Afghan Vacuum and the Neighbouring Aspirants
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Jun , 2021

The implosion of the then Soviet Union in 1991 had created a vacuum in its Muslim dominated Central Asian Republics. Three neighbouring Islamic countries, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia jumped into the fray each having its specific agenda.  As time passed, they found that their agenda was irrelevant to the societies of the Central Asian Republics.  Seventy years of Soviet arrangement had pulled the people out of the morass of medievalism, illiteracy and conservatism and a new horizon of social interaction was ushered in.

Intrinsically a staunchly patriarchal conservative society, Afghans gave up their traditional secularist disposition and pandered to conservative Islam when they had to fight the invading Soviet troops. By a strange quirk of destiny, the Soviets who had pulled out the Central Asian Muslim societies from medievalism had unwisely attacked Afghanistan and forced her die hard warriors to seek arms and war material from the capitalist states to fight the communists.

The capitalists lost no time in providing them with the wherewithal to fight and force the Soviets to leave Afghan land. But the price which the Afghan freedom fighters had to pay for winning a victory over the Soviets was too heavy. They became the sitting ducks for the capitalists who interacted with them through the instrumentality of the clerics mostly from Pakistan’s radical seminaries.

Thereafter, Afghanistan, having lost connectivity with secular and progressive forces in the region, became almost the handmaid of radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden and others who ardently supported the Taliban in their bid to rid the country of foreign military presence and modernism both.

American and NATO forces have started withdrawing from Afghanistan under the Doha agreement. The final withdrawal is scheduled for 11 September to commemorate the 20th year of 9/11. Confusion has gripped the stakeholders about the possible takeover of Kabul by the Taliban after the last American soldier quits Afghanistan.

Recently, President Ashraf Ghani met with President Joe Biden in the White House. The Afghan President’s primary concern was the post-withdrawal situation.  He has received a vague assurance that the US would not like to see the democratic process collapse in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian vacuum to which we have alluded may be re-enacted in Afghanistan in the post-withdrawal era. Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are keeping a close watch on the ground situation. Though their aims may be different yet all the three countries would like that Saudi Arabia has minimum influence and space in the ensuing vacuum

It will be recalled that these three countries were active when two years ago they had launched a movement to remove the Saudi monarchy from its  leadership of the OIC and had called a meeting of the heads of OIC states in Malaysia. Saudis had snubbed Pakistan which forced her to cancel Imran Khan’s participation in Kuala Lampur meet.

How does Pakistan perceive the unfolding scenario? She has been the most involved party in the Afghan conundrum. The truth is that Pakistan is the founding father of the Taliban whose main objective is to radicalize Afghanistan. Pakistan will lend indirect support to the Taliban so that they can set up the Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan and run its administration according to sharia law. Pakistan wants legitimacy to her pro-fundamentalist stance and her claim to the leadership of the Muslim nations.

Pakistan sees Afghanistan not just as a strategic partner but also as a ground to negate India’s gains in the neighbourhood. India has all along stood with the US in accusing Pakistan of harbouring Taliban insurgents after the US toppled the Taliban-led government in 2001 in hideouts near the tribal borders. Both have often held Pakistan-supported Haqqani group responsible for attacks on the American and Indian facilities in Afghanistan at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI.

Analysts also suggest that the Pakistan government‘s outright rejection of US military bases in the country is likely owing to pressures from China and Iran. Nevertheless, knowledgeable circles in Pakistan believe that on the issue of military bases, General Bajwa is silently discussing the pros and cons of the matter with the authorities in Pentagon. In all probability, as reported by the Eurasian Times of 27 June Pakistan is wary of a powerful Taliban-led government that is likely to pry upon Pakistan’s instability and challenge its national security. In such a scenario, Islamabad will not underestimate the Pukhtoonistan angle to the overall Af-Pak relationship.

Iran’s interest in throwing its hat into the Afghan vacuum is subtle. Tehran knows that the Taliban are no less fanatical Sunnis than their Shiite populace. But the important Shia dominated regions in North-Western Afghanistan like Mazari Sharif, Herat and Balkh etc. are of deep concern.  Apart from religious affinity, Iran and these regions have a long history of the association and even interaction. There have been instances of sectarian violence against the Shiites by the predominant Sunni Taliban in the past.

The second concern of Iran is the security of the Iran-Afghanistan border which can easily become vulnerable in a situation of unrest and turmoil in Western Afghanistan. During the days when the Taliban had removed the government of Najibullah in 1996 and unleashed a reign of terror across the country, nearly 3 million Afghan refugees sought asylum in Iran. An Iranian government spokesman said that Iran had done more than what was expected in providing succour to the Afghan refugees but she would not be in a position to see the repetition of the upheaval. Moreover, Iran had become wary of crime proliferating among the Afghan refugees in Iran. Iran would like to forestall any such situation before it takes a serious turn.

However, while Pakistan is eyeing strategic depth westward, which she has expressed in no ambiguous words, Iran does not nurse any such ambition.Her main concern is that foreign forces, particularly the Americans should quit Afghanistan because their presence in so close a geographical proximity poses a dire threat to her security.

It has to be said that Pakistan has been complaining before the world powers and the international community that she is sandwiched between adversaries on her east and west. Despite India’s assurances that she does not covet the lands of her neighbours rather wants cordial relations with them, Islamabad carries the obsession of India attacking her for one or the other reason. That has catalyzed her anti-India diplomacy in Afghanistan. She does not want any role for India in that country.

Lately, Turkey under Erdogan is struggling hard to play a role in the politics of West Asia and the Middle East since Erdogan is dreaming of the return of the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. Though she is a member of NATO yet she has not been given admission to the European Union even after waiting for a long time. With a hurt complex, Turkey wants to carve a domineering position for herself as a pioneering (modern) Islamic State and the inheritor of Ottoman grandeur. Of the three aspirants, Turkey is the most ambitious to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan.

On June 20, Turkey held a trilateral dialogue with Iran and Afghanistan to reiterate an “inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process” after the Americans withdrew. Turkey has deepened diplomatic and security interests by sending troops and training Afghan soldiers as part of coalition forces. The country is a co-founder of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, an Afghanistan-focused regional organization launched in 2011.

After the deadlock of the Doha talks, Turkey offered to mediate and hold a peace dialogue with the Taliban in April.In the recent Biden-Erdogan meet, Istanbul offered to provide security to the Kabul airport post-withdrawal, the main entry and exit point for high-level officials, diplomatic staff, and aid workers, in return for continuing US financial aid reported the Eurasian Times of 27 June.

Istanbul – based Daily Sabah quoted Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar saying,“We intend to stay in Afghanistan depending on conditions. What are our conditions; political, financial, and logistical support? If these are met, we can remain at Hamid Karzai International Airport,”

Whether this is a figment of the imagination of Erdogan or the think-tanks in the Pentagon could not be ascertained so far.  It shows that Erdogan is yet to understand how fiercely nationalist the Afghans are. Reacting quickly to the thoughtless proposition of Turkey, the Taliban viewed Turkey’s involvement as a violation of the 2020 Doha Agreement, under which Turkish troops ought to withdraw completely. The peace conference was postponed after the group refused to participate and also opposed Turkey’s offer in guarding Kabul airport, citing the security of Kabul airport as the “responsibility of Afghans”.“The presence of foreign forces under whatever name or by whichever country in our homeland is unacceptable for the Afghan people and the Islamic Emirate,” remarked the Taliban spokesman.

This much for the troika, but India, China and Russia also remain key players in the peace process as well as the post-withdrawal scenario. Speaking at the UN Security Council, Indian foreign minister Jaishankarsaid, “A durable peace in Afghanistan requires a genuine ‘double peace’ — that is, peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. It requires harmonizing the interests of all, both within and around that country.” Peace around Afghanistan is of vital importance because unstable environs will harm the peace process in Afghanistan.

China is looking to her economic interests knowing that Afghanistan is rich in mineral wealth especially copper. She aims to expand its ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan as it provides a strategic access point to Central Asia. At the same time, China has one more equally important interest. Containment of extremism and militancy among Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province is another reason why China is eyeing a significant role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

And finally, Russia’s interests are linked to her influence in the contiguous region of Central Asia from a security as well as energy point of view. Moscow is watchful lest China expands her fangs in the region and creates difficulties for her.

In the final analysis, though all stakeholders speak of the peace process to succeed in war-torn Afghanistan, they, at the same time cater to their national interests. Of course, peace is the common requirement but what shape the situation will take at the end of the day is to be seen. Will the withdrawal of foreign forces usher in a new era of peace and development in Afghanistan or will it end up in unimaginable chaos is to be seen.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

KN Pandita

Former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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One thought on “Afghan Vacuum and the Neighbouring Aspirants

  1. Talibanisation of Afghanistan will be complete after withdrawal of USA. Only after getting power, Taliban will soon develop conflicts with Pakistan and Iran as being neighbours. India will neither loose or gain influence. …..So called strategic depth of Pakistan, will become strategic headache to them. And will remain busy with each other…..It will be better that Pakistan will remain busy for gaining strategic depth with freedom loving Afghanistan. And the conflict of interest will keep each other engaged.

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