June 8, 2017 4:10 pm JST

Afghanistan's woes expose power moves on Asia's chessboard

Confrontations in western wing threaten to taint the rest of the region

YUJI KURONUMA, Nikkei staff writer

Afghan policemen inspects at the site of a blast in Herat, Afghanistan June 6. © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- On the morning of May 31, a water truck driven by a terrorist exploded in the diplomatic district in the capital of Afghanistan, killing 150 people and injuring more than 400. The tanker, used to drain sewage reservoirs, was instead filled with 1.5 tons of explosives. The bombing was notable for the power of its blast and because it targeted one of the most fortified and international areas in Kabul. 

Thirteen years after Afghanistan promulgated a constitution, the country has yet to find a way out of chaos. There is no denying that the tug of war over this poor country among Pakistan, the U.S. and Russia could have repercussions on China, India and other Asian nations. 

The Taliban denied any involvement in the attack, and other anti-government militant groups also have not claimed responsibility. On June 2, Afghan citizens took to the streets in protest against President Ashraf Ghani for failing to prevent the bombing. At one point police started shooting, leaving five people dead and 10 wounded. 

In Afghanistan, more than 20,000 incidents threatening public security, like suicide bombings, take place every year. Still, the May 31 terror attack is conspicuous in that it happened in the heavily guarded diplomatic district in the capital where checkpoints are ubiquitous.

"The water tanker that was used for the attack had a security clearance to enter the diplomatic area," said Nazar Mutmaeen, a political analyst based in Kabul. "Many people in Kabul are speculating that the blast was carried out with the help of insiders," he added.

It is possible that traitors exist among not just security and military personnel, but also government officials in key posts. 

One factor behind the phenomenon is a long-standing tribal feud between Pashtuns and Tajiks. The two tribes have been at loggerheads since before the Taliban effectively took control of Afghanistan and established a regime in the 1990s.

The confrontation intensified amid the political turmoil following the presidential election in 2014. In the election, Ghani, a former finance minister, who is a Pashtun, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and a Tajik, went head-to-head in a runoff. Eventually, Ghani became the president while Abdullah was installed as chief executive, a newly created post, resulting in the Ghani-Abdullah diarchy.

A power struggle has continued within the unstable administration, with political battles heating up between Ghani and Abdullah factions, creating an environment ripe for betrayal. In fact, Ghani has even appointed Taliban sympathizers and people who support extremism to important government posts, according to a local staff of the United Nations. 

Regional rivalries

Another factor behind Afghanistan's predicament is its neighbor Pakistan. Given the fact that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, the country's top intelligence agency, has maintained ties with armed Afghan insurgents behind the scenes, Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security accused the Haqqani network -- one of Afghanistan's most experienced and sophisticated insurgent organizations -- of having plotted and implemented the May Kabul attack together with the ISI. 

A Pakistani spokesperson immediately refuted that accusation, saying, "We reject these baseless allegations." But the NDS remains deeply suspicious of the ISI, convinced that it played a role in the attack. 

The ISI continues to meddle in Afghan affairs partly because the agency is looking to heighten its status within Pakistan. A Pakistani writer once told the Nikkei Asian Review that, "As long as terrorism and problems continue in Afghanistan, the ISI will maintain its lock on power in Pakistan, which makes it stronger than the prime minister."

This latest attack took place before the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has finalized a strategy for Afghanistan. Former U.S. President Barack Obama had drawn up a plan to completely pull U.S. troops out of the country by the end of 2016. However, Afghan government forces do not have the fighting capability to fill the power vacuum that would be created by the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers, and 8,400 U.S. troops are still deployed in the country. 

The Trump administration is considering sending an additional 3,000 to 5,000 personnel to Afghanistan. But experts say the increase would be of little use in stabilizing the situation. 

Russia is compounding the situation further. Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Pakistani and Chinese diplomats in charge of Afghanistan to Moscow to discuss the Afghan issue. In April this year, Putin brought together representatives from 11 countries, including Afghanistan, India and Central Asian nations on top of China and Pakistan, in Moscow to discuss ways to restore peace in Afghanistan. With Russia making moves to boost its influence in the region, the U.S., which does not want to see Russia succeed, refused to dispatch representatives to Moscow for the meetings.  

Some suspect Russia of providing weapons to the Taliban while simultaneously organizing multilateral meetings to discuss a framework for a new round of Afghan peace talks. Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, noted in April that Russia supplies machine guns and antiaircraft weapons to the Taliban. Russia denied the allegation, but a representative of the Taliban told the Nikkei Asian Review in April that members of the group had been invited to Moscow several times. 

"Russia is playing a dangerous game. It seems like another 'Great Game'," said Nandan Unnikrishnan, vice president and senior fellow of Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation, likening the Russian attempt to the 19th century conflict between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia.

Afghanistan is located near the center of the Eurasian continent and just west of China, India and Pakistan. Which country will fill this square on the Asian chessboard? If confrontation over Afghanistan deepens, it will cast a shadow over South Asia too, threatening the region's stability. 

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