There could be many spoilers who want to see the peace process in Afghanistan fails. But four of them stand out: President Ashraf Ghani; the al-Qaeda; Iran’s Fatyeamyoun Army; and India. Ghani’s motives are clear: he will lose his presidency after the successful implementation of the US-Taliban Peace Accord. Al-Qaeda’s main motives are also straightforward: to see the US and NATO leave Afghanistan without achieving their strategic goal which was to not allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to return to Afghanistan and use the soil for their destructive activities against the US or their allies. Iran’s and, more so, motives of India are more complex to comprehend.
At the end of this analysis, recommendations are offered to the US and NATO to create an International Peacekeeping Force together with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for Afghanistan. In addition, Afghanistan needs to align their security policies with the Arab Gulf Countries. It is a deficiency on behalf of the American administration that none of the Gulf countries have been invited to the forthcoming high-level meeting on Afghanistan. More importantly, the parliament of Afghanistan, Middle Eastern states, the US and NATO must prevent president Ghani from integrating the Iranian trained mercenaries, the Fatyeamyoun Army, into the NATO-trained Afghan Security Forces.
The Iranian Agenda
Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, during an interview with the TOLOnews, suggested that the Afghan government should consider integrating the Fatyeamyoun Army into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A suggestion that resembles a hypothetical recommendation to the government of Saudi Arabia to integrate the organization of al-Qaeda into the security forces of that country.
The Fatyeamyoun Army has been recruited from among Afghan refugee communities in Iran by the regime’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. Their mission has been to defend the geostrategic interests of Iran in the Middle East. The army had a prominent role in winning the civil war for the Bashar-al Assad regime in Syria. While it seems unthinkable for the Saudi government to integrate al-Qaeda into their security forces, the idea of Afghanistan integrating Fatyeamyoun into the ANSF does not seem too far-fetched.
The appointment of Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a prominent Shia warlord, as an advisor to the president of Afghanistan in political and security affairs in recent weeks caught almost everyone by surprise. President Ghani never had cordial relations with Mohaqiq in the past. He had sacked Mohaqiq from his position as deputy chief executive of Afghanistan. His membership in the National Security Council had been suspended by the president because he had travelled to Iran to congratulate the late leader of the Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani in person, and for praising the role of the Fatyeamyoun Army in winning the war in Syria. The Fatyeamyoun Army conducted their warfare in Syria and Iraq under direct command from General Soleimani. The current vice president, who used to be the chief spy of Afghanistan, had once accused Mohaqiq as an agent of a foreign power, an indication towards Iran.
The hidden agenda for President Ghani in appointing Mohaqiq as his advisor, apparently, is to facilitate integration of the Fatyeamyoun Army into the ANSF. While the international forces have already downsized their numbers to the lowest in the last 15 years, at the same time, the rate of security personnel abandoning ANSF has gone up in recent past. If the agenda for the government is to keep the war going, even after the full withdrawal of the Western forces in the coming summer, they inevitably have to rely on militias, like the Fatyeamyoun, to fight against the Taliban. Javad Zarif’s recommendation, therefore, must have been appreciated and welcomed by Ghani.
Inclusion of Fatyeamyoun into the ANSF is part of the bigger Iranian agenda for the entire Middle East. Tehran, in addition, has been looking to gain more from Ghani’s government, which is placed in a vulnerable position due to decreasing domestic and international support to his government. In an earlier visit to Afghanistan, deputy foreign minister of Iran was demanding from Afghanistan to make surplus concessions in favour of Iran from the water of the Helmand River. The Helmand River Treaty was signed between the governments of Afghanistan and Iran in 1973. The countries had actually initiated their exchanges on how to allocate the water for the people on both sides of the border in its most efficient manner since over a century earlier.
The Indian Agendas
The author of this analysis used to believe that India was conducting their rivalry with Pakistan by influencing Afghans and other peoples from Central Asia, with their support for democracy, peace, inclusivity, and respect for human rights. However, after reading the two books — Beijing’s Power and China’s Borders: Twenty Nieghbors in Asia, and the End of Strategic Stability?: Nuclear Weapons and the Challenges of Regional Rivalries, he was stimulated to conduct a deeper research on the subject matter. Consequently, he came to the conclusion that India is involved in Afghanistan solely for their own security reasons and the aforementioned principles and values are used, artfully, by India to cover-up their true motives for their engagement in Afghanistan.
India has become a popular counterpart to the reconstruction of Afghanistan ever since the United States overthrew the Taliban regime, however, the belief that India is an agent of stability for Afghanistan is simply ill-informed. On the contrary, a chaotic and unstable Afghanistan can better serve India’s geopolitical interests. This article will recount the incentives and privileges; unique and unparalleled in the entire world, that India can attain from an unstable Afghanistan in their conflicts with Pakistan and China.
1. Rivalries Against Pakistan
A unique similarity between India and Afghanistan is the fact that both of them share land borders with both Pakistan and China. Enmity with India has bonded a deep strategic alliance between Pakistan and China. India and Pakistan blame one another for using non-state groups for the destabilization of their respective countries by the other.
India has one of the largest armies in the world and is one of the very few countries that is armed with nuclear weapons. Yet, India is incapable of deterring its enemies from threatening the safety and security of its citizens within its own borders. India has no remedy to counter Pakistan-sponsored unconventional forces through the utilization of its own conventional forces.
In the event that Pakistan-based militant groups strike an attack against India, and India’s conventional forces retaliate by targeting the hypothetical suspects inside Pakistan, Pakistan has a declared policy that enables them to use their tactical nuclear weapons, Hatf IX and Nasr, the 60-km range nuclear ballistic missiles, against conventional Indian aggression. Pakistan justifies its stand by arguing that it is unable to match the far superior conventional forces of India with their own conventional military capabilities.
After nuclearization, Pakistan has apparently found its effective magic wand. That is, the combination of conventional and unconventional forces with an addition of tactical nuclear arsenals. Non-conventional forces give a balancing power, if not an absolute and comparative advantage to Pakistan against India. Pakistan paraded its capabilities for the first time during the Kargil war in 1998. The Kargil incident awakened India to the reality that efficiency of its current military-security approach in dealing with Pakistan had become obsolete.
As an initial step to up-to-date its military prowess, India opened its first ever overseas military base in Tajikistan in 2001. The base allows India to carry reconnaissance operations about Pakistani military exercises in Kashmir. Tajikistan does not border Kashmir and there is the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan that separates the two.
The US invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks provided a golden, though an unexpected and surprising opportunity for India not only to keep in check Pakistan’s performance in Kashmir but also to make its foe cry out loud about the insecurities within its own major cities and populated centers.
Pakistan has thrown a fit far more over the presence of Indian consulates near its borders in Afghanistan than about the presence of hundreds of thousands of Indian troops stationed just across from the Line of Control, which separates Indian and Pakistani controlled Kashmir. Through its presence in Afghanistan, India has effectively inserted fear into the minds of Pakistani strategists that it too can manipulate existing separatist and nationalistic sentiments within Pakistan and can counter and challenge the latter’s absolute monopoly over non-state actors in the region. Indian consulates, Pakistan suspects, are espionage centers to nurture anti-Pakistani proxies. By losing its exclusive tenure over sub-conventional forces in South Asia, Pakistan’s defence shield, consequently, foils against a superior India.
The 10-years-long Soviet Union occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s enabled Pakistan to recruit and train its own proxies from among Afghan anti-Soviet resistance forces and millions of refugees who had sought asylum in Pakistan. The 20-years-long American occupation has enabled India to extend its own clandestine networks amongst Afghanistan’s political elites, civil society, media, research groups, warlords, tribal leaders, and also the business community and maybe the drug mafia.
By manipulating the territory of Afghanistan, India achieves dual strategic goals. India cannot be accused of sponsoring terrorism within its own territory and, at the same time, can balance the terror exercised by Pakistan-sponsored non-state actors against them without giving an excuse to Pakistan to use tactical nuclear weapons against Indian conventional forces. Even more advantageous for India is the fact that this policy shifts conflict from India’s territory and far away from its borders.
Foundation of mistrust between Afghanistan and Pakistan
The general belief in Afghanistan and the world is that India is a natural friend of Afghanistan. President Donald Trump’s South Asia Strategy called India an agent of stability for Afghanistan. The strategy, apparently, had based their expectation from India, without realistically and critically evaluating India’s own motives and incentives for their engagement in Afghanistan. The belief is founded on the existence of continued cordial relationships between Afghanistan and India and also the fact that both countries have territorial disputes with their common neighbor, Pakistan.
In fact, Afghanistan was the only country in the world that mourned the birth of Pakistan as an independent state and opposed its membership in the United Nations in 1948. The underpinning reason which forced Afghanistan to make such a painful decision was the fact that Afghanistan could not live with the burden of the imposition of British India’s colonial legacy, known as the Durand Line, upon them. The line separated Afghanistan from British India.
The notorious treaties known as the Gandumak and the Durand were imposed on Afghan Amirs during the last quarter of the 19th century by their powerful patron, British India. According to those treaties, Amir Mohammad Yaqoob Khan and Amir Abdurrahman Khan were obliged to cede parts of Afghanistan’s territory to British India. The colonial empire believed the difficult terrain, made up of high mountains and deep valleys, provided a natural fortification to British India in the wake of a potential onslaught by advancing Tsarist Russian troops.
After the dismemberment of the British Empire, Pakistan continued to claim those lands as part of its own territory, whereas, Afghanistan believes the treaties had been forced on it and after the collapse of the empire it was entitled to take control of its own lands, similar to China’s belief that Tibet had to be fully returned to China after the demise of the British Empire. Afghans, generally, believe that the British Empire had stabbed a dagger into their chest, whereas, Pakistan has been pushing that dagger deeper into their heart and rubbing salt on the wounds.
The displeasure of Afghans grew even further as a result of a theory, put forward by Pakistani army generals during the 1980s, according to which, Pakistan army would use and retreat to the territory of Afghanistan for its own military maneuvers, in the event that India invades Pakistan. The long-strip-like geographical layout of Pakistan versus India makes Pakistan extremely vulnerable to manipulation by the invading Indian armed forces. In addition, blocking Afghanistan from enjoying pragmatic and cordial relationships with India were the core concepts for the theory.
To put that theory into practice, Pakistan must weaken Afghanistan to the point where it cannot stand against Pakistan’s desired designs. Afghans view Pakistan’s covert and overt support to Afghan militant groups in the last 4 decades to be in concurrence with Pakistan’s strategic-depth-seeking policy, which comes at the cost of weakening national state institutions in Afghanistan.
2. Rivalries against China
Afghanistan borders all those troubled areas of Pakistan where actual and potential conflicts exist, right from Gilgit-Baltistan down to Balochistan. Baltistan-Balochistan is also the route for the strategic China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) which connects Xinjiang province in China with Gwadar seaport in Balochistan. China considers Gwadar an alternative shipping route to the Malacca Strait. Chinese authorities are deeply worried that the Malacca strait could easily be blocked by the United States in the course of a potential conflict between the US and China.
CPEC is a crucial part of the grand Chinese program of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and passes through the conflict zone, Kashmir. China launched the BRI in 2013, apparently, in response to the 2011 president Barak Obama’s announcement of the pivot to Asia policy. New Delhi believes that BRI is a geopolitical program that aims to encircle and isolate India from its neighborhood.
In addition, Afghanistan borders one of the most volatile regions of China, Xinjiang, though the length of the border is very short. Many Afghans view Pakistani establishments unfavorable for the aforementioned reasons, whereas, they look at China as a potential contributor to economic development in Afghanistan.
India considers China as the number one enemy for herself, and Pakistan comes after that. India has been striving for decades to avenge its defeat by the hands of China in the war of 1962 and prevent additional land grabs by China. Similarly, India would definitely not want China to become a world power. Via its presence in Afghanistan, India can, potentially, achieve all their strategic goals.
According to a Chinese diplomat, his country has 25 neighbors, where in reality, according to the political map of the world, only 20 countries border China via land and sea. Experts of China’s border relations state that the Chinese official probably had counted Sikkim, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Ladakh in India as well as Okinawa in Japan as their additional neighbors. Chinese ambassador to India reiterated his country’s ill-desire for the territorial integrity of India by claiming the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of Chinese territory.
Experts of Chinese affairs believe that China makes concessions in regional and international affairs when she is facing instability at home. Accordingly, China becomes less compromising in international affairs when it enjoys internal stability. In order to seek favorable results in regards to its disputed 4000 km long border with China, India would naturally welcome instability inside China. Three regions stand out for being more prone to conflict and bringing about internal instability to China: the South China Sea, Tibet, and the province of Xinjiang.
India has been increasing its military presence in the South China Sea. India, enabled by their Act East Policy, has been forging alliances and conducting joint military drills with littoral countries who are against China’s total claim over the sea. China has always suspected India’s involvement in Tibetan political and security distresses. There is no reason that India would desist manipulating deep-rooted disturbances in Xinjiang.
The Muslims of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) fear that their Chinese masters have been robbing them of their religion, culture and also precious natural resources that include some of the rare earth elements and gigantic, though mostly untapped, oil and natural gas reserves. The Uyghur and other Muslim minorities are also threatened by ethnic Hans, who have been mass migrating in recent decades to Xinjiang from other parts of China under the sponsorship of the government, turning ethnic Uyghurs into a minority in their own territory.
For a country to become a world power, according to world history in recent few centuries, it should become a sea power first. Before it becomes a sea power, however, the country needs to become a hegemon in its own neighborhood. Accordingly, to prevent a country from becoming a world power, one should make the neighborhood insecure and volatile for the subject country.
BRI, CPEC, and the strategic alliance with Pakistan enable China to realize their desires for becoming a world power. The CPEC, for example, gives China direct access to the Indian Ocean through which China can become a sea power. BRI projects bring prosperity, and consequently, security to host nations, or in other words, to the larger neighborhood of China. These initiatives, naturally, elevate China to a regional hegemon and ultimately makes them a world power.
If China does become a world power, India will pay the cost by handing over Arunachal Pradesh to China, Kashmir to Pakistan, and also might recognize Sikkim, Assam, and Ladakh as independent states. Even more painful for India, they would have to bury their own aspirations of becoming a world power.
If not in Afghanistan, where else around the globe will India find a better and more conducive venue for itself to efficiently hold back China from becoming a regional hegemon and ultimately a world power, especially when the cost for holding back China is paid by the blood and treasury from Afghanistan, NATO members and the United States of America. Besides, it was the arrival of the United States and NATO in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedies that paved the way for India to reclaim its historic influence in Afghanistan.
It is a safe bet to assume that China is not oblivious and untouched by India’s strategic presence in Afghanistan. Particularly when the pro-Pakistan Taliban movement returns to Kabul without succeeding to be part of an inclusive political architecture that the Taliban-US Peace Accord recommends. Within such a hypothetical context, when the peace accord collapses, most of the anti-Taliban and pro-India groups will center their activities closer to the borders with Central Asia as well as in the northeast. China has vital and strategic programs in all central Asian republics that include multiple gas pipelines from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to China. The $62 billion CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan in Kashmir which borders north-eastern Afghanistan.
Ever since the US-Taliban Peace Talks have gained momentum, more reports of India considering to send troops to Afghanistan have surfaced in the media. The author of this article believes that India is simply presenting a Bollywood-type stage, pretending to be a firm backer of Ghani’s government. In reality, however, India will never send their own troops due to the explicit and implicit financial and geopolitical costs it has to bear, as a result of such a move. Instead, once the current peace process is derailed, Afghanistan will automatically plunge into a civil war, and with that, the borders of Pakistan and China will remain unstable for many years or even decades. Maintaining enemies’ borders unstable, is, apparently, the ultimate strategic calculus of India, not securing Ghani’s government. India can achieve their strategic goal, more efficiently, through their proxies rather than by stationing their conventional forces in Afghanistan.
China’s Interests in Afghanistan
The rivalries between Pakistan and India as well as other regional powers, the pursuit of the strategic-depth policy by Pakistan and occupation of the country by the two Superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, in the last 4 decades has turned Afghanistan into a negative digit. A digit that any positive digit multiplied with, will automatically become negative too. The larger the positive number, the greater negative results it will produce. Chinas’ Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is over a trillion-dollar program. Afghanistan touches all the very initial points, on land, through which the program extends outward.
Afghanistan is not just important for China because its instability can adversely affect their strategic investments in Pakistan and Central Asia; or instability can be extended to Xinjiang from there, but the unique geostrategic position of Afghanistan itself also makes it critically important for Chinese strategists. Afghanistan is neither a party to the conflict in Kashmir nor is it a member of the Russia-led security alliance known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia does not want China to become a world power just as much as India.
In the event of another war between India and Pakistan, the CPEC can potentially get blocked for security concerns, similar to the Malacca Strait that could become non-functional in the course of a potential Sino-US conflict. In addition, Moscow is deeply concerned about Chinese irredentism in Russia’s Eastern Siberia.
Tenure over much of those lands has been contested, historically, by Russia and China. Eastern Siberia is also home to a substantial amount of natural resources, among them, 65% of Russia’s prospective petroleum reserves, 85% of its natural gas reserves, nearly 100% of its diamonds and 70% of its gold. President Putin has been quoted as saying that if the Russian government had failed to prevent the economic decline in Far East Siberia, the future generations would have ended up speaking Chinese. In the event Russia feels more threatened by Chinese advancement or its relations improve with the West, they can exercise their influence via the CSTO to create challenges for China’s BRI projects in Eurasia.
Therefore, Afghanistan having direct borders with China, Turkmenistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Pakistan can provide an alternative, and a much safer corridor from a geostrategic point of view, to connect China with gas and petroleum reserves in Turkmenistan, Iran and also Uzbekistan as well as to Gwadar Seaport and CPEC at a juncture that is far away from the conflict zone in Kashmir.
The US and NATO need to work closely with SCO to introduce an International Peacekeeping Force (IPF) to Afghanistan before their total withdrawal. The IPF should include NATO and SCO member states, excluding India, Pakistan and Russia. India and Pakistan must be excluded for the reasons detailed in this article. Whereas Russia, too, must get excluded due to the bleak memories Afghans have from the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
With the creation of the IPF, US-NATO must end their war mission in Afghanistan and must transfer absolute sovereignty of Afghanistan’s land, air, foreign and domestic affairs to the forthcoming Afghan administration. They must, along with troops from SCO, function in accordance to a Terms of Reference (ToR) that Taliban and other negotiating parties should develop, in close collaboration with NATO and SCO, during their peace talks.
Preferably, the other Afghan factions that are negotiating with the Taliban should make their main demand from the Taliban that they agree to the establishment of the IPF. The IPF must enable the forthcoming transitional administration(s) to function as per the requirements of the peace deal that is yet to be signed between the Taliban and other Afghan groups. All, or a large portion of the remaining US-NATO troops, in addition with an equal number of troops from SCO must form the IPF. Muslim-majority countries like Egypt, the Gulf countries, Indonesia, and Malaysia may also contribute troops to the IPF. The IPF will also have the mandate to ensure that the Taliban do good by all their promises that they have made in the US-Taliban Doha Accord; including their commitment to sever their ties with al-Qaeda.
Without such an arrangement in place, Afghanistan, surely, will plunge into irreversible chaos and civil war. The unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Doha Peace Accord, in other words, extending their war mission beyond May 2021, will also lead to an escalation of violence in the country — a context that will only help regional and international actors, like al-Qaeda, who seek their strategic interests in an unstable and chaotic Afghanistan.
Neither the US nor other NATO members are ready to increase their troop levels in Afghanistan; so that they could effectively change the momentum at the battlefield in favor of Ashraf Ghani’s government. If the peace talks collapse, the Taliban would find themselves committed neither to expelling al-Qaeda from Afghanistan nor to civil liberties in the society, including respecting the rights of women and minorities. The current government has already proven to be ineffective in providing safety and security for the citizens. Their main source of support will be foreign patrons such as Iran and India or militia groups such as the Fatyeamyoun Army.
The parliament of Afghanistan and other national institutions must prevent Ghani’s government from a potential inclusion of the Iranian mercenaries into the ANSF. Because such an inclusion may ensure prolonging his office term but at the cost of eroding the core asset and foundation of the ANSF, which is its credibility and reliability at the national and international level. Instead, the parliament must recommend to the government to align their security interests with countries and organizations that have an obvious and long-term stake and interest in a peaceful Afghanistan and their security interests match Afghanistan’s interests. The Gulf Arabian countries come at the top of such potential partners. The security of these countries and of Afghanistan are being threatened by the same identical actors; namely al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Iran’s proxies. U.S. Department of State must invite foreign ministers from the Gulf Countries, particularly from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the forthcoming high-level peace conference that Turkey is going to host.
Afghanistan had declined offers to join US-sponsored regional security alliances, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) during the Cold War due to the fact that Pakistan had been a member of those alliances and Afghanistan’s unresolved territorial disputes with Pakistan. The contemporary efforts in the region that have already started with normalization of relationships between some of the Gulf countries with the state of Israel, however, excludes Pakistan, therefore, should not prevent Afghanistan from joining these efforts for the sake of its own national interests.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is an independent researcher of energy geopolitics in Central and South Asia. Recipient of Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department. Alumnus of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. Former Afghanistan Correspondent of Agence France Press (AFP). He is currently based in Ontario, Canada and can be reached @AlumniAzam.