No Closure in Afghanistan

The withdrawal of Western combat forces from Afghanistan in 2014, far from being the end of political and strategic conflict in that region, is likely to herald the resumption of tensions with deep historical roots both within Afghanistan and among its neighbours. The security of Central Asia has always been driven by regional tensions and the internal stability of its states. Sectarian, ethnic and tribal tensions compound the problems of unemployment and radical inequalities. Add the tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. On top of all that, almost all the major powers of continental Asia—Iran, Russia, China, India, Pakistan—border on Afghanistan; and most or all of them have strong economic and political interests in the country’s future.

Most citizens of the Western world have been hoping that the Afghanistan intervention would bring “closure” in at least three different senses. First, an end to costly and not hugely effective military effort in faraway places. Second, and by the same token, “victory”: not just in the obvious meaning of an end to the threat of radical Islamism based in Afghanistan, but an end to the generalised threat of “terror” in our era. In other words, the military effort should also bring an end to the nagging feeling that the safety of oneself and one’s family can never be assumed at any airport or station or on any ship. It has become clear that such an outcome will not occur. Third, that the governments of Afghanistan, the USA, and of the major powers of Asia should arrange Afghanistan’s affairs so as to let it live in prosperous peace.

The reality is likely to be that Afghanistan’s role in its region will be a function of three disparate but related developments. One, surely the most obvious, is the uncertain political balance in Afghanistan itself. As the allied presence there runs down, a number of critical questions remain open. The first has to do with the Afghan presidency, since President Karzai’s second term is set to end in 2014 and at the time of writing it is unclear who might succeed him([1]). It is similarly unclear how the regional and ethnic balance of Afghanistan itself might be managed by, and within, the government that follows. To put it crudely, will the government see itself as a united group administering its own country, or will it tend to divide between religious and ethnic groups such as the Hazaras, Tajiks and Pashtuns? Not to mention the Taliban, who seem certain to continue dominating some parts of the country.

Questions about cohesion and loyalties will also arise about the Afghan armed forces and police. Afghanistan’s neighbours and invaders have never before encountered a conventional army, or a single force with a recognised leader, government and capital. Instead, they have found tribal and other groupings willing to stage local ambushes and sometimes willing to form ad hoc alliances for particular and temporary purposes. It remains to be seen whether the apparent cohesion of the Afghan army following American tutelage survives the withdrawal of Western forces and Western aid. No less important for the long run will be the ability of the central government to deal with problems of education, religion and, not least, corruption in Kabul. The current portents are not encouraging. According to Indian intelligence, China thinks anarchy is likely to follow the 2014 elections and has told the Afghans and Pakistanis that Beijing would be keen to be involved in the reconciliation process with the Taliban([2]).

Overhanging these domestic issues are critical questions about the relationship between any successor Afghan government and the USA. President Obama has long made it clear that he “will not keep Americans in harm’s way for a single day longer than is absolutely required”, but has also promised to keep 20,000-odd men in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the combat troops, although he will not build bases in Afghanistan or “patrol … cities and mountains”. In any case, there remain unknown details of any future American status-of-forces agreements with Kabul, or the general future shape of the US-Afghan relationship.

More broadly, American political opinion is increasingly unhappy about distant campaigns in—for the USA—non-essential regions, with uncertain outcomes, substantial costs and few visible benefits. There have been recent indications, following Afghan intransigence on several issues, that Obama might even contemplate an abrupt withdrawal of all US military aid and support in 2014. There are also the detailed surveillance and intelligence capacities now available to the USA, with the use of satellites and surveillance drones, not to mention the simple and obvious fact that much of the world’s internet traffic is routed through the United States and most online data is held there. That may well make it less useful to maintain a terrestrial presence to establish not only the movements but also the plans and intentions of ground-based groups and to prepare responses. No doubt US policies might change; but major strategic changes such as a major US-Iranian clash, or the establishment of a major US base in Afghanistan from which Iran might be attacked, seem quite unlikely.

What does seem certain is that Afghanistan will continue to rely on foreign economic and financial aid, not least from the United States. The mid-2012 Tokyo conference promised that Afghanistan would receive another $16 billion in aid over the next four years, more or less what the World Bank thinks is required to bridge the gap between public revenue and expenditure. That is in addition to existing promises to finance the Afghan army and police. The World Bank argues that in the year to the end of September 2011 foreign aid was equivalent to the entire Afghan GDP; though billions of that aid has gone to pay the salaries of foreign staff and debts to foreign contractors. So what Afghanistan really needs is the security that might attract foreign investors who could help to foster economic growth.

Indissolubly linked to the fate of Afghanistan are the longer-term relations between Kabul and its neighbours; and the willingness of all of them to use Afghan religious and ethnic groupings to further their own aims, as they have always done. In the north, there are the Central Asian states, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, whose political, economic and ethnic fates, together with those of with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have long been linked with those of Afghanistan. In the south, there is Pakistan. Beyond these, there are not so much “family” relations as the emerging power relationships of the major states around Afghanistan’s borders. These are likely to help shape not just Afghan politics but also the basic patterns of Asian relations for the rest of the century. They may even decide whether these major Asian powers, with often divergent interests, can achieve an agreed settlement.

Perhaps the most difficult of Afghanistan’s foreign relations is that with Pakistan, since the Pakistan-Afghan border (the “Durand line”, created in the 1890s) is largely just another of those lines on the map drawn by well-meaning but anxious and harried British and other colonial officials in Africa, the Middle East and Asia during the century after 1850. Many of them have proved to be almost entirely diplomatic fictions, with no relevance to ethnic, social, religious and therefore basic political realities.

Relationships on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghan border, especially those of Pashtuns in the “tribal areas” in Pakistan’s north and north-west, and those in eastern and southern Afghanistan, have been that of “kissing cousins”. Inevitably, they have constrained any coherent recent campaign planning by the Americans. They have also for a long time allowed the higher command of the Pakistan army, and especially the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), to play a deviously commanding role in promoting radical Islamist aims throughout Central Asia. For example, Mirza Aslam Beg, the Pakistan army’s chief of staff from 1988 to 1991, together with the director-general of the ISI, Hamid Gul, pursued a clearly anti-American foreign policy. They deceived a series of American administrations and apparently even thought they might create a radical Islamic bloc to include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran and possibly the Islamic republics of the Soviet Union([3]). There are many signs that these ambitions continued to shape Pakistan’s policies long after Beg and Gul left office and long into the ascendancy of General—and later President—Musharraf.

Though all this flatly contradicted United States policies aimed at Afghan reconciliation and unity under the aegis of the United Nations, Pakistan’s intelligence and military role in Afghanistan continued through the 1990s and beyond into the era of General Ashfaq Kayani as head of the Pakistan military. Once the Taliban took over in Kabul in the 1990s, Pakistani ISI officers were stationed in every Afghan ministry, while the interest of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, according to Peter Tomsen in The Wars of Afghanistan, “was limited to the imposition of medieval Koranic prescriptions” and the proclamation of Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate “ruled by religious fatwas”.([4])

In 1996 the Taliban welcomed the return of Osama bin Laden (from the Sudan) and allowed him and the ISI to establish a series of Al Qaeda training camps for Pakistani volunteers, Arab militants, Chechens, Muslim Uighurs, Burmese and Filipino Muslims, jihadists from Africa and the West. From these large and disparate groups Al Qaeda operatives selected candidates for more advanced (and often suicide-mission) training.

It seems unlikely that these kinds of interleaved cross-border relationships between the two countries will end soon. Recent reports suggest that the Taliban has effectively taken charge again in parts of Afghanistan, especially in the southern Pashtun regions. It seems inevitable that the Taliban will indeed, in spite of allied military efforts, have a role in post-NATO Afghanistan politics; especially in a period when radical Islamism is making impressive advances in regions from Libya through Egypt and Sudan to Yemen and Central Asia.

Two other and larger factors seem likely to be significant. One is the evident fragmentation within the ranks of radical Islamism, especially but not only over the details of religious belief. That applies not just to the past and present disputes of Shia and Sunni Islam. It also applies to fierce disputes within each of these groupings, for instance in the Taliban attempt to dominate eastern Afghanistan by Wahabi interpretations of sharia law imported from Saudi Arabia. The point is not that such fragmentation is directly exploitable by apostates, unbelievers or other outsiders. On the contrary. History offers too many examples of how such fragments can combine and offer fierce resistance to would-be managerial outsiders. It is rather that fragmentation may seriously hamper the creation or maintenance of any coherent and united action against other states.

The other factor is the logical and political incompatibility of intolerant religious factionalism with the nationalist principles of most modern states. Over time, it can hardly fail to dawn on the rulers of Pakistan that using radical religious beliefs as the basis of national policy can only weaken the very nation they are leading and lessen its influence in the outside world. Successful imperial rulers, from Alexander the Great to the Moguls in India, the Mongols in Central and East Asia, to the Ottomans or Napoleon Bonaparte, flourished when they allowed their subjects to worship their own various gods. By contrast, empires fell apart in ages dedicated to social or religious uniformity, from Philip II of Spain to the Soviet Union.

As for Afghanistan’s major (and mutually competitive) neighbours, the most important and the one whose future policies are likely to be critical for Central Asia and for the configuration and stability of the maritime areas of the whole Indo-Pacific region, is China. China and Afghanistan have had cultural and economic links for some two thousand years, at least since General Ban Chao consolidated Chinese rule in and around the Tarim Basin and into what is now Kazakhstan, while also sending expeditions further west towards the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. The famous Silk Road not only carried goods, silk and jewels as far as the Levant and the coast of the Mediterranean, but also helped the spread of Buddhism and later Islam.

There are now at least five reasons for China’s stake in Afghanistan, which has been developing steadily. One is China’s de facto strategic alliance with Pakistan. This serves several purposes. First, it can keep India in check. Another is, either directly or through the SCO (of which more below) to check and help reverse the major US involvement in Afghanistan and, by extension, in shaping the emerging patterns of Central Asian politics and diplomacy([5]). American and Indian hopes that the Taliban might be defeated in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan are clearly impossible to fulfil, as are Taliban—and by extension Pakistani—hopes of having the Taliban sweep to power over the whole of Afghanistan.

A third Chinese aim is to maintain leverage in Islamabad in order to avoid having radical Islamism extend its tentacles into the Uighur regions of China’s huge westernmost province, Xinjiang, not to mention any encouragement to Uighur separatism. China is acutely conscious of the danger, in this large region, of Uzbek Islamic extremism and the need to keep Central Asia stabilised. In the words of Hu Jintao, “China will continue actively participating in international and regional co-operation concerning Afghanistan.”([6]) At the same time, China’s main goal, economic integration in Central Asia, is strongly opposed not just by Russia but also by the Central Asian states themselves([7]). To be sure, there remains Pakistan’s long-standing and deep-seated support for extremism as a chief feature of any future Islamic empire in Central and Western Asia. Nevertheless, there have been reports that Pakistan not only eliminated Uzbek radicals from its own ranks but did so with the help of Chinese intelligence officers. Beijing has given verbal support for Pakistan in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. Pakistani prime ministers have visited China and there have been reports from Kabul that Pakistan has encouraged the Karzai administration to look to Beijing, not Washington, as a future prop. After all, China will not go away and its policy time-horizons clearly go far beyond 2014.

A fourth reason for China’s interest in Afghanistan is a common interest with Iran and Russia in stopping Afghan’s massive drug trafficking to the outside world. The fifth and most obvious motive is economic, with the promotion of investment and expectation of supplies for Chinese industries.

On this last front, considerable progress has been made. China is already the main commercial, financial and investment power in Central Asia. When Central Asian states want to raise money on the international markets, they go to Shanghai, not Frankfurt or Paris or even London([8]). This thrust began in 2007 when China (the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper) won the contract for the exploitation of Afghanistan’s Aynak copper deposits about thirty miles from Kabul, widely regarded as the world’s second-largest copper deposit. China has already invested an estimated $4 billion in its development, together with associated infrastructure projects like roads and railways and probably some facilities for the miners and staff. The Afghans have suggested that this investment might yield to Afghanistan some $2 billion annually in taxes and other benefits([9]). Moreover, this is only one, albeit by far the largest, of China’s investment projects in Afghanistan. The China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) has drilling operations in Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province and Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are the largest investors in Afghanistan’s extraction sector([10]). Chinese firms are also planning to explore sites in Amu Darya, in northern Pakistan, while Huawei has invested in Afghan telephone systems, and other groups have taken stakes in various irrigation projects or the reconstruction of hospitals in Kandahar and Kabul([11]). The EU has hired Chinese firms for a number of its own Afghan construction projects. Afghan minerals and potentially energy could hardly be closer to China’s borders or more conveniently placed. China is building energy routes, by rail or pipeline, from the Gulf and the Indian Ocean via Pakistan to insure China against future disruptions, including any future naval blockade by the Americans or India.

China has also been busy in recent years in other, though usually low-key, moves for “border rectification”, and more emphatic Chinese moves for economic dominance throughout Central Asia. One example is renting 7000 hectares of agricultural land from the governor of a Kazakh border district; another is an agreement to use some 1100 square kilometres in Tajikistan for the benefit of Chinese farmers. Such territorial control can translate into political clout. It can be used to put pressure on Kyrgyzstan and others to remove the activities of US intelligence agencies and their highly sensitive reconnaissance and surveillance activities from Central Asian soil—including their monitoring of Chinese military movements in Xinjiang.

These trends are strongly confirmed by China’s emphasis on extending its railway network throughout Central Asia, with obvious economic implications as well as potential military ones. China has already used the network to transport troops into Xinjiang. China is also co-operating with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan on energy supply matters and expects to receive substantial gas supplies from there by 2020. In the process, it is also undercutting Russian influence in the region([12]). The point seems even stronger in the light of recent discoveries of large quantities of shale gas in China itself, even if some of these deposits prove difficult to develop. In addition, China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan and especially in infrastructure such as roads and tunnels. That contributes to the growing integration of Xinjiang province with the small Central Asian states and growing control in those states of their Uighur minorities([13]) which might otherwise contribute to unrest in Xinjiang itself.

All of this gives China a potentially commanding position in the developing economic patterns of the Central Asian region, just as its growing naval and air power allow it to enforce large claims in the East and South China Seas( [14]). In addition, China is increasing the availability of trade and communication routes that do not rely on the sea and especially on the Straits of Malacca. Such Chinese efforts are further stimulated by the suspicion in Beijing that several of the political disturbances in Central Asia in the early years of the new century were instigated from outside.

Probably China’s main competitor in Central Asia, including Afghanistan, is Russia, whose interest in the region goes back at least to the nineteenth century, if not to the days of the Mongol empire. It certainly continues through its strategic as well as economic interests. The chief Russian aims in the region are not obscure. Russia has for long sought a dominant influence in Central Asia for several reasons. One has always been the need to stop foreign powers and influence, including Islam and especially jihadists, from penetrating not just Russia’s Central and East Asian provinces, but even the Russian heartland([15]).

Russia wants to preserve authoritarian regimes in the region and its own right to establish military bases there. It also wants further intelligence penetration by the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the Federal Security Service (FSB). Beyond that, Russia wants to promote itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia through Russia and Central Asian territory. At the same time it wants to promote north–south trade corridors between Russia, Central Asia, Iran and India and to be a major participant in transport and pipeline plans for the region.

Russian claims go further. Moscow claims the right to intervene on behalf of Russians, including people who are “Russian” by virtue of their ethnic origin, and who are being oppressed in Central Asian regions. There are precedents for such intervention and even unilateral Russian recognition of the independence of some parts of existing states([16]). Nor can Russia avoid its long-standing worries about China, whose great population reserves have for a century or more seemed a potential threat to Russia’s sparsely populated Far East.

On several of these matters, Russian and Chinese interests and plans clearly conflict. So Russian military and intelligence aims are being pursued in old-fashioned ways, while in commercial areas Russia is becoming less competitive with China. At the same time, and for the moment, it seems that Russia and China see one another as allies in other matters, such as countering US influence in Asia or in dealing with the dangers of Afghan narcotic supplies. (Afghanistan produces around 90 per cent of the world’s opium.)

For the time being, Russia’s attention seems focused in the main on three issues. One is less on Afghanistan than on its links with Iran and, via Iran, with Syria and attempts to constrain Sunni expansionism. There is also the creation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO)([17]), which Younkyoo Kim and Stephen Blank have aptly described as “an institution born with Chinese characteristics”([18]). Though it is not yet an organisation capable of collective action and it has no unified military command or combined force, it may already be the most important security forum for the region,([19]) and signs of military co-operation are visible([20]). The first-ever meeting of the Chiefs of General Staffs of SCO members took place in China in April 2011, at which the then-Vice President Xi Jinping of China spoke of new threats and the need for greater co-operation among SCO members. Nor is co-operation only military. It was Moscow that put forward a regional action plan to deal with issues like terrorism, organised crime and drug trafficking. The forum may have other roles. Yet the inclusion of India, Pakistan and Iran as observers may also suggest attempts by China and Russia to balance against each other. In any event, the SCO seems to be overshadowing its less effective Russian-led competitor, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). There is also the formation, in 2010, of a customs union in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The proposed integration of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and probably Tajikistan, is clearly an attempt by Russia to weaken, or counterbalance, Chinese economic penetration of the region.

These various patterns may also suggest what some commentators have called a “creeping satellisation”([21]) for Central Asia. In addition, one would expect Moscow’s status at the SCO to be used to guard against strategic or commercial pressures on its own strategically vulnerable Central Asian provinces. These areas have, after all, caused problems ever since the days of the “Great Game” played by Russia and the British in the nineteenth century. At the same time, that membership can help to strengthen Russia’s friendly strategic and commercial relations with China and perhaps lessen concerns about those great Chinese population reserves and their potential threat to the Russian Far East. As President Putin asserted in June 2012, “China is Russia’s strategic partner. We enjoy mutually beneficial, mutually trusting, open co-operation in all fields.”([22]) He might usefully remember the old saw: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

The co-operative approach naturally has its own difficulties. It rests on the assumption that there are no political earthquakes or military adventures in any of the participating states. That will certainly include an expectation that Chinese plans for a variety of far-reaching reform in domestic political and economic arrangements even within the Communist Party itself, run smoothly. Not only that but they can also safely be married with the popular nationalist fervour that is displayed not just in public rhetoric but in such matters as China’s far-reaching claims in the East China Sea or the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute with Japan.

The second power with major and immediate interests in Afghanistan is Iran, whose historical links with the Afghan region go back well over 2000 years to the Persian empire of Darius and Xerxes, not to mention Alexander the Great, who found the lovely Roxane in the Afghan hills and made her his wife. As the major Shia power in the region, and one with long-term and extensive cultural as well as political influence in Afghanistan, Iran has an interest in supporting the minority groups in Afghanistan, notably the Tajiks and the Shia Hazara groups([23]), not only with aid but also with operations by elements of the Iranian Al Quds special force. Meanwhile the fall of the Taliban in Kabul has provided Teheran with a welcome opportunity to build ties with the Karzai government and financial links to some Afghan politicians. None of which has prevented Teheran, which has often called for a regional solution to the Afghan crisis, from inviting a delegation of senior Taliban members to meet Iranians as if it were a meeting of two governments([24]). Teheran has also engaged Pakistan to develop energy and economic ties further.

There remain problems between Teheran and Kabul, such as water disputes, the inflow into Iran of Afghan refugees, and Afghan drug trafficking. The 900-kilometre border between the two countries may well have become the main conduit for smuggling Afghan narcotics not only to Iran but also through Iran to Europe.

All this comes together with the long-standing Iranian hostility to the United States. It has been sustained by a number of factors. One is the unwavering US support for Israel, which offends an equally unwavering Iranian hostility to the Jewish state. All of which is fuelled by religious reasons dear to the ayatollahs who have governed Iran since the end of the last imperial dynasty, which fell in 1979. But it also rests on Israel’s role as the “occupier” of Palestinian land and as a strategic and political obstacle to Iranian control of larger areas of the Middle East, the Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean coast.

Hostility to the USA has also been shaped by America’s strong hostility to, and cyber-war against, the Iranian nuclear program. In the USA there have even been suggestions that there might be military action, by the Americans or the Israelis, against those Iranian nuclear facilities. These are, however, accompanied by worries about how effective or durable any such attack might be, or its political effect around the world, or the nature of possible Iranian retaliation, ranging from missile attacks on Israel to arms supplies to jihadi groups in and around the Middle East. The issue has acquired sharply increased importance with the announcement by the British Intelligence Service in July 2012 that Iran will have deployable nuclear weapons by 2014([25]).

A solution to the problem is difficult to foresee. Perhaps the most obvious way forward might be for Iran to close the expected time gap between its achievement of the capability to produce nuclear weapons and associated delivery capabilities, and actual production and deployment. Once Iran has a recognised ability to move towards deployment in a very short time, the immediate issue can effectively be resolved, in the sense that Iran would have achieved an effective deterrent against outside attack. The fact that other powers, including Arab ones, might be motivated to develop their own such weapons would be an important but perhaps separate problem. In any case, even that is only part of a yet larger question: whether the spread of nuclear knowhow, and the capacity to build nuclear devices in various parts of the globe, is still possible at all.

Other issues that matter to Iran have to do with American dominance in the Gulf, its influence on the world oil market—on which so much of Iran’s income depends— and its real or apparent support for Baluchi insurgents against Teheran. That complex of issues has promoted, especially from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, “measured support” for the Taliban insurgents fighting the USA in Afghanistan; while, at the same time, maintaining “close and constructive relations” with the Afghan government fighting the Taliban. This behaviour is further shaped by Iran’s “complex and, at times, contradictory set of cultural, religious, political and security interests”([26])—which encourage Iran’s policy of supporting proxy groups to pursue its interests in other regional states, such as Lebanon and Iraq. Yet Iran’s national interests in Afghanistan also largely coincide with the US wish to defeat the Taliban and establish a viable Afghan government.

The influence and power of Iran seem destined to grow. So Iran’s general policies towards Afghanistan seem unlikely to change, except in two obvious senses. One is that Iran will surely try to prevent or, at worst, limit the ascendancy of any other major power in the affairs and especially the territory of Afghanistan. The other is that Iran seems certain to continue its strong support for the security and promotion of Shia Islam.

The other major, albeit less effective, player in Central Asian affairs is India. India seems handicapped by several factors. One is the permanent mutual hostility with Pakistan in general and most especially over the disputed province of Kashmir. Another is the importance of India’s strategic interests in the South rather than the North: in the trading routes of, and the emerging naval competition in, the Indian Ocean. A third is the fragmented state of India’s domestic politics. At the same time, India feels surrounded and hemmed in by China on one side and by China’s quasi-ally, Pakistan, on the other. For the Indians, any clear-cut Pakistani ascendancy in Afghanistan would be unacceptable. Yet the Afghan situation may also make the American approaches to India in recent times more acceptable, even welcome. Indian financial, trading and other support for an independent Afghan government is therefore likely to continue. As Professor Ramesh Thakur has pointed out, India has historical but also contemporary interests in Afghanistan and “Along with educational, energy and development assistance, India will help to train Afghanistan’s security services.”([27]) Indian cultural influence is also substantial.

It seems unlikely that it could prove possible to create an agreed multi-national body, the SCO or any other, that would contain all these widely varying national interests and ambitions in one economic, let alone strategic network that could ensure stability in and around Central Asia. The alternative might be for these states to confine themselves to possibly more volatile patterns of bilateral relations. Examples are easy to find. One is the relationship between India and China, still bedevilled by issues including China’s links to Pakistan and its claim to some of India’s northernmost regions, for instance in Arunachal Pradesh. Another is Pakistan’s (and especially the ISI’s) continued support for an Islamic radicalism that can threaten both India and the Uighur region in China’s West (as it is already unsettling larger parts of northern and western Africa). A third might be Iran’s ambitions in the Central Asian regions of the Russian Federation.

For all of these powers the prospects in Afghanistan are both enticing and daunting. Enticing not just because of the political opportunities that may arise in the change-over period, but because of the large and continuing economic opportunities in Afghanistan’s major recent mineral discoveries and their exploitation. But also daunting in that Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbours, and the relations of those neighbours with one another, have never been easy, at least not for long; and everyone can read the lessons left behind by the invaders, whether by the British in the nineteenth century, or the Russians and later Americans in the past thirty years. What with one thing and another, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that Central Asia, and Afghanistan in particular, will cease to be a source of ethnic, religious and political unrest, even turmoil, for a long time to come.

Harry Gelber is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and honorary research associate in the School of Government, University of Tasmania. His most recent book is The Dragon and the Foreign Devils (Bloomsbury).


[1] In mid-August, Western press reports suggested that Karzai, who has no serious parliamentary support, might be followed by Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf ,                      said to be the man who brought bin Laden to Afghanistan, and to have Islamic credentials as well as the military reputation of a past commander in the war against the Soviet occupation of the country.

[2] The Times of India 20 May 2013.

[3] Peter Tomsen, The Wars of Afghanistan, New York, Public Affairs, 2011, pp 415-19

[4] Peter Tomsen op.cit p 541.

[5] Cf Christian Le Mière, The Growing Afghan-Chinese Relationship, Foreign Affairs, April 2010.

[6] China Daily, 8 June 2012.

[7] Dina Tokbaeva in Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 21.12.2011, p 2.

[8] Stephen Blank in an interview with Zara Rabinovich, The Influence of China and Russia in Central Asia, Washington DC, National Bureau of Asian Research, 9.4.2013, p.3.

[9] The Chinese have already spent a good deal, including an initial signing bonus to the Afghan Ministry of Mines of some $A808 millions. There has also been an initial investment of $A400 millions by the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) for exploration rights in Northern Pakistan.

[10] Alexandros Petersen, China’s Strategy in Afghanistan, The Atlantic, 21 May 2013.

[11] For instance, Rafaello Pantucci, China Digs Into Afghanistan, 25.May 2012, The National Interest.

[12] For instance, Igor Danchenko, Erica Downs and Fiona Hill, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? The realities of a Rising China and implications for Russia’s Energy Ambitions, Brookings Institution Policy Paper 22, Washington DC, Brookings Institution, 2010.

[13] There seem to be some 200,000 Uighurs in Kazakhstan and 50,000 in Kygyzstan. cf Graham E. Fuller and S. Frederick Starr, The Xinjiang Problem, Washington DC, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, 2004 p 10.

[14] For instance, Michael Yahuda, China’s Recent Relations with Maritime Neighbours, The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, 9 July 2012.

[15] See Rabinovitch, The Influence of China and Russia in Central Asia, op.cit..

[16] For instance, there was Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, resulting in the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

[17] Originally founded in 2001, the SCO members are China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. But Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan have been accepted as “Observers”, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Turkey as “Dialogue Partners” and ASEAN, Turkmenistan and the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States; being some former Soviet Republics) as “Guests”.

[18] Younkyoo Kim and Stephen Blank, Same Bed, Different Dreams: China’s ‘Peaceful Rise” and Sino-Russian rivalry in Central Asia, Journal of Contemporary China, DOI, 15 May 2013, p 13.

[19] For instance, Young Hai and Liu Yang, “SCO Role Highlighted at a conference in Afghanistan”, Xinhua 29 March 2009.

[20] Five SCO member states, including Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan dispatched a total of more than two thousand people for a 2012 joint military exercise. The Chinese side sent out 369 people.

[21] Kim and Blank, op.cit, p.18

[22] BBC News, 7 June 2012.

[23] Who, in their battles against the Sunni Taliban have been dubbed the “Northern Alliance” by the Western press.

[24] The Guardian 4 June 2013.

[25] See the remarks of Sir John Sawers, chief of the UK Secret Intelligence Service MI6, Daily Telegraph (London) 13/7/12.

[26] Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, Iran’s Balancing Act in Afghanistan, National Defense Research Institute, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California 2011, p ix.

[27] Ramesh Thakur, The Australian, 20/7/12 p 8.


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