The phrase “geography is destiny” is attributed to Napoleon, and unfortunately, it applies to Afghanistan. Because of its location, Afghanistan has been at the center of rivalries between its neighbors and regional powers for the most of its existence.
In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan was embroiled in a rivalry between the Russian Empire and Great Britain. The term they used was “the Great Game,” the purpose being to use Afghanistan as a buffer state protecting British India from a Russian invasion. The British were gravely concerned about Russian influence on Afghanistan. A caricature by Sir John Tenniel in 1878 depicted Afghan king Shir Ali trapped between Russia (bear) and British (lion) saying, “Save me from my friends.”
More than a century later, the game continues. “But now, the number of players has exploded,” wrote Barnett Rubin in Foreign Affairs.
After the creation of Pakistan, the great game was replaced with “The Great Bargain.” The rivalry was between India and Pakistan on the east and Iran on the west. Each wanted to keep Afghanistan under its thumb to counter its rivals’ influence by hiring factions of Afghans to conduct their proxy wars. They didn’t have trouble finding willing participants.
In multi-ethnic Afghanistan, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks have historically competed for power. For most of the past two centuries, Pashtuns have ruled the country, disenfranchising the other groups. Therefore, each sought foreign assistance to settle scores with their rivals at home.
The ethnic struggle for power has invited foreign interference. Poverty, ubiquitous unemployment, and a lack of national identity has provided many opportunities for foreigners to hire proxies from the Afghan population and use them at will.
For example, Pashtuns lean toward Pakistan, while non-Pashtuns favor closer ties with Iran and India.
Now with the mostly-Pashtun Taliban in power, ethnic divisions have widened, fueling the non-Pashtuns’ anger and frustration and forcing them to seek outside help. Regional powers China, Russia, Iran, and India are waiting and watching, deciding whose side to take.
No country has recognized the Taliban regime yet, for obvious reasons. The Taliban lacks the skill to run the country; they excluded non-Pashtuns from their government, imposed strict Islamic rules on citizens, and restricted freedom of speech, among other suppressive measures.
The United States and the European Union are calling on the Taliban to honor the Doha Agreement, signed in February 2020, which called for an interim government and free elections. At home, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai called for the convening of a loya jirga (a “great council”) to elect a new leader, but that road has been traveled before. No jirga (a relic of ancient tribal gatherings) will solve the problem as long as the involved parties are not willing to sign a binding agreement.
Afghanistan’s geography is similar to that of Belgium, which has also been at the center of rivalries between regional powers. It’s sandwiched on land between Germany, France, and the Netherlands—its territory had been the site of more than one thousand battles among European powers since Roman times.
When the Belgians rebelled against their then-rulers, the Dutch, in 1830, members of the Concert of Europe (Austria, Prussia, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia) began protracted negotiations with both parties to work out the parameters of an independent Belgium. The agreement is known as the Treaty of London. In 1831 and again in 1839, Belgium traded its neutrality for security and got seventy years of peace.
Could such a solution be applied to the Afghan conflict? Afghanistan already tried it.
During the heyday of the Cold War, King Zaher Shah (1933-1973) pursued a policy of non-alignment which kept Afghanistan from being entangled in any major conflicts. Afghanistan was in peace at home and with its neighbors.
But the policy was abandoned after Zaher Shah was removed from power and his government was taken over by a communist regime, replacing it with a pro-Soviet bloc approach. The result was catastrophic: The Soviet’s influence in Afghanistan provoked the United States and anti-Soviet blocks to get Russia out by supporting the Mujahideen proxy forces.
Then, during the first few years of the American presence, Afghanistan again enjoyed a relatively peaceful time. In 2005 and 2006, I spent two months in the place of my birth, Logar province, 60 km south of Kabul. Citizens would tell me that this was the first time since the King Zaher’s era that they enjoyed a serene and peaceful life. But it was short-lived. Soon, Afghan president Hamid Karzai—who studied in India—tiled Afghanistan’s equilibrium toward that country.
Karzai’s lopsided policy favoring India provoked Pakistan to take destructive measures to counter India’s influence. Pakistan saw the Afghan-Indian friendship as leaving it sandwiched between rivals. To counter the Indian influence, Pakistan recruited former Taliban leaders who migrated to Pakistan after their regime was overthrown by the U.S. military.
Pakistan gave them arms, sanctuary, and logistic support to start a war under the pretext of a religious obligation to launch a jihad against invaders.
As a result, Afghanistan once again became a battleground between India and Pakistan, which invited regional powers to take sides.
But a solution is possible: a new neutrality agreement.
I am calling on United Nations to bring together Afghanistan’s neighbors and the regional powers to hold a conference with the following goals:
Pakistan, Iran, and India should sign an agreement not to interfere in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan; The United States, China, and Russia sign on as guarantors, promising that any violation of these agreements will be punished by severe economic and political sanctions. All parties should pledge to respect and honor the sovereignty of Afghanistan.
In return, Afghanistan would trade its security for peace by cutting its security forces to a maximum of 50,000 troops.
A neutral Afghanistan would mitigate any fears of a strong Afghan army and would remove any incentive others might have to hire or support proxy combatants. Also, this neutral Afghanistan would provide Afghans the opportunity to settle and solve their problems without seeking help from outsiders.
If this doesn’t happen, and if the concerns of Afghan neighbors and regional powers are not met, Afghanistan’s conflict will continue to simmer. Neutrality has worked for Belgium, and it has worked for Afghanistan before. Let’s save Afghanistan.
Wahab Raofi is a graduate of Kabul Law School. He previously worked at the Ministry of Justice and has spent twelve years working with NATO forces as an interpreter in Afghanistan. He has been published in the Washington Times, Huffington Post, San Diego Union Tribune, NPR, Star and Stripes, and Orange County among others.