As the year 2011 nears its end and analysts all over the world write their end-of-year reviews, Afghan journalist Akmal Dawi discusses Afghanistan’s regional relations. He finds Kabul at odds with many regional capitals, for reasons that are beyond its control, and wonders what kind of hostile post-2014 neighbourhood Afghanistan may find itself in.
President Hamid Karzai calls the Iranian and Pakistani presidents his “brothers” and even asserts that Afghanistan would side with its eastern Muslim neighbour if it ever goes to war with the United States. However, this brotherhood diplomacy will ultimately not work because both Iranian and Pakistani leaders seem to look at Afghanistan as an invaded country which will be up-for-grabs after 2014.
From Tehran to Islamabad, and beyond, Kabul is unduly at odds with many regional capitals mostly on issues which spill beyond Afghanistan’s control.
Tehran, to start with, has officially called on Kabul to stop US reconnaissance flights from Afghanistan over its territory. This might be a legitimate request, but it falls on the table of an Afghan President whose regular pleas to US-NATO to end brutal night raids in his country have been rebuffed by junior NATO spokespeople. Tehran, certainly, prefers a failed US-NATO mission to a successful Afghanistan.
Islamabad, too, is informally at war with US-NATO since 26 November 2011, when 24 Pakistani border militias were killed in a NATO air strike. Violating its transit and anti-terrorism obligations, the Pakistani army not only tries to penalize US-NATO forces in Afghanistan by closing the border to its supplies, but also an Afghan President who calls Pakistan his second home (Pakistan refused to attend the much-publicised Bonn conference, accused Karzai of engaging in futile blame-games and has put him in a difficult position vis-à-vis US-NATO). On 20 December 2011, PresidentKarzai called on Pakistani leaders to adopt an independent policy towards Afghanistan and stop looking at Afghans through their anti-Indian and anti-US prisms. His plea is likely to fall on deaf ears.
Russia and its former satellite Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are no genuine Western allies. Moscow was the first capital that demanded an “explanation” after rumours of long-term US military bases in Afghanistan hit the press in 2010.
In almost every international speech, President Karzai beseeches his “spiritual father” the King of Saudi Arabia to play a role in Afghanistan’s controversial peace process. To his disappointment, the Saudi monarch has so far only offered his pulpy hand for kissing.
The secretive American negotiation campaign, which aims to strike a quick deal with Taliban and justify full military withdrawal, even soured Kabul’s diplomatic ties with a less expected state: Qatar. At Washington’s behest, the Gulf monarchy has nodded to a Taliban contact office in Doha. Kabul objected to the move by publicly recalling its ambassador, while complaining that Doha had not kept the Afghan government sufficiently informed.
Whilst the Afghan Government boasts that it will not allow its territory to be abused by the United States against a third country, Afghanistan is in reality a victim of Washington’s power politics in the region. The United States says it has come to Afghanistan to fight “terrorists” but it has maintained a loose mandate by flying drones over Iran, bombing Pakistan and sending conflicting signals to other regional powers over its long-term objectives.
From Doha to Islamabad to Tehran, Kabul’s relations are strained by Washington’s strategic mistakes: Despite its extensive military, political and developmental engagement Washington has no viable and reliable friend in the region. For years, the US has filled the coffers of rogue Pakistani military and intelligence institutions with billions of dollars. In return Pakistan has sent improvised bombs and suicide attackers that kill Americans troops in Afghanistan. Inside Afghanistan, the US has partnered with some warlords and has waged an open-ended war against others. America is also lying to Afghans. It says the Taliban are defeated, the government is competent and democratic, and foreign-sponsored development is great. The reality, at least from an Afghan perspective, is quite the opposite.
Afghanistan was once butchered by great powers in the 19th Century’s Great Game. It is being abused again.
The West’s exit strategy is based on a cut-off point in 2014, when most US-NATO troops will leave and Afghan forces will assume control. The Transitional Commission, headed by Ashraf Ghani, has been patching together domestic security and command structures for a post US-NATO environment. The multi-billion cost of Afghan security forces, to a large extent and for a foreseeable future, will be covered by NATO allies.
Despite prevalent shortcomings, Afghan security apparatuses might be able to fend off the insurgency and prevent them from toppling the state – if still paid and equipped by the West. However, Afghan military forces alone will not be able to cure all Afghanistan’s post US-NATO ills.
A key question is: what kind of a regional environment will US-NATO leave behind for Afghanistan to live in?
For over a decade, American generals and intelligence operatives have practiced the freedom to target what they consider unsavoury groups in the region using Afghan territory. When they pack up and leave in the next few years, Afghans will need to pay off the scores. It will be Afghans, not Americans or Europeans, who will have to explain a lot to its unfriendly neighbours about its tumultuous partnership with a reckless superpower.
Americans often contemptuously say Afghanistan is not Switzerland. This is obviously right in many ways, except that like Switzerland, Afghanistan’s survival inevitably lays in neutrality and non-interference. But Switzerland’s neutrality has been respected by its prudent and democratic European neighbors – unlike what Afghanistan currently faces from the states that surround it.
President Karzai rightly sees the upcoming evil and calls on all parties to leave his vulnerable nation out of their rivalries. But no one listens to him, not even in Washington.
The author is an Afghan journalist. You can follow him on Twitter here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020