A look at Afghanistan’s Regional Diplomacy in the Transformation Decade (2014-2024)

Regionalism has played an important and fundamental role in the post-Taliban foreign policy of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s location at the center of turbulent regional subsystems such as South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia has made regional cooperation and regionalism an inevitable option and a strategic necessity for the country. Due to this undeniable necessity, from 2001 to 2006,the initial steps towards regional cooperation were taken in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. However, in this period the level of engagement of Afghanistan with its surrounding regions was limited, Afghanistan’s understanding of the region was ambiguous, and there was no clear vision for a meaningful regionalism. Nevertheless, in the wake of the adoption of Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy at the London Conference (2006), regionalism became one of the fundamental pillars of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Under the influence of this development, Afghanistan’s regionalism flow was broadened both vertically and horizontally. Internal and external requirements of this period of time made the government of Afghanistan and the international community to put regionalism, alongside internationalism on the agenda as an effective tool for security building, economic development, and underling the position of Afghanistan in the region. Thus, Afghanistan’s engagement with the region broadened and joined various regional organizations and platforms such as SAARC (2007), CAREC (2005),SPECA (2005),and SCO Observer (2012). What’s more, important Afghanistan-led initiatives such as RECCA (2005) and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (2011) were founded as significant steps aiming to find Afghanistan’s agenda on regionalism.

Meanwhile, during the transformation decade (2014-2024), security transition on the one hand and ambitious plans of president Ghani in the field of foreign policy, on the other hand, gave a new spirit to the regional diplomacy of the country. President Ghani defined five circles for Afghanistan’s foreign policy, among which the regional countries fall under the first circle. This circle has a significant place in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. The logic behind focusing on the countries of the region is due to the fact that the fate of Afghanistan is tied to its surrounding regions in such a way that, this circle affects all other four circles of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Now the question that arises is, how can one claim that Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has had dynamism in the transformation decade? It sounds that the following developments to be evidence for confirmation of this claim.

Creating a new Discourse for Afghanistan’s Position in the Region

Before the formation of the national unity government, our knowledge of the region was primarily of the twentieth century and even the nineteenth century. In this epistemology, Afghanistan’s position in the region was not defined by itself; rather it was the outsiders, especially the major powers who defined the Geopolitical Identity (the region Afghanistan is located in and the region that has the capacity to attract it) for Afghanistan. Based on this, Afghanistan was defined as a buffer state between the two great powers, Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century. During this period, Afghanistan prevented direct confrontation between the two powers, However, the damages originated as a result of ups and downs in interactions between the two powers, was imposed on the country.

In the bipolar structure of the Cold War, Afghanistan was recognized as an insulator state among its surrounding regions; as described by Barry Buzan in his security studies as Insulator State as well. Meaning that Afghanistan was considered a country that separates several regional subsystems at the same time, however, it cannot fully fit in any of the surrounding regions. Thus, until 2014, Afghanistan’s position in the region was defined based on the dominant discourse and epistemology of great powers. Although, still many authors are influenced by this discourse; their perception of Afghanistan’s position in the region remains in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the sense that they still consider Afghanistan as a buffer or insulator state, but this understanding of Afghanistan’s position in the region is clichéd. In today’s situation, one cannot study Afghanistan’s regional relations based on the literature of the nineteenth century; rather today’s realities require a new understanding of regional and international trends.

Thus, in the transformation decade, influenced by the understanding of policymakers, especially President Ghani’s conception, the existing discourse on Afghanistan’s position in the region was criticized and a new discourse on Afghanistan in the region was presented.In the new discourse, Afghanistan is considered as a “crossroads of regional trade and transit”, the “Heart of Asia” and the connecting hub of regions (South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia).A discourse whose historical roots goes back to the poetry of Allama Iqbal. Iqbal describes Afghanistan in the strategic depth of Asia and says: “Asia is a body built of clay and water and Afghanistan is a heart in that body”. Influenced by this discourse, Afghanistan moved from a buffer and insulator state to a connecting hub of the region. The creation of this discourse per se considered an active practice in Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy. Because, for the first time, considering domestic and regional necessities, Afghanistan is making a discourse by and for itself and defining its regional identity. This discourse carries a great logic, and that is that by creating this discourse, Afghanistan seeks to define an active role for itself in the region, so that it is no longer a realm of regional rivalries, but a ground of regional cooperation. This discourse originating from this calculation that, Afghanistan is the nexus of economic, historical, and cultural connection among the region and this can turn the country to an important side in regional initiatives.

Adopting an Accountable Regionalist Attitude in Afghanistan’s Foreign Policy

During Karzai’s administration, Afghanistan’s regionalism was more security-oriented. Although Afghanistan’s security-based emergencies justified this attitude to some extent, its application in practice failed to respond to Afghanistan’s security needs and did not remove the limitations of Afghanistan’s interaction with the surrounding regions. Thus, in the transformation decade, Afghanistan’s regionalist attitude changed from security-oriented to economic-oriented. This attitude, by emphasizing the connection of regions, especially with Central Asia and South Asia, seeks to provide effective regionalism in the long run. The logic for this approach is that increasing the level of economic interactions and ties between Afghanistan and the region leads to economic interdependence. Economic interdependence acts as a deterrent to sources of regional instability and insecurity because, in the existence of interdependence, insecurity entails exorbitant costs. In addition, trade and economic exchanges create a common perception, which in this sense also contributes to regional convergence. Thus, pursuing the economic-oriented regionalism has been able to enhance the level of convergence of Afghanistan and the region, leading to the openness of transit routes and the opening of major regional economic projects, especially in Central Asia and South Asia.

Launching Regional Initiatives and Successful Management of Regional Mechanisms

Another dynamic for Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy in the transformation decade has been the establishment of a broad range of regional initiatives. On the other hand, it has a constructive role in managing regional initiatives and mechanisms. Alongside membership in several regional organizations, Afghanistan has itself launched important initiatives to strengthen regional cooperation. The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process is one of these unique Afghanistan-led initiatives that has played a pivotal role in realizing Afghanistan’s regionalism outlook and regional economic connectivity. These initiatives are based on the strategic insight to define and consolidate a pivotal role for Afghanistan at regional tables. Also, utilize its potential to address challenges and to actualize potential opportunities for regional connectivity. Here, the Heart of Asia process has an undeniable role. This mechanism, with its unique structure, addresses exactly the problem that has been an obstacle facing the achievement of economic and trade programs in the region. In other words, this process, by utilizing its seven Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), seeks to transform the existing misperception and mistrusts in the region in favor of regional cooperation. On the other hand, the Heart of Asia process acts as a multilateral platform for dialogue between the regional, and the trans-regional countries, that by doing so it provides a balance between regionalism and internationalism in Afghanistan’s foreign policy. As well as, the establishment of a broad range of multilateral mechanisms such as Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tajikistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan-Russia-Tajikistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan-China, Afghanistan-Iran- Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India, the United States, and the likes have procured as effective mechanisms to address regional challenges and strengthen cooperation.

Changing the Approach of the Region Towards Afghanistan

Until 2014, the region saw Afghanistan as a source of insecurity, terrorism, narcotics, and dozens of other security threats. But after 2014, under the new discourse, by pursuing an economic-oriented regionalism, the prevailing view of the region towards Afghanistan was transformed. Now most countries in the region sees Afghanistan as a partner for regional cooperation. Now, due to the expansion of economic ties between the parties concluding that Afghanistan’s security threats were exaggerated.

Diversifying Trade Routes and Ending the Economic Blockade

Another dynamic of Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has been that the country became able to largely get out of its geographical prison and economic blockade. Pursuing the strategy of diversifying trade and transit routes through Afghanistan-led regional platforms such as the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, RECCA, and other diplomatic activities including the signing of bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements, has paved the way for breaking the economic blockade of Afghanistan. The implementation of major regional projects such as Chabahar, CASA 1000, TAPI, as well as Lapis Lazuli corridor have been one of the important steps regarding diversification to the transit routes of the country. Also, Afghanistan’s connecting to the regional railway network such as the trilateral railway (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan), the Five Nations Railway Corridor (Tajikistan, Iran, Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan), and the inauguration of the Sangan-Khafrailway project in Iran and its expansion to Afghanistan, are the measures that will have wide economic consequences while diversifying transit routes. In addition, activation of the air corridors also is a large step towards Afghanistan’s independent transit trade and diminishing of dependency on Pakistan.

The wrap-up, Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy has greatly changed the region’s view of Afghanistan by creating a new discourse and taking the right approach. By diversifying transit routes and opening up regional projects, Afghanistan’s position in the regional interactions has improved. However, it can be said that Afghanistan’s regional diplomacy still has a long and twisty road ahead.

Ziaulhaq Tanin
Ziaulhaq Tanin
University Lecturer