Pictured: Taliban fighters in Kabul, August 2021. VOA, via Wikimedia Commons

Conditions in post-American Afghanistan are catastrophic. The Taliban provisional government is presiding over a collapsed economy, an empty treasury, a society fractured along ethnic and tribal lines and a new round of struggles for power in a long-exhausted country. The Taliban were estimated to have between 70,000 and 100,000 men in their ranks when they entered Kabul. Currently they are tasked with governing 37 million people of 14 major nationalities, while the government’s authority, always quite limited, has fallen apart and most power is still held by tribal and local power structures.

Afghanistan desperately needs a viable political order, but no such order is thinkable unless it is rooted in the ethnic and cultural diversity of Afghan society, respectful of the traditions of its many components and mindful of the social changes of the last war-torn decades. Moreover, this order should be constructed through a process of consultation and compromise, based on balances of interests. While the main job of state-building must ultimately be done by Afghans themselves, it cannot be achieved without concerted involvement of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

A crossroads state

Geography and history have conspired to make Afghanistan a “crossroads state” serving as the main connecting link between south, central and western Asia. In Afghanistan, Iranian, Indian and Central Asian civilizations have interacted over centuries in numerous and complex ways. All major Afghan political forces and all segments of Afghan society have historical, ethnic, cultural and economic ties with the neighbouring countries. These ties give Afghanistan’s neighbours considerable influence on the course of Afghan events. It is impossible to insulate events in Afghanistan from actions of the states surrounding it, and conversely these states are unable to insulate themselves from developments in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan today affects its neighbours in myriad ways. It is currently the biggest exporter of narcotics in Eurasia. Its territory is used by radical Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, as a major base of terrorist activities. The migration of millions of Afghans to neighbouring countries to find refuge from violence and hunger puts burdens on the neighbours’ struggling economies. And conflicts inside Afghanistan may lead to conflicts between the surrounding countries.

But the Afghan crossroads is not merely a source of danger and conflict. The country’s natural resources – such as nonfuel minerals worth an estimated $1 trillion – and critical geographical position contain tremendous potential for regional economic development, which would benefit both the Afghans themselves and their neighbours. Major international projects involving Afghanistan are waiting to be implemented if and when a stable order is restored there.

From east to west, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours are Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia are second-tier neighbours which do not share borders with Afghanistan but are close enough to have their national interests affected by Afghan events. The Afghan neighbourhood thus consists of ten states, five of which are major powers including four that possess nuclear weapons.

The Afghan state was founded in 1747 by a confederation of tribes of East Iranian ethnic origin called Pashtuns, inhabitants of the valleys of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Hindu Kush, the southwestern extension of the Himalayas, served for thousands of years as a formidable natural frontier – and avenue of trade and conquest – between the empires of India, Iran and Central Asia. In the mid-18th century, the empires of the three regions were in decline, which gave the frontier’s people a historic chance to create a state of their own. In the Persian empire, the Pashtuns were known by the name “Afghans,” and the new state’s founders chose that “imperial” identifier for the name of the new state – Afghanistan, the Land of the Afghans. In modern Afghanistan, all citizens are called Afghans, but not all Afghans are Pashtuns.

The first ruler of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani, was a remarkably successful conqueror who expanded his realm far beyond the Pashtuns’ Hindu Kush homeland to annex eastern Iran, northwestern India and the southern part of Central Asia. The Durrani Empire shrank soon after Ahmad Shah’s death, but it made Afghanistan the multiethnic country it is today. Afghanistan’s founding people, the Pashtuns, account for less than half of the country’s population, concentrated in its southern and eastern regions, while its northern, western and central provinces are populated mostly by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and smaller nationalities.

Pashtuns have traditionally enjoyed social and economic privileges over other ethnic groups in Afghanistan. But of the more than 60 million people in this founding nation of Afghanistan, three quarters live outside of the Land of the Afghans, in neighbouring Pakistan. In the 19th century, the Pashtun ancestral lands of Eastern Hindu Kush were conquered by the Sikh Empire and later incorporated into British India. The British forced Afghanistan’s rulers to accept a border, the so-called Durand Line, which partitioned the Pashtun homeland and population. In 1947, when the British withdrew from India, the Durand Line became the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But no Afghan government since then has agreed to recognize that border as legitimate. The Pashtun nomadic tribes also do not accept the Durand Line, since freedom of seasonal migration across the 2,670-kilometre border is a vital economic need and an ancient tradition.

The Pashtun population of Afghanistan and Pakistan is a massive human link between the two states. But its divided status has been the main source of tensions and conflicts between them. Some Pakistani Pashtuns have successfully integrated into Pakistani society and even gained elite positions: five of Pakistan’s ten presidents since 1948 have been Pashtuns, as are many middle- and high-ranking officers of the Pakistani army and intelligence services and members of the business class. Economically, Pashtuns as a group are better off in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Still, many Pakistani Pashtuns see themselves as an oppressed minority subjected to discrimination, lacking fundamental rights and subjected to periodic repression. Ideas of Pashtun self-determination are popular, which makes Pashtun nationalism a latent threat to the Pakistani state. While suppressing advocacy of full independence for Pakistani Pashtuns (the idea of an independent Pashtunistan, traditionally supported by Kabul), Pakistani authorities made a major concession to Pashtun nationalists in 2010 by upgrading the status of the Pashtun-populated territory to that of an ethnically defined province – Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, with considerable elements of self-rule.

In the Afghan-Pakistan tug-of-war over the Pashtun question, Pakistan as the stronger side has always held the upper hand. The Taliban was founded in the mid-1990s as a Pakistan-based Pashtun organization with the goal of establishing a fundamentalist Islamic regime in war-torn Afghanistan. The mujahideen ruling in Kabul after the 1992 fall of the Communist regime were mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks, and the Taliban would fight for the restoration of Pashtun power there. Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, ISI, backed the Taliban as an experiment in transforming Pashtun nationalism from a problem for Pakistan into Pakistan’s tool to control Afghanistan. Pakistan’s desire to control Afghanistan stems primarily from a basic strategic premise of the Pakistani military: in case of a war with India, they would need access to Afghan territory for “strategic depth” to defend the northern regions of Pakistan. In past decades, some Pakistani military strategists went so far as to propose plans for the annexation of Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 1996 was not an annexation, but it was still a major victory for Pakistan. The fruits of that victory were lost in 2001 when the Taliban was overthrown in the post-9/11 NATO invasion. Retreating into Pakistan, the Taliban regrouped and launched a new war for power in Afghanistan. Strong U.S. pressure on Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban had only limited success. But even the limited Pakistani cooperation with NATO led to the rise of a new branch of the Taliban, “the Taliban Movement of Pakistan.” This new group rebelled against Pakistani authorities in a classic “blowback” scenario which served as a reminder of the insurgency potential of the Pashtuns. Islamabad responded with large-scale military operations against the Pakistani Taliban, while continuing to support the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s return to Kabul is celebrated in Pakistan as a triumphant revanche for the 2001 defeat. The United States had to leave, while India, Pakistan’s main adversary which invested heavily in the NATO-backed Kabul regime, saw its influence in Afghanistan fall with the Taliban’s return.

Has the Taliban’s coming to power turned Afghanistan into a Pakistani puppet? Such a conclusion has been suggested, but it seems premature. Pakistan’s backing was only one factor in the Taliban’s victory. Its main cause was the considerable degree of popular support the Taliban managed to gain across Afghanistan in its decades-long fight against the republican regime and NATO forces. The practical needs of the Taliban regime’s survival and consolidation require it to act as an Afghan national government, not as a foreign proxy – and an Afghan national government has to represent all Afghans, not just the Pashtuns. Afghanistan’s path to political stabilization lies in negotiations and agreements between the Taliban and other Afghan political forces, and through elections as the only legitimate method of establishing governmental authority. Taking this path will require the Taliban to moderate those elements of its fundamentalist Islamist ideology, such as the curtailment of the rights of women, which arouse strong opposition in more secular and better educated urban segments of Afghan society and in the world at large.

Meanwhile, antigovernment insurgencies have already erupted in the Tajik-populated northern region of Panjshir and in the Hazara-populated central region. As could be expected in a crossroads state, the Taliban’s attempts to crush the Panjshir insurgency with military force drew strong protests from neighbouring Tajikistan, which put its military on alert for a possible fight with the Taliban. Iran, which positions itself as protector of the ethnically related Tajiks and has significant influence in western Afghanistan, condemned the Taliban’s repressions in Panjshir and Pakistan’s alleged military involvement in them.

An emerging concert of neighbours

Pakistan was thus reminded that, while it is a major regional power which has just gained prime influence in Kabul, it is merely one of Afghanistan’s many neighbours. The possibility of conflicts between the neighbours over Afghan events is real, but so is the possibility of their concerted actions to help Afghanistan emerge from its long crisis. For several years now, neighbours have been trying to orchestrate peacebuilding in Afghanistan, with limited results. The United States supported this process, seeing it as part of diplomatic arrangements for NATO’s withdrawal, and while it was interrupted by the sudden fall of the Kabul regime, it has been promptly resumed as the post-NATO fallback option, in the form of fresh and more vigorous regional efforts to steer Afghanistan to peace and stability.

Nine of Afghanistan’s ten neighbours are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), founded in 2001 by China, Russia and four Central Asian states to develop security and cooperation across Eurasia and joined later by India, Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan has observer status at SCO and is keenly interested in future membership. At its September summit in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, SCO declared that its commitment to helping Afghanistan reach stability and recovery was stronger than ever, but called on the Taliban to form an inclusive government, observe basic human rights and act to put an end to the use of Afghanistan’s territory by terrorists and drug cartels.

In October, foreign ministers of all ten neighbouring states met with Taliban leaders in Moscow and obtained the Taliban’s agreement with SCO’s position on Afghanistan. The Taliban pledged to follow an updated Dushanbe formulation of the principles on which the Afghan state is to be rebuilt, aware that the neighbours would not recognize the Taliban regime as legitimate unless it lives up to this pledge.

In Moscow, the Taliban delegation also had a separate meeting with the special envoys of Russia, China and Pakistan. This narrower set of actors is the fulcrum of the regional process. The Taliban wants help from the neighbours, but help comes with conditions which in effect bar the Taliban from attempting to monopolize power.

Pakistan expects the Taliban to serve Pakistani interests but realizes that, in the framework of the concerted regional approach of which Pakistan is part, those expectations will have to be more modest. China has important interests in Afghanistan and considerable influence on Pakistan, but its interests in regional stability as essential to the implementation of its mammoth Eurasian infrastructure development project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), do not include facilitating any Pakistani attempts at hegemony in Kabul. Pakistan, like everybody else in the region, wants the BRI to go forward – a major common economic interest which stimulates the neighbours to work together on Afghanistan. Russia, which since 2017 has been a key organizer of collective regional efforts on Afghanistan, is opposed to anybody’s hegemonic designs on the crossroads state and, in particular, can be expected to help its old friend and partner India to regain at least some of its influence there. And so on.

In these multipolar interactions, no one party is able to gain too much advantage over another and each is therefore is compelled to moderate its intentions. The benefits of cooperation are realized when one’s competitive interests are checked and balanced out by the interests of the others. It remains to be seen how effective this emerging “concert of neighbours,” to suggest a distant historical parallel with the Concert of Europe created in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, can be. The difficulties of creating and implementing the many interlocking arrangements among so big and diverse a group of actors are obvious and daunting. But is there another realistic way out of the interminable Afghan crisis?

For more from our Inroads 50 Afghanistan feature, click to read Endgame in Afghanistan, by Bob Chodos, and To Intervene or Not to Intervene: That is Not the Question, by Andy Hira.