A Game as Old as Empire: The Return of Proxy Wars in Afghanistan
History is repeating itself in Afghanistan. Proxy wars and great power politics is returning to the country. It is putting Afghanistan once again at the center stage of regional and global rivalries over influence for a variety of geo-strategic interests and the quest for resources. This time, unlike the past, there are many players including almost all of Afghanistan's neighbors - with the prominent players being Pakistan, Iran, China and India.
Afghanistan at its origin, observed Lord George N. Curzon, was an empty space on the map which was neither Persian nor Russian nor British. It was purely a geographical space which emerged and used as a buffer zone as a result of great power politics between the British Empire and Russian Tsar. Some scholars and historians term Afghanistan as an accidental nation. The nomadic, semi nomadic and settled ethnic groups living in this rugged but vitally strategic land were used as tools to extend the influence and interests of one Empire against the other. The monarchies and militia groups trained and funded by these two empires emerged as a result of these great rivalries used to take turns in preparing the ground for government collapse and capturing Kabul’s centric power through assassinating monarchs and waging coups and rebellions to further the interests of their empire pay masters.
In recent times - the Afghan government and its allies are complaining about enemy sanctuaries and safe havens across the border in Pakistan and Iran for the growing insurgency in the country, but this phenomenon is nothing new. Afghan monarchies and successively the Afghan communist regime were toppled through rebel leaders, dethroned Kings, disgruntled tribal and religious leaders who enjoyed financial and military support in the courts of British Raj, Persian Empire and Russian Tsar and in recent times in safe havens and training grounds provided by the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies.
This time around the stakes are higher and the game is much more complicated than the yesteryears and various countries are furthering their interests within the country through their proxy groups often times with ethnic, racial and sectarian ties to their sponsors.
Understanding the depth of this problem, recently the new Afghan President, Dr. Ashraf Ghani has been consistently warning Afghan neighbors in various forums including the recent SAARC leaders’ summit in Nepal, Heart of Asia conference in Beijing and other multilateral and bilateral meetings that he will not tolerate proxy wars in his country and will not allow Afghan territory to be used against its neighbors from any party involved in the country. But the realities are different with limited wrath of the Afghan state extending beyond major urban centers. This makes ensuring and delivering the promise of Dr. Ghani a difficult job.
Today, Pakistan claims that India is using Afghan territory to support Baloch separatists and Tehreek –i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whereas India has been over the years warning and complaining to the international community over Pakistan’s duplicity and complicity in various terrorist attacks within and outside India. The recent bombings of Indian Embassy and consulate in Afghanistan are in no doubt the handiwork of the various extremist groups supported and trained by the powerful Pakistani military intelligence agency ISI. Furthermore – Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for influence to promote or protect the Shiite and Sunni domination within the power structure in Afghanistan. Russians and Chinese are concerned about Chechens and Uighurs in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and finally an unstable Afghanistan infested with proxy groups present a great threat to the Central Asian states and the security of the Russian Federation and the commercial and economic interests of China in Central Asia.
It seems that history is repeating itself once again in Afghanistan. With the advent of technology and advancements in the land, sea and air transport it seemed that countries such as Afghanistan which were pivotal geostrategic land bridges might have lost its importance, but it seems that these new developments have not done much to diminish the geopolitical importance of the Afghanistan. Geography is still a significant factor in deciding the political and economic fates of the states.
The Rise and Fall of Regimes in Afghanistan: Proxy Wars and Regime Collapse in Afghanistan
By several estimates the average lifetime of republican regimes in Afghanistan is 3.5 years with significant statistical outliers in Afghan monarchies. These are normally regimes which normally lasted over a decade. The reasons for such rapid regime changes, coup d’états and state collapse in Afghanistan are many - chief among them exclusive politics and rebellions supported by outside actors.
One of the effective instruments for toppling various Afghan regimes has been proxy warfare exploiting ethnic and/or religious sensitivities. Without a few exceptions almost all of the historical rebellions in Afghanistan are organized, trained and funded by outside actors and regional players. The British Raj gave refuge and sanctuary to various toppled Afghan kings and statesmen and eventually paved the way for their return whereas the same tactic was used by the Russian Tsar. The Russian Tsar hosted the Afghan emirs including Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, Amir Shir Ali Khan and several other Afghan monarchs in the former “Bukhara” and later on assisted them in their return to power. The last Afghan King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, by several accounts is born in British India and completed his education in France and occupied the throne after his father who also came to power with considerable British support and was later assassinated in a school shooting also enjoyed significant regional support by remaining neutral in regional rivalries.
Furthermore - the Afghan communists, Mujahiddins and more recently Afghan Taliban were all movements which were actively supported, trained and assisted in their rise to power by regional powers. Therefore – outside powers always play a pivotal role in the rise and fall of various regimes in Afghanistan.
Old Game – New Players: Proxy War and Ethnic Conflict in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has been at the epicenter of the “Great Game” and later on the cold war rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States in the lead. After the fall of the Soviet Union – Afghanistan was abandoned to Pakistan and the proxies of other countries chief among them Iran, India, Russia and Central Asian states each of whom supported a particular ethnic faction. It led to a bloody civil war which lasted for almost a decade resulting in the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
Today – this old game is returning with new players. The new proxy war is more localized with regional players i.e. Pakistan and India playing the lead role followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia to safeguard their interests. The stakes are higher this time and so are the costs of inaction for Afghanistan.
Absence of Indigenous Economy: Financial and Economic Dependence
The absence of an indigenous economy and source of financial revenue has made the political sovereignty and military independence of Afghanistan vulnerable to various regional players. For years - Afghan political elites and parties have been dependent on regional funding and support to pursue its political goals inside Afghanistan. The Afghan communist party factions i.e. PDA Khalq (People) and Parcham (Flag) factions were heavily reliant on Moscow while various Mujahiddin factions on Pakistani, Iranian, Saudi Arabian and Western support and the current Afghan government is heavily reliant on western military and financial support.
During his tenure as former President, Hamid Karzai acknowledged that his office was receiving millions of dollars from western and regional intelligence agencies for various payments. This clearly implies that just like British Raj and Russian Tsar was buying loyalty in the Afghan royal court then today the same financial manipulation in exchange for loyalty is happening in the corridors of Afghan Presidential palace.
This dependence has made Afghanistan and its multiethnic mosaic social structure vulnerable to political manipulation and the biggest threat to its national security and long-term stability. Almost all the ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan are in various ways politically and economically supported by regional countries.
For Afghanistan to preserve its political sovereignty in the true sense of the word – it has to find a sustainable source of financial revenue and a comparative advantage. Political sovereignty without financial independence has no meaning. So long as Afghanistan remains a financially dependent state – it will remain an unstable state vulnerable to regional proxy wars.
The Vicious Cycle of Traps: The Crisis of Governance and Statesmanship
Afghanistan since its establishments as an independent state has been consistently tangled in four traps of poverty, bad governance, geographical limitation and internal conflicts. Each of these traps have been reinforcing each other.
Throughout history, Afghan statesmen have either completely monopolized power or wealth or been struggling for the control of the country through quelling internal rebellions under various banners and causes. This has given the little time to think strategically about their country and its vision and future. The first Afghan statesmen who rose to fame due to his 5-year plans and presenting the first vision of governance, economic development and addressing internal conflict and geographic limitations of the country was Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan who fell out with his communist allies and was brutally murdered inside the Afghan Presidential palace. The rest of the government have either been too much preoccupied with preserving power or fighting for control of the country.
In essence – the country has been in some sort of war since its establishment as an independent state. It has suffered from a crisis of governance and leadership and the traps have only been pushing Afghanistan deeper and deeper into a state of crisis.
From Vicious Cycle to Virtuous Cycle: Hard Decisions to make for Afghanistan
In order to reverse this historical trend and address the four traps of poverty, bad governance, geographical limitation and internal conflicts; Afghan statesmen and policymakers will have to make some very hard choices and bring Afghanistan out of this vicious cycle and put into a virtuous cycle of stability and peace. Some of these hard decisions require statesmanship, courage combined with a vision and foresight for the country.
To address these four traps – Afghan statesmen and policy makers will have to take the following three vital steps:
- Forge a national agenda and broad-based consensus across all political parties and ethnic groups on key national interests, priorities and threats of the country. Afghanistan should start a national movement of internal rejuvenation and national awakening. Afghanistan will only prosper at a time when its leadership and commoners understand that the only way to stability is through the hardwork and unity of Afghans and its neighbors. Nobody else can hand in peace and stability to Afghanistan but the Afghans themselves with their neighbors.
- Afghanistan will have to reach a fundamental agreement with its neighbor particularly Pakistan and Iran that in return for safeguarding their legitimate interests in Afghanistan – they will stop interference and proxy warfare in the country. This can be done through a long process of honest and direct diplomatic and bilateral negotiations.
- And finally, without an indigenous economy and financial self-reliance, Afghanistan cannot become a truly sovereign state. Financial dependence and economic vulnerabilities will continue to make Afghanistan and various Afghan ethnic groups prone to political manipulation and military sabotage by regional players and criminal networks.
How to Manage Regional and Global Interests: A Framework
When it comes to the management of regional interests in Afghanistan – there are three schools of thought who in some cases pursue complementary and also contradictory views.
The proponents of the first view opine that Afghanistan like many other countries with a vital geostrategic location should take advantage of these rivalries to build itself. This means that through wise leadership and smart diplomacy just like Pakistan – Afghanistan can exploit the geopolitical vulnerabilities of its allies and neighbors and in return get the required economic and military assistance to build its economy and military capabilities. This is very hard under the current circumstances
The proponents of the second view are supporting that Afghanistan should remain a neutral state and give vital guarantees to its neighbors and other major powers that its soil will not be used against one or several of its neighbors. This policy has been pursued time and again by Afghan statesmen and policy makers, but it has not paid much dividend except it kept the country weakened and divided.
And finally, the proponents of the third view advocate that Afghanistan should ally itself with one of the major global powers i.e. United States, China or Russia and by getting the required security and economic guarantees and then serve as the frontline state in ensuring its interests through the pursuit of the interests of its allied power.
All of the above options require a broad-based and strong government in Kabul with a long-term view of its interests. Afghanistan will sooner or later have to make some tough decisions when it comes to its survival and long-term interests or get dumped as it often does into the dark pages of history.
Throughout history– Afghan statesmen and monarchs have fallen prey to the great power politics and regional proxy warfare due to their failure to manage the geopolitical and strategic interests of various regional and global powers in its soil. But this time the stakes are higher and involves the survival of the Afghan state. A combination of smart leadership, active diplomacy and a strong governance will enable Afghanistan to swim the tides.