A Game as Old as Empire: The Return of Proxy Wars in Afghanistan

The author (center) with officers and NCOs of the 207 Zafar Corps in western province of Herat, Afghanistan.

History is repeating itself in Afghanistan.

Proxy wars and great power politics have returned to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is once again at the center stage of regional and global rivalries over influence for a variety of geostrategic interests and the quest for resources. This time unlike the past, there are many players including nearly all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, the most prominent being Pakistan, Iran, China, and India.

Afghanistan, as observed by Lord George N. Curzon, was an empty space on the map which was neither Persian nor Russian nor British. It was purely a geographical space which emerged and was used as a buffer zone during an era of great power politics between the former British Empire and Russian Tsar. Some scholars and historians describe Afghanistan as an accidental nation.

The nomadic, semi-nomadic, and settled ethnic groups living in this rugged but vitally strategic land were used as tools to extend the influence and interests of one Empire against the other. The monarchies and militia groups trained and funded by these two empires emerged as a result of these great rivalries used to take turns in preparing the ground for government collapse and capturing Kabul centric power through assassinating monarchs, waging coups, and rebellions to further the interests of their imperial paymasters.

In recent times, the Afghan government and its allies are complaining about enemy sanctuaries and safe-havens across the border in Pakistan and Iran for the growing insurgency in the country, but this phenomenon is nothing new. Afghan monarchies and the Afghan communist regime were toppled by rebel leaders, dethroned Kings, and disgruntled tribal and religious leaders who enjoyed financial and military support in the courts of British Raj, the Persian Empire, and the Russian Tsar. In recent times, the Pakistani military and intelligence services have provided safe havens and training grounds for militant groups like the Taliban.

This time around the stakes are higher, and the game is much more complicated. Various countries are furthering their interests within the country through their proxy—oftentimes with ethnic, racial, and sectarian ties to their sponsors.

Understanding the depth of this problem, the incumbent President of Afghanistan, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, has been consistently warned Afghanistan’s neighbors in various forums including the recent SAARC leaders summit in Nepal, Heart of Asia conference in Beijing, and other multilateral and bilateral meetings that he will not tolerate proxy wars in his country and will not allow Afghan territory to be used against its neighbors from any party involved in the country. However, the reality of the situation is different, as the Afghan state’s influence is limited beyond major urban centers. This makes it difficult to ensure and deliver on Dr. Ghani’s promises.

Today, Pakistan claims that India is using Afghan territory to support Baloch separatists and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whereas India has been over the years warning and complaining to the international community over Pakistan’s duplicity and complicity in various terrorist attacks within and outside India. The recent bombings of Indian Embassy and consulate in Afghanistan are in no doubt the handiwork of the various extremist groups supported and trained by the powerful Pakistani military intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Furthermore, Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for influence to promote or protect the Shiite and Sunni domination within the power structure in Afghanistan. Russia and China, respectively, are concerned about Chechens and Uyghurs in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. An unstable Afghanistan that is infested with proxy groups presents a great threat to Central Asian states, the security of the Russian Federation, as well as China’s commercial and economic interests in Central Asia.

It seems that history is repeating itself once again in Afghanistan. With the development of technology and advancements in land, sea, and, air transport it seemed that countries such as Afghanistan which were pivotal geo-strategic land bridges lost some of their strategic importance. Conversely, however, these new developments have not done much to diminish the geopolitical importance of the Afghanistan. Geography is still a significant factor in deciding the political and economic fate of a state.

The Rise and Fall of Regimes in Afghanistan: Proxy Wars and Regime Collapse in Afghanistan

By several estimates, the average lifespan of republican regimes in Afghanistan is 3.5 years with significant statistical outliers in Afghan monarchies. These are normally regimes which normally lasted over a decade. The reasons for such rapid regimes changes, coup d’états and state collapse in Afghanistan are many chief among them exclusive politics and rebellions supported by outside actors. 

One of the effective instruments for toppling various Afghan regimes has been proxy warfare exploiting ethnic and/or religious sensitivities. Historically and with few exceptions, nearly every rebellion in Afghanistan was organized, trained and funded by outside actors and regional players. The British Raj gave refuge and sanctuary to various toppled Afghan kings and statesmen and eventually paved the way for their return whereas the same tactic was used by the Russian Tsar.

The Russian Tsar hosted Afghan emirs like Amir Abdul Rahman Khan, Amir Shir Ali Khan, along with several other Afghan monarchs in the former “Bukhara” and later on assisted them in their return to power. The last Afghan King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, by several accounts is born in British India and completed his education in France and occupied the throne after his father who also came to power with considerable British support and was later assassinated in a school shooting also enjoyed significant regional support by remaining neutral in regional rivalries.

Furthermore, the Afghan communists, Mujahiddins, and more recently, the Afghan Taliban, were all groups which were actively supported, trained and assisted in their rise to power by regional powers. Therefore, external powers always play a pivotal role in the rise and fall of various regimes in Afghanistan.

Old Game, New Players: Proxy Wars and Ethnic Conflict in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been at the epicenter of the “Great Game” and later on the cold war rivalry between the former Soviet Union and the United States in the lead. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was abandoned to Pakistan and the proxies of other countries—chief among them Iran, India, Russia, and Central Asian states—each of whom supported a particular ethnic faction. It led to a bloody civil war which lasted for almost a decade resulting in the hundreds of thousands of death of civilians.

Today, this old game is returning with new players. These new proxy wars are more localized with regional players (i.e., Pakistan and India playing the lead role, followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia to safeguard their interests). This time, the stakes are higher—as are the costs of inaction for Afghanistan.

Absence of Indigenous Economy: Financial and Economic Dependence

The absence of an indigenous economy and source of financial revenue has made the political sovereignty and military independence of Afghanistan vulnerable to various regional players. For years, Afghan political elites and parties have been dependent on regional funding and support to pursue its political goals inside Afghanistan. The Afghan communist party factions—PDA Khalq (People) and Parcham (Flag)— were heavily reliant on Moscow while various Mujahiddin factions benefitted from Pakistani, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, and Western support. The current Afghan government is heavily dependent upon Western military and financial support.

During his tenure as former President Hamid Karzai acknowledged that his office is receiving millions of dollars from western and regional intelligence agencies for various payments. This implies that, just like the British Raj and Russian Tsar buying loyalty in the Afghan royal court, the same financial manipulation in exchange for loyalty is happening in the corridors of Afghan presidential palace today.

This dependence has made Afghanistan and its multiethnic mosaic social structure vulnerable to political manipulation and the biggest threat to its national security and long term stability. Almost all of the ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan are in various ways politically and economically supported by regional countries.

For Afghanistan to preserve its political sovereignty in the true sense of the word, it has to find a sustainable source of financial revenue and a comparative advantage. Political sovereignty without financial independence have no meaning. So long as Afghanistan remains a financially dependent state, it will remain unstable and vulnerable to regional proxy wars.

The Vicious Cycle of Traps: The Crisis of Governance and Statesmanship

Afghanistan since its establishments as an independent state has been consistently tangled in four traps of poverty, poor governance, geographical limitation and internal conflicts. Each of these traps have been reinforcing each other.

Throughout history, Afghan statesmen have either completely monopolized power or wealth or been struggling for the control of the country through quelling internal rebellions under various banners and causes. This has given the little time to think strategically about their country and its vision and future.

The first Afghan statesmen who rose to fame due to his 5 year plans and presenting the first vision of governance, economic development in addition to addressing internal conflicts and the geographic limitations of the country was Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan, who fell out with his communist allies and was brutally murdered inside the presidential palace in Kabul. Most other governments have either been too preoccupied with preserving their power or fighting for control of the rest of the country.

In essence, the country has been in some sort of war since its establishment as an independent state. It has suffered from a crisis of governance and leadership and the traps have only been pushing Afghanistan deeper and deeper into a state of crisis.

From Vicious Cycle to Virtuous Cycle: Hard Decisions to Make for Afghanistan

In order to reverse this historical trend and address the four traps of poverty, bad governance, geographical limitation, and internal conflicts, Afghan statesmen and policymakers will have to make some very hard choices and bring Afghanistan out of this vicious cycle and put into a virtuous cycle of stability and peace. Some of these hard decision require statesmanship, courage combined with a vision and farsight for the country.

To address these four traps, Afghan statesmen and policy makers will have to take the following three vital steps:

  1. Forge a national agenda and broad based consensus across all political parties and ethnic groups on key national interests, priorities and threats of the country. Afghanistan should start a national movement of internal rejuvenation and national awakening. Afghanistan will only prosper at a time when its leadership and commoners understand that the only way to stability is through the hardwork and unity of Afghans and its neighbors. Nobody else can hand in peace and stability to Afghanistan but the Afghans themselves with their neighbors.
  2. Afghanistan will have to reach a fundamental agreement with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran. In return for safeguarding their legitimate interests in Afghanistan, they will stop engaging in interference and proxy warfare in the country. This can be done through a long process of honest and direct diplomatic and bilateral negotiations.
  3. Finally, without a sustainable indigenous economy and financial self-reliance, Afghanistan cannot become a truly sovereign state. Financial dependence and economic vulnerabilities will continue to make Afghanistan and various Afghan ethnic groups prone to political manipulation and military sabotage by regional players and criminal networks.

A Framework for Managing Regional and Global Interests

When it comes to the management of regional interests in Afghanistan, there are three schools of thought which, in some cases, pursue complementary as well as contradictory views.

The proponents of the first view opine that Afghanistan like many other countries with a vital geostrategic location, should take advantage of these rivalries to build itself. This means that through wise leadership and smart diplomacy just like Pakistan, Afghanistan can exploit the geopolitical vulnerabilities of its allies and neighbors and in return get the required economic and military assistance to build its economy and military capabilities. This is very hard under the current circumstances

The proponents of the second view are supporting that Afghanistan should remain a neutral state and give vital guarantees to its neighbors and other major powers that its soil will not be used against one or several of its neighbors. This policy has been pursued time and again by Afghan statesmen and policy makers, but it has not paid much dividend except it kept the country weakened and divided.

Lastly, proponents of the third view advocate that Afghanistan should ally itself with one of the major global powers (the United States, China, or Russia). Therefore, by obtaining the required security and economic guarantees, Afghanistan can serve as the frontline state in ensuring its interests through the pursuit of the interests of the allied power.

All of the above options require a broadly-based, strong government in Kabul with a long-term view of its interests. Afghanistan will sooner or later have to make some tough decisions when it comes to its survival and long term interests or get dumped as it often does into the dark pages of history.

Throughout history, Afghan political leaders and monarchs have fallen prey to great power politics and regional proxy wars due to their failure to manage the geopolitical and strategic interests of various regional and global powers in its soil. But this time the stakes are higher and involves the survival of the Afghan state. A combination of smart leadership, active diplomacy and strong governance will enable Afghanistan to swim the tides.

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Tamim Asey

Tamim Asey is the Chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies (IWPS). Previously, he served as Deputy Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He is a Fulbright scholar and a graduate of Columbia University. He is on Twitter @tamimasey.

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