war on the rocks

Theses on Peacemaking in Afghanistan: A Manifesto

February 23, 2018

Author’s Note: Royalist and republican, Khalqi and Parchami, Soviet Union and the West, communist and Islamist, mujahid and Talib, Hanafi and takfiri, al Qaeda and America, warlord and technocrat, Pashtun and non-Pashtun, Islamic Emirate and Islamic State, KGB, ISI, and CIA – all have for decades carried on an uninterrupted struggle in Afghanistan. Attempts to end the war have but established new antagonisms, new conditions of conflict, new forms of warfare. The conflict generates these antagonisms rather than the reverse, forcing us to face the real origins of violence: Afghanistan’s relations to the state system from which it emerged. These theses delineate the ever-changing conflict’s constant causes, which any effort at peacemaking in Afghanistan must address.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

“Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped!” Groucho Marx, A Day at the Races. 


Great powers such as the United States, China, India, and Russia articulate two interests that justify allocating resources to stabilize Afghanistan:
a. Preventing terrorist groups from establishing secure bases there
b. Promoting the economic rise of continental and South Asia by securing investments in connectivity and integrating Afghanistan into those connective networks.


The best way to realize both of these objectives is to establish an effective state in Afghanistan, which raises the question of who will build it, pay for it, and fight for it.


The international community defines Afghanistan as the territory within the boundaries demarcated by the British and Russian empires, including through the 1879 Treaty of Gandamak and the 1893 Durand Line Agreement, as ratified in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and the Anglo-Afghan Agreement (Treaty of Rawalpindi) of 1921. No Afghan government, however, has accepted these boundaries as legitimate since the 1947 partition of India and the creation of the new state of Pakistan, which Afghanistan did not recognize as a successor state under agreements with British India.


No Afghan ruler or government has been able to build and sustain a state within this territory using solely domestic resources. Governments without substantial foreign aid, as during the reign of King Amanullah Khan (1919-1929), the Islamic State established by the mujahidin (1992-1996), and the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban (1996-2001), collapsed quickly under pressure. This territory has been ruled in one of three ways:
a. Empires based outside Afghanistan that transferred resources to a local administration that lacked sovereignty (Mughals, Safavid Persians, Shaybanid Uzbeks, British India);
b. Empires based in Afghanistan that extracted resources from other areas by conquest (Durrani Empire); or
c. Financial and/or direct military assistance from one or several foreign powers to an internationally recognized juridically sovereign state in Afghanistan (During the Cold War and the Soviet occupation and after the U.S. intervention).


In principle, Afghanistan could sustain a stable state funded primarily by domestic revenue if its economy produced a surplus sufficient to finance:
a. A security establishment capable of repelling external threats; and
b. A government and administration with sufficient legitimacy and capacity to withstand internal threats.


However, given the economic and political realities of the last century, establishing even an unstable state in Afghanistan has required the involvement of foreign powers as aid donors or security providers.


Changing those realities in a landlocked state with a shortage of arable land and no navigable rivers — where human settlements are constrained by scarcity of water and separated by uninhabitable expanses of mountain and desert — requires economic cooperation with neighbors to reach international capital and consumer markets. Such cooperation is possible only if political relations with the neighbors permit it.


The presence of foreign donors or security providers, as well as economic cooperation with some neighbors, can threaten other neighbors or great powers with a stake in the region. While the stabilization of Afghanistan produces a partial public good for the international community, the actors who establish such stability may exploit the position they acquire in their own interest, an example of rent-seeking in the provision of public goods. Both the Soviet government in the 1980s and the U.S. government since 2001 intended to “stabilize” Afghanistan in ways consistent with their interests. But rivals and adversaries such as Pakistan and Iran, the United States (against the Soviets), China (likewise), and Russia (versus the United States), perceived their efforts as threatening, even when — as is currently the case — those states also benefit from the limited stability imposed by the foreign presence.


Given Afghanistan’s economic and demographic profile (its population is both poor and young), as well as its linguistic, religious, ethnic, and economic links to neighboring countries, virtually any neighbor or great power can destabilize the country at minimal cost by offering benefits to clients willing to fight. Afghanistan’s proximity or relevance to the world’s largest economies and nuclear powers means it regularly suffers such destabilization.


Therefore, stabilizing Afghanistan through any combination of a foreign military presence, foreign economic or security assistance, or private-sector economic development requires that no neighbor of Afghanistan or great power perceives the constellation of forces there as intolerably hostile. Today, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China all want the United States to stay in Afghanistan for now but suspect that an indefinite presence might be used against them.


Stabilization of Afghanistan would require either the withdrawal of all foreign troops or agreement by all relevant powers to the mandate of any foreign military presence. Withdrawal presents the threat of collapse, while permanent bases that threaten certain national interests provoke a backlash.


Among the proposals to resolve this dilemma have been: Russia’s proposal to make Afghanistan a neutral state; China’s suggestion to replace Operation Resolute Support with a U.N. peacekeeping force; Pakistan’s proposal to limit or eliminate the Indian presence and provide joint training to the Afghan and Pakistan security forces; and the U.S. plan to implement its Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan in such a way as to induce neighboring states to bandwagon with, rather than balance against, the U.S. presence.

These proposals, however, remain undefined or unacceptable to one or more actors with the capacity to block them.


The growth of China and India has stimulated rapid development of connectivity projects in the regions surrounding Afghanistan. Linking Afghanistan to these networks is the only way to reduce dependence on foreign assistance in favor of domestic economic development. Connectivity, however, like stabilization, produces partial public goods that can disproportionately benefit the producer and make other states nervous. China claims that the Belt and Road Initiative, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, aims at win-win cooperation for all. India and the United States, however, see them as predatory power grabs and are sponsoring separate connectivity projects and alternative alignments to balance China. This response threatens a new round of strategic rivalry in Asia, with China and Pakistan opposing India, the United States, and Japan.


Competition among these projects, as emphasized by the Trump National Security Strategy, could enhance their effectiveness as long as it does not cross the line into conflict. While the Trump administration treats both Russia and China as revisionist threats, it also says that the United States “stands ready to cooperate across areas of mutual interest,” which surely includes creating a favorable regional environment for peace in Afghanistan. In a visit to Delhi, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted that it could even include support for India’s cooperation with Iran over Chabahar. Afghanistan could constitute one of the links between the two networks.


Domestic legitimacy faces a different conundrum. As the ongoing controversy over the national and ethnic nomenclature on the national electronic ID has shown, the very word “Afghan” can be divisive. All constitutions since 1923 have stated that the term refers to any citizen of the country, but it simultaneously retains its original ethnic meaning as “Pashtun.” (The same ambiguity exists in the republics of Central Asia.) Some Pashtuns consider Afghanistan to be their state, founded and ruled by Pashtun (i.e. Afghan) tribes. As they do not accept the legitimacy of the loss of Afghan territory in 1893, they also do not accept the possibility of being outnumbered by others in their own state, leading to continual conflicts over demographic data; if all “Afghans,” in the maximalist definition, were part of the modern-day state of Afghanistan, Pashtuns would be a decisive majority. Some non-Pashtuns reject the identity “Afghan” as relegating them to second-class citizenship. By issuing all citizens electronic cards that identify them as “Afghan” the government has forced clarification of the term’s longstanding and useful ambiguity, stimulating passionate resistance by some — and equally passionate defense by others.


Tribal rule, as in the days when the Saddozai or Muhammadzai clans of the Popalzai and Barakzai tribes monopolized state power, has lost normative appeal domestically and internationally, though it continues to provide a template for groups seeking power, as analyzed by Ibn Khaldun. Opponents have accused both “Panjsheris” and “Pashtun technocrats” of seeking quasi-tribal monopolies of power. Islamic legitimacy is essential for any Afghan government, but there is little support for clerical rule. Clerical rule always empowers a particular group of ulama, like the Taliban, not an abstract Islamic caste in a vacuum. Such groups may claim religious legitimacy but, like other aspiring elites, they use foreign and domestic patronage and ethnic appeals to exercise power.


Democracy based on “one person, one vote” has normative appeal but is nearly impossible to implement in a manner acceptable to all. Presidential elections attempt to arbitrate the choice of a ruler through a neutral process, but in the absence of agreed demographic data or an administration with a minimum of impartiality, ballot-box stuffing becomes a virtual imperative. How many people are eligible to vote and the accuracy of the vote count are both contested. The state lacks any institutional way to determine the electoral outcome in a manner credible to all segments of a skeptical population. Hence, every election is contested.


The Bonn Agreement, the Afghan constitution, and the National Unity Government agreement all tried to resolve this dilemma of legitimacy, but those agreements are eroding. The conflict between President Ashraf Ghani and Muhammad Atta, the governor of Balkh, over the source of legitimacy and authority of sub-national officials threatens those power-sharing agreements. It also places the United States, whose presence has implicitly enforced those agreements, in the ambiguous situation of refusing to back use of the Afghan army to resolve the crisis by the President whose authority it claims to support. The United States regards the Afghan security forces as U.S.-funded counter-terrorist assets not to be compromised in a political dispute.


Only security forces (army, police, intelligence) independent of factional allegiances can protect a non-violent, or at least non-military, political arena. The weak resource base of the state assures that in the absence of foreign sponsorship, security forces rely on factional allegiance and predation. Foreign aid at least partly frees security forces from local factionalism, but provokes resistance from rival or antagonistic foreign powers. Successive negotiations have broken down over failure to reach agreement on the composition and sustainability of security forces. Such was the case in the U.S.-Soviet dispute over aid to Afghan forces in the 1980s. The Soviets sought an asymmetrical outcome, in which they would support the state and the Americans would cease aid to the resistance. America, for its part, insisted on either positive symmetry, in which both great powers funded warring armed groups (including the state) or negative symmetry, in which neither great power funded any side. The dispute that finally blocked agreement between Mullah Omar and Ahmad Shah Massoud was similar: the Taliban leader would incorporate the resistance leader into the state only if he dissolved his forces, while Massoud insisted on keeping them intact for his own security.


Given the dependence of all Afghan actors on external assistance, it is impossible for them to reach agreement if their patrons oppose it. Therefore, the starting point must be to build a sufficient international consensus as a basis for any negotiation and devise a mechanism to make a credible commitment to sustain the state into the future.


The difficulty of defining or even imagining an end state that would meet the minimal needs and demands of such a large number of actors (United States, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, India, Afghan urban westernized elites, Pashtun nationalists, Afghan Islamists, and non-Pashtun ethnic leaders, for starters) undermines the credibility of any negotiation. Each actor tends to believe that its adversaries have no feasible proposal and are using talks to buy time.


The main players in the conflict have seen hardly any possibility of joint gains from peace. Hence, they have insisted on bargaining only from a position of strength rather than negotiating new relationships in their mutual interest. But despite the irrational optimism common to combatants, no position is so strong that it is permanent. The explosion of infrastructure investment, with its potential for connecting the region and the world to the growing Chinese and Indian mega-economies, finally offers a potential source of joint gains to incentivize peace regardless of who controls how many districts of Afghanistan this week or the next. Making that link concrete should be the center of gravity of any renewed efforts. The Afghans and their neighbors have lost decades to bloodshed. They have a world to win.


Barnett R. Rubin is Director of the Afghanistan Regional Project and Associate Director at the Center on International Cooperation of New York University. He taught at Yale and Columbia Universities, headed the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as senior advisor to both the U.S. State Department Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2013) and the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan (2001-2002). He co-founded Gulestan Ariana LLC, which re-introduced the production of essential oils to Afghanistan. He also founded and chairs the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum. His most recent book is Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror (2013).

Image: Wikimedia Commons