According to news reports, close on the heels of a Taliban car-bomb attack targeting members of the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Wardak province, the group revealed that their officials and US negotiators had agreed on a draft peace pact on Saturday setting out the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan within 18 months. To take the peace momentum ahead, Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the Taliban’s co-founders, has been named as the leader of their political office in Qatar amid talks with the US.

The US is reportedly willing to withdraw from Afghanistan in return for assurances that the country will not be allowed to be used by al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants to attack the US and its allies. Meanwhile, without referring to a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has tweeted, “The US is serious about pursuing peace, preventing Afghanistan from continuing to be a space for international terrorism and bringing forces home.”

It is also unclear whether the US would reduce its presence by half or more. Nor is the role of the Afghan government in the peace process clear. However, going by the interest expressed by the US earlier, it will be inclined to maintain a military presence in the country for the long term. Further, the contention remains that a withdrawal based on an understanding with the Taliban will not end external interference, although external powers’ Afghan clients (who receive support in the form of arms and aid) may change.

In contrast to the earlier Great Games competition between two empires (British and Russian) or two superpowers (the US and Soviet) for geopolitical supremacy in the regions between the Eurasian heartland and the Indian Ocean, the Afghan scenario is now characterized by a complex game including many regional players as well as insurgency groups.

As a gateway to the landlocked Central Asian region with its abundant reserves of natural resources, Afghanistan witnessed a steady rise of influence among regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India and later China, which pursued their regional objectives and roles independent of the Cold War constraints such as alliances or ideological commitments.

Settling geopolitical scores

While the Cold War witnessed insurgency groups being used more as instruments by state actors to settle their geopolitical scores, the end of the geopolitical struggle between the superpowers for global supremacy turned them into powerful non-state actors in international politics. Regional powers were witnessed defending and promoting their geopolitical interests in strategically situated regions such as Afghanistan by maintaining secret contacts with these groups, which, in turn, undermined the interests of some other actors.

Further, various regional powers believed that they could pool their strength to challenge the extra-regional ambitions of the US. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) provided a regional platform to Russia as well as China to cooperate and check American influence in Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Even while the US call for a “war on terror” received a positive response and the regional powers joined the effort, their military strategic objectives substantially differed, as they belonged to different geopolitical realities.

Russia looked at the war as a way to prevent the influence of Islamist forces in Central Asia – its strategic back yard – and strengthen its fight against the Islamic uprising in Chechnya. Iran saw the war as the decline of Sunni Islamic influence and sought to maintain its traditional sphere of influence in western Afghanistan. India and Pakistan joined the war to address their respective concerns and foster their irreconcilable interests.

However, the geopolitical interests pursued by the regional powers as well as perceptions of threat very often ran contrary to Washington’s interests as well as war and peace efforts in Afghanistan.

While Russia earlier lent support to the Northern Alliance, a group led by Tajik and Uzbek warlords, to strengthen its Afghan role, as the group began to fragment Russia allegedly channeled its support toward the Taliban, perhaps as a hedge against growing US influence in the region – an allegation that Russia kept denying.

On the other side, Moscow maintained that its contacts with the Taliban were limited to the issues of maintenance of security of its nationals and overall stability in Afghanistan. US State Department officials, however, expressed concerns over Russia’s failure to work with the US in Afghanistan, and US military officials on the ground have not hesitated to accuse Russia of providing arms to and sharing sensitive intelligence with the Afghan Taliban.

Contrary to US statistics on the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, which ranged from 1,500 to 2,000, Russian intelligence pointed to an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters

Contrary to US statistics on the number of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, which ranged from 1,500 to 2,000, Russian intelligence pointed to an enhanced presence in Afghanistan with around 10,000 fighters.

There were a series of trilateral meetings among Pakistan, Russia and China primarily aimed at combating the ISIS threat. In one meeting in Moscow, they agreed to remove certain Taliban figures from the US sanctions list.

Islamabad also hosted a meeting of heads of intelligence agencies from Russia, China and Iran to beef up counterterrorism efforts aimed at the threat posed by ISIS. Iran, as another regional power with significant stakes in Afghanistan, took concerted efforts at enhancing its connectivity with the Central Asian region, using western Afghanistan as a bridge.

For instance, much of the Iranian aid to Afghanistan was spent on infrastructure projects mainly with the objective of establishing transportation links among Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian states.

Apart from its support for Shiite religious groups, Iran has stepped up its efforts to train, arm and aid the Afghan Taliban, allegedly to bring more instability to Afghanistan with the objective of building more pressure on the US government, forcing it to roll back its policy of containment, allow Tehran a larger role in Afghanistan, and abandon its plan for laying down an alternative pipeline route.

From the Indian perspective, Pakistani actions suggest that it has been pursuing proactive policies toward Afghanistan to secure a pliable government in Kabul to acquire military depth against New Delhi by overcoming the limitations of its small size as well as enabling it to forge a common strategic front.

Its actions also point to its persistent interests in expanding its sway into the Central Asian region to acquire economic depth against India using Afghanistan as a bridge. Pakistan used the Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement of 1965 to deny India an overland route to supply goods to Afghanistan, let alone Central Asia, which has been construed as Islamabad’s attempts at gaining economic depth versus New Delhi.

Pakistan has been accused of lending continuous support to the Afghan insurgents to promote its interests, even while it was engaged in the peace process, and assisted in the US effort to take on terrorism, so long as these did not undermine Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.

Recently, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal’s response to a question pertaining to US President Donald Trump’s remarks about India playing a role in the war-torn country – “India has no role in Afghanistan”  – did not go down well in New Delhi. More important, it laid bare divergent interests that regional powers are pursuing in Afghanistan.

China’s stakes in Afghanistan increased with the flow of more investment into the development of natural resources as well as a willingness to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. Beijing would see the peace initiatives in this context.

Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan

In order to expand its own influence, which largely depended on containing Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, India tried to strengthen its relationship with each of the Central Asian states and with Iran. During the Afghan civil war, it supported the Northern Alliance as an antidote to the Taliban’s influence. However, with the rising influence of the Taliban, India’s dependence on the US has increased manifold.

Pakistan, meanwhile, kept on alleging India’s involvement in fomenting insurgency in Balochistan to weaken Pakistan and undercutting Pakistani influence in Afghanistan by enhancing its diplomatic presence, using its intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and anti-Pakistani elements to undercut Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan.

India, to enhance connectivity with the Central Asian region, joined with the Iranian effort to develop Chabahar Port and build connecting roads. The Trump administration’s decision to roll back the nuclear deal with Iran reportedly slowed down the process of developing the port.

A geopolitical perspective on the Afghan issue points to the fact that all these countries have significant stakes in Afghanistan and Washington’s withdrawal in the aftermath of a peace deal with the Taliban will not ensure peace and stability in the country unless the complete neutrality of Afghanistan is maintained and the post-deal Afghan government becomes fully representative.