Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy Challenges in the Post-American Century

Afghanistaninfo-icon had been badly influenced by the ‘Great Game’ between Russian Czar and British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, where Afghanistan lost its Panjdeh district to Russia and through Gandumak and Durand lineinfo-icon agreements lost half of its territories to British Empire- all in the 19th century. Moreover, it fought few battles and a small war with Czar Russia and three full-fledged wars with British Empire.

However, now, in the aftermath of the reemergence of new ‘great game’ in Afghanistan and shifting regional alliances in the region in the post-2016 would be a far challenging for Afghanistan foreign policy.

Since 2001, afghan foreign policy passed through three stages, the first two stages were under Hamid Karzai’s presidency while the third stage is currently under Ashraf Ghani’s presidency.

Hamid Karzai: the founder of modern ‘traditionalism’

When Hamid Karzai became the chairman of temporary afghan government, then as a president of transition government and then as an elected president, his afghan foreign policy was more aligned with the U.S due to Washington and Pentagon’s heavy support to newly established Afghan government in economic and security grounds. But, this time the afghan foreign policy was also notably decentralized as indicated by A Guistozzi in his academic paper ‘Afghanistan’s decentralised regional foreign policy’. Because, many top afghan governmental officials had its own individualistic contacts with Russia, Iran, India, Turkey and central Asian and many other countries.

Karzai’s second term was the second stage of Afghan foreign policy since 2001. In this stage, Kabulinfo-icon for the first time directed its foreign policy towards multilateralism (can be better understood in the former afghan foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta’s foreign policy principles) when the ties between Democrats and Hamid Karzai passed through many ups and downs. It is hence; during Karzai’s second term, Afghanistan had a much closed relations with China, India, Iran, Russia and many other regional countries. During this period, Kabul signed strategic agreements with China, India and Iran and the bilateral visits increased between these countries. Most importantly and interestingly, Kabul backed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea due to its Durand line policy and its bad relations with the USA, and moreover congratulated Bashar-ul-Assad’s reelection victory in Syria, the rival of Washington in the Middle East.

Ashraf Ghani: the Pragmatic realist

Mostly, since the formation of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG), the foreign policy of Afghanistan was based on Ashraf Ghani’s ‘five circles’ as it was deeply explained by him in his election manifesto in 2014 presidential elections and later pointed out in his inauguration ceremony as well. The five circles was directed towards six afghan neighbors; Islamic countries; USA, NATOinfo-icon or European countries; Asian countries; and towards international organizations. Ghani’s this new foreign policy approach was greatly appreciated with a hope that it would decrease tensions with Pakistaninfo-icon and might bring peace and stability to the country mostly via Afghan foreign policy. Ghani himself indicated this as well when he said that ‘our objective is to become the platform for cooperation between and among our five circles of foreign policy’.

Ashraf Ghani’s this foreign political approach made him one of the strategic minds after the great afghan Mahmud Tarzi, afghan foreign minister and thinker during King Amanullah Khan reign, and the academic-turn-politician Musa Shafiq, a former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during King Zahir Shah period. Because, the main objectives of Ashraf Ghani’s foreign policy were security, survival of the government, peace, economic and regional integration and making consensus against terrorism.

Ghani doing ‘Kissingerism’

It is said that the main difference between the theory and practice is ‘practice’ itself. It is hence to apply his theory into practice; it was necessary that Ashraf Ghani should act like Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state (when at the heights of cold war he visited China to calm down the bilateral relation) and hence he went to Pakistan with the spread friendship arms which Afghans would mostly avoid because of perceptions about Pakistan in Afghanistan. According to this perception, the Pakistani mindsets are still influenced by Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Kautilya Chanakya’s ArthShastra. They don’t believe in a win-win principle but their whole afghan policy is based on the argument that Kabul should limit its ties with India, Pakistan’s arch rival, and through this it attain ‘Strategic Depth’ in Afghanistan; however, this request is taken in Kabul as the British Empire’s cold war imperialistic ‘wish’ and ‘policy’. This Pakistani Afghan policy instead of giving good results has a knee-jerk effect in Afghanistan, which not only damages bilateral relations, afghan’s perspectives about Pakistan but effects Pakistani soft power in Afghanistan as well. 

Moreover, despite having very closed ties with the U.S. and Hamid Karzai’s disappointment with non-alignment-ism, for the first time in its history, Kabul broke the shackles of traditional foreign policy and sided its way with Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war.

To conclude, during National Unity Government, Afghanistan faced many hardships in all sectors particularly in security situation; however, foreign policy was not an exemption either. During 2015-2016, the foreign policy compared to 2014 was noticeably based on the sheered reactions and throughout this period, Afghanistan’s relations with the regional countries didn’t go smoothly, especially Kabul’s ties with Pakistan and India as it has been discussed in my recent piece that Kabul’s relations with these two arch rivals passed through three up-and-down stages (for further information about these stages see this author’s feature piece in the Diplomat).

The Challenges ahead

Since Soviet occupation and afghan civil war, it is for the first time that Afghanistan has been brought back to regional geopolitical calculus in the backdrop of dynamic regional and international geopolitics, especially in the aftermath of U.S. as a declining power and the transformation of international politics from Unilateralism to multilateralism; U.S.-Russian new cold-war-type tensed relationship; the nature of U.S. backed Afghan government; the emerging Russia-China-Pakistan nexus; the rise of the new great game in Afghanistan; and the increasing decentralization of afghan foreign policy or the rise of Talibaninfo-icon’s diplomacy at the regional level. It is therefore necessary for Afghan government to realistically calculate both regional, internal (both insurgency or insecurity and dependence on US aid and support) and international scenario, analyze and predict the responses of those states which would be effected by Kabul’s decisions and then take some pragmatic steps.

Challenge Number 1: Relations with the U.S

The unpredictable Donald Trump

Noam Chomsky has rightly pointed out that one thing which is predictable about the president-elect Donald Trump is his unpredictability. Although Afghanistan has very good experienced with the republicans during 2001-2008 but this time the situation is different. Other reasons behind the Donald Trump challenge are his contradictory statements, the lack of knowledge and inexperience about Afghanistan, and most importantly easily making U-turns. The heavily US backed afghan government would be dealing with the Trump in the upcoming four years and it would be more of a challenge to smoothly work with Washington. Moreover, to persuade Donald Trump to mediate between Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah and afghan president Ashraf Ghani just like Barack Obama and John Kerry did in 2014, 2015 and 2016 will also be a challengeable for afghan government.

The future of BSA and the continuation of Security and Economic Support

The future of Bilateral Security Agreements (BSA) with the US and NATO are the other foreign policy challenges that the afghan government will face in the upcoming future. Because, if NUG wants to have a peace deal with Taliban, this issue would definitely come and unless Taliban don’t relax its conditions towards US military bases a peace deal looks impossible with Taliban in the absence of US withdrawal timetable.

Moreover, the regional countries are also showing its teeth against the 9 US military bases openly, take for instance Russia who recently questioned American military bases in Afghanistan by saying that Russia will ‘never tolerate this’. China haven’t yet said anything publically but they are concerned as well and it is therefore since 2001 instead of criticizing American presence or showing any public concerns and worriedness about US military presence in Afghanistan Beijing  has now and then iterated a more active UN role in Afghanistan and non-alignment of Afghanistan.

However, on the contrary, Afghan government feels that it needs Washington and BSA for its survival, because no one else is ready to give them billions of dollars for afghan security, economy and the running of day-to-day governmental affairs.

This is a deadlock and afghan government would soon be asked whether it would like to break it or not? Whether it wants peace in the absence of American military bases or not? It is a bitter pill which afghan government would either take or reject depending upon the upcoming situation.

Challenge No 2: The Afghan Foreign Policy ‘itself’

The ‘Independent’ Foreign Policy

Independence is a relative term and hence many define and explain it subjectively according to different scenarios. The debate whether afghan foreign policy is ‘independent’ or not is echoed at public, academic and other corners of life in Afghanistan. Actually, there are two perspectives: firstly, afghan foreign policy is not independent just like Afghanistan itself (a more pro-Taliban perspective), secondly, afghan foreign policy is independent but it is more leaned towards Washington because both afghan government and USA needs each other.

However, despite this debate, afghan government is depended on foreign aid particularly US aids and it needs Washington’s enormous support for security. It is hence, now, without US support the survival of afghan government seems difficult and is a sign of worrisome.

Therefore, if afghan government wants to make an independent foreign policy and contrary to US policy in the region, than it needs to be not dependent on Washington anymore. But, in the short term and in the upcoming 3-5 years it seems difficult that Afghan government would divert its route from Washington unless if it didn’t break a deal with the Taliban along with their old conditions of U.S military withdrawal.

Peace through foreign policy?

Since Nov 2014, despite Murree peace process Ashraf Ghani’s this approach to bring peace to Afghanistan via foreign policy fall flat with the five meetings of Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG).

The presence of foreign militants in Afghanistan would be definitely a factor which would persuade the afghan government to continue this policy, peace through foreign policy, but Taliban’s reluctance to come to negotiating table through this route is a worrisome sign. Because, the seen itself independent, sovereign entity and far from ‘others’ influences.

Therefore, the question will remain, to continue this policy or not? Or the NUG would move towards the successful approach of intra-afghan peace talks without outside influences (Hezb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) and NUG peace deal)?

The decentralization of afghan foreign policy

The decentralization of Afghan foreign policy was a huge problem during the 1980s, 1990s and at the start of 2000s, where many afghan factions and parties had relations with foreign governments to get support for their cause. But, now, the rise of Taliban’s diplomacy at the regional level (as discussed in my previous feature at the Diplomat) is another challenge for afghan government.

Moreover, the pro-Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and US lobbies in Afghanistan are also not helpful when it comes to take a nationalistic decisions based on afghan national interest. The environmentinfo-icon during the consultative Loya Jirgainfo-icon to decide about the outcome of BSA during Hamid Karzai’s second term, Kabul’s decision to side with Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war during NUG, the more closed strategic relations with India and when it comes to mending ties with Pakistan, these lobbies automatically becomes active and make hindrances in the path of afghan government and its taken decisions. Although, there are lobbies everywhere in the worldinfo-icon but its nature in Afghanistan is ultra-aggressive. Therefore, Afghan government should look upon this aspect as well and strive to establish such tools to support afghan foreign policy decisions in every corner of politics, and media and hence carve a larger public opinion in its favor.

The Rebuilding regional consensus against terrorism

Initially, Ashraf Ghani was successful in building regional consensus to fight terrorism and ultimately helped its newly formed government. But, the accusations made by few that it is Afghan National Security Council which is supporting IS in Afghanistan with a motive to target Taliban but also get support from the regional countries due to this newly emerged ‘monster’, however, due to the rising Russia and its cold war type relations with Washington and US military presence in Afghanistan, weakening afghan government and internal disputes within NUG, and emergence of IS are what which is now backfiring Ghani’s proposal.

Therefore, it is the job of Afghan foreign policy to rebuild make regional consensus and through its active pragmatic and realistic diplomacy convinces the regional countries that it is not behind IS in Afghanistan, it is in their interest to strengthen ties with afghan government instead of some military factions and moreover the US presence in Afghanistan wouldn’t be against any countries, especially the regional ones.

Challenge No 3: The internal situation

Internal situations

The internal situation of Afghanistan is the mother of all challenges of afghan foreign policy, because, the internal politics heavily influences the afghan foreign policy. The afghan government always feels the current insurgency and Taliban’s rise has an outside factor, especially Pakistan. Moreover, in the backdrops of such insecurity situation and the absence of large revenue collection, it needs US and European Union for military and financial support. Currently and in a future as well, the internal situation will also influence Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The emergence of Daesh or Islamic State, the presence of US military bases, and the poppy cultivation in Afghanistan are for instance some other factors which would influence and impact the policies of regional countries and hence would then make challenges to afghan government.

On the other hand, corruption and Green-on-blue attacks are notably other factors which would challenge bilateral relations with US and NATO or European Union.

Refugees and asylum seekers

Currently there are more than two million afghan refugees-both registered and non-registered- in Pakistan and probably the same number is in Iran as well. Moreover, according to one estimate more than a quarter of a million afghan migrants migrated to Europe during 2015 and 2016. The situation of afghan refugees in both Pakistan and Iran and in European Union is a worrying and alarming sign for the afghan government.

Because, firstly, there are reports that Iran is facilitating to send afghan refugees to fight in the Syrian war and if they return back to Afghanistan what would be there status especially in the backdrop of the rumors of Liwa Fatemiyoun? (Fatemiyoun Division is an afghan Shia militia formed in 2014).

Secondly, the human rights violations of afghan refugee’s situation in Pakistan despite they aren’t involved in criminal activities as shown by the recent DAWN report and their unclear future in Pakistan.

Thirdly, those afghans who went to Europe since 2014 have spent a large number of money (probably every person has spent between $7000-$15000 reaching to Europe compared to far and near European countries destination) on their illegal migrationinfo-icon and if they are forcefully deported, wouldn’t it increase tensions for afghan government internally? And if afghan government refuse to take deportees back what would be then the outcome of Kabul-European Union relations? (It is reported in the media that a secret deal has been made by Kabul and EU to accept deportees back and in return Kabul will be awarded with aids).

However, despite these hard questions, defending the human rights of afghan refugees in neighboring countries and in Europe and when it comes to repatriating more than 4 million afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran, afghan foreign policy would come as saviors.

 

Challenge No 4: The future of Kabul’s ties with Pakistan and India

Another challenge faced by afghan foreign policy is the pattern of the future ties with Pakistan. Currently it is stalled, with the change in Pakistani military command; a very slight opportunity has arisen to mend ties with Islamabad, especially after Ashraf Ghani invited Pakistan’s new chief of army staff Gen. Bajwa to Kabul.

However, Kabul in the aftermath of more than 2 million of afghan refugees and sanctuaries and safe havens of Taliban in Pakistan, Islamabad’s close ties with insurgent factions rather afghan government, transit problems and route, and Pakistan’s importance in the TAPI, CASA-1000 and other regional integrated projects didn’t yet knew what would be the shape of its relations with Islamabad.

The future ties with Pakistan would be a challengeable to afghan foreign policy until a peace deal is reached with Taliban and an enduring peace prevails but in the post-enduring peace still the nature of Afghanistan’s ties with India and Durand line would shadow Pak-Afghan ties. Because, this comes that unless Kabul didn’t recognize Durand line and limit ties with India Pakistan would not bring Taliban to negotiating table or they wouldn’t take strong measures against Taliban. Because, in the absence of these two, why should Pakistan take measures against Taliban? What is in for Pakistan or the real advantage for them in doing so?

Surely, Islamabad wouldn’t be satisfied with economics but they would be and as always influenced by security factors. If Kabul still believes that it is Pakistan who can bring Taliban to negotiating table then it must take the two bitter pills, which it can’t, and would never take due to roaring public pressures. However, it can try to save his face by initially making back-channel diplomacy to outreach Taliban and then paving the way for the direct talks.

 

Challenge No 5: The transformation in regional and International order

Transformation of International Political Order

The world is surely becoming multipolar since Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and in a lose scenario when Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, and though the ‘Asian Century’ and ‘Chinese Century’ is debatable but the economics of 21st century would definitely belong to the rising Asia in this century. The rise of China, revival of Russia on the footsteps of Soviet Union, the uprising India, South Africa, Brazil, some European countries especially Germany and other countries will affect the USA. The formation of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has already questioned the single hegemonic US power. The decline of US and its influences at international stage is inevitable but it would still be a major power in the first half of the 21st century because of the rivalries in the Asia (China-India; India-Pakistan; China-neighbors i-e the pacific neighbors).

However, now, Kabul who already has cemented its relations with the west for the survival of the current government, the increasingly regional geopolitical changes and transformation at the international political stage would affect it less but would continue to more in the future. 

The Ghosts of the ‘New Great Game’

In the aftermath of transformation at international political order, the regional countries, who are challenging US hegemony now-and-then, are worried and concerned about American military presence in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan was somewhere in North Africa, Africa, Latin America, near Australia or in a European Union, the rise of Asian powers wouldn’t have effected it very much, but being located at the middle of Central Asia, Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, and being a place where the major powers, the swing states and regional powers have stakes, it would once again become the geopolitical calculus of clashing interests. Although this new great game may slowly evolved in Afghanistan but its signs are evident with the Russian President Putin’s special representative remarks about the US military bases in Afghanistan, Russian-Iranian ties with Taliban, the high tensed cold-war between Washington-Moscow similar to the 1950s and 1970s. Therefore, it is the job of Afghan foreign policy and decision makers to deeply think about this, because they are the ones who would safeguard Afghanistan from the harms of this new great game, if there is any.

The Author is thankful for Mr. Halimullah Kousary, the Acting Director of Conflict and Peace Studies, Kabul (CAPS) for reading this piece and giving comments.

View expressed in this article are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pajhwok’s editorial policy.

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.
Author’s brief introduction

Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabulinfo-icon (csrskabul). He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geo-economic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistaninfo-icon, and India). He is working on a book on Sino-Afghan relations 1955-2015 in Pashtoinfo-icon and tweets at @abilalkhalil

More posts by the Author