Untangling Afghanistan: Proxy wars and geopolitical rivalries

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently spoke in an interview of Afghanistan’s need for Russian support. Decrying the US for ‘killing us for 17 years’, he claimed that Russian support was the only means with which peace could be achieved in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The belief of some in Kabul is that the Taliban’s strength is reliant upon Pakistan and, with enough international pressure, Pakistan will withdraw its support. The US was originally supposed to provide this pressure. However, Karzai’s desire for non-US international support, born out of the US’ ruined reputation in the region, is well documented. Russia was not the first country he turned to. In 2017, Karzai attempted to reach out to India for support, suggesting that they replace the US as the military force upholding the Afghan government. He suggested that such action would be in India’s national interest, as it would damage Pakistan. Pakistan’s apparent support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a permanent stumbling block when it comes to bettering Afghan-Pakistan relations. However, India’s military strength pales in comparison to that of the US. India does not have the means to replace the USA, and many in Afghanistan would regard any Indian intervention as suspect, India being regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Indeed the core of the Afghan problem is regarded by many as the Indo-Pakistan proxy war being fought out on the streets of Kabul.

The problem with Afghanistan now turning to Russia is Russia’s apparent desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Relations between Russia and India have become strained recently due to burgeoning tensions between India and China. India’s response to these tensions has been to improve relations with the US, who are hoping India will effectively curb China’s influence. Russia has recognised that improved relations with Pakistan will, therefore, put pressure on India, improve relations with China and further antagonise the USA.

This leaves Afghanistan at a disadvantage. Officials in Kabul were celebrating news of Trump’s removal of two billion dollars in security aid to Pakistan, believing this would weaken the Afghanistan Taliban. A minority within Pakistan have blamed the Pakistan military for this, claiming that their tacit support for extremist groups has brought about this decision. Inevitably, Trump’s actions have increased street-level anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. It is therefore unlikely that such action will cause a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is a tremendous fear within Pakistan of a ‘pincer’ move by Afghanistan and India. As a consequence, Pakistan’s actions regarding Afghanistan will always be motivated by the desire to ensure Pakistan’s security. Unfortunately, an unstable Afghanistan is more beneficial to Pakistan than a stabilised administration that is allied with India.

China has moved to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations by including Afghanistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is part of the Belt and Road initiative, China’s attempt to recreate the Silk Road. However, CPEC is already controversial due to its being built through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India and Pakistan have constantly fought over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and India does not recognise Pakistan’s control of the Northern half of the state. By extending the offer to Afghanistan, China has faced India with the prospect of losing a regional ally to its economic rival.

Untangling all of these geopolitical relationships is an almost impossible task. If Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving peace with the Taliban, then their relationship with Pakistan has to improve.  The level of mistrust between the two countries is a major hindrance to the process. As long as it continues, the Taliban will always have a potential ally in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, the mistrust is founded on the conflict between Pakistan and India.  Afghanistan plays a vital geopolitical role for both of these countries. Both are experiencing significant political tensions, not only with each other but with China and the USA as well. Until these issues are resolved, international support for a stable Afghanistan will continue to be deprioritised due to security concerns.

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