Afghanistan has been battered for the last 40 years. Inhabited by the same tribe on either side of the Durand Line – the border demarcated in 1873 to create a buffer state between Czarist Russia and the British Indian Empire, the (Afghans) Pashtuns have more in common with their compatriots in Pakistan than any other. With majority in Pakistan, the Pashtuns comprise nearly 40 per cent of Afghan population. Pakistan therefore, feels more heat of this war than any other neighbour.
Sceptical of Indian influence, Pakistan has always taken Indian presence in Afghanistan as a direct threat to its national security. Pakistan’s “strategic depth” concept when it sided with the Americans to roll back Soviet Union’s (predecessor to Russia) intervention in Afghanistan was a consequence of this fear. India and Russia are treaty partners that caused dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971. Facing anxiety on the eastern border, Pakistan cannot afford insecurity on the west.
The idea of Afghan supported ‘Pashtunistan’ (areas adjoining Afghanistan) in much of Pakistan’s tribal belt has evaporated. Pakistan believes that both Afghanistan and India are now complicit in fanning rebellion in its restless mineral rich province, Balochistan. A friendly government in Kabul that disallows India impunity to operate against Pakistan is its imperative.
The dissolution of Soviet Union has opened up possibilities for economic relations with energy rich Central Asian Republics, which has till now been thwarted by a troubled Afghanistan. If peace returns to Afghanistan under a friendly government the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (Cpec) can be extended to include some of these states.
No Afghan government has agreed to the sanctity of the Durand Line as an international border. Much of the trouble between the two states results from this non-acceptance.
An Afghanistan seeped in internal discord and militancy, which Kabul is unable to control or exercise power over its territory is bound to spill over into Pakistan and distracts Pakistan from addressing internal challenges. It is therefore, Pakistan’s abiding interest to seek a friendly government in Kabul.
As China is growing as an economic power, so is its pursuit of global political engagement. It is therefore, natural for China to develop links with countries on its borders. It is now Afghanistan’s third biggest trading partner and needs Afghan mineral resources. China is also actively courting Afghanistan to become a partner in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as its location makes it an important link for reaching south and for easier access into Central Asia. The success of regional connectivity in the ambitious plan is conditional to sustained stability in Afghanistan.
China, in partnership with Pakistan and Russia want the American presence to end, which is the reason for Afghan instability. At lesser level China cannot leave a vacuum for India whom the US is promoting to play a larger role in Afghanistan. China therefore, stands behind Pakistan not to cede space to India or other non-regional players.
Beijing is also wary of Islamist militancy in its western Xinjiang region through infiltration from Afghanistan and Pakistan, for which they have actively sought coordination with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Bringing economic benefits to general populace in Afghanistan reduces their chances of falling into militancy.
Constrained by geography elsewhere, Russia has historically felt the need to secure its southern flank and expand it through Afghanistan into the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Russia has retained the neighbour’s edge over Afghanistan despite the 19th century Anglo-Russian agreements. Russia remains wary of American bite into its soft underbelly.
Four main interests triggered Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 — Russian alarm over American attempts of securing a foothold in Afghanistan and the leanings of the then regime in Kabul; by physical presence in Afghanistan gain foothold on way to the Arabian Sea; attempt to prevent Islamist/anti-Russian movements close to its borders; and to contain spillover of Iranian revolution into its southern republics. The miscalculation compelled the Russians to withdraw physically but left Russia more determined to protect its strategic interests along its southern borders.
Waiting on the sidelines for the Americans to eliminate militancy in Afghanistan, Russia is now convinced that the US wants to stay for power projection in Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia has thus demonstrated renewed interest in Afghanistan. The attempts to engage with regional players for Afghanistan solution coincides with Russia’s higher profile in defending its interests in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
The Russian interests have now also come to be demonstrated by the founding of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in partnership with China, which apart from other goals is meant to jointly contain American incursions into the region. With Chinese interests aligned, the SCO is a formidable group against American attempts to gain foothold in the area sensitive both for Russia and China.
An unstable Afghanistan has damaged Pakistan economically, structurally, and has left its society militarised and radicalised. Afghanistan’s landlocked location and competing major nationalities mean peace in Afghanistan depends upon a positive regional environment with Pakistan at its core.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s.