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Who Wants What: Mappping the Parties conflict in Afghanistan


Asad Ali

The principal parties directly or indirectly involved in the Afghanistan conflict, whether Afghan or foreign, have a range of political, geo-strategic, economic, social-cultural, reputational and other interests in Afghanistan. An understanding of these interests, especially their relative importance to the parties, and whether they converge or diverge, should inform any future efforts to resolve or mitigate the conflict.There is sufficient convergence of the parties’ interests to suggest that some form of political accommodation is possible, yet ample divergence and distrust between them to make this difficult to accomplish. Considering this, and the complex web of the parties’ interests and objectives, any peace process will require effective mediation or facilitation.

There is apparent convergence of interests between most of the parties, including, to some extent, the Taliban, in terms of avoiding full-scale civil war or state collapse, preserving Afghanistan’s territorial integrity, and, over the longer term, maintaining effective national security forces, containing extremists and securing continued international assistance for the country.There is at least some convergence between the parties in other areas, such as in preserving Afghanistan’s sovereignty and political independence. To different degrees, a number of the parties share an interest in achieving medium- to long-term stability, promoting the rule of law and de-concentrating power. In due course, recognition and political inclusion of the Taliban may prove to be a convergent interest.

However, there are interests that diverge, such as those relating to the exercise of power and the presence of foreign forces, a divisive issue but one that will decline in salience. There is divergence, too, in the Taliban’s strong interest in the application of Sharia, and the interest of the Afghan government and northern groups in preserving democracy and civil liberties.There are certain interests that the parties’ leaders do not regard as fundamental but that are important to the Afghan population. These include interests where there is divergence between the parties, such as ensuring respect for human rights and women’s rights, or those where there is convergence, such as promoting development or strengthening trade and investment. Thus a peace process must involve representatives of Afghan society, and any future mediator should develop strategies not only to overcome differences between the parties but also to protect the interests of the Afghan population.

Taliban’s political interests are very clear in Afghanistan. As a composite movement, the Taliban’s interests vary.Most Talibs share an interest in the withdrawal of foreign troops, the establishment of a strict ‘Islamic system’, and action against corruption.The Taliban has a clear interest in acquiring a measure of power especially in justice, religious affairs, anti-corruption, social affairs and education but may conditionally be prepared to enter into a political settlement.The movement has an obvious short- to medium-term interest in expanding its territorial control, but many leaders reason that a bid for absolute power could generate a powerful anti-Taliban coalition with US and regional backing.

Taliban leaders look to reinforce the movement’s cohesion, commitment and legitimacy (which may be strained by the withdrawal of foreign forces), and to strengthen its autonomy from Pakistan.Most leaders realize that association with Al-Qaeda jeopardizes their prospects of recognition, influence and safety.In fact, Taliban leaders have a strong interest in international recognition, but believe acknowledging this will be taken as a sign of weakness.

Insurgent fighters tend to have local interests, often relating to a community or tribe.Some foot soldiers, and certain factions, however, may be more hardline than the Taliban leadership, creating significant internal tensions.

Despite internal differences, the paramount interest of the United States is ensuring that Afghanistan does not revert to being a safe haven for extremists who seek to target American or Western interests.America’s interest and influence in Afghanistan are receding as its troops withdraw, but for both security and reputational reasons it has an interest in a successful Afghan political and security transition.US officials see an interest in having a short-term, residual troop presence in Afghanistan – to support Afghan forces and act against extremists – hence their efforts to reach a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).Separately, the US seeks to limit opium cultivation, promote good governance, uphold democratic freedoms and protect women’s rights – but none of these is a fundamental national interest.

The US has a range of important European and international allies in Afghanistan.The UK is a prominent example and its interests have mirrored those of the US, especially, as officials see it, in containing extremism and avoiding the spread of instability to Pakistan.Another powerful UK interest has been demonstrating support for its single most important ally – the United States – as has been the case for many other NATO troop contributors.But as the US withdraws, the salience of this interest diminishes.Originally, the UK had sought to burnish its credentials as a global power in Afghanistan. Now its influence there is much reduced, and its priority is damage limitation: to leave without being seen as having failed to defeat the Taliban. The UK is active in a range of sectors in Afghanistan – and has committed to long-term development aid. This assistance is seen as contributing to stability but is not regarded as essential for British interests.Similar considerations apply to many other important US allies in Afghanistan, such as Canada, Australia, Germany or Japan. Other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), such as Norway or Sweden, have invested in promoting human rights in Afghanistan, but cannot be said to have vital national interests at stake.

Despite significant internal differences, Pakistan’s leaders generally see an interest in maintaining influence in Afghanistan and preventing the emergence of a strong, India-aligned government in Kabul.Pakistan’s leaders have long perceived a threat from India, deriving from successive conflicts, and seek to deny India the ability to use Afghanistan as a base for threatening or destabilizing Pakistan.Thus Pakistan’s military has provided sanctuary and support to the Afghan Taliban, seeing it as an asset that gives Pakistan ‘strategic depth’.However, Pakistani leaders are increasingly concerned about ‘reverse strategic depth’: the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary by Pakistan’s own enemies, including the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch insurgents.Thus they do not want to see a Taliban victory, but they do not necessarily favour a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan either, with some officials fearing that increased stability could lead to a greater Indian presence.

A degree of cooperation on Afghan reconciliation, however, underscores Pakistan’s strategic significance.Pakistan has a strong interest in avoiding an all-out civil war in Afghanistan, with inevitable spillover effects, and could benefit from cooperation with Afghanistan on trade, narcotics-trafficking and water supply – but these are seen as secondary to Pakistan’s national security interests.

Iran has a strong interest in having a friendly, stable government in Kabul.However, given uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future, and multiple sources of Iranian foreign policy, Iran is hedging its bets: it is not only cultivating allies in Kabul and maintaining good relations with northern factions, but is also, through the Revolutionary Guards, giving limited support to the Taliban.This has been seen as serving Iran’s geostrategic interest in expediting a complete US military withdrawal.However, Iran has no interest in seeing the ascendancy of the Saudi Arabia-linked, Sunni Taliban, against which Iran nearly went to war in 1998, nor does it want to see escalating conflict. Either scenario could threaten Iran’s cultural and economic interests in west and southwest Afghanistan, home to Hazaras, who are also Shia Muslims, or generate spillover effects.

Indeed, Iran has a strong interest in combating Sunni extremism and in cross-border cooperation with Afghanistan, especially on narcotics and migration. Iran has the word’s highest incidence of opium addicts and hosts over two million Afghan economic migrants and refugees.Furthermore, the recent US–Iran nuclear rapprochement, the rise of Sunni jihadists in Iraq, and President Obama’s commitment to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016 may increase Iran’s willingness to engage constructively in Afghanistan’s transition.

India wants to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for anti-Indian militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which previously ran training camps in eastern Afghanistan.Having historical ties to Afghanistan’s northern groups, and seeing the Afghan Taliban as a geopolitical instrument of Pakistan – and Pakistan as the driver of anti-Indian militancy – India is staunchly anti-Taliban.India’s central interest is in a strong, friendly government in Kabul that is capable of containing anti-Indian groups, resisting the Taliban and preventing deepening instability that might benefit the militants.Indian officials also see an alliance with Kabul as a means of gaining regional advantage over their rival Pakistan.These factors explain why India has a significant diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and an extensive aid programme.

India also has certain mineral interests in Afghanistan and could benefit from greater trade through Afghanistan to northern markets – but these are secondary to its overarching concern: the influence of Pakistan.Some analysts believe the strong mandate of the new Indian premier, Narendra Modi, and his conservative credentials, may enable him to engage constructively with Pakistan, including on Afghanistan – but this remains to be seen.

Reflecting its increasing demand for raw materials, China has mineral-related interests in Afghanistan, especially the Aynak copper concession in Logar province, the world’s second largest copper deposit, and an oil concession in Sari-I Pul. China also wants to avoid spillover from the Afghanistan conflict, and to avoid the possibility of Uighur militants from neighboring Xinjiang gaining refuge in Afghanistan.It therefore has a clear interest in Afghanistan’s stability, which Chinese diplomats say cannot be achieved without reconciliation with the Taliban.Over the longer term, China has an interest in expanding its geopolitical influence in Central Asia, especially as the Western presence recedes, and in averting any confrontation between India and Pakistan, its key regional ally.Consequently, in recent years China has enhanced its diplomatic activities, bringing Afghanistan into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an Observer State, conducting high-level visits and even establishing channels to the Taliban.Later this year China will host a ministerial meeting of the Istanbul Process, promoting regional cooperation; further Chinese diplomatic and economic engagement on Afghanistan seems highly likely.

Given increased rivalry between Russia and the US as a result of the crises in Syria and Ukraine, Russia sees Afghanistan as an arena where it could enhance its influence at the West’s expense.Yet, having concerns about the spread of Islamic militancy and narcotics-trafficking, it does not want the West to abandon Afghanistan to its fate. Russia therefore has somewhat ambiguous policies towards Afghanistan.It has allowed NATO to transport personnel and non-lethal equipment across its territory, and has urged Afghanistan to sign the BSA.At the same time, it has strengthened diplomatic relations with Kabul, is planning major reconstruction efforts, and may eventually invest in oil and gas. Mindful of the Soviet and American experience in Afghanistan, Russia will engage cautiously, but is likely to expand its presence in the country, perhaps in collaboration with its Central Asian allies.

Asad Ali is a Mphil scholar at Quaid e Azam University, Islamabad , Pakistan. his area of interest is South Asian Politics. He also writes for various International newspapers.

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