Afghanistan: Unaccomplished Mission, Uncertain Future

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Pir-Mohammad Mollazehi
Expert on Indian Subcontinent & Middle East Issues

NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan has officially ended, but the United States and other member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have not ended their military presence in this country and have only changed its appearance. Continued presence of 13,500 US troopers in five military bases has been made possible according to the new definition of that mission in the Bilateral Security Agreement, which has been signed between the governments of Afghanistan and the United States. From now on, the American forces are supposed to provide the Afghan military with consultation and training without being directly involved in combat operations, unless, of course, under special circumstances and when requested to do so by Afghan officials. However, there are some considerations about the termination of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan thirteen years after the country was invaded by Western armies:

A) The ideological and ethnic challenges to power in Afghanistan have been exacerbated and currently exist at two levels:

1. The challenge of power between the central government and the armed opposition, especially the Taliban group;

2. The challenge of power within the Afghan government between two groups, one supporting a centralized government and the other one advocating distribution of power along ethnic lines;

B) Regional and international rivalries to gain more influence in the country have been intensified at three levels:

1. Political and territorial rivalries between India and Pakistan;

2. Ideological rivalries among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey; and

3. Rivalries among the United States, China and Russia for gaining more influence in the war-torn country.

Under such a tense atmosphere of domestic, regional and international rivalries, the main question now is what will be the possible consequences of the termination of NATO’s military mission in Afghanistan? More importantly, what future outlook is imaginable for peace and stability as well as power structure in this country? There are many things which can be said about this, but in general, the future outlook for developments in Afghanistan can be studied at three short-, medium- and long-term levels. In the short term, the most possible turn of events is further escalation of domestic rivalries at a military level between the Taliban militants, on the one hand, and Afghan army, government and security forces, on the other hand. At the same time, it should be noted that escalation of conflicts between the Taliban and the central government is actually aimed at gaining more concessions by either side, not at absolute victory of one of these two sides over the other. Therefore, there will be ripe conditions for the escalation of guerrilla warfare between the two sides, at least through the coming spring and early summer. As a result, the most possible guess at this level is further intensification of domestic conflicts in the country in the form of more suicide attacks and strikes by the Taliban against the positions of Afghan army and security forces.

At the government level, a national unity government has been finally established through mediation of the United States and the agreement between the country’s President Ashraf Ghani and the chief executive officer, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. However, this has failed to put an end to ethnic and ideological rivalries and there is no end imaginable to such rivalries over the short run. This is true as such rivalries run on fertile domestic grounds. Rivalries within the Afghan government are, in fact, rivalries between two different ways of thinking and two different approaches to power. There is a traditional ethnic approach which believes that the government and political power is a basic right for the Pashtun ethnic group that is being represented by Ashraf Ghani and which derives its legitimacy from Loya Jirga. There is also the semi-modern approach of Dr. Abdullah, which seeks ethnic distribution of power in the form of some sort of federalism and non-centralized power structure. He aims to revive the post of prime minister and turn the country’s government from a presidential one into a parliamentary one where the government will gain its legitimacy through ballot boxes, and the national consultative assembly will be an additional source of legitimacy for the government. These two different approaches have currently faced the new national unity government with certain problems and that unity can be only maintained through effective interference of the United States backed by its continued military presence in the country.

At a regional level, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the main contestants which claim to be good models for an Islamic model of power for Afghanistan. Therefore, these three countries are sure to continue their rivalries in this country. The termination of NATO’s military mission may even add fuel to such ideological rivalries. Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have agreed to cooperate for the construction of an Islamic center, whose cost has been estimated at 100 million Saudi riyals, and is supposed to accommodate up to 10,000 students on a round the clock basis. The agreement is a clear sign of intensified rivalries between two schools of thought and ideological discourses that are being represented by the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Salafi-Arab school of Saudi Arabia. A more or less similar situation is imaginable for the intensification of political and territorial rivalries between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan. The support accorded to Baluch separatist forces by India and New Delhi’s cooperation with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan) are, in fact, a response to jihadist policies followed by the Pakistani army and are aimed at undermining Pakistan’s standing in Afghanistan. As a result, this situation will certainly lead to intensified rivalries between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan.

At international level, the termination of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan will most probably result in the intensification of rivalries to gain political and economic influence in Afghanistan and gain access to the country’s mineral resources among the United States, Russia and China. These countries will also try to make the most of the geostrategic and geoeconomic position of Afghanistan as a result of which their rivalries may well extend into Central Asia. In this way, one may claim that the “big game” of the past, which has been raging among major global powers in Afghanistan and Central Asia since the middle of the 19th century, will continue in new forms proportionate to the new conditions in the world. In a more general approach, it is quite imaginable that China will try to use its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan to get more access to the Middle East and energy resources of the Persian Gulf. It will also use the same path to extend its influence into Central Asia and gain access to energy resources of the Caspian Sea.

Russia can also use Afghanistan as a route to realize its traditional goal of having access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. In the meantime, the most natural goal for the United States will be to prevent further increase in the influence of China and Russia in Afghanistan and to keep them away from its own security sphere in Central Asia. Therefore, the termination of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan will not be a termination of rivalries, but on the contrary, can be expected to further intensify those rivalries. Now, in view of these realities, the main question is in which direction will future Afghanistan move and with what kind of developments it will be possibly faced? The main issue in this approach is the continued challenge of power and influence as a result of which, and theoretically speaking, there are a few possible scenarios imaginable:

1. Continuation of the status quo, and the preservation of the fragile unity government;

2. Continuation of national reconciliation talks with the Taliban after a short period of escalation of conflicts followed by efforts to give a share in the power system to the Taliban in those regions of Afghanistan that are dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group. The Taliban can be also given a share of the central power in Kabul;

3. Federalization of the political system and distribution of power along ethnic lines among major ethnic groups such as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara people and Uzbeks; and

4. Disintegration of Afghanistan into two new countries. There could be a Pashtunistan special to Pashtuns and another country possibly called Khorasan for all ethnic groups other than Pashtuns that live in eastern, southern, western and northern parts of Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that disintegration of Afghanistan will not be beneficial to any domestic or regional political current and can trigger a crisis of secession across the region. Therefore, it should be the last resort kept for the conditions of absolute deadlock and when other options have failed to bear fruit. However, it should not be ruled out totally. Non-Pashtun ethnic groups and possibly Russia are certainly concerned about further growth of radicalism in the form of Salafi and jihadist ideology. China, on the other hand, has been already plagued with radical forces in its Xinjiang province and, to protect its own national security, it will certainly prefer to see a barrier between its Xinjiang region and the Muslim-dominated areas of Central Asia which are a breeding grounds for this ideology. As a result, Beijing will certainly prefer such a barrier because it is possible for both Russia and the United States to use Salafi and jihadist currents as a tool against China.

Under these circumstances, it seems that the most suitable solution for the problems facing Afghanistan is to change the centralized power structure and modify the mentality that power is a historical right of Pashtun people. As a result, a model should be adhered to which will distribute power among all ethnic and geographical regions of Afghanistan and allow each ethnic group to be satisfactorily represented in the central government. At the end of the day, maintenance of peace and stability in Afghanistan, as well as sustainable development of the country in all political, social, economic and cultural areas will need reduction of rivalries at domestic, regional and international levels. This will allow Afghanistan to continue its drive along the path of modern nation building and state building, and also forge a compromise between traditions and modernity in the country through an effective combination of sources of legitimacy of power, which include the Loya Jirga and the national consultative assembly. In the long term, the best solution is to help Afghanistan gain its new international status as an impartial country, end foreign intervention in Afghanistan, and acceptance of the new conditions in Afghanistan by regional and international rivals. Of course, this is a goal which cannot be achieved easily. If such solutions are not pursued, the last resort then may be disintegration of the country along ethnic lines, which of course, should not be a desirable option for any of the parties that are involved in Afghanistan.

Key Words: Afghanistan, Unaccomplished Mission, Uncertain Future, NATO, Bilateral Security Agreement, US, Ideological and Ethnic Challenges, Regional and International Rivalries, Political and Territorial Rivalries, Iran, Saudi Arabia,Turkey, China, Russia, Mollazehi

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*Photo Credit: TRT, Breaking News