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Domestic conflicts

Jan Koehler

Jan Koehler, Dr., has been a research assistant at the Collaborative Research Center "Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood" at the Free University of Berlin since 2006. Jan Koehler has carried out long-term field research in the Caucasus, Central Asia and, since 2003, every year in Afghanistan. Koehler's work in Afghanistan is currently focusing on two long-term impact observations in a total of 27 districts and 470 villages in northeast Afghanistan. Here the research team examines, among other things, questions about the effects of development intervention as a whole and about the effects of special stabilization measures on Afghan society in the study region.

The conflict dynamics in and around Afghanistan are strongly influenced by the geostrategic and economic interests of neighboring countries. Some of these can be traced back to relationships and experiences that go back a long way in history. A sustainable conflict resolution will therefore only be possible with the participation of these countries.

February 2012: A Pakistani soldier patrols the Pakistani-Afghan border area in Dir Province. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Strategic interests of regional actors in and around Afghanistan

For centuries, the interests of influential neighboring states and empires engaged in the region have collided in Afghanistan. The country itself could never be permanently occupied and subjugated by an external power, but in the past two hundred years the influence of rival powers has significantly contributed to the fact that no independent and permanently stable state could develop in Afghanistan (Giustozzi 2009: 31-41 ). Over the past four decades, the internal conflicts over the political and economic development of the country on the one hand and the disputes between external governmental and non-governmental actors on the other hand have once again escalated into a complex key conflict in the Central Asian region (Rashid 2010: Part 3; Harpviken 2018 ).


Pakistan's policy on Afghanistan is largely determined by the fact that a large Pashtun minority in Pakistan lives compactly, especially in the border area with Afghanistan. In these federally administered tribal areas, the same tribes have their traditional settlement areas as on the Afghan side, where the Pashtuns make up the largest population group. Against this background, Pakistan's Afghanistan policy has been shaped to this day by two central geostrategic interests: on the one hand, the endeavor to maintain the common border (the so-called Durand Line), which the Afghan government does not recognize as a state border, and on the other, Afghanistan as an ally and to use back space in the political and military rivalry with India (Wagner 2011). In press reports and analysis, this is often referred to as striving for "strategic depth". Since their independence and the violent partition of the subcontinent in 1947, India and Pakistan have waged four open wars against each other (1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999). Three of these wars involved the controversial Kashmiri affiliation.

As Pakistan became the frontline state in the proxy war waged by the USA against the Soviet troops and the communist government in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the influence of the Pakistani government and the secret services in the neighboring country increased again significantly . Islamabad seeks to achieve its goals either through the promotion of a Pakistani government or through controlled instability through influenceable jihadist groups. Since the mid-1990s, it has mainly been the Taliban. At the same time, Pakistan was and is trying not to allow the escalating violence and insecurity in Afghanistan to spill over into its own territory. For Pakistan it is a challenge to balance the advantages of armed jihad in the neighboring country against the risks to its own internal security, since Islamist terror is increasingly directed against the Pakistani state and religious minorities such as Shiites (Rashid 2012).

Since the end of military rule under Pervez Musharraf (2001-08), the Pakistani government has intensified its efforts to extend state rule through military operations and administrative reforms to the tribal areas that have been virtually autonomous since the founding of Pakistan (this policy was started under pressure from USA after September 11, 2001). The military operations also resulted in Pakistani rebels being pushed across the border into parts of Afghanistan that have so far been less affected by the Taliban uprising. A peace process in Afghanistan seems impossible without taking Pakistani interests into account due to the considerable disruptive potential of this neighboring country. Lasting regional pacification requires, in particular, a sustainable solution to the border issue between Pakistan and Afghanistan and an agreement between India and Pakistan in the Kashmir conflict.


For centuries, Persia and Iran saw Afghanistan as a space for its own power-political expansion. Large parts of today's Afghanistan were repeatedly ruled by Persian shahs. Above all, the Dari-speaking, non-Pashtun population groups have historically been in active political and cultural exchange with the Persian Empire. Iran's relationship with Afghanistan today is shaped by three factors: internal security, national security and striving for supremacy in the Near and Middle East (Potzel 2010). Iran competes primarily with the Sunni regional powers Saudi Arabia in the south and Pakistan in the east and, to a much lesser extent, with Turkey in the west.

In the 1990s, Iranian influence in Afghanistan was manageable and was limited to the defense against destabilizing spillover effects (drug smuggling, crime, refugee problems). Iran was hostile to Taliban rule from the outset, not least because of the oppression of Shiite population groups; since the Taliban's attack on the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998, in which ten diplomats and a journalist were killed, the attitude has been hostile for many years.

The Iranian stance has gradually changed since the US intervention in Afghanistan (2001), the occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) and the increasing American troop presence in Afghanistan. Tehran particularly feared encirclement from the USA (Piven 2012). With the Americans' dwindling influence in Iraq after 2008, the consolidation of Iran's position as a Shiite protective power in the region and the announcement of the extensive withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, Iran began to adopt a more active policy both vis-à-vis the government in Kabul and with Look at Shiite and non-Pashtun groups in northern and western Afghanistan (Gall 2017). In the years since the ISAF withdrawal at the end of 2014, there have been increasing reports of Iran's support for Taliban groups in western and northern Afghanistan (Ahmadzai 2018; Levkowitz 2017).

Russia and Central Asia

Since the expansion of the Russian Empire into Central Asia in the 19th century, the Russian and British, later Soviet and US-American imperial interests in Afghanistan had a geostrategic point of contact. Afghanistan had become a buffer zone for world powers (Hopkirk 1992). In the last decade of Soviet rule, Afghanistan became the scene of a brutal proxy war in which the Soviet Union intervened militarily on the side of the communist rulers in Kabul and the USA and its allies supported the Islamic resistance primarily through Pakistan. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian involvement there went to zero. Moscow limited itself primarily to supporting measures in some of its neighboring Central Asian states, in particular to secure borders and to combat drug smuggling and terrorism (especially in Tajikistan).

In the course of the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan by 2014, Russian policy in the region has become more active and offensive again. For Russia today there is a conflict of objectives in Afghanistan policy (Halbach 2011). On the one hand, Moscow has an ongoing interest in preventing radical Islamist elements and their ideology as well as drugs and weapons from penetrating via Central Asia into Russia. At the same time, however, since the escalation of the quarrel with the NATO countries, Russia has been keen to reduce the western military presence and its dominant political influence in the region (Shams 2017). Moscow's options for action in Afghanistan are, however, limited as a result of the brutal occupation and the resulting loss of reputation in the 1980s. Russia cannot replace the USA as a regulatory power and is therefore concentrating on cooperation with other regional actors and on informal contacts with some insurgent groups, including the Taliban (Hille 2018).

As for Russia, which is increasingly ruled by authoritarianism, for the post-Soviet dictatorships in Central Asia, regime stability is the primary reason of state of the ruling elites. The memory of the infiltration of Islamist fighters into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the 1990s is still alive. At the same time, following the so-called "Colored Revolutions" (2003-2005 in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan) and the developments during the "Arab Spring" in 2011, it became more important for the authoritarian regimes to restrict Western influence in the region.


Historically, China's relations with Afghanistan have been shaped by the Silk Road as a long-distance trade route. Although China is geographically separated from Afghanistan by the Pamirs and has only a short border in the remote high mountain region of the Wachan Corridor, several important trade routes continued to Europe via Pakistan, Afghanistan and Persia. During the "Cold War", China held back more politically in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union or the USA. The Soviet occupation was rejected by China.

Until the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan in 2014, China's interests in Afghanistan were limited to two priorities (Berger 2010). Firstly, the fight against Islamist extremists, who could further aggravate the tensions with the Uighur minority, especially in the Chinese Xinjiang province, and secondly, the safeguarding of economic investments in the exploitation of raw materials (e.g. Mes Anyak copper mine, Amu Darya oil fields Balkh and the related infrastructure).

With the decline in Western influence, but above all with the fundamental regional and international political reorientation of China under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese position on Afghanistan is changing (Rashid 2014). The containment of Islamist extremism remains important. This priority is now increasingly embedded in a regional and supra-regional strategy of building political and economic power.

The most important multilateral major project initiated and led by China is the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative (also known as the "New Silk Road"), announced by President Xi Jinping in Astana, Kazakhstan on September 7, 2013 (Kumar 2017). This gigantic development initiative, which focuses on infrastructure, economic development and trade, encompasses 60 countries and stretches from China to Central Europe, with an estimated total volume of more than USD 1 trillion. The Pakistani branch (economic corridor) with a volume of USD 62 billion, which connects China with the deep-water port in Gwadar, is under construction. Afghanistan is part of the overall strategy of OBOR (Hatef and Luqiu 2017). This development opportunity could become a so-called game changer for state and social actors in the region and is suitable to replace the fixation on the USA (and Russia) as traditionally the most important geostrategic actors in Central and South Asia.

Chinese politics could bring about a fundamental change in the framework conditions for the internal conflicts in Afghanistan, because it offers realistic and transformative economic development options for the partner states. In the absence of a peace process, however, the Taliban and other local violent actors retain their potential for violence and the areas they control in fact a veto power over the planned "New Silk Road" and thus over access to the raw materials targeted by China (Hatef and Luqiu 2017). This is also an incentive for Beijing to become more involved diplomatically in regulating and resolving the conflict in Afghanistan.


Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan are aimed at preventing an anti-Pakistani government there and at the same time curbing the destabilizing cross-border effects of the violence on their own territory. Iran is expanding its influence above all in northern Afghanistan and, as a political protective power for the Shiites, is in potential competition with the Sunni regimes in the region. Russia is reacting to the dismantling of the Western presence in Afghanistan with a more active policy of interests with regard to a peace order that should be less under the influence of the USA. China's major OBOR project could result in economic and political stabilization in Afghanistan and the region. However, it cannot be ruled out that an ongoing economic conflict between the United States and China, as indicated under the Trump administration, will damage this regional, Chinese-led and extremely ambitious development perspective.


Ahmadzai, Aziz Amin (2018): Iran's Support for the Taliban Brings It to a Crossroads With Afghanistan, in: The Diplomat, May 21, 2018.

Berger, Bernt (2010): China as a regional partner of Afghanistan? Limited engagement and long-term interests of Beijing's neighborhood, Berlin: SWP study.

Gall, Carlotta (2017): "In Afghanistan, U.S. Exits, and Iran Comes", in: New York Times, August 5, 2017.

Giustozzi, Antonio (2009): Empires of mud: wars and warlords in Afghanistan, London: Hurst.

Halbach, Uwe (2011): Afghanistan in the Politics of Russia and Central Asia. The withdrawal of troops from the Hindu Kush as a challenge for the CIS area, Berlin: SWP study.

Harpviken, Kristian Berg (2018): "Afghanistan - a new chapter in the Great Game?", PRIO Blogs, 07.03.2018.

Hatef, Azeta / Luqiu, Luwei Rose (2017): "Where does Afghanistan fit in China's grand project? A content analysis of Afghan and Chinese news coverage of the One Belt, One Road initiative", in: International Communication Gazette, p. 1 -19. doi: 10.1177 / 1748048517747495.

Hille, Kathrin (2018): "Russia offers to host talks between Afghan government and Taliban", Financial Times, January 17, 2018.

Hopkirk, Peter (1992): The great game: the struggle for empire in central Asia. New York: Kodansha International.

Levkowitz, Joshua (2017): Iran’s Taliban Gamble in Afghanistan (May 17, 2017), Washingtion D.C., Middle East Institute.

Kumar, Arushi (2017): "Why China's One Belt, One Road Matters for Afghanistan", South Asian Voices, May 12, 2017.

Piven, Ben (2012): "Map: US bases encircle Iran", Al Jazeera, May 1st, 2012.

Potzel, Markus (2010): Iran and the West. Chances for Joint Action in Afghanistan? Berlin: SWP study.

Rashid, Ahmed (2010): Taliban: The power of militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond, London, New York: I.B. Tauris.

Rashid, Ahmed (2012): "Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West, New York: Penguin.

Rashid, Ahmed (2014): "Viewpoint: Can China bring peace to Afghanistan?" BBC World.

Shams, Shamil (2017): "China and Russia want US out of Afghanistan", Deutsche Welle, 14.06.2017.

Wagner, Christian (2011): "Pakistani Foreign Policy Between India and Afghanistan", in: Strategy and Security - 2011 - Global Challenges - Global Answers, ed. von Pucher, Johann / Johann Frank, pp. 273-280. Vienna / Cologne / Weimar: Böhlau-Verlag.


Regional actors

Afghanistan research: