In his book, ‘Prisons of Geography’, renowned journalist and foreign policy expert Tim Marshall wrote in detail how the geographical location of a country or a region can have an influence on national and international policy and plays a role in determining geostrategic stances.
A country’s geographical features and location can strengthen it on the one hand, and on the other, due to domestic policies, this can weaken it too. This weakness can render the geographical location and national resources into a curse. In this region, Afghanistan is such an instance.
Sandwiched between Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan’s geographically vital location has proven to be nothing but a curse down the ages of history. The configuration of land in Afghanistan has always made it difficult to bring it under subjugation. That is why this country is referred to as the ‘graveyard of empires.’ The latest proof of this is the strategic defeat faced by the United States.
To the east of Afghanistan is Pakistan. To the northeast lies a small but geographically significant border with China. This is known as the Wakhan corridor. This is a route linked to China’s Muslim-populated Uyghur region and the China-Pakistan economic corridor.
This communication route is the Karakoram highway and part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This diversified highway is connected with the Gwadar Port constructed by the Chinese on the Arabian Sea coast in Pakistan. Again, Pakistan’s major port Karachi has connection with Afghanistan’s Kandahar border town. At the other border is Pakistan’s Khyber Pass. Due to geographic reasons landlocked Afghanistan is dependent on Pakistan for its communications.
On Afghanistan’s western border is the Islamic republic of Iran. Iran’s Chabahar port is its maritime link with west Afghanistan. Chabahar basically is divided into two ports. Due to geostrategic reasons, in 2003 India took up an initiative of developing the Shahid Beheshti port there. This development slowed down due to international sanctions against Iran. According to an agreement of 2016, Iran gave India its permission for the full use of one of the 16 berths at this port.
Chabahar’s Shahid Beheshti is the communication link with Afghanistan. This important port of Iran has given India an alternative route to Afghanistan. On the other hand, Pakistan and China’s BRI may have plans for strategic use of the port.
Rapid changes in the Afghanistan scenario have thrown India off-kilter. The recent agreement for China to develop Iran’s Chabahar port and for a railway route from the port to Central Asia under BRI, does not go down well with India. India is now facing competition from China in Iran.
To the north of Afghanistan are the Muslim majority countries Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, previously a part of the Soviet Union. The other two countries other than Turkmenistan are landlocked. Turkmenistan is part of the Russian Federation. Russia has been historically linked with Afghanistan’s geopolitics and their efforts to that end persist.
The trade routes between Pakistan and these countries run through Afghanistan. And for India, the main route is through Iran and Afghanistan. There are Afghan populations of Turkmenistan (Turks), Uzbekistan (Uzbeks) and Tajikistan (Tajiks) in the northern provinces of Afghanistan. The well-known warrior of Uzbek origin Abdul Rashid Dostum is still powerful.
Known as tiger of the north, Ahmed Shah Masud was a Tajik commander who was allegedly killed by the Taliban forces when the Taliban were first gaining in strength. That is why these countries, as well as Russia, are wary about the resurgence of the Taliban and of a Taliban government in Kabul or a government influenced by the Taliban.
In the meantime, Iran, Russian, China, Pakistan and the US maintain communication with the Taliban. As they have reached an understanding with the US, there is hope for a peaceful establishment of a new government in Afghanistan.
China has acceptability with both sides in Afghanistan and, according to the Taliban, China is a friend of Afghanistan. China’s immediate aim is extensive participation in Afghanistan’s development and linking the country with the China-Pakistan economic corridor
The US, Afghanistan and Pakistan have formed a diplomatic group aimed at establishing long-term peace in Afghanistan and increasing regional communications. On the other hand, China and Pakistan have held a foreign minister level meeting over the future of Afghanistan and have determined five points with which to proceed. Also, the China, Pakistan and Russia group formed in 2016 remains active.
Meanwhile, India is in a dilemma over its Afghan policy and other geostrategic complications due to China’s changed stance in its Afghanistan-related geopolitics and geostrategy.
Other than the 1996-2001 window during the Taliban rule, Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan have never been good. The present Ashraf Ghani government not only leans towards India, but also has expressed its readiness for all sorts of cooperation. Even recently the Afghan ambassador in Delhi sought military assistance from India.
After the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan, India invested three billion dollars there in hydroelectricity generation, highway construction, power transmission and other infrastructure. Given the present state of Afghanistan, the future of that investment is now uncertain.
In the meantime, adversities between China and India have exacerbated. After the skirmishes in the Galwan Valley in 2020, China stepped up the activity of its troops along the Ladakh and Arunachal borders. In response, India deployed 50,000 troops in these areas. The US supports this move by India. So India is not just having to face Pakistan and the Taliban on the Afghanistan issue, but is also competing with the economically and militarily powerful China.
China has acceptability with both sides in Afghanistan and, according to the Taliban, China is a friend of Afghanistan. China’s immediate aim is extensive participation in Afghanistan’s development and linking the country with the China-Pakistan economic corridor. China has investment in Afghan copper mines and aims at investing in iron and ceramic mines there too.
Bangladesh is perhaps still in the observation stage, but has been working there through BRAC of the past 20 years unhindered, except for a couple of isolated incidents. If peace indeed comes to Afghanistan, perhaps it is in this manner that Bangladesh government and non-government presence can be ensured there
After the curtains are drawn on US presence in Afghanistan, China will have the most influence there. No country has the strength to compete with China’s economic investment. China’s only concern is that the Taliban may instigate groups within China. However, the Taliban leadership has already assured China that the Uyghur issue is China’s internal matter.
China and Pakistan are proceeding with caution in the rapidly changing scenario of the region. Bangladesh is perhaps still in the observation stage, but has been working there through BRAC of the past 20 years unhindered, except for a couple of isolated incidents. If peace indeed comes to Afghanistan, perhaps it is in this manner that Bangladesh government and non-government presence can be ensured there.
Stepping up communication with Central Asia will bode well for Bangladesh. We hope the present problems of Afghanistan will be resolved though peace, not violence.
* M Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former military officer and SIPG senior research fellow (NSU). He can be reached at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir