Regional Power and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan
Editors Note: The views expressed in this article is not representative of the opinions of the McGill International Review.
Understanding any conflict requires a clear recognition of its causes. Each conflict is a unique situation, and it needs a unique set of approaches to solve it; one generic solution will not solve most conflicts. It’s multidisciplinary, requiring one to approach it from various perspectives— combining psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics, regional cooperation, and international relations, amongst others. Over the past ten years, the United States and the government of Afghanistan have had many conversations with the Taliban group to end the conflict and attempt to bring peace in the country.
Despite the early efforts to start peace talks, the United States and the National Unity Government (NUG) did not stop its long war with the Taliban. They mainly considered a liberal peace-building approach focused on three elements of peacebuilding— building the Afghan National Police, building the Afghan National Army, and disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating the Taliban. This liberal approach, however, did not end the conflict because the main actors are not only the Taliban insurgency. There are other major stakeholders in the region, mainly Pakistan, Iran and Russia; each with their own agendas which included supporting the Taliban insurgency with sophisticated weapons, military training and intelligence and finances. This article illustrates how regional powers such as Russia, Iran, and Pakistan played a key role in causing conflict and conversely how they can play a key role in bringing peace to Afghanistan.
In the beginning, the Taliban consisted mainly of a large group of Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan due to the Soviet-Afghan War where they were radicalized in madrasa (“religious schools”) or in camps. They were sponsored by the Pakistan Intelligence Service (ISI) with weapons, explosives, military intelligence, and finances. As military proxies, they were sent into Afghanistan to install a very strict form of traditional Islamic law and to reject western values in the government and in society. The Taliban first emerged in 1994 in the Kandahar province in Southwest Afghanistan in order to stabilize the country into a strict anti-western, Muslim state with strong ties to Pakistan. The Taliban insurgents were able to expand their networks to a point where they had control of Kabul and essentially 80 % of the country in 1996. By 2001, only a few northern provinces were not under Taliban control. Although the Taliban started off as a force for social order in a country faced with continuous civil war, it soon started to exhibit some very extremist and repressive social policies, namely: the exclusion of women from public life, work and education; the implementation of harsh criminal punishments; the systematic destruction of non-Islamic artistic relics; the imposition of strict Sharia Law, and finally, to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorist groups. This last policy caused the US in September 2001 to invade the country in order to capture and/or kill Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, starting the Taliban-U.S. War and temporarily ousting the Taliban from the country and set the stage for a new era of contemporary Afghan history.
1) Pakistan and Taliban
According to the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of U.S. Mike Mullen, “extremist’s organizations serving as proxies for the government of Pakistan are attacking Afghanistan troops and civilians as well as U.S. soldiers. The Haqqani network, he said is, in many ways, a strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency ISI.” Of the three contiguous external actors, Pakistan can be the most destructive to Afghanistan’s survival as a modern state. Pakistan does not mind an independent Afghanistan as long as India and Iran are not in a position to threaten Pakistan’s security. The ISI felt threatened by India and Iran’s growing economic influence in Afghanistan. Its response was to militarize the many Afghan-Taliban refugees from the Soviet-Afghan War then send them back into Afghanistan as insurgents to seriously disrupt and destabilize the government, its military forces and society in general and specifically to establish a government friendly to Pakistan.
2) Iran and the Taliban
After Pakistan, another stakeholder in the Afghan conflict was Iran. The two have a poor relationship from when the Taliban had a firm grasp of Afghanistan from 1996 – 2001. Discord started in 1998 when the Taliban captured the city of Mazar Sharif and killed hundreds of Shia Muslim, eight Iranian diplomats and journalists, thus becoming a serious enemy of Iran. This shifted in 2001 however, when Iran became allies of the Taliban even while they remained firm development and economic supporters of the Afghan government. There is much evidence that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard supports the Taliban with weapons, explosive roadside bombs, tactical training, and trained insurgency troops. Tehran hoped to create a state of managed instability in Afghanistan at least until the time came for the U.S. to withdraw its forces. It is paramount for both the Taliban and Iran that the U.S. leaves the country.
3) Russia and the Taliban
Russia can play a key role in bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan. It has a significant influence in the region because of positive relationships with the two other aforementioned foreign actors. If Russia would be willing to stop military assistance to the Taliban and encourage them to engage in peace talks with the NU Government, this effort would have a positive outcome in ending the conflict and in supporting peacebuilding in Afghanistan.
Over the past decade, Russia has been working with the United States to prevent chaos and the re-emergence of a safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan. Both countries had similar aims in supporting a democratic and stable government to bring more positive change into Afghanistan. Despite this, the two states have had different approaches to peacebuilding in Afghanistan, where “the U.S. approach is founded on creating a strong central government in Kabul and a well-equipped and well-trained national security force; Russia, meanwhile, works with a wide range of actors, some of which compete directly with the government in Kabul.” Moreover, the United States accuses Russia of continuing to provide military assistance to the Taliban insurgency. However, during the conflict between former president Rabbani’s army and the Taliban group from 1996 to 2000, Russia was backing the President Rabbani government against the Taliban insurgency. Russia has recently turned to the group for intelligence sharing against the common foe: The Islamic State (ISIS). As Zamir Kabulov, Russian special envoy to Afghanistan, recently said, “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.”
For the past five years, Russia has been fighting shoulder to shoulder with Bashar Al-Assad’s regime against the ISIS group in Syria and driving them out of most of the country. Recently, both forces (ISIS and Taliban) were in conflict with one another. The Afghan Taliban insurgency is continuing to fight against ISIS in the northeast of Afghanistan. Russia believes that the Taliban is able to drive out ISIS from the shared borders those between Afghanistan and Central Asia, most particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Therefore, Russia has been supporting the Taliban insurgency and they have a good relationship with them. In order to make peace with the Taliban insurgency, Russia as a regional power can play a significant role to stop the conflict in Afghanistan and find a political solution between the NUG and the Taliban.
Conflict Resolution Perspectives
1) Present Internal Peace Solutions
As was stated earlier, peace solutions for Afghanistan are dependent on the internal resolution of conflict and the positive co-operation of external actors like Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and the United States.
Afghanistan, if left to its own devices and without negative external influences, is well on its way to solving its own internal solution. Politically its acceptance of democracy is remarkable, what with its free elections and peaceful transitions, its new constitution, and parliamentary system. Socially its improving women’s rights, more young people are attending higher institutions of education. There is a positive attitude about being an Afghan rather than just Pashtun or Persian. There is a growing feeling that what matters is “what you know; not who you know.” Added to this hopeful progress is the fact that the NUG’s security forces are becoming more numerous, well trained and well equipped.
The United States, NATO allies, Pakistan, Iran, China, India and many other countries aided in this social development (2001-2009) by contributing well in excess of $38 billion and eventually trillions to be used for reconstruction assistance, establishing core institutions and training and equipping the new security forces.
2) Present Suggestions for Peace Solutions
The idea of living in a democracy has become very popular with the great majority of the Afghan people. They are well in tune with the basics of democracy. They are about to go through their third mostly free elections; the writing of an updated constitution emphasizing the division of presidential and parliamentary powers and featuring the rule of law. Further, civil rights are much improved. This is especially true for women’s rights. Lastly, the establishment of a well trained and equipped army and police force who are daily gaining experience dealing with insurgents.
The U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan for 18 years, the longest period in its history. The American people are “war-weary” but the country is caught in a catch-22 situation. As Simond Tisdall of the Guardian said in May 2018: “they can’t win, they can’t stop and they can’t leave.” They “can’t win” because they are not willing to commit to an indefinite period of time greater numbers of soldiers and billions more of finances. The situation is further exasperated by the fact that the Taliban and their al Qaeda/ISIS allies are getting stronger. They “can’t stop” because they may have to forfeit all the goals and gains that brought them there in the first place, i.e. the elimination of al Qaeda; checking the entry of Russians and/or Iranians from filling the vacuum. They “can’t leave” because even though Afghanistan is moving in the right direction to sustainable self-directed democracy, it is will still be in a fragile state for several years to come and the U.S. is in the best position to guarantee its progress.
The U.S. now realizes that the war cannot be won in a classical way and so it must consider several alternative strategies. Most of these ways depend on accepting the premise that Afghanistan is an inherently strong country who will provide for themselves if given the correct guidance, information and time. From a U.S. point of view, this involves the U.S. gradually changing its focus from a combat force to an increasing capacity training force to service all areas of development to name a few: policing, combat arms, logistics, transportation and other areas of governance, ministry organization and their operation, educational institutes, commerce, civil rights, courts and justice.
An added benefit to adopting a capacity building plan is that it would be more acceptable to other countries who would like to help if they could send civilian experts and trainers rather than military. It might take longer to achieve but it would be more productive for Afghanistan. As the popular adage goes, “rather than just giving them fish; show them how to fish.”
The U.S. can perhaps shorten its time in Afghanistan by seriously encouraging all the actors to accept a negotiated peace. Ultimately, however, it will be up to elected leaders, the Taliban, and Afghans from all parts of society to determine the course of their destiny. Nevertheless, for the immediate future, it is correct that the NU Government insists that a cease-fire ought to be enacted before peace negotiations can begin. Moreover, the Taliban must negotiate with the NUG and not just with the U.S. representatives. The Taliban say they will not talk to the President as his government is simply a “puppet” for the United States. Nevertheless, the President has pointed out that the Taliban will need to negotiate exclusively with the NUG in regards to the conditions under which the Taliban could be a legitimate political party with the right to partake in modifying the new constitution, to hold political offices, and have its fighters integrated into the NU armed forces and police. All this may come to pass if the Taliban recognize the rule of law and the civil rights of all citizens. Lastly, the Taliban should disassociate itself from its former terrorist allies.
It is felt that the Afghan Taliban is themselves are becoming war-weary and are seeking a political solution. Further, as Pakistan begins to withdraw its support, they see the writing on the wall and know that they will have to eventually negotiate with the NU Government. But before they do that they want to build leverage for peace talks by demonstrating that they are still dangerous and destructive. To buy themselves time for this strategy, they’ll claim to be unwilling to talk to President Gahni because he is an American follower. Rather they only talk with the Americans and/or other Afghan persons. When they eventually do talk with President Gahni they will negotiate their wish list— being recognized as a legitimate party, obtaining official political offices, assisting in the writing of the new constitution, some acceptance of Sharia law, and integrating Taliban fighters into the Afghan security forces.
The establishment of a ceasefire and peace negotiations does not automatically guarantee successful harmony in Afghanistan, but given that war is not an option, they are necessary first steps. Meaningful peace negotiations are a tedious and complex process. The very fact that the Taliban and the Afghan people are negotiating will satisfy most of the concerns of the regional actors. All, including the United States, will like that the foreign terrorist groups will be expelled. All will like that the U.S. will reduce itself from a combat force to a smaller training force and eventually will withdraw from the country. All will like that Afghanistan will become a happier and more stable country.
For its part, Pakistan will only have to deal with its domestic Pakistan-Taliban. It will again be in the good graces of its U.S. benefactors. It will be on a normal footing with its fellow Muslim countries. The Iranians would especially like a stable Afghanistan where their growing influence in reconstruction and investment projects would be more effective. Lastly, the Russians mostly appreciate the security of not having terrorist groups infiltrating their country through the Afghanistan border.
The three contiguous countries, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, have the most influence on the Taliban. Therefore, without considering the role of these actors on peace-building in Afghanistan, there is only little possibility of successfully making progress in peace-building. The NUG needs to work towards a new framework on a peace that supports and reflects the currently held attributes and values of Afghanistan, including democracy, elections and its system of justice.
This new framework on peace-building should also focus on other elements, such as traditional conflict resolutions, mechanisms and the regional power approach on peace negotiations with the Taliban group. Achieving a sustainable peace in Afghanistan requires active cooperation between regional powers and international actors on peace-building in the region. In this context, the United States can play a positive role by changing its strategy towards the three countries and working with the regional actors on peace-building in Afghanistan.
The cooperation between the regional power and the United States will have a remarkable outcome on peace-building in Afghanistan. In this regard, the NUG has a responsibility to work with the U.S. and the other three regional power for a new understanding of peace talks. Conflict in Afghanistan is not only a domestic war between the NUG and the Taliban insurgency, but it is also a proxy war between the United States and three regional powers. Thus, if these countries stop their support of the Taliban group and work with the NUG on peace talks there is a great possibility. This will end the conflict in Afghanistan and will be reached a political settlement with the Taliban group.
Mohammad Dawood Qayomi is a former diplomat of Afghanistan to Canada. He is currently completing his MA in Peace & Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University.