Afghanistan Peace Process Will Depend on Whether Regional Powers Cooperate or Compete: Experts

Part I in a series on Afghanistan's changing situation amid the US troop withdrawal
May 21, 2021 Updated: May 26, 2021

News Analysis

NEW DELHI—The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, rescheduled to September, has created a period of instability, and regional and global powers are testing the waters for influence. Experts say the peace process will depend upon whether these powers will cooperate or compete.

The United States decided to keep thousands of its troops in Afghanistan beyond the original May 1 deadline and complete the exit by Sept. 11. The earlier deadline was announced by the Trump administration last year in its negotiations with the Taliban.

The official announcement for the “drawdown of all 2,500 U.S. troops” in four months has created a potential time period for increased violence, while regional and global powers issue statements and host meetings to discuss their policies.

The conflicts in Afghanistan are rooted in the region, and the solution can only be collectively sustained, according to Hamid Bahrami, author and independent Middle East analyst based in Glasgow, Scotland, told The Epoch Times in an email.

“Because Afghanistan’s conflicts are rooted in the region, the solution also requires pressure on countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Qatar to end their financial and weapons support to the Taliban and pursue their interests through multilateral diplomacy,” said Bahrami, a former political prisoner in Iran. “The multifaceted use of the Taliban and the Afghanistan government as tools of pressure on each other will only increase regional warfare and the export of terrorism.”

He said that while U.S. troops are still in place, the instability has significantly increased, and once there’s no balancing power present there, such as the United States, the instability will continue to increase.

The situation in Afghanistan can either evolve as a “win-win” for everyone, or it’ll be a loss for everyone, he said.

“Competition for interests, or cooperation for stability. If not, it will turn Afghanistan into a terrorist and narcotic factory once again. But in the first step, the Taliban must change from a military force to a political force,” Bahrami said. “This goal can be achieved by the West putting real pressure on Pakistan, some Sunni Arab states, and Iran to end their strategic and tactical financial and weapons support to the Taliban.”

The United States must keep those powers from undermining the peace process in Afghanistan, Michael Johns, a former White House speechwriter and Heritage Foundation foreign policy analyst told The Epoch Times in an email. He was also a leading force in both implementing and making the political case for the Reagan Doctrine, under which the U.S. provided military assistance to anti-communist resistance forces in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua.

He supported arming the Afghan mujahideen forces led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who helped lead the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but also opposed Arab mujahideen factions that went on to later compose core components of al-Qaida.

“The greatest threat to peace and stability in Afghanistan is the Taliban seeing the departure of U.S. troops as an invitation to utilize military force in ways that undermine power-sharing and contradict the commitments it has made. That threat would be amplified considerably should any regional power assist the Taliban in such a pursuit,” Johns said.

“The U.S. must reinforce that any effort to undermine the peace and stability of Afghanistan by Russia, China, Iran, or any other force would be viewed as an act of immense hostility against the U.S. and would be met with punitive measures.”

Biden speaks
President Joe Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, in Washington, on April 14, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images)

Tensions Between US, Regional Forces

Bahrami said tensions between the United States and regional players such as Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan are affecting regional alliances in Afghanistan, and these alliances will become more complicated once the United States exits Afghanistan.

“We must consider the U.S. to be a balancer in Central and West Asia. Like what it does in the East and North Pacific. If we have seen the fight between the U.S. and the Taliban since 2001, as soon as the U.S. leaves, Afghanistan will become a battleground between regional countries,” he said, adding that no two powers operating inside Afghanistan share the same interests.

“Peace with the Taliban at the cost of Afghanistan’s political captivity by Pakistan, security captivity by Iran, and economic captivity by China are all against the security interests of the West.”

The West must maintain its presence inside Afghanistan, or it should at least strengthen India as a balancer, Bahrami said.

“Of course, India must first formulate its policies with the West in such a way that one sees a convergence of security and economic interests with the West. Second, India should prioritize the principle of promoting Western democracy against Chinese expansionism and its one road one belt plan,” he said.

Iran, Pakistan, and some Arab states use the Taliban as a “Trojan horse” inside Afghanistan, according to Bahrami. “For example, Pakistan exploits the Taliban to isolate India in the Afghanistan peace process. Or Iran does the same to weaken the Saudi position,” he said.

Bahrami said that if Pakistan wants to secure its interests, it must stop supporting the Taliban and instead pursue multilateral negotiations.

“However, a weak Afghanistan is much better for Pakistan, and Islamabad does its best to do this,” he said.

The United States doesn’t put pressure on Pakistan because it fears any pressure will push it toward China, Bahrami said. He called it a “fatal policy.”

“In Pakistan, China is building one of the largest ports in Asia, connecting China to the Indian Ocean via the Gwadar port. Establishing this strategic road would not be easy without China’s effective presence in Afghanistan,” he said.

Johns said since the time of the Soviet occupation, Pakistan’s engagement inside Afghanistan has been “troubling.”

“Pakistan’s intelligence service was an unreliable partner in our support for the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation and often sought to divert aid to more radicalized elements in Afghanistan, including forces that ultimately came to formulate al-Qaeda,” he said, adding that Pakistan offered shelter to Taliban and Al-Qaida following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“More recently, Pakistan seems to see its relationship with the U.S. as more vital than proving a disruptive force in Afghanistan. But the departure of U.S. troops will clearly test this thesis.”

Bahrami said it’s “entirely wrong” to engage Iran in the peace process because it’ll only aggravate the crisis. “Eliminating the Iranian regime from the peace process can convince Saudi Arabia to play a positive role in the process.”

Johns said the United States should continue the “maximum pressure campaign” that was begun during the Trump administration, to ensure that the Iranian regime doesn’t become a menacing force inside Afghanistan.

“The regime remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world, and it is likely to become an even larger sponsor of terrorism if it is afforded the financial resources that would accompany the lifting of sanctions or restoration of U.S. trade ties,” Johns said.

Men dig graves for the victims of a May 8 explosion during a mass funeral ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, on May 9, 2021. (Stringer/Reuters)

‘A More Ideal Agreement’

Johns said there are limitations to the United States’ ability to influence every situation inside Afghanistan, but the best hope is that global and regional powers will learn from history.

“And realize that foreign military engagement there has really never paid off for anyone. Gorbachev, for instance, labeled the Soviets’ nine-year occupation of Afghanistan a ‘bleeding wound.’ Every military attempt to alter the direction of Afghanistan one way or the other has proven hugely difficult and costly, and there’s no reason to believe that will change anytime soon,” he said.

Johns said President Joe Biden shouldn’t have advertised the departure deadline of the U.S. troops to prevent this situation of instability.

“As a matter of general operational principle, it is not unreasonable to establish deadlines as internal governmental goals, but it is a mistake to advertise those deadlines to the world. In advertising a departure date, all we really accomplish is providing those who would do harm advance notice of our timeline. Not much of Biden’s national security or foreign policy steps have made sense to date, and that includes advertising a departure deadline from Afghanistan,” he said.

An ideal agreement, according to Johns, would have happened if rather than defining an unconditional departure deadline, the troops’ withdrawal would be subjected to the Taliban fulfilling its various commitments regarding the ceasefire, regarding its negotiations with the Afghan government, and only after it fulfilled its counter-terrorism guarantees.

“Having done that, however, the U.S. should now make clear that the departure of U.S. troops is contingent on the Taliban living up to the letter and spirit of its commitments prior to our self-imposed Sept. 11 deadline,” Johns said.

Bahrami says he thinks an ideal agreement would mean disarming the Taliban and ensuring its entry as a political force inside Afghanistan.

“Then, Afghani sides can make their own future, set their relationship with other regional and superpowers. Don’t forget this ideal deal also should be based on spreading democracy in Afghanistan,” he said.

This article is the first in the series “Afghanistan’s Changing Situation Amid U.S. Troop Withdrawal,” in which The Epoch Times speaks with global analysts, lawmakers, thought leaders, and ordinary citizens within Afghanistan to gather a wider perspective on the situation inside the country. 

Follow Venus on Twitter: @venusupadhayaya