Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Future of U.S. Policy
The United States is just one of many countries with an interest in Afghanistan’s future. Afghanistan is a literal crossroads, sharing lengthy borders with Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and shorter ones with Tajikistan, China, and the Kashmir region to which both India and Pakistan lay claim. Russia and Saudi Arabia also have influence. As FCNL advocates for a new U.S. policy, we should encourage our leaders to listen more closely to the diverse voices of the Afghan people. Our government must also take into account the interests, concerns, and potential for constructive engagement of neighboring countries as it looks for a satisfactory and cost-effective way forward.
A Brief History
Afghanistan has hosted visitors and contended with invaders for thousands of years. The legendary Silk Road trading route crossed the country. Adventurers have long been enticed by the Afghan people, culture, and geography. Quaker author James Michener brought the beauty and the allure of Afghanistan closer to home for many people in the United States through his 1962 novel Caravans, as has Greg Mortenson more recently in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools.
Afghanistan’s fertile river valleys have given life to its people, and the towering mountain ranges have provided protection against intruders. The United States is only the latest of a succession of mighty nations that have sought to occupy Afghanistan with limited or no success. Afghan ethnic groups have repeatedly overcome their differences to repel invaders, including the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th.
In 1978, Afghan President Mohammed Daoud was killed in a coup that set the stage for the establishment of a communist government and the Soviet Union’s invasion. The U.S.-supported Afghan resistance, collectively known as the Mujahideen, or Islamic “Warriors in the Way of God,” forced a complete withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan by early 1989. The USSR continued to support the communist government until it collapsed in April 1992.
Vicious and prolonged conflict among Afghan warlords followed, many of whom the United States had armed during the Soviet occupation. In the ensuing insecurity, the Taliban came to power. They overtook the capital city of Kabul in late September 1996. Many war-weary Afghans, yearning for more security in their daily lives, supported this move.
The name Taliban derives from the Persianised plural form of the Arabic word Talib, which translates as religious student. Many of the young male students who comprised the heart of the Taliban were educated in madrassahs – Islamic schools – in neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistani government supported the Taliban, while the U.S. government reaction to the takeover by an Islamic extremist group was restrained. Neighboring Iran – with a majority Shia population – looked unfavorably on the rise to power of the Sunni Taliban.
Reacting to the September 11 attacks, in October 2001, U.S. and NATO forces attacked Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, which had supported and given refuge to al Qaeda. The U.S. military has occupied Afghanistan ever since. Hamid Karzai, the current leader of Afghanistan, is heavily supported by the United States. While the Taliban is no longer in power, it remains a viable political and military force in Afghanistan.
Crossroads: Pakistan and India
The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has placed Pakistan in a difficult and contradictory situation. On the one hand, the Pakistani military and intelligence forces have been allies with U.S. military and intelligence agencies for decades, and the Pakistani government has been a key regional ally for Washington. On the other hand, the United States’ removal of the Taliban from power created a vacuum that Pakistan fears could be filled by Pakistan’s arch-rival India.
Some Pakistani officials, particularly members of the Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI), believe that the Taliban may play a role in Afghanistan’s future governance. As a result, Pakistan continues to hedge its bets by aiding both the Karzai government and the Taliban, which is seeking to overthrow that government.
Pakistan's foreign policy objectives in Afghanistan are driven to a large extent by its desire to counter the regional influence of India. Given that Pakistan and Afghanistan share a mountainous and porous border, Pakistan has reason to be concerned about who is in power in Afghanistan.
India also has longstanding ties to Afghanistan. Today India helps train Afghan civilian and military personnel, supports development projects, and has strong economic ties. Analysts believe India’s influence in Afghanistan is growing, but opinions differ about the benefits and drawbacks of this expansion. As former NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal stated in 2009, “While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”
Understanding and addressing the Pakistan-India rivalry is important to untangle the current state of affairs in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. This rivalry, while still focused around Kashmir, has expanded to Afghanistan as both countries try to gain influence. As veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid recently wrote, “There can be no peace in Afghanistan until these two neighbors sit down and talk about a common approach to both Kabul and Kashmir, rather than negotiating by proxy war.” The nuclear weapons that both countries possess only make easing tensions between Pakistan and India all the more critical.
Iran also has a role to play in returning Afghanistan to peace and security. In the first months after the U.S.-led military occupation of Afghanistan, the Iranian government cooperated with the occupying U.S. military forces to assure stability. Iran was supportive of removing the Sunni-based Taliban from power in Kabul. Iran’s principle religious ties in Afghanistan are with the Hazera, a Shia ethnic group located primarily in the central part of the country. Iran is also eager to reduce the flow of refugees and addictive drugs across its border.
The nascent cooperation between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan suffered a severe blow after President George W. Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union speech in late January 2002. That declaration boosted the credibility of political hard-liners in Iran who had previously maintained that the United States could not be trusted and cited Bush’s speech as concrete evidence.
Since that time, Iran has continued to aid the Karzai government in an effort to promote stability. At the same time, the Iranian government has also sought to undermine U.S.-NATO dominance through limited levels of support to some insurgent groups.
Nonetheless, the United States and Iran have similar interests in Afghanistan that provide ongoing opportunities for constructive dialogue and cooperation. In October 2010, the Iranian government sent a high-level diplomat to participate in the meeting of the International Contact Group on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Contact Group was established in April 2009 and now includes some 44 member countries. Second, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, led by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), resumed in December 2010 and continued in January 2011. The U.S. administration should be strongly encouraged to continue and expand these two separate but related efforts at peaceful diplomacy. Congress should support their continuation and expansion as well.
Crossroads: Central Asia
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan also share a border with Afghanistan. These three countries, plus their neighbors – Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – combined are defined by the U.S. Department of State as Central Asia.
In practice, the U.S. relationship with central Asia has been dominated by expanding the capacity of the Northern Distribution Network, the route for getting military and related supplies into Afghanistan for NATO coalition forces. Recent testimony before Congress by U.S. military and civilian officials has made clear that the military objectives in Afghanistan – rather than diplomacy and peaceful prevention of deadly conflict – are the overriding consideration in U.S. relations with Central Asia nations.
A Way Forward
To end the U.S. war in Afghanistan and leave the country more prosperous and peaceful, the United States needs not only to navigate the complex relationships of people and groups within Afghanistan, it needs to be concerned with its relationships with the other countries in the region. All of these countries have an interest in a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan that is not dependent on a U.S. military presence. The United States needs to engage more robustly with Afghanistan’s neighbors in peaceful, non-coercive diplomacy to promote regional security.