Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan’s Enigmatic Foreign Policy

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 3:34am

Afghanistan’s Enigmatic Foreign Policy

Tamim Asey

President Ashraf Ghani on his recent visit to China described the foreign policy of his administration as: “we view our foreign policy as a bundle of relations, the thickness or thinness of which depends on mutual trust and respect for our sovereign right to make choices that serve the interests of our people, the region and the world. “ This is the first time an Afghan head of state post-Taliban has managed to formulate and describe its complex foreign policy in a single statement.

There are so few countries on the geopolitical landscape of the world whose fate is so interconnected with the conduct of its foreign policy as Afghanistan. War and peace in this country is decided on the decisions, processes and alignments of the Afghan government to pursue its foreign policy objectives at the international stage; if any. The Afghan foreign policy conduct revolves around three important factors i.e. geopolitics, economic and trade dependency and ethnic composition of the country. It has traditionally been preoccupied with safeguarding its national independence, territorial integrity and national unity in the conduct of its foreign policy given its geopolitical space.

Throughout its history – Afghanistan has had little control over its foreign policy because of geopolitics which has been mostly dictated in 18th and 19th century by the British Raj and Russian tsarist regime. For a brief time in between the interwar period it pursued an independent foreign policy but then later on with the rise of the former Soviet Union its foreign policy was heavily influenced by cold war dynamics. Yet even today many of these yesteryear variables and circumstances still holds true where the Afghan government conducts its foreign policy in a complete policy vacuum and institutional paralysis coupled with rampant political cronyism across the board in its foreign policy machinery in the absence of a clear foreign policy direction.

In terms of foreign policy posture within the international system – Afghanistan as an independent sovereign state and a founding member of UN can be best described as a small fragile state with little or no control over its own fate within the international system except either staying neutral or aligning itself with a great regional or global power which depends on smart diplomacy and a clear direction from the state based on its national interests. Those national interests and policy directions are yet to be defined due to lack of a consensus among the Afghan political elite and tribal chiefs as to what constitutes national interests and redlines for the Afghan state.

Afghan Foreign Policy Post-Taliban

The experience of the last one and half decade of modern Afghan foreign policy is not encouraging. The best way to describe post-Taliban Afghan foreign policy is inconsistent, zigzag and personalistic or at best a non-policy approach. The actors, institutions and decision makers of the Afghan foreign policy machinery are highly personalistic, ambiguous and directionless in their foreign policy conduct. Some may argue that probably for a small state located in a strategic geography and prone to many geopolitical vulnerabilities following an ambiguous foreign policy is not that bad after all to remain unpredictable; probably this is the best approach given the options, but it is not institutionalized and an intentional policy of the state rather a product of internal political rivalries and populist politics. For example – one day Pakistan is a brother and ally because domestic conditions require it and it is a good sell to Afghans but the next day Pakistan turns into enemy number one of the Afghan state. Similarly - the United States is a major and strategic ally but is a great impediment to peace and stability in Afghanistan. These are some of the inconsistencies and contradictions of the Afghan foreign policy. Furthermore – Iran is a great friend and twin brother but supplies medical facilities to Taliban and treat their wounded and this list of inconsistencies goes on.

On the other hand – the Afghan foreign policy machinery consists of political appointees to the lowest level of bureaucracy with some even lacking basic education. It is a highly politicized institution which consists of a conglomerate of remnants of various regimes i.e. King Zahir Shah (1960-19785) Mohammadzai tribe appointees, Communist era appointees mostly from Khalq faction of People Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), President Burhanuddin Rabbani mostly Tajik i.e. Jamiat Islami Party appointees and finally newly appointed western educated technocrats under President Hamid Karzai. Almost the entire foreign policy machinery appointments of the Afghan state is less based on meritocracy but more on depends on the network and political affiliations of the individuals.

A State Without a Declared Foreign Policy – Who is a Friend and Foe?

Political scientists and comparative foreign policy analysts argue that small and fragile states don’t necessarily require a declared foreign policy because regardless they don’t have the economic, political and military means to pursue it. It is either external regional or global forces that will shape their behavior or internal state fragilities and rivalries does not let them formulate one for themselves.

The evolution of Afghan foreign policy since its recognition as a state on 19th Aug 1919 has been in phases of disarray due to internal struggles over power and successive collapse of Afghan regimes. The interactions of the Afghan state with the rest of the world and its foreign policy conduct ranged from a policy of non-alignment, ambiguity and finally to a policy of complete alignment with the Soviet Union.

After the fall of the Taliban regime – the Mujahiddins and Taliban followed a policy of over reliance on neighbors and key regional allies such as Saudi, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian republics and took little effort to establish a functioning relationships with the western countries. This foreign policy posture brought misery and turned Afghanistan into a safe haven for Al Qaeda and global jihadists.

More recently – in spite of signing dozens of strategic partnership agreements and declarations, Afghanistan’s post-Taliban regime led by Hamid Karzai lacked a sense of direction and purpose in its foreign policy conduct. The Karzai era of diplomacy can be divided into three phases of passivity, engagement and retrenchment. It was the latter which damaged the image of Afghanistan as a reliable partner abroad.

Diplomat Princelings – Political Cronyism and an Oversized Foreign Policy Machinery

 The Afghan foreign policy decision making apparatus is fragile, incompetent, individualistic without clear guidelines and processes, corrupt and highly centralized in the hands of few in the top of the echelon within the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Security Council, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and most important of all the Afghan Presidential Palace (Arg).

Successive regimes have inflated the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and few Afghan president have dared to go after cleaning up the ministry due to possible political backlash from strongmen and warlords who have vested interests in certain regions and countries from where they get their political, financial and at times military support.

Afghanistan’s foreign diplomatic missions and Embassies lack strategic direction, guidance and supervision and are divided more on the basis of ethnic, political affiliation and interests of various political forces who are shareholders in Kabul government. Diplomats often don’t return and seek refuge after their term gets over. Those who do return either have family abroad or themselves hold a second citizenship.

They do very little to supplement and complement the work and broad foreign policy objectives of the Afghan state. Heads of missions, their deputies and other diplomatic staff are often at quarrels because of their varied political affiliation and often have a different interpretation of their roles and responsibilities. In fact – these foreign diplomatic missions are divided between the Afghan leaders to appoint their favorite individuals in these posts who often end up serving the interests of individual leaders or political parties than the foreign policy objectives of the state.

Presidential Palace (Arg) and its Role in Foreign Policy Decision-Making

The Afghan Presidential palace lies at the heart of foreign policy decision making apparatus of the Afghan state. In fact – at times it even overshadows other institutions and the foreign policy is driven right from the Afghan President Palace or famous known as the ARG. The former Afghan President Hamid Karzai literally run foreign policy from his own office and successive foreign ministers served more as bureaucrats and protocol staff with little say over important foreign policy matters. All the important appointments i.e. up to third tier level were direct presidential appointees in Afghan diplomat missions abroad.

President Ghani has a chance to completely overhaul the structure of the Afghan foreign policy machinery through aligning the roles with responsibilities and authorities and recruitment of competent and patriotic Afghans across the board but remove the existing patrimonial system in the Afghan foreign policy machinery.

From the Silk Road to the Heart of Asia Process – Too many initiatives - little achievement

In the recent past – a range of initiatives from reviving the old Silk Road to turning Afghanistan into a geopolitical hub for commerce, trade and security have been undertaken by the initiative of either the Afghan government, its neighbors or major allies such as the United States. But Afghanistan is still struggling to find its rightful place within the community of nations.

Many of these initiatives including the recent Lapis corridor are long term and requires political will, institutional capacity and heavy investment in infrastructure combined with a sound policy and regulatory environment.

Afghanistan Image Problem – a Failed State or a Model of International Cooperation

Afghanistan needs a rebranding to improve its image around the world. Historically – it has gone through a transformation of being a third world country who was famous for its hospitality, tribal politics and attractive historical places for gypsy tourist from around the world to a failed state harboring international terrorism. Afghanistan was known historically for its lapis lazuli, dried fruits and high quality carpets in the international markets and today has completely vanished.

In the past one and half decade – the Afghan foreign policy machinery has done little to change this image. The Afghan state can do a lot to change this image problem through engaging with the international community including the NATO troop contributing countries to address this image problem and project a better image of the country abroad.

The Foreign Policy of Ethnic Politics

Afghanistan is a mosaic of more than 14 major ethnic groups. Every ethnic group has historically ties with near and far neighbors of Afghanistan who support them financially and politically. For example - the traditional support base of Pashtuns have come from Pakistan and India, whereas, Tajiks from Russia and Central Asian states followed by Iranian support for Hazaras and Uzbekistan for ethnic Afghan Uzbeks. While – Turkey and Turkmenistan have maintained close relationship with the Afghan Turkmens, Uzbeks and the Turkic community in large.

The management of these delicate regional relations while at the same maintaining domestic stability and ethnic harmony to pursue Afghan national interests remains one of the biggest challenges of the Afghan foreign policy machinery.

Afghanistan and its Neighbors – Hot and Cold

Historically – Afghanistan has had a turbulent relationship with its neighbors partly on sound ground of preserving its territorial integrity and avoiding further encroachment of its neighbors of its rightfully demarcated borders. Meanwhile – border fault lines still remain between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan over Amu Darya River banks and the only neighbor which has properly demarcated border with Afghanistan based on a 1920 Agreement is Iran.

Furthermore – in the aftermath of soviet invasion, Afghanistan has become a battle ground of interests of its near and far neighbors. Pakistan has historic territorial dispute over Durand line and Pakhtunistan issue plus watching with concern the growing influence of India in the country. On the other hand – Moscow and Central Asian states are concerned about the security of their borders and the growth of Central Asian terrorist groups trained in Afghanistan. Iran wants to keep and expand its influence among the minority shiitte population to counter Saudi Wahabist expansion in the country. This web of complex interactions and clashes of interests provides both an opportunity and a risk for the stability of the country.

The new Afghan government through a constructive and overarching framework of non-interference can address and organize the concerns and  legitimate interests of the neighbors in Afghanistan through legal means in return for security and non – interference assurance. The potential of economic and trade cooperation in-between Afghanistan and its neighbors are enormous and could reach billions of dollars which far outweighs the damages of proxy wars in a geostrategic country like Afghanistan where spillover effects can have far reaching regional and global affects.

Afghanistan and the Islamic World – The Misfit

Afghanistan shares a unique relationship with the Muslim world. It is a predominantly Sunni state with a minority Shiite population. It has close ties with Saudi Arabia but the presence of Iran is also equally strong. It is an active member of the Organization of Islamic conference and shares long borders with two of the most powerful Muslim countries in the world i.e. Iran and Pakistan. At a time – Afghanistan was the favorite destination of global jihadists to fight against the former Soviet Union in the country and this policy was promoted by various Islamic states from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and even Sudan.

There is enormous potential and tremendous opportunities to exploit in the Afghan relationship with the rest of the Muslim world from exchanging Islamic scholars and students to building joint free agricultural export zones, tourism and food processing factories alongside intelligence and security cooperation to tackle extremism in the region.

Afghanistan and Middle Powers – Champion for a Cause

The diplomatic, foreign aid and military presence of middle powers i.e. Canada, Australia, France and Germany in Afghanistan are primarily due to the duo reasons of its alliance with the United States within the NATO charter and also due to their security and geopolitical interests in the region. But the presence of these Middle powers as is famously known within the political science and international relations literature has also served an important purpose because they were the main proponents and champions of important causes such as protection of human rights, emancipation of women and promoting women’s rights and pursuing war crimes documentation in the country.

Meanwhile – they have been important supporters of the Afghan diplomatic machinery and Afghan state in important international agencies and forums such as the United Nations and its agencies and major rights based organization. The new Afghan president have an important task of strengthening and expanding ties with these important players at the international stage.

Afghanistan and International Institutions – A State Within State

The over dependence of the Afghan institutions and economy on foreign aid has made it vulnerable to foreign interference and put it at considerable vulnerability to conduct its own business independently and pursue its national interests.

Donor agencies, international organizations and NGOs are at times so powerful that they are considered as a state within state. President Karzai’s repeated request to channel money through on budget support for the Afghan government only highlights this important fact. At one point – the former Planning Minister of Afghanistan and current MP, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost, went to the extent of canceling the licenses of hundreds of NGOs who after a government assessment found them to be idle or worked in parallel to the Afghan government. Meanwhile – President Karzai has repeatedly accused the international community of funding security firms and some logistic companies who work against the interests of Afghanistan. This sparked a big diplomatic row which was later on resolved.

All this points out to the fact that the Afghan government have to tread a fine line in relying on international aid organizations but also safeguarding its national interests. This requires smart diplomacy and a strong foreign policy machinery.

Afghanistan and Major Powers - Play it Safe

Afghan statesmen have more often than not been the victim of power politics of the superpowers and a pawn in the larger regional game. It goes back to the time of Russian tsar rivalries with the then British Empire both of whom considered Afghanistan as a buffer state in which to play out and settle their differences each with an interest to access or block the access of the other to warm waters in India.

Throughout its history – Afghan statesmen have fell prey due to their miscalculations to the great power politics of big powers in the region. They either relied too much on one side against the other i.e. British Empire against Russian Tsar and later on have paid a heavy price for it or took a policy of non-alignment which has not paid much in return. The staggering examples of this approach are numerous Afghan Kings and President including King Dost Mohammad Khan (1845-1863), Amir Shir Ali Khan (1863-1879), Amir Abdurrahman Khan (1880-1901), President Mohammad Daud Khan (1973-1978), President Nur Mohammad Taraki (1978-1979) and the list goes on who met violent death because of their miscalculations in dealing with major powers of their time. Such is the importance of foreign policy conduct with great powers within the Afghan political context. It is a matter of life and death for Afghan leaders!

The new Afghan President and administration has much to learn from history and organize its relations with the world in such a way that would both preserve its national interests but also balances the geopolitical interests and consideration of major regional and global powers.

The Thorns of Afghan Foreign Relations – Durand Line, Water Rights, Iran – Saudi Rivalry, Narcotics, Terrorism and Strategic Agreements with the West

The new Afghan administration and President Ashraf Ghani has a huge task ahead of themselves of settling some old and new disputes through diplomacy or at least start the process to address some of these long standing issues within a defined framework i.e. the question of Durand line and Pashtunistan with Pakistan, negotiation water sharing agreements with Afghan neighbors who benefit from millions of metric tons of free water every year especially Pakistan and Iran, maintain a balance in-between India and Pakistan over their objective of pursuing strategic depth in Afghanistan and similarly struck the right balance between Saudi and Iranian rivalries in the country. Furthermore – still there are Central Asian terrorists and extremists who fight in the ranks of Taliban and constitute a big threat to the security and stability of both Central Asia and Russian Federation.

Furthermore – while the bilateral security agreement, status of force agreement with NATO and dozens of other strategic partnership agreements that were signed in-between the Afghan government and its western allies if they are not translated into action and not implemented they will be of a liability than an asset for the Afghan state.

The Difficult Road Ahead – Play it Smart or be Doomed

After signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with US and NATO – Afghanistan is once again at the crossroads of major rivalries of world and regional powers. The Afghan statesmen, politicians and policy makers have a hard and important task of maintaining the right balance in the conducts of its foreign policy and intersection of various interests of the region in their country. This requires a clear foreign policy, the right capacity and institutions to pursue, implement and manage its state foreign policy objectives.

The politics of emotions should be replaced with the politics of cold calculation based on the Afghan national interests. The politics of emotions by our heads of state have every time failed us and doomed us into the dark pages of history.

Afghan President, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, has the chance to clean up the Afghan foreign policy machinery from corruption political cronyism and bring competent, loyal and patriotic diplomats and formulate a clear foreign policy to manage its crucial relations with the world and its neighbors.

Categories: Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Tamim Asey is the former Afghan Deputy Minister of Defense and Director General at the Afghan National Security Council. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Security studies in London. He can be reached via twitter @tamimasey and Facebook @Tamim Asey