Under present economic and political realities, establishing even an unstable state in Afghanistan requires the involvement of foreign powers as aid donors and direct security providers.
Changing that economic reality in a landlocked state requires economic cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours. Such cooperation is possible only if the political reality changes.
The presence of foreign donors or security providers, as well as economic cooperation with one or more neighbours, has the potential to threaten other powers. While the stabilisation of Afghanistan is a partial public good for the international community, the political and military means to establish such stability may pose a threat by providing a base for forces perceived as hostile. This is an example of the general phenomenon of rent seeking in the provision
of public goods. Both the Soviet and US governments believed they intended to stabilise Afghanistan, but their rivals and adversaries perceived their efforts as more or less threatening, even when, as is currently the case, those neighbours also benefit from the limits to instability imposed by the American presence.
Given Afghanistan’s economic and demographic profile – a population that is both poor and young – as well as its linguistic, religious, ethnic, and economic links to the populations of the neighbouring countries, virtually any neighbour of Afghanistan has the capacity to destabilise the country by offering selective benefits to client groups. Most cultivate such clients to one extent or another to hedge against consolidation of stability by a power they perceive as posing a long-term threat.
Therefore, the stabilisation of Afghanistan through any combination of a foreign military presence or assistance, foreign economic assistance, or economic development requires that no neighbour of Afghanistan perceives the constellation of forces there as hostile. In the current case, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China all want the US to stay for now but oppose an indefinite presence, which might be used against them.
The growth of China and India has led to the rapid development of connectivity projects in the regions around Afghanistan. Linking Afghanistan to these networks is the sole way to reduce dependence on foreign assistance in favour of economic development. Connectivity, however, like stabilisation, produces partial public goods that can disproportionately benefit the producer.
China claims that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, aims at win-win cooperation for all. India and the United States, however see it as a predatory power grab and are sponsoring separate connectivity projects while contemplating alternative alliances to balance emerging China. This response threatens a new Cold War in Asia, with China and Pakistan opposing India, the US, Japan and Australia, as the Trump National Security Strategy advocates.
Regional cooperation that will help stabilise Afghanistan would require a truce between BRI and US-India projects such as the quadrilateral framework with Japan and Australia and the India-Iran-Afghanistan-Japan project to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar. Afghanistan could constitute one of the links between the two networks. Conflicts between the sponsors of the two networks would threaten Afghanistan’s connection to international markets.
Stabilisation of Afghanistan would also require either the withdrawal of all foreign troops, as the Taliban demands, or agreement by all relevant powers to the terms of reference of a foreign military presence that poses a threat to no one. Withdrawal presents the threat of collapse, while permanent bases stimulate regional backlash.
Among the proposals to resolve this dilemma have been: Russia’s proposal to neutralise Afghanistan; China’s suggestion to replace NATO’S Operation Resolute Support with a UN peacekeeping force mandated by the Security Council; Pakistan’s proposal to limit or eliminate the Indian presence and partially integrate the Afghan and Pakistan security forces through joint training; and the US plan to implement its Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan in such a way as to induce all neighbouring states to bandwagon with the Americans, rather than balancing against it. None of these options seem desirable or feasible at present, but all try to solve the security dilemma presented by the presence of foreign military forces.