Nozar Shafeei, university professor and former member of national security and foreign policy committee in Iran's Parliament (Majlis), sat down one week ago with IRAS for an interview about the Afghanistan developments and Russia's initiative on Afghan's Peace process. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
A new development occurred in relations between Russia and Afghanistan relates to the trilateral summit involving Russia, China and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan that was once held without the participation of this state, and now Russia has invited Afghanistan for another meeting in Moscow on the same issue. How do you assess these states’ action for the peace in Afghanistan? What incentives each of these states have, and what common factor can converge them on this issue?
"In this regard, China plays the main role. In fact, China, proportional to the role of various states in Afghanistan, has undertaken initiatives. In general, we can call it “the (geopolitical) doctrine of being China’s neighbor”; this state has programs for her neighbor states on her agenda, and has also a plan for Afghanistan. The Chinese took an unbiased, observant and a patient approach since the crisis in Afghanistan broke out in 1979, but now they have given up this approach, and have become actively involved. Why has this happened? Various reasons can be given in this regard. One reason is that the American presence in Afghanistan is disturbing China. Next, she is concerned about the spread of the Afghan crisis to Xinjiang region, and the third reason is that developments of West Asia such as the problems in Iraq and Syria and the ISIS’s departure from these regions to Afghanistan have increased China’s concerns. Another reason is that now is the time to exploit the Afghan resources. Therefore, China’s main objective in Afghanistan is to bring the Taliban close to the Afghan government, and make them reconcile. On the other hand, China is willing to provide grounds for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, e.g., the Chinese believe that establishing stability in Afghanistan can pave the way for the US withdrawal. Meanwhile, the variable of Pakistan is used to pressure the Taliban to enter into negotiations, and this variable is also used to put pressure on the ISIS and the Taliban to prevent them from entering the Xinjiang region. Finally, China is now the most active state in the field of exploiting the Afghan mines and resources. For example, China is exploiting the iron ore mines and oil and gas fields in the Amu Darya basin in Logar Province.
"In fact, it is for this reason that Trump said: “China is a free rider”, meaning the American practically limited the Taliban and al Qaeda, and created a mechanism, but now the Chinese are ‘harvesting’. As I said, China has activated Pakistan and Russia wherever necessary. Though the Moscow meeting will be held in Russia, the essence and basis of these mechanisms are provided by the Chinese so that in the tripartite mechanism (China, Russia and Pakistan) and the quartet mechanism (China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran) at times the Afghan government may take part as well. Most talks are about how to advance the issue of the Afghan security from the Chinese perspective. Meanwhile, the Afghan stability and economic growth will be to the Chinese advantage, and China believes that in case of economic stability in Afghanistan, economic relations can be established between Xinjiang and Afghanistan, and the improved economic conditions of Afghanistan will affect this region, and can be a factor to get the area out of security and military field, because the more the region is undeveloped, the more it moves towards violence and insecurity. So an economic approach is lying behind the Chinese policies [in Afghanistan] - developing Afghanistan would turn the environment surrounding China developed as well, and this, in return, will affect China’s border areas."
In discussing peace in Afghanistan, particularly there are two domestic sides - “the Afghan government” and “the Taliban”. According to the procedure of talks, there should be usually two equal sides on the negotiating table, but apparently China and Pakistan can be on one side, and Afghanistan is on the other side, and it seems that China-Pakistan side weighs more. Now the question is: can Russia create a balance in these negotiations?
"There is no such an equation in the Chinese objectives, i.e., she has not decided to be on one side with Pakistan, and let Afghanistan or the US, for example, be on the other side. China is a great actor and beneficiary in Afghanistan, and has designed this mechanism, so she is planning to move towards bringing peace to Afghanistan from a higher perspective. In other words, China’s measures are made to pave the way for peace. Of course, the Afghan government also objected that why in the meeting on Afghanistan, Kabul was not present, but China and Russia did not respond to this objection. However, it is believed by China and her designed mechanism that the grounds should be provided for bilateral talks, and then the Afghan government and the Taliban should face each other at the negotiating table. China has not entered into these talks for taking the side of the Taliban or the Afghan government, and she has not considered such a role for herself. What she considers for her is a mediatory and conciliatory role. Meanwhile, Pakistan is a part of the problems that should be considered in connection with the Taliban. Of course, the game is very complex, and the Chinese should do well, and not only bring peace to Afghanistan, but also provide the grounds for the US withdrawal. Otherwise, the Chinese initiative may be removed.
"The Taliban is now a tool to pressure the US, so if the peace is made between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and a national unity government is formed, there will be two situations in which the US withdrawal from Afghanistan should be beneficial for China. Otherwise, the continued American presence, even on a limited basis, will not be useful for the Chinese. Therefore, China’s initiatives in Afghanistan create two concerns which are the effects of the insecurity in Afghanistan on Xinjiang. Of course, the insecurity has been moderated by Pakistan since 2001, and Pakistan has prevented the spread of radicalism from Afghanistan to Xinjiang, China. Apart from this issue, now that the new US president has come to power, and he has targeted China, it is a good opportunity for China to use the radical capacities/forces against the US in Central Asia. Similarly, China should create a balance between these two issues, which of course is a complex equation. However, these events are happening from the perspective of China and based on the (geopolitical) doctrine of being China’s neighbor."
Previously, we have witnessed some measure taken by China and Pakistan for the Afghan peace process, but what happened that Russia entered into this peace process? How do you assess Russia’s goals? On whose side of the parties to the peace initiative she has entered into this process?
"In this case, it seems that what has brought Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran close to each other is the US- ISIS axis not Taliban! Of course, this issue is very complex. But you know that Afghanistan was under the influence of the former Soviet Union. The war in Afghanistan took place for several decades, and this has brought about two phenomena. First, the former Soviet Union’s influence in Afghanistan has left some friend for Russia even among Jihadi parties who are currently also active. Second, this influence has created a negative mentality in the Afghan people. This means that Russia is facing both an opportunity and a challenge here. The other point is that now the American are trying to undermine Russia with the same tool, due to the Russian intervention in Syria, and the humiliation created against forces loyal to the US in the region. If you remember, when Russia entered Syria, the US authorities, then President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry, stated that they should have compensated for Russia’s actions in Syria both in Syria and Russia. By Syria they meant to strengthen the armed opposition forces of Syria, but by Russia they meant to transfer the ISIS to Pakistan and Afghanistan and thus to Central Asia and Russia.
"At the same time, it is important for Russia that she prevents the US initiative for spreading the influence of the ISIS to Central Asia and Russia. The Taliban is the only force that can do the job well, so you can see that there is a competition among different states to get close to the Taliban. In the meantime, some want to use the Taliban capacity to facilitate the departure of the ISIS to the Central Asia, and others seek to use the Taliban to suppress and prevent the ISIS to play this role. As you know, there are serious problems between the Taliban and the ISIS, e.g., the ISIS asked the Taliban to pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but the Taliban did not do so. On the other hand, Pashtun forces lie behind the Taliban Islamic beliefs, and the Taliban seeks to rule over Afghanistan with Islamic laws and Pashtun governing principles, but as we can see, the ISIS is a fundamentalist and universalist group who wants to rule most of the world based on the Islamic laws and practices. So these two groups have serious conflicts, and do not seem to be able to come together as a whole in the form of [a state called] Afghanistan. Regarding these conflicts, Russians are trying to exploit them.
"The Afghan government has also serious problem with the ISIS, and if the US is looking for exploiting the ISIS against Russia, we should see what the role of Afghanistan is. Will she cooperate with the US government? If the answer to these questions is yes, in fact, Afghanistan is fueling radicalism and extremism in her state. Based on this mechanism, Russia is approaching the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Islamic Party or other movements. She is trying to justify this approach through putting pressure on the Taliban for talks with Afghanistan. Russia cannot afford to lose the Afghan government at the cost of winning the Taliban, so Russia needs them both to reduce the US influence in Afghanistan, and to prevent the spread of radicalism from Afghanistan to Central Asia."
Given the challenges facing the Afghan government, what is its position? Since the national unity government was formed, it has faced challenges to the extent that some are waiting for its collapse. Given the ambiguities that you talked about on issues like the US position in the debate over Afghanistan or the position of Russia towards peace talks between the Afghan government and Hekmatyar’s party, and the gap between the Afghan government and the Taliban, which international actors, in your opinion, can help Afghanistan reach her goals?
"The Afghan government has several problems. One of the problems is that it is an ethnic-oriented government. National unity has taken this form, and this government may collapse at any moment. On the other hand, this state has turned from a buffer state to an insulating state, in fact, an insulating state, on the contrary, is a state that all states put pressure on it. The Afghan people also expect their government to adapt itself with all actors and conditions. This is the current situation of the Afghan current government, while the government has problems with Pakistan, and believes that Islamabad is destabilizing Afghanistan, and the government of Pakistan is following some plan to destabilize her. The reason is that not only Pakistan has a series of problems with Afghanistan, but also she has been taking the advantage, given the capacities of domestic groups, and has played to attract to attention of states including the US, Russia, and China.
"The more the Afghan government is closer to these states, the more Pakistan tries to destabilize Afghanistan. But the main priority of the Afghan government is the US. In principle, the current government of Afghanistan prefers the relationship with the US than with any other state, because it believes that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will put her in trouble. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is trying to work with states in the region, but there are a series of regional conflicts that not only exist at the regional level, but also expand to the international level. So some state may work officially with Afghanistan, but some of their unofficial forces work against Afghanistan. However, this state is willing to work with all states, but the output should be the objective peace and stability in Afghanistan. The only current concern of Afghanistan is Pakistan which is considered the main cause of instability in Afghanistan, and the state which sabotages the peace process in Afghanistan."
How much the mechanism formed for the peace process among China, Russia and Pakistan that somehow can be interpreted as the ‘big game’ is aligned with the interests of Iran, and how can Iran protect her own interests in the great game formed by Afghanistan?
"Iranian general policy in Afghanistan is based on creating political stability, security and economic development. Iran believes that a stable Afghanistan can help stabilize Eastern part of Iran, and an unstable Afghanistan can lead to instability in Iran. So she is officially coordinated with any policy that is in this direction. Iran expects that the stability and security in Afghanistan does not become a factor against her. In fact, she wants a fair stability in Afghanistan based on good neighborliness, friendship, convergence and cooperation. Any attempt in that direction will be supported by Iran. At times this policy may be pursued by friends of Iran. For example, Russia or China has taken this path, and as natural allies, their presence, rather than that of other states that are in conflict with the Iranian interests, can help Iran achieve her objectives. Iran is crucial in this big game, and her role depends on the arrangement of her allies. So due to the cultural, religious and geographical commonalities, Iran can be a decisive actor, and many states are entering this game relying on her.
"So regardless of what happens in Afghanistan, Iran’s share is large, and of course, the share is defined in the area of stability and economic development. But if Afghanistan is disputed, Iran will have the minimal role, but will have the greatest constructive contribution in the reconstruction of the state, because Afghanistan’s stability is in the interests of Iran. Iran’s general policy is to create stability, and development in Afghanistan, and whatever strengthens this issue, will help Iran, but she will also prevent anything that disrupts this policy."
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