For much of the modern era, Afghanistan might credibly be defined as a large body of rocky land surrounded by neighbors who export their own conflicts onto its territory. Several networks have linked Afghanistan to a wider arc of conflict, or a regional conflict formation, stretching from Moscow to Dubai. (1) Networks of armed groups, often covertly aided by neighboring states, link the conflict within Afghanistan to violence in Kashmir, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Networks of narcotics traffickers collaborating with armed groups, link Afghan poppy fields to global markets via Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. Networks of traders, more benignly, seek access to buy and sell their goods, even when profit requires avoidance of customs regulations. Cross-border social ties among the region's various ethnic and religious groups underpin all of these networks.
The conflict that gripped Afghanistan over the past 25 years was much more than a local or national power struggle and must be seen in its regional context if the project of reconstructing the country is to succeed. Recent reports indicate that covert state support for armed groups is on the rise, undermining not only the new government in Kabul but peace in the region. Unless regional actors see that they have a stake in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, this picture is likely to become bleaker. Seen from a broader perspective, therefore, incorporating trade and energy issues and narcotics interdiction into a reconstruction strategy may lay the basis for regional cooperation rather than continued regional conflict.
The collapse of the Afghan state as a result of the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the factional fighting between the mujahidin that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet army in 1989 led to a political vacuum, creating an opportunity for other states in the region such as Pakistan and Iran to carve out spheres of influence. By supporting various armed Afghan groups, including the Taliban, Pakistan tried to redress its insecurity relative to India, curb Pashtun nationalism, and create a corridor for trade with Central Asia.
The Taliban movement, composed of Afghan teachers and students from conservative religious academies (madrasas) in Afghanistan and Pakistan sought to restore order to Afghanistan through the imposition of a rigid interpretation of Islamic law, tinged with tribal traditions. With Pakistani military support, they captured Kabul in September 1996, and controlled almost all of the country by August 1998. They provided sanctuary to several armed groups of different nationalities, including al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Pakistani militant groups. The latter were strengthened by training with the Taliban, often with the covert support of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate, which employed these militant groups to fight the Indian presence in Kashmir. These same militant groups murdered Shia activists in Pakistan, some of whom were receiving Iranian support.
Surrounding states, including Iran, Russia, and Tajikistan, tried to balance Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan by supporting competing Afghan groups. Iran and Russia, in collaboration with Tajikistan, supplied the anti-Taliban United Front (Northern Alliance). The Uzbekistan government supported a militia of Uzbeks from Tajikistan and Afghanistan that had bases and operations in both countries.
The proliferation of armed groups in the region has contributed to a violent "Kalashnikov culture," as militias in the region accumulate arms beyond the control of institutionalized armed forces. Moreover, the states themselves continue to import weapons and ammunition, despite the redistribution of weapons from the Afghan conflicts throughout the region. Russia, in a bid to gain political influence and promote its military industries, is providing weapons to Uzbekistan at below cost. The United States, Great Britain, India, Turkey, and China have all concluded agreements on arms sales or military training with states in the region since September 11, 2001. (2)
In addition to covert state support, armed groups have relied on a combination of cross-border ethnic ties, the parallel economy, and the drug trade. In the late 1990s, Afghanistan became the world's largest producer of the opium poppy and the source of 70 percent of global illicit opium production in 2000. (3) (The Taliban banned poppy cultivation the following year.) The income from this crop helped sustain the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the IMU, as well as some components of the Northern Alliance, and it promoted the corruption of military and law enforcement officials throughout the region. In addition to existing trafficking routes through Pakistan and Iran to the Persian Gulf or Turkey, corrupt government officials and Russian border guards helped open new routes through Central Asia. As a result, the number of addicts in the region skyrocketed. A United Nations report that examines the regional impact of the opium economy of Afghanistan notes that the number of government-registered drug addicts grew by 16 to 28 percent annually in Central Asia between 1992 and 2000, resulting in a sum total of approximately 400,000 opium and heroin abusers in the five Central Asian states. Pakistan is home to approximately 800,000 chronic heroin and opium users. Iran may have as many as 2 million opiate consumers, of whom 800,000 to 1.2 million are chronic users. (4) Associated social ills such as prostitution and HIV/AIDS have also increased dramatically, outpacing the worst-case scenarios of the early 1990s. (5) Some of the same criminal networks involved in the drug trade are also involved in the trafficking of women between Central and South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
In developing countries, economic activity accepted as legitimate by most of the population, often occurs in a "gray market" outside formal legal structures. Such patterns of exchange, along with the drug trade and trafficking of women, support a network of organized crime around the littoral of the Indian Ocean and inland, exploiting the weakness of the states in the region. The trade in emeralds from Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley (much of it marketed through Dubai) and the transit trade in goods purchased duty-free in Dubai and smuggled, largely through Afghanistan, into Pakistan, India, and beyond, deny import duties to the state and strengthen armed groups in the region.
Taxing such trade now provides one of the major sources of income to the regional strongmen ("warlords") who control most of Afghanistan. Official restrictions on trade items also divert India-Pakistan trade through Dubai and Pakistan-Iran trade through Afghanistan. Such black or gray markets are a strong incentive for both government employees and regional strongmen to maintain weak states. Both are partners in the parallel economy through various forms of corruption. Shifts in trade can affect the balance of forces in Afghanistan. The shift from transit via the Pakistan-Kandahar route to the Iran-Herat route, for instance, has strengthened Herat and contributed to tension between the two regional/ethnic centers.
Nearly all the major ethnic groups in the region, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, are found in more than one state. For example, Pashtuns live in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Tajiks live in both Afghanistan and Tajikistan. While these ethnic diasporas have not become incubators for active ethnic territorial claims, they have facilitated recruitment to militant groups and the parallel economy. Growing refugee communities and cross-border ethnic ties supported the growth of armed groups in Tajikistan (now reconciled in a fragile peace agreement) and the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Ethnic diasporas also facilitated covert operations by states that manipulate ethnicity, as Pakistan did by using Pashtuns to manage its relations with the Taliban. The persistent poverty of Pashtuns on both...