Towards a post-ISAF Partnership Policy for NATO in Central Asia

Une fois n’est pas coutume (mais nous réitérerons sûrement), au moment où l’introduction de cours en anglais à l’université fait débat, Etudes géostratégiques publie son premier article dans la langue de Shakespeare. Nouvelle exception, il est rédigé par une étudiante de 2e année de Sciences Po Aix, Claudia Lostanlen mais la qualité du travail le mérite amplement. La seconde partie du texte sera mise en ligne demain avec une version pdf pour ceux qui souhaiteraient avoir bénéficié de la version avec notes de bas de page renvoyant aux sources utilisées.

Key points :

The ISAF intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 was only a qualified sucess

Afghanistan, a country which arouses keen interest in Central Asia

Towards a post-ISAF era, a new Partnership Policy for NATO with Kabul ?





If the naming « Central Asia » is a geographic abstraction from the XXth century, the fact remains that this area is arousing greed in particular among the Russians. Indeed, the territorial ambitions of Russia in Afghanistan explain why this country, acted as a « buffer » between the Russian and the British Empires, in a strategic rivalry known as the « Great Game ». This history explains why Afghanistan was formed more as a strategic battlefield than a country founded on the basis of the general will of its people. The debate over the control of Central Asia recently reopened with the announcement of NATO troop withdrawals in 2014, ending a thirteen-year-old ISAF mission. In the light of these recent developments we are going to focus our attention on the Afghan issue in this article. The objectives of this intervention, carried out under the direction of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373, seemed to be distinct from the country’s past. The ISAF took part in this initiative to combat the rise of terrorism implanted under the Taliban régime and to train and advise the members of the fledgling government to stabilize their country, in turn protecting international security interests. However, the ISAF operations are inextricably linked with the creation of the Durand Line, which represents the rugged border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been targeted by the United States Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program until June 2012.


The ISAF intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 was only a qualified success.


The oversights of a quick and technocratic strategy


Among the errors made during the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, we could remark that international leadership most notably underestimated the durability of the Afghan political institutions. The idea was not only to protect the Afghanistan and the other countries against the threat of terrorism, but also to protect the Afghan State itself from its own excesses. The high paced, military-oriented ISAF strategy is marked most notably by the increase of troops on the ground between 2001 and 2012. During this period of time we saw the number of soldiers start from 1,500 and peak at 130,000 in 2012. While utilizing this tactic had measured successes, the international forces failed to account for the effects on the ground of corruption, Islamic fundamentalism and drug-trafficking. go add to the mix the symbol of easy money that is found with narcotics trafficking still holds strong for the Taliban. Today, the NATO technocrats still define the ISAF mission as a way “to assist the Afghan government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment” and to improve governance “for a sustainable stability by the end of the transition. » Unfortunately the government, under Hamid Karzai, is hindered by an apparent lack of readiness and continues to struggle for legitimacy after electoral fraud in 2009. Once NATO announced the progressive withdrawals, it was already too late to change the Afghan people’s mind, which is highlighted by the reappearance of inter-ethnic violence.

 According to writer and French Army Officer Jean-Pierre Steinhofer, NATO’s failure is understandable because its strategy was never clearly pinned down. At first the aim of the ISAF was to protect Kabul and the region. From there, between 2004 and 2006 the mission expanded to cover the majority of the territory. This approach was divided into four phases, each corresponding to a cardinal heading on a compass. The fact that the original objective was modified is explainable as it is very hard to define a clear enemy in such an asymmetric war. Terrorism seems to be more of a means of action than an enemy that can be defeated. Highlighted by the fact that the very definition of terrorism continues to raise problems for the United Nations even following a special commission in October of 2005 was directed to obtain and establish a precise definition for this notion/concept. It was aimed to concentrate a global policy to fight against terrorism but it produced mixed results. Indeed, the Afghan conflict is an asymmetric war thereby complicating the decision-making on how to combat the terrorist networks in this unforgiving territory.


Year 2011: Revealing the failure of the Reconciliation Policy


Facing such a mobile enemy, the United Nations and NATO, through the ISAF, attempted to achieve a Reconciliation Policy between the Taliban and the new government. To add legitimacy to this process, the High Peace Committee (HPC) was created in October 2010. The HPC, led by Burhanuddin Rabbani, was put in place to call on the insurgents to lay down their arms and start the process towards peace. However, on 21 September, 2011, Rabbani and the mainstay of the Afghan Transition Team, were killed in a suicide attack in Kabul. As a result Afghan president Hamid Karzaï lost a leader who led the program aimed at a peaceful transition in Afghanistan by means of negotiating with the Taliban. As the FT journalist, Matthew Green, said, “The death of such a well-known figure will add to tensions in Afghanistan, where the prospect of NATO combat forces leaving the country by the end of 2014 had kindled fears of a new round of civil war”.

 Following the death of Al-Qaeda leader and founder, Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, President Obama announced the planned troop withdrawals from Afghanistan with a completion goal of 2014. It was assumed that this event would lead to the decline of the terrorism in the region, but this did not prove to be true. The announced departure of the United States troops proved to restore the confidence of the Taliban regime. The untimely assassination of Rabbani demonstrated this increase in violence. According to a Pentagon Report, released in December 2012, that assessed the signs of progress in security and stability in Afghanistan, the situation had steadily worsened in the tribal belt since 2009. This report records an outbreak of high-profile attacks, especially from the Haqqani network, and affirms that the Taliban still possess the capacity to commit terrorist attacks. However, it should be kept in mind that the troop withdrawals are not only due to the death of the terrorist leader but also because of the financial crisis affecting the United States and its allies. According to an article from Courrier International, President Obama said that the United States of America could no longer face the astronomical cost of the troop’s presence in Afghanistan. The war in Central Asia and the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) had already cost $1.3 trillion and had yet to achieve its goals 10 years after the beginning of the operation. High unemployment rate, critical budget deficit and national debt convinced the American president to put an end to a war he himself considered as «necessary».


A general assessment is that the ISAF failed to accomplish its missions since the terrorist networks remain at large in the country, there still exist extreme instability in the transitional government and there is a lack of economic, health and social development in this country. With the relatively fast withdrawal of coalition troops from this territory, an analysis of the regional stakes must be done in order to prevent history from repeating itself by leaving Afghanistan to itself to face the geopolitical aspirations its neighbors, as happened with the departure of the Russian troops in 1989.


Afghanistan, a country arousing keen interest in Central Asia.

Longstanding claims from neighbor states


Pakistan, much like Iran and Russia, is historically linked with the fate of Central Asia, and in particular with the future of Afghanistan. The dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun people (which represented 42%of the Afghan population in 2007). The Pashtun tribes originate from the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan. However, when the British set up the Mortimer-Durand Line, as a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this ethnic group was split into two neighboring countries. The Pashtun people living in Pakistan continue to urge the country to extend its sphere of influence to Kabul. Moreover, Pakistan, which is in a longstanding conflict with India over the region of Kashmir, and ultimately fears of becoming a landlocked country between India and Afghanistan. It would be an enclave between India and Afghanistan if the latter come closer to the Indian policy. This predicament comes from the progressive merger between the Indian and Afghan governments by means of the economic expansion and developmental aid supplied by India in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Thus, Pakistan intends to retain the key-role in the Afghan political scene. Pakistan remains the leading player in the region out of necessity for obtaining the international support to cope with Afghan terrorist threats. Finally, Pakistan views Afghanistan for its geopolitical significance that in the event of an Indian attack through the Kashmir, it would provide the country strategic breathing room.

While Pakistan engages with Afghanistan based on its apparent strategic value, Iran looks at this country from another perspective, sharing an atavistic link with the Transoxiana region. In ancient times the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was a part of the Turkish and Persian empires, which can be more aptly described as an «oikoumene», namely a longstanding cultural community. Modern day Iran wishes to rediscover its ancestral ties with the Central Asian countries that made up the ancient Silk Road. Despite the remote location of the Iranian, Afghan, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen people, the existing Farsi literature establishes the cement and the unity of their cultural roots. This could explain why the two million Afghani refugees are turning to Iran asylum over the past twenty years. Iran hopes to foster political stability in Afghanistan after NATO troop withdrawals, so that it brings new trade-related partners. It is also the desire of Iran to reemerge on the international stage, after its isolation provoked by the American political agenda and the UN decisions.

In the end, another country, Russia, defends its sphere of influence as a result of preexisting relations with Afghanistan and more broadly with Central Asia.. The utilization of Afghanistan as a buffer between the Russian and the British Empires dates back to the 19th century. The control of this arena would allow the Russians to reach the sea, thereby opening a sea passage, which was an obsession of the Tsars.  This initiative failed because of British interventions, which were launched anticipating the repercussions of this scenario playing out for the world and more importantly for the gem of the British Empire, India. The Russian territorial claims to these regions remain unchanged as the actual Russian president Vladimir Putin still wishes to spread Russia’s influence beyond its borders so as to safeguard its peripheral areas. According to the French specialist on Russian history, Marc Ferro, “the Russians are the only people in the whole world thinking that colonization constitutes the very essence of its history.” Indeed the Soviet period, which imposed dominance over Afghanistan between 1979 and 1988 and over the other Central Asian countries until 1991, illustrates this quest for influence. This is highlighted by regional cooperation, of which Russia and its neighboring regions are part of, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In addition Russia still supports dictatorships established in its adjoining countries, which are used as potential border guards.


Economic and energy interest in Central Asia


While Russia puts forward cultural and historical reasons to legitimize its territorial claims, one of its true interest is the energy potential of Central Asia. Among the projects dealing with gas and oil field exploitation in the Caspian Sea, it is of note that they could have passed through the Russian territory. This would have allowed Russian companies to exploit hydrocarbon deposits at relatively low prices by signing bilateral agreements with former Soviet satellite states.  Indeed, the controlling portion of oil and gas pipelines would have been extensive since Russia could have decided to block transportations of oil and gas from its periphery to the Western markets. This explains why the Russian pipeline project has been abandoned since the new Central Asian Republics no longer want to remain dependent on Russia for the movement of their goods. The current Russian energy strategy considers Central Asia as a competitor. The core goal of Russia is thus to be involved in hydrocarbon extractions in order to control the reserves of others so that it does not exceed their own. Since the international intervention in Afghanistan, this can only be achieved with the aid of the United States, which could give their endorsement, resulting in an advantage, in the energy exploitation process. Even though the United States and Russia are former enemies the possibility of bilateral agreements exists facing the economic growth of China. Thus, if Russia allows over flights during ISAF missions, the country hopes to be better positioned in the overall post-war energy scene. It is also important to note that the new line envisaged for the energy trade in Central Asia could connect Turkmenistan to India or Pakistan (preliminary agreements for the Trans-Afghanistan pipeline between the three countries were signed in May of last year) This can only be implemented if civil war ends, since oil and gas pipelines will pass through the Afghan territory. Russia is therefore extremely keen to help stabilize tense areas so as to put in place this energy industry.

For Afghanistan, China, recently mentioned above, is the second country that counteracts US reserve bases which have been settled since 2001, the debut of the American intervention. This presents a battle space of a “new Great Game” to be played out between Russia, India and China. The Chinese energy strategy plans to receive its supplies of oil and gas from the Central Asian basins. This comes as a result of a steep increase of its energy demands therefore requiring a diversified list of petroleum suppliers. To achieve this, the Chinese government already started to invest and to strengthen their partnership with Afghanistan and Kazakhstan ($3 billion has been recently invested so as to help in the development of oil extraction and refining. Its involvement in raw materials exploitation in this region might be a double-edged sword. China could transform these countries into ”functional machines”, not only by increasing their exportations, but also by reducing their current operational costs by utilization of light industries. Therefore, we could notice a willingness to open up the region to the international networks, above all under the Chinese economic and energy interests. Finally, China could also wish to control Central Asia, and particularly Kirghizstan, for fear that Islamic fundamentalism would entice Uighurs from Xinjiang and triggers possible separatists movements. Russian and Chinese visions while quite divergent are joined together by the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), which is aimed at fighting against extremisms, favoring economic cooperation and stabilizing the region. Each of them can satisfy its own needs since Russia uses it to counter NATO and OPEC, and China uses it to reinforce its presence in the energy market.

The dependence on energy from Middle-East is a great concern for global powers, such as China or the United States, the two largest importers of oil. Thus, Central Asia might prove to be the new energy base, circumventing imports from the Persian Gulf. This head-to-head competition between China and the United States urges the latter to counter Chinese and Russian energy policies with its base established during Afghanistan and Iraq interventions. This trend can be seen as early as the first Gulf War in 1991.  The United States has good ground to end the war on terror in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) in order to permit a stabilization of the region and to build closer economic relations. The Americans, just as the Europeans, have understood the importance of Central Asia in the new international system and have decided to implement their own foreign policy for this region which is used to push the implementation of a market economy and encourage privatizations. Since the 1990‘s, Europe has been involved in energy projects through various companies, such as Unocal or British Petroleum. Thus, France considers Central Asia as a high consumer of investment funds, services and facilities. This is the background for the recent state visit of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Laurent Fabius, in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in March 2013. The trip was aimed to revitalize French relations with these countries, described by the Ministry as «a diaspora of high economic potential holding great importance for the stability of Central Asia».


Interests of Afghanistan’s neighboring states could hinder the establishment of a NATO partnership policy that favors the United States and Europe. For the western powers to avoid this situation, it would be necessary to provide a relative small, but consistent NATO presence through agreements between regional actors and international organizations.



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