US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar shake hands after signing a peace agreement during a ceremony in Doha on February 29, 2020. Photo: AFP / Giuseppe Cacace

Afghanistan’s strategic location has made it the epicenter of rivalries among great powers. Weighing its geo-strategic significance, renowned Pakistani poet and philosopher Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) depicted the country as the heart of Asia, and posited that a disturbed Afghanistan means a disturbed Asia, and vice versa. 

The celebrated British novelist-cum-diplomat Rudyard Kipling, in his novel Kim (1901), regarded Afghanistan as the center of the Great Game. Critical analysis of Britain’s wars against Afghanistan in 1839, 1878 and 1915 shows Afghanistan’s strategic importance for the security and political interests of great powers in the region.

Obsessed with the rising influence of Czarist Russia, the British defended Shah Shujah Durrani against his rivals, and the East India Company signed a treaty of alliance with Shah Shujah to contain a possible Franco-Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1809. 

Then in 1826, King Dost Mohammad Khan of the Barakzai tribe deposed Shah Shujah and assumed rule in Kabul. The British Raj waged war in 1839 against geographically rugged Afghanistan, dethroned Dost Mohammad Khan, and an interim government led by pro-British ruler Shah Shujah was established. 

Again in 1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, this same formula was practiced by the US to enhance its security and political influence in strategically important Afghanistan. The US persuaded the president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, that the only way to resolve conflict and restore peace in the country was to resign and transfer the power to the Mujahideen.

Thus an interim government was established. But the Mujahideen kickstarted war, and the entire country was thrown to the wolves. Afghanistan was turned into a mass of debris and broken bricks. 

Ghani’s Afghanistan and the Taliban

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US led by George W Bush launched a “war on terror,” invaded Afghanistan, and overthrew the Taliban government. An Afghan Interim Authority (AIA) was established at the Bonn Conference of December 2001.

In 2004, a loya jirga (grand council) approved the adoption of the 1964 Constitution of Afghanistan with a few amendments. Then-president Hamid Karzai provided a roadmap to development and stability of modern Afghanistan. 

With the end of Karzai’s second tenure in September 2014, Ashraf Ghani was elected as the new president of Afghanistan. Being a world-renowned economist, President Ghani strategically expanded the web of economic, infrastructural and institutional development in Afghanistan.

Development of the energy sector, establishment of universities, construction of dams, a focus on export and ensuring access of Afghan traders to global markets are Ghani’s unparalleled achievements. The World Bank reported that fiscal improvements and modest inflation helped the Afghan economy grow by 3.9% in 2020. 

However, the unexpected decision by the US and NATO forces to withdraw helped a resurgence of the wretched and scattered Taliban. Weaponry supplied to the Taliban by immediate neighboring states further encouraged insurgents to unite and vie for power in Kabul.

On the other hand, the US is striving for long-term security interests in Afghanistan. Again, the sword of Damocles is hanging over the country. The major stakeholders including the US intend to turn the situation in their favor by installing an interim government. The Taliban want the complete withdrawal of the US and nullification of the current Afghan government and are demanding an interim setup.

It’s undeniable that the great powers do not want Afghanistan to remain stable; an unstable, weak Afghanistan is in the interest of many countries, especially its contiguous neighbors.

The United States envisages its influence continuing even after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, so Washington is looking to the Taliban. The most viable solution for the United States and its allies is to form an interim government in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Taliban will be controlled, and on the other hand, the interests of regional powers will be sabotaged.

Third, the United States’ close ally Pakistan will further enhance its influence over the Taliban. In all these circumstances, Pakistan’s role is important. Islamabad has the greatest influence over the Taliban. Broadly speaking, Pakistan can get the Taliban to do what it wants. Almost all the countries with security interests in Afghanistan are looking toward Islamabad.

And Pakistan itself has its own long-term security interests in Afghanistan. For Islamabad, a Taliban government is more desirable than anything else.

Any incautious and imprudent decision regarding the future of Afghanistan will threaten the entire region. Installing another interim government will damage the country further. 

Rahim Nasar, an Islamabad-based security and political analyst, a PhD scholar, writes on regional security, political and strategic affairs with special focus on Central and South Asia. He tweets on @RahimNasari.