Mohammad Taqi Jahanbakhsh

Factors behind Escalation of the Crisis in Afghanistan

Date of publication : December 29, 2017 17:36 pm

During recent months, Afghanistan has been entangled in conflicts, which have had remarkable effects in various fields. Their domestic effects include weakening of the national unity government, further widening of ethnic gaps, intensification of political competitions, prevention or weakening of the country’s development efforts, and of course, strengthening the position of extremist forces. Regional consequences of the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan have been mostly reflected in intensification of rivalries among regional actors such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, who attempt to boost their influence among various social classes in that country and claim a share of political trends in Afghanistan. On a larger scale, intensification of systematic rivalries among such international actors as the United States, Russia, China, and to some extent, the European Union, has been a major consequence of the crisis in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that such rivalries have led to a new “big game” among powerful actors in international system. It is evident that such consequences arise from factors, which need adequate attention if the crisis in Afghanistan is going to become limited and properly managed.
One of the most important factors has been weakness of the state building process and absence of the nation building in Afghanistan. Of course, since September 11, 2001 terror attacks, good progress has been made in the area of state building in Afghanistan, but it has not be powerful enough to lead to irreversible conditions. This weakness, along with inattention to the process of nation building in Afghanistan and even enforcement of certain laws, which directly reinvigorate ethnic tendencies, are considered as major problems facing this country at the present juncture.
The second factor is the weakness of the central government and the national unity government in Afghanistan. This government, which was the product of a political understanding between two Afghan presidential candidates, was established through mediation of John Kerry, then secretary of state of the United States. However, it was clear from the very beginning that presence of a president and a chief executive officer belonging to two different ethnic groups and advocating different, and at time conflicting interest, would cause problems. Of course, this understanding managed to prevent further spread of ethnic and political conflicts at that time, but due to the long period of transition, profound differences that exist between the two sides gradually came to light and, in turn, intensified ethnic and political rivalries.
The third factor is the absence of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan and prolongation of the national unity government’s term in office. The agreement through which the national unity government came into being was meant to pave the way for holding presidential election through a new mechanism. However, this issue has been so far postponed due to various reasons, including rivalries between two main political currents and some political misunderstandings. In addition, the term of Afghanistan’s parliament has been finished many months ago and no new elections have been held as a result of which some parliament member do not take part in its session anymore. This is why legitimacy of the executive and legislative branches in Afghanistan has hit rock bottom in past years and their efficiency has greatly reduced as well. This situation has provided suitable conditions for centrifugal moves across the country.
The fourth factor is the role that Pakistan plays in Afghanistan. During recent months, especially after the last year summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Polish capital city of Warsaw, the government of Afghanistan has thrown its usual caution to the wind and has introduced Pakistan as the main protagonist causing unfavorable security conditions in Afghanistan. Kabul has also called for more pressure on Islamabad and this issue has been so far on the agenda of Afghan officials. Increased international pressure on the government of former Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, in addition to increased rivalry from India and, of course, domestic problems, have all worked to strip Islamabad of any initiative. To this issue must be added more independent approaches adopted by the Taliban group. During recent months, the Taliban has launched vast diplomatic efforts to open avenues for negotiations with some regional governments. The atmosphere that has come about after these measures has enabled a large part of the Taliban group and its allies to opt for more independent approaches. This is why the Taliban has been following up on its military goals with more ease of mind and has largely avoided terrorist measures. On the other hand, according to some reports, the existing links among certain extremist currents in Pakistan, who are supported by some regional governments, have been further invigorated. In the meantime, the existing evidence, including recent terrorist operations in cities of Kabul and Herat both of which were claimed by Daesh, shows that this Takfiri group and its affiliates will most probably be behind most acts of terror in Afghanistan from now on.
The fifth factor behind the current situation in Afghanistan is resumption of international rivalries, especially a return by Russia to political equations in Afghanistan. After they left Afghanistan, Russians had never tried to return to the country’s political equations. This intentional distance that Russia kept with Afghanistan has come to be known as the “Afghan syndrome.” Russians do not have good memories of the occupation of Afghanistan. Therefore, after the new era started in Afghanistan, they had largely avoided playing a role in the country’s issues, except for a limited number of cases. Since 2012, this trend has seen some changes and Russia currently looks at international issues through a new agenda. The signs of this new agenda can be somehow seen in the ongoing crises in Ukraine and Syria and, to some extent, in Yemen. The last instance of Russian Federation playing an international role is seen in Afghanistan. During recent months, Russia has established ties with the Taliban group through mediation of Tajikistan and has sponsored a few international meetings on peace in Afghanistan. Regardless of conflicting reports about Russia's activities in this regard, the country’s involvement in the issues of Afghanistan, its support for peaceful solutions, and its critical positions on the United States’ plans are all meant to send a clear message to officials in US President Donald Trump’s administration to tell them that Russians will from now on seek to meet their own interests in Afghanistan.
One of those interests, without a doubt, is to fight Daesh in Afghanistan and reduce the impact of its presence on Central Asian countries. Russian officials consider Central Asia as part of their sphere of influence and have defined their interests and security in relation to that region. It is evident that spillover of insecurity from Afghanistan into these countries will directly and indirectly affect the interests of Russia. A glance at the current position of Central Asian extremists among Daesh members will clearly prove the threat that Daesh poses to Russia and its “near abroad.”
The sixth factor is considerable presence of Saudi Arabia and its role in all domestic issues of Afghanistan. The presence of Saudi Arabia in this country has been highlighted through humanitarian measures, financial aid and implementation of scientific and cultural projects in that country. A more important activity by Saudi Arabia has been to support religious education that promotes Wahhabism through granting financial aid to religious schools that are mostly located along western and eastern regions of Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia also helps train religious instructors while taking advantage of its political and economic potentialities to support those people, currents and approaches that are against Shia Muslims and against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In other words, Saudi officials are trying via promotion of extremist ideas and sowing insecurity in Afghanistan to make up for their failures in other Arab countries. This is why in recent months, especially after the former Afghan prime minister and warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, returned to Kabul, the frequency and intensity of terrorist attacks have increased in various parts of Afghanistan.
It is very difficult to choose one out of the above factors and claim that it is playing a more important role. However, I believe that what Saudi Arabia seeks to achieve through regional rivalries and the return of some infamous figures to domestic equations in Afghanistan are key to understanding the true nature of the ongoing security crises in this country. If these crises are not resolved through cooperation among big powers and, of course, in coordination with regional actors, Afghanistan will be in for an even bleaker future.


Mohammad Taqi Jahanbakhsh, a PhD candidate in international relations at Allameh Tabatabai University, is the gest fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies
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