Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey are in a better position to become Karzai's business and state-building partners. Each has economic interests that mesh well with geopolitical ones: each wants to exploit Afghan resources and each wants to expel the US from Afghanistan"
The is seeking a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. It hopes to
reverse the Taliban's momentum and bring them to the bargaining table through a counter-insurgency program, diplomacy with indigenous tribes and foreign powers, and the attrition of Taliban forces. This, the US expects, will give it an important if not central role in a settlement.
But regional powers - primarily Pakistan and with the support of Iran and Turkey - see the lone superpower as overextended, weary, and nearing a fiscal crisis - a situation they seek to turn to their advantage. These four regional powers are in a good position to play crucial roles in a settlement and in an excellent position to benefit from one.
First, the regional powers, especially Pakistan, will use their influence with the Taliban to convince them to limit their ambitions to the south and east and accept a settlement with President Hamid Karzai at the helm in Kabul.
Second, the regional powers, especially Iran and Turkey, will press reluctant Afghan peoples to accept the settlement.
Third, the regional powers will help to form a rentier state to govern the country. Karzai will receive substantial revenue from foreign powers then allocate it to keep various peoples of the country in a loose but viable political framework.
Fourth, the regional powers will cooperate in the development of Afghanistan's resources - largely to the exclusion of other powers - and accrue substantial geopolitical goals as well.
This holds the promise of peace, stability and prosperity, but nothing is without pitfalls in this part of the world.
The Afghan state, optimally
Despite its ethnic heterogeneity and unattractive geopolitical position amid ambitious states and empires, Afghanistan has known periods of peace and prosperity. The state was never powerful or deeply involved in the localities, and its officials were never respected or trusted. Local officials were considered outsiders and their purview was circumscribed by custom.
The ruler in Kabul - king or president - dealt with disparate tribes and peoples, not through a parliamentary body or loya jirga, (tribal councils) but through dialog and pacts with local elders and notables. The ruler apportioned sums of money to them to be used largely as they saw fit, and in return, the localities pledged support to Kabul.
Too much central power triggered opposition, and if persistent, to jolting rebellions. This took place in the late 1970s when the state's reform efforts violated local custom and the country rebelled, leading to breakdown, Soviet intervention, and decades of war and turmoil.
Too little central power bred warlordism, foreign meddling and banditry. This was the state of affairs in the early 1990s when the Taliban rose to power by suppressing the chaos left after the Soviet Union departed and its client in Kabul lost control.
Because Afghanistan historically had little wealth, the money used by Kabul to hold things together came from foreign coffers, alternately British or Russian ones, in exchange for the country's support or neutrality in the Great Game.
Afghanistan, then, was governed as a rentier state since the 19th century and not along the lines of a centralized state. Unappealing, counter-intuitive, and seemingly unstable from the outside, this quilt-work polity is nonetheless the optimal arrangement in Afghanistan - one that resonates with local sensibilities and with memories of the country's best years.
Who will pay the rent?
The game continues, but Afghan's newly-found mineralogical resources make it more complicated than the one in Rudyard Kipling's day. Copper and iron, oil and gas, and the increasingly coveted rare earths are being discovered in Afghanistan in attractive quantities. Afghanistan is also a likely route for a pipeline connecting the oil and gas fields of Central Asia to ports on the Arabian Sea. Karzai knows all this and sees it as a sound basis for a long and prosperous rule.
Countries in and out of the region are looking to exploit these resources, including the US, Russia and India. However, history and events are working against them. Russia had few friends when it left in 1989, and India, though appreciated in northern Afghanistan, is disliked elsewhere as the enemy of Pakistan. The US has over the past nine years failed to bring the prosperity it promised when it invaded the country and is now deemed another power to be expelled. Its departure will be an essential part of any settlement.
Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey are in a better position to become Karzai's business and state-building partners. Each has economic interests that mesh well with geopolitical ones: each wants to exploit Afghan resources and each wants to expel the US from Afghanistan.
Pakistan has the advantages of proximity, road systems into eastern and southern Afghanistan, and capacious port facilities. It has long tried to build commerce with Central Asia. Indeed, Pakistani intelligence (Inter-Services Intelligence - ISI) helped to build up the Taliban back in the 1990s to suppress the banditry that was interfering with commercial traffic with the north. The ISI deployed Pakistani troops to fight alongside the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) against the Northern Alliance, prior to and during the US intervention in 2001.
Today, the ISI supplies the Taliban and other insurgent groups and provides them safe havens across the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, the ISI demonstrated that it could round up Taliban leaders on short notice and impress upon them, and the US as well, that no negotiations could proceed without its say-so and without its positions given considerable weight.
Crucially, the ISI has a great deal of power over the Taliban and is the only entity that can force them to the negotiating table and get them to sign a settlement and abide by it.
Pakistan's collaboration with Karzai at the expense of the US will bring many benefits. Pakistan's assistance to the US in Afghanistan has brought it into conflict with domestic militant groups such as the Tehrik-i Taliban (TTP), which is conducting a devastating bombing campaign in Pakistan - one that kills scores of people every month.
Breaking with the US will mollify the TTP and permit redirecting their talents toward the insurgency in India-administered Kashmir - the centerpiece of Pakistani foreign policy and the ISI's idee fixe since the country's inception. Pakistan also seeks to weaken India's position in northern Afghanistan and press it on the Kashmir conflict.
Further, the wealth from exploiting Afghanistan will bolster Pakistan's economy and military as well, and strengthen its partnership with a rising power in the region and the world - China.
China's booming economy and need for commodities constitute one of the principal dynamics in world affairs today. Blocked by powerful developed countries along much of its periphery, it's looking westward to Central Asia.
It has already skillfully, and with little notice, placed itself ahead of the other powers in the new Afghan game. It is operating an immense copper mine in eastern Afghanistan, developing iron mines in the central region, and building a railroad connecting the promising oil and gas wealth of Kunduz province in the north to the Khyber Pass and Pakistan in the south.
China shares Pakistan's wish to limit the presence of a mutual rival, India. It is bolstering its military partnership with Pakistan by sending in thousands of "flood relief" workers and by building a naval facility on the Arabian Sea, which in conjunction with its presence in Afghanistan and naval bases in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, poses a formidable problem for New Delhi.
These bases will also take China a long way on its quest to become a global military power - one whose navy operates near the Persian Gulf and one that can challenge the US in a growing portion of the globe. Not for nothing is the navalist thought of American geostrategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan avidly read in Beijing today.
The prospects for considerable Chinese influence across the Central Asian land mass are quite good. Not since the Yuan Dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries will China have wielded so much power and commanded so much respect. English geographer Halford Mackinder's writings on Central Asia's geopolitical import are also enjoying a readership in Beijing.
Existing enterprises in Afghanistan offer insight into an already operational arrangement. China obtained mining licenses by delivering a sum of money to the appropriate persons in Kabul, and then set to work. It extracts huge amounts of ore then transports them south - with little if any difficulty from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other insurgent bands that roam the area. Evidently, Pakistan, the insurgent groups and China have already reached a working arrangement, which, though preliminary, augurs well for all parties.
Iran shares the same economic and geopolitical interests as Pakistan and China. Hurt by US-led sanctions, it seeks greater trade opportunities and geopolitical support. Persia once reigned over large parts of Central Asia and its culture and influence have persisted well after the last of the Safavids and Qajars.
Iran loathes the Taliban, which massacred thousands of Shi'ites, killed several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i Sharif in 1998, and contributes mightily to the country's drug problem. However, Iran would agree to a settlement that restrained the Taliban, opened economic opportunities, and expelled the US.
Iran presently enjoys good relations with the northern peoples of Afghanistan (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others) as it long supported them against the Taliban and helped them (and the US) oust the Taliban in 2001. Today, Iran contributes to rebuilding western Afghanistan and revitalizing commerce between the two countries.
Iranian influence will be critical to any negotiated settlement. The northern peoples, though a slight majority of the population, feel increasingly marginalized in public life by Karzai and other Pashtuns in his coterie. Northerners have been ousted from key ministries and from high positions in the military - a process somewhat reversed in recent weeks, perhaps at Tehran's request.
Northerners look on reports of negotiations with the Taliban as a looming betrayal that will lead to another round of fanatical oppression. Iran can assuage such concerns and press Karzai, Pakistan and China to ensure that the Taliban limit their ambitions to the south and east.
Though hostile to the Taliban, Iran has some influence with them. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps provides a limited amount of weaponry to insurgents and trains them at a base near Zahedan in southeastern Iran, not far from the Afghan border. It does so to signal the US that any attack on Iran, whether by the US or Israel, would lead to greater aid to the insurgents and to greater casualties for the US. Surely the Farsi language has an
equivalent of the old aphorism about the enemy of one's enemy.
Turkey has sought to expand its influence in Central Asia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It did so with the encouragement of the US, which sought a secular and democratic influence in the region to prevent that of Islamist and authoritarian Iran, and to spread its own influence in hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
However, Turkey is a confident rising power now. It seeks to assert its own interests and reduce the influence the US has had over it since the early days of the Cold War. To the disappointment of the US, it has developed closer ties with Iran and together they are expanding trade and geopolitical opportunities in Central Asia.
There are cultural ties among the Turkic peoples who live in various areas from the Mediterranean to western China. Among them are Afghanistan's Uzbeks and Turkmen - approximately 10% of the population and chiefly in the north - who have looked to Turkey on cultural and trade matters at least since the days of the missions of Turkey's founding father Kemal Ataturk there after World War I.
Turkey can work with Iran to convince northerners to accept the political framework in Kabul and to share in the promising development of national resources with the rising powers in the region.
In recent weeks, Turkey has been actively increasing its diplomatic positions on various Central Asian matters (and the Palestinian issue as well). It has offered to host a Taliban office in Ankara from which talks can be explored.
As a Muslim country, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and having troops in Afghanistan (thought not in a combat role), Turkey's efforts have potential. As a likely future member of the European Union and as well an emerging Central Asian trade axis, Turkey sees itself a formidable power in a new era.
Problems in the game
The interests and dexterity of Afghanistan's partners are considerable, though pitfalls are clear to anyone not blinded by the glittering appeal of economic and geopolitical boons.
Iranian-Turkish influence and Karzai's recent courting notwithstanding, many northerners mistrust Karzai and any settlement with the Taliban he is party to.
Though the northern militias are said to have been disbanded, this is unlikely, and in any case northerners compose a majority of the army's rank and file, who are more attentive to the appeals of Tajik and Uzbek notables than to the orders of venal and condescending Pashtun officers.
So badly fragmented is Afghan society after 30 years of warfare, with so many once-respected notables and elders dead or living abroad, that holding it together may be impossible. A north-south partition is not inconceivable.
Historically, Afghans are suspicious of outsiders and the past 32 years of intermittent war have done little to allay those concerns. The departure of the US, followed by a sudden influx of Pakistani and Chinese and Iranian and Turkish personnel, might plough under an old insurgency but sow the seeds of a new one. Presumably, all parties will agree to use locals wherever possible, but few Afghans will be deceived as to where the real power lies, where the traffic is headed, and where the riches are accumulating.
China's economic and geopolitical masterstroke at the expense of India could have destabilizing consequences as New Delhi will feel outmaneuvered and endangered. New Delhi and Washington have recently drawn closer with trade agreements, including armaments, which could lead to a jarring realignment, the outcome of which cannot be predicted.
Perhaps most importantly, the arrangement relies on a stable Pakistan for control over the Taliban and the transportation of Afghan resources to world markets. Pakistan may be able to mollify domestic militant groups by ousting the US from Afghanistan, but problems will remain.
It faces desperate poverty, deep sectarian animosities, separatist movements in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), and a barely-functioning political system that lurches from military rule to civilian rule with little political development along the way.
China and to a lesser extent Iran may find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to hold Pakistan together. Alternately, Pakistan could find itself reduced in importance as the senior partners shift to Iranian land routes and port facilities.
Strains may develop within the regional powers. The Taliban's control of opium production, in which the Karzai government and the ISI may be complicit, is a source of tension with Iran where a serious drug problem exists. Pakistan's relationship with Iran is also strained by its ties to Saudi Arabia, Iran's chief rival for mastery in the Persian Gulf, which is developing a sizable military force composed of Pakistani (and Iraqi) mercenaries.
What if anything does Karzai bring to this arrangement? A look at the forces at work might suggest he is a meaningless figurehead and can be manipulated and if need be, brushed aside. Karzai - and given the field of leading politicians, perhaps only Karzai - can play an important role.
Though largely unremarked upon amid concern over his corruption, Karzai has built a measure of support in the south and east with several Pashtun tribes which from long experience mistrust or even loathe the Taliban. The Shinwari, Wardak, Popalzai and many other Pashtun tribes support Karzai, giving him some leverage in even the most contested provinces.
Karzai, it bears repeating, will be critical in holding together - through foreign payments and rentier-largesse - the disparate and often warring peoples of Afghanistan, Pashtun and non-Pashtun alike. Without a viable central figure, foreign powers will have to deal with a welter of competing and perhaps hostile regional leaders, warlords and bandits to get the resources out of the ground and into the ports.
For all his many faults, Karzai is a better face for foreign businesses to deal with than any other contender for power. Few if any world leaders wish to be seen inking a trade deal with as reviled and volatile a figure as Taliban leader Mullah Omar or any of the principal warlords of Afghanistan.
The Afghan president has thus far shown little skill in building a state or working with a representative assembly. Curiously, while working with Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey, he need not deal with a representative assembly or be an exceptionally adroit politician - or even a very popular one. He need only be acceptable to domestic groups, pliant to foreign partners, and generous in the disbursement of subsidies. Karzai may have found his metier.
Karzai can perform one other part in this new game. He alone can one day, with or without the approval or foreknowledge of any representative assembly or world body, order the United States to leave his country.
Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey are all rising powers with strong economic and geopolitical interests in Afghanistan and the region. All have working relations with Karzai and with many Afghan peoples, Pashtun and non-Pashtun, south and north - even with those who mistrust or despise Karzai. All but Turkey are opposed to a US presence.
And all but Pakistan have already benefited from the US's invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran had its deadliest enemy ousted and hanged, his army crushed and disbanded, and a friendly Shi'ite majority come to power. The new Iraqi government rewarded China with far more oil licenses than it did the US. Turkey became an export route for oil from the Iraqi north. And the Shi'ite government ordered the US out of Iraq by the end of 2011. The regional powers wish to benefit from another American war that excites hostility against it and opens opportunity to them.
Karzai in recent weeks has become increasingly antagonistic toward the US. His declamations over civilian casualties have an operatic quality and he turned a barely-noticed burning of the Koran in a tiny American church into violent attacks on outsiders - Americans and others. Had he not secured the support of other powers, he would not overly offend what seems the only force keeping him in power.
Pakistan choked off US/International Security Assistance Force supply routes through the Khyber Pass for a few weeks last year (another is planned) and it more recently ordered the curtailment of drone strikes inside Pakistan, which the US is unwilling to abide with. Pakistan and the US are heading for a break - one that the former would not move toward had it not already secured a partnership with China.
Karzai is reaching out to northerners by ousting a Pashtun defense minister, one thought too close to the US, and replacing him with a northerner supported by the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. His finance minister, too, is thought to be soon to depart - another figure deemed pro-US.
Events are taking place as the US faces the realization, for the first time in its history, that it is overextended militarily and lurching toward fiscal calamity. The heady sense of limitlessness in world affairs that the US felt in the decades after the intoxicating victory of World War II is beginning to fade.
Several emerging powers feel that same sense of limitlessness. They are convinced that the world is now open to them and that they can better manage the affairs of the globe. But Afghanistan is a difficult place to begin.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.