Unknowns of the Sixth Phase of Afghan Conflict
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Unknowns of the Sixth Phase of Afghan Conflict

By Shreyas Deshmukh
Delhi Policy Group

Unknowns of the Sixth Phase of Afghan Conflict

After 19 years since the Unites States entered Afghanistan to eradicate Al-Qaeda, signed agreement with the Taliban 'for bringing peace to Afghanistan' on February 29, 2020. This is also the third year since the announcement of the South Asia Strategy by President Donald Trump to end this long war. The strategy was predicated around realism as clearly indicated in President Trump’s speech in which he said, ‘We are not nation-building again’ and directed a ‘shift from an earlier time-based approach to one based on conditions’. Thus, Nation-building in Afghanistan is no longer a condition for the US, but ending the war with the Taliban is a priority by keeping aside the temptation to declare victory. The similar sentiments expressed by Secretary Pompeo in Doha at the signing ceremony where he said that it is now Afghan who must bring peace while the US will make sure that ‘Afghanistan never again serves as a base for international terrorists’. If everything goes according to the plan the US will bring down the force level to 8,600 by July 2020, and Afghanistan will enter the next phase of the conflict.

The first phase began with the ouster of King Zahir Shah in 1973, followed by the Russian invasion in 1979 and withdrawal in 1989. The civil war started with the overthrow of Najibullah’s government in 1992 and ended with his assassination, putting the reins in Taliban hands in 1996 - making Afghanistan a safe haven for international terrorist organizations. The fifth phase was the war on terror by the US, which might end with the partial withdrawal of NATO troops, thus pushing the conflict into the next phase. This phase will carry the legacy of many lingering issues such as old geopolitical rivalries and with the rise of China a new element of geo-economic competition.

Geo-economic Competition

2014 was the year when China actively started participating in the Afghan peace process. It was also the year when China initiated the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Afghanistan is the backyard of China and shares borders with other Central Asian countries through which BRI passes. Therefore, it is in China’s interest to end this conflict. This will also start a race to exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources which China eyes with longing.

Secondly, Russia’s Eurasian ambitions have endured since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and have recently become increasingly assertive in Eastern Europe. Conflict in Afghanistan is an obstacle to the strengthening of Russia-Pakistan relations and its long-standing desire to get direct access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.

India is also pushing for Chabahar port to establish permanent connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Historical Baggage of Geopolitcal Rivalries

The fallout of the Iran-US rivalry can spill over into Afghanistan. From the statements of NATO and US leadership at Munich Security Conference 2020, it is clear that NATO will maintain small numbers of troops in Afghanistan over the long term. More than 3,000 Afghan Hazaras from Fatemiyoun Brigade, trained by Iran to fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, returned to Afghanistan. They are armed, trained, experienced and could be used to target Western interests in the region.

The other troubling factor is Pakistan’s idea of using Afghanistan’s issues to strategic advantage, which is still pertinent given the added element of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The intention of expansion of CPEC to Afghanistan has been expressed frequently in different forums, including the Foreign Ministers’ meet of China-Pakistan-Afghanistan.


Haqqani Network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani asserts a major influence on decisionmaking in the Taliban. It is a well-known fact that Haqqani closely works with the Al-Qaeda, as well as many other international terrorist organizations and narcotics smugglers who operate from either side of the Durand Line. One can get an impression from the pacifism projected by Sirajuddin Haqqani while talking about the human cost of War in his New York Times opinion piece, that there could be a change in the mindset of leadership. It would be mistaken to ignore his radical beliefs and the sense of triumph on the US surface from the same article. Therefore, the role of Haqqani in the Peace Deal needs to be considered, because it will have major security implications on the region. 

The rise of Islamic State in Khurasan Province (ISKP) in Eastern and Northern Afghanistan and some terrorist attacks carried out by the people linked with this group in Central Asia alarmed Russia, China and CAR countries. There is no assurance that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Taliban can contain or eliminate ISKP.

Apart from these, there are several unknowns the region will face as the Afghan conflict enters the sixth phase. Contrary to the historically disruptive Great Game mindset, we may see a change in the regional approach towards Afghanistan. There is a probability of greater consensus towards bringing partial stability which will complement impending geo-economic competitiveness furthering away from geo-politics.

About the Author:

Shreyas Deshmukh (ORCID ID: 0000-0003-2662-2636) is a Research Associate with the National Security Program at Delhi Policy Group, a think tank in New Delhi, India. 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this insight piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IndraStra Global.

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