Cautious Allies: regional powers in Afghanistan


India, China, Russia and Iran have a surprising confluence of interests in a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, but so far the regional powers have been cautious not to give away too much. Their role may be path-setting as foreign forces leave.

Juan Garrigues
14 September 2012

First-time visitors to Afghanistan are often amazed at just how present India is in the country: pictures of Bollywood stars adorn shop-fronts, popular Indian TV shows are dubbed to Dari and shown on Afghan public and private TV channels, and no less than three flights a day link Kabul to Delhi. Both ordinary Afghans and government officials speak warmly of India. When Indian President Manmohan Singh visited Kabul last year in May, the city was put to a standstill. President Karzai – himself partly educated in India – gave Singh the honour of being the first foreign head of government invited to stay at the palace of former Afghan King Zahir Shah. During his visit, Singh announced an additional $500 million in aid, making India Afghanistan’s fifth largest donor.

Yet when the present or future of Afghanistan is discussed, analyses on Afghanistan barely ever include India. If anything, India is mentioned in passing, as Pakistan’s historic arch-rival not as a global power with historic ties and growing links with Afghanistan. Indeed analyses on Afghanistan are generally limited to three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. India and other key regional powers – notably Russia, Iran and China – are similarly generally overlooked.

Some experts have rightly called for a “regional solution” to ending conflict in Afghanistan but analysis on the interests of these actors is usually lacking. As international troops continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 and regional actors assume more influential positions, these interests deserve much closer attention.

In the past years, the US’s pre-eminence has permitted regional powers such as Russia, Iran or China to take a ‘cautious allies’ approach in Afghanistan, generally supporting stabilisation efforts but assuming hedging positions open to different future scenarios. There are now signs that the withdrawal of international troops could push regional powers to ‘show their cards’, perhaps moving beyond the caution of the past years.

Contrary to what might be expected by many outside observers, the interests of the most relevant regional actors in the region – particularly as far as national security is concerned – are actually surprisingly similar. But in a regional context as volatile as the current one, it would be naïve to expect these actors to now abandon these hedging strategies.

Hedging their bets

The US and (thereafter) NATO’s decision to withdraw international troops by 2014 was met with scepticism by regional actors. The most vocal of all has been Russia. Its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described NATO’s timeline as “artificial” and has recognised that Russia and other countries in the region are concerned with such a hasty withdrawal “so long as the Afghan side is unable to provide security in the country”. Lavrov insists that NATO troops should fulfil their UN mandate in Afghanistan before they leave. At this stage, a pipe dream at best.

In May, when Obama signed the US Afghan Strategic Partnership in Kabul and it was reported that future agreements would lead to 20,000 US troops staying behind beyond 2014, Russia’s Foreign Minister also came out publicly against the prospect of a long-term US troop presence. In an interview with Afghan Tolo news, Lavrov warned, “we don’t think it would be helpful for the stability in the region”.

Russia’s position – against the withdrawal of international troops but also opposed to a long-term US troop presence – is important because it reflects a glaring dilemma for Russia, China and Iran. The desire for the US and other international actors to maintain resources in Afghanistan to work towards the stabilisation of the country is countered by the fear that the US will use Afghanistan as a satellite state from which to pursue its own interests in the region.

This dilemma has in many ways defined these countries’ attitudes towards Afghanistan in the past years. While India’s increasing ties and investments in the country, which were formalised into a strategic partnership in November of last year, are considered to be substantial and entirely mutually beneficial, the same cannot be said for the three other main regional powers.

To varying degrees, Russia, Iran and China are considered what could be termed ‘cautious allies’ who are hedging their bets in an uncertain Afghan context. All are known to maintain contacts with the Taliban and are seen as underperformers in their potential contributions to stability in Afghanistan.

Moscow’s cooperation with the US on Afghanistan has been an important component of the ‘reset’ in their bilateral relations. Russia has supported NATO’s massive Northern Distribution Network, allowing non-lethal supplies and troops to go through Russian territory and airspace. And in cooperation with Japan, Russia will soon start a training project aimed at boosting the counter-narcotics capacities of Afghan policemen. But apart from helping to rebuild Soviet era projects, the US and Europe complain that Moscow’s actual economic support to Afghanistan is lukewarm.

Iran has been and continues to be very much present in Afghanistan, especially in the west, where it is both the economic and cultural regional reference. While Ahmedinejad and Karzai have created a close bilateral relationship despite the US, accusations from the Pentagon persist about the undercover support that elements in the Ayatollah’s regime provide to the insurgency to create instability. Lately the Afghan intelligence services have also accused Iran of different subversive activities ranging from causing instability in the bordering region of Nimruz to contributing to the alarming rise of insider Afghan troop attacks on Western forces.

A lot has been written on China’s growing economic role in Afghanistan.  The massive oil and copper mining concessions that Chinese companies have won were at first a cause of great optimism for Afghans. Now, however, many Afghan officials complain that work in these areas is being uncharacteristically stalled by the Chinese, reflecting doubts on Beijing’s confidence in the country’s short to mid-term stability. And despite being a major global power, China is only a minor donor in Afghanistan.

Balancing common interests and concerns

All in all though, it is important to clarify that regional powers’ interests are mostly aligned with those of Afghanistan and the international community. This alignment of interests – with important caveats – between India, Iran, Russia and China in favour of a stable Afghanistan stems mostly from crucial national security interests.

For one thing all of these regional powers share concern over the spread of Islamic radicalism. India and Russia feel directly under threat by the attacks perpetrated by terrorist groups such as Lashkar e Taiba (based in Pakistan) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (active in Central Asia). The threat of radicalism growing among these countries’ own sizeable Muslim minorities is also a concern. Similarly, China is worried about the 8 million Muslim Uyghurs of the Xingiang region. And as the Shi’a regional power, Iran has never shown much sympathy to the Taliban’s anti-Shi’a Sunni Deobandi interpretation of Islam.

The fight against the drug trade stemming from Afghanistan has become another point of common interest. Both Russia and Iran are facing massive internal health crises over drug addiction and speak openly of their ‘war on drugs’. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – to which all relevant regional powers belong as member or observer states – is looking to become more active in this area.

With such important aligned interests, why then do many of these regional powers act as ‘cautious allies’, not doing everything in their power in the interest of stability in Afghanistan?

One important explanation is the presence of international forces in the country. While this presence has meant that they could benefit from the US and NATO/ISAF’s work in the country while not being accused of the failures of the international community’s stabilisation efforts, the threat posed by US troops in the heart of the region and lingering suspicions over their real intentions has never subsided. In private, one Chinese diplomat in Kabul recently put it in these terms: “If the US is willing to use drones and special forces in Pakistan’s territory, what assures us that they will not do the same in other parts of the region?”

Another important reason for a cautious approach is Pakistan itself, where the spread of Islamic radicalism coupled with a lingering socio-economic crisis threatens to reach a crisis point. With 170 million people and nuclear capability, the destabilising potential posed by Pakistan has added a key element of uncertainty to the regional balance of power. Pakistan is also the largest exporter to Afghanistan but the main obstacle to regional economic integration due to its bilateral conflicts with India. How these regional powers position themselves in Afghanistan may, in fact, increasingly depend on how they view the situation in Pakistan. 

In this context, the hedging strategies of regional powers in Afghanistan become more understandable. Sometimes the contradictory positions and actions by these actors should be largely attributed to a complex and rapidly changing context. While a strategy of maintaining contacts with different actors and of being cautious with economic investments in such a context make for quality conspiracy theory material (a favourite pastime in the region), looked at closely it mainly seems to answer to classic realpolitik calculations.

Positive signs, blurry outlook

Despite all these uncertainties things appear to be changing as far as the commitment of regional powers to Afghanistan is concerned. As the US and other international actors’ presence abates, regional powers will feel more obliged to cover the possible security vacuum left behind and may find they now have more to gain in terms of visibility and potential profits.

In private meetings in Kabul in April 2012 with high-level diplomats from Pakistan, India, Russia and China, all spoke of a new era of commitment in Afghanistan. With his statement at the Tokyo donors conference this July, Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi did much the same, without missing the opportunity to take a jab at the US: “We think when the foreign troops leave, Afghanistan needs assistance from its neighbours to make up for the last decade of destruction”.

There have also been actions beyond words that seem to indicate positive changes. Beijing, answering the US and Afghanistan’s call, has used its own ‘special relationship’ with Islamabad to begin a China-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral dialogue in which it is more vigorously pressuring Islamabad to take an active role against Islamic militants in its own borders. Government officials are now reportedly considering establishing an India-China-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan. In parallel, China has also begun helping to train Afghan law enforcement officials.

Timid advances in regional economic integration efforts also appear to be taking place. The Istanbul process, initially received with scepticism due to the US’s involvement and the range of other existing regional fora, now has all relevant stakeholders participating in working groups in areas such as regional infrastructure, counter terrorism and commercial opportunities. While nobody expects a panacea for competing geo-strategic projects at stake such as energy pipelines, it is important both practically and psychologically that Afghanistan and its neighbours come together to work towards the economic integration of the region at this crucial stage. 

All this said, regional powers are likely to maintain a cautious ‘wait and see approach’ with regards to Afghanistan. Too much uncertainty remains over the country’s future. With international troops withdrawing, a new Presidential election due to be held in Afghanistan by 2014 and negotiations with the Taliban continuing in some form or another, the near future is unclear for Afghanistan. While some analysts point to an Afghan civil war like the one that devastated the country soon after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, different, hitherto unknown scenarios will more likely be drawn.  

In his epic book Ghost Wars, Steve Coll argues that “as much as any other individual, Prince Faisal became an architect of Afghanistan’s destiny in the two decades after 1979”. Today it would be difficult to say the same thing about Saudi Arabia’s current intelligence chief. Indeed the most influential regional actors in Afghanistan have changed. But one thing remains clear. Overlooking regional powers’ role in Afghanistan was, is and will certainly continue to be a sure-fire recipe towards misdiagnosing the challenges the country faces and the solutions it must work towards.

This article builds on CIDOB's policy research project Sources of Tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan: a Regional Perspective, which maps the role of regional actors in sources of tension in Afghanistan and Pakistan through papers from regional experts, trips to the region, and expert round-table seminars.

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