetite to prevent Taliban dominance of the North and the Hazarajat. The prospect of containment after 2015 depends on preventing the development of such Taliban momentum, which may persuade individual northern leaders that their best interest is achieved by cutting deals with the Taliban. Taliban shadow governance across the North, the West and the Hazarajat must be undermined and preferably removed before any pullout of international forces. Another imperative is the defeat of the mini-insurgency in Kunduz, which contains the seed for wider Taliban success in the North and provides a linkage with Uzbek militant groups. The security of Herat also is crucial, but this is most likely to be achieved by Iranian soft power preventing Taliban control of the area.

History suggests that whilst the West's preferred policy may be to support a national successor regime in Kabul, there is a valid alternative: support effective leaders in northern Afghanistan in order to provide a non-Taliban redoubt based in the Panjshir Valley, Mazar-i-Sharif (which dominates trade routes to central Asia), the Hazarajat and Herat. This approach is likely to be more fruitful than attempting to sustain a successor regime of limited strength and uncertain durability in Kabul.

Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. The looming cessation of full Western military engagement will precipitate intensified encroachment of Afghanistan's neighbors on the Afghan polity, economy, society and, in some cases, the insurgency. Iran, Pakistan, India, China and Russia have the ability to project influence and power into Afghanistan. Their geographical proximity and political, economic and cultural linkages with Afghanistan ensure depth and durability in their engagement. Their motivations range from ethnic and cultural affinity to complex interrelationships with external strategic issues such as Kashmir, which acts to drive both Pakistani and Indian policy in Afghanistan.

Western withdrawal will force Iran to consider its policy choices. Before 2001, it regarded Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a major threat. Thus it deployed troops to the Afghan border and provided military support to the Northern Alliance. Once confronted with the reality of Taliban influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Iran will sharpen its ethnic, cultural and religious links with the Shia Hazara and its memory of Taliban repression of the Hazara in 1998-2000. Its ethnic interest will be to ensure that the Taliban remains confined to the Pashtun South and East. This could manifest itself in an agreement to allow a level of Taliban influence in western Afghanistan in return for nonrepression of the Hazara and the Hazarajat. But indirect intervention to ensure the security of Herat cannot be ruled out. Iran attempted that through Ismail Khan in the 1990s.

The strength of Iranian soft power in Herat and the Hazarajat gives Iran a level of durable influence in Afghanistan that the West cannot hope to match. Iran additionally remains well connected to the Kabul body politic and is adept at using political and economic levers (such as the periodic threat to expel Afghan refugees) to achieve political ends. This combination gives it significant influence over the sustainability of post-2015 governance in Afghanistan. In the context of Afghanistan's future, Western engagement with Iran--including American engagement--could become a necessity.

But it's possible that Iran's ethnic interest in Afghanistan could coincide with the geopolitical interest of the West. Whether Iran's supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will allow ethnic interests in Afghanistan to override ideology and drive geopolitical behavior is a separate question, particularly if formal strategic-partnership agreements between Western powers and Afghanistan leave Western bases within the country. It is likely to depend in large part on external factors such as the state of tensions over the Iranian nuclear program, nervousness about the implications of the Arab Spring for Iran, wider relations with the United States, and Iran's perception of the level of U.S. threat after the departure of American combat forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Engagement with Pakistan is equally essential. Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan is well chronicled and includes the willingness of elements of the Pakistani state, in particular its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to support or at least provide sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. There is little evidence that the Pakistani military establishment has fundamentally changed its perception that the Afghan Pashtuns, particularly the Afghan Taliban, are the most effective Pashtun political force north of the Durand Line, providing essential strategic depth against India, as does the Kashmiri group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Personal relationships between ISI officers and senior Afghan Taliban leaders are deep and enduring. Western pressure is unlikely to change this. Western withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead Pakistan to seek to ensure Taliban control of the South and East and to gain as much influence in Kabul as possible, not least to ensure Indian influence is limited and the specter of Indian encirclement, whether real or imagined, is mitigated.

Following the fillip to Taliban morale that the cessation of full Western military engagement will undoubtedly provide, and notwithstanding the hope that the establishment of an Afghan Taliban office in Qatar will reduce Pakistani influence, Pakistan is likely to be the only external power with significant influence over the Afghan Taliban leadership. Whether or how the Pakistani government wishes to exercise such influence is a moot point. In the immediate aftermath of a Western withdrawal, viewed as a victory by elements of Pakistan's political and military elite and a significant majority of the Pakistani population, vague warnings of future destabilization will have limited effect. Like Iran, Pakistan is likely to regard any strategic partnership between the West and Afghanistan with deep suspicion, as it does the agreement signed between Afghanistan and India in November 2011.

One line of argument that may have potential in Islamabad is that Afghan Taliban control of southern and eastern Afghanistan, combined with a continuing Pakistani Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas, would threaten to bring about the de facto creation of a cross-border Pashtunistan and cross-fertilization between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. This will probably not be sufficient to deter the ISI (whose attitude toward both the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba suggests it is institutionally inclined to ride the tiger), but the potential threat it poses to the Pakistani state may offer pause for thought among Pakistan's military commanders and political classes.

Like Pakistan and Iran, India will be forced to recalibrate its Afghan policy as Western military operations cease. It is unlikely to reduce its involvement. Increased Taliban power will deprive New Delhi of its influence in southern and eastern Afghanistan and its intelligence on Kashmiri militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba fighting and training in Afghanistan. Thus, India will probably seek to bolster Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara opposition to Taliban expansion. It may also increase support to Baluch separatists operating from Afghanistan against Pakistan and consider action against Kashmiri militants operating in Afghanistan. Continued and intensified Indian involvement in Afghanistan can only reinforce Pakistan's determination to ensure Pashtun influence in Kabul and on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. It is also likely to reinforce Pakistan's perception that this will best be achieved by an Afghan Taliban proxy. In the absence of a radical improvement in the relationship between India and Pakistan, which is itself probably dependent on a political shift in the Kashmir dynamic, the prospects for Afghanistan's future after 2015 are likely to be undermined by the strategic competition between the two powers, which will be carried out inside Afghanistan by well-resourced proxies.

Other neighboring powers also have enduring interests. Russia has strong ethnic and political links with Uzbeks and Tajiks in Afghanistan. After 2014, any atavistic attraction of watching the West "bleed" in Afghanistan may be usurped by the impending geopolitical reality of the potential for southern Afghanistan to develop into a neo-Taliban state with the power to export jihadism into Central Asia. Russia is therefore likely to provide material and political support to Uzbeks and Tajiks. Turkey has both ambitions as a regional Eurasian power and strong links with Afghan Uzbeks and will provide support to them.

China will secure its economic interests, particularly minerals, such as the Aynak copper mine, and probably protect ethnic Uighurs in Badakhshan. Uzbekistan has an incipient insurgency of its own and therefore has little interest in seeing a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on its southern border. Similarly, Tajikistan's ethnic interest in northern Afghanistan is likely to translate into tangible support for Afghan Tajiks.

History suggests that Afghanistan ultimately always follows its own path, guided in arcane and often obscure ways by powerful competing forces of ethnicity, tribalism, religion, geography, regional feuds, a fervor of national protectiveness and unbending obstinacy. For centuries these forces have militated against a strong central government in Kabul and all manner of foreign incursion.

So will it be with the latest Western effort to fashion and direct the Afghan future. A measure of stability is possible following the decade-long Western involvement, if the Taliban can be confined to majority-Pashtun areas, if the non-Taliban North can resist Taliban incursion, if the influence of neighboring countries can help maintain an equilibrium of competing forces, and if Western nations--particularly America--exercise deft regional diplomacy combined with a measure of restraint commensurate with their ability to influence regional events.

After ten years of efforts to shape Afghan society in ways favorable to Western interests, the long-term societal and geopolitical consequences of Western engagement are very different from those envisaged in 2002.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, an Atlantic partner site. Follow @TheNatlInterest on Twitter.

The views expressed in the article are the author's alone and do not represent those of Her Majesty's Government or the UK Ministry of Defence. This article was derived entirely from open-source, unclassified material.

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Michael Hart is a Royal Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009 and was director of defense studies for the RAF from 2010 to 2011.

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