The U.S. exit from the Iran deal will affect Afghanistan. To learn more about how, and what this means for U.S. national interests, I spoke with Georgetown University Professor C. Christine Fair, a scholar of South Asian security with longstanding expertise on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Iran. We spoke by phone (with follow-up by email) on her current research on this question. A lightly edited version of our exchange appears below.
You’ve been working on Afghanistan’s security, and the larger regional questions including Pakistan, India, and Iran. What are the most significant effects of the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for Afghanistan?
In the soccer expression, this is an “own goal.” [President Donald J.] Trump has said he’ll be more forceful, that he will not tolerate Pakistan’s perfidious behavior, and that he will cut off assistance. But what he’ll find out—and likely has already found out—is that he will run up against the same barriers that [former President Barack] Obama ran up against. These barriers make any significant change in Pakistan policy very difficult.
The most important barrier is geography. We are still nearly completely dependent upon Pakistani air space and ground lines of communication (GLOCs). In 2011, when Pakistan shut down the GLOCs, we shifted to moving things through Pakistan’s air space. This was more expensive, but the expense was offset by the saving incurred by not providing Pakistan Coalition Support Funds for the duration that the GLOCs were closed. Currently, we are predominantly supplying ourselves through Pakistan’s air lines of communication (ALOCs). We are using Pakistan’s GLOCs to resupply the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The Northern Distribution Network [NDN, an alternate supply route pressed into service in 2011] was always a fiasco—you need only look at a map to see why. It was never used for anything substantive with the exception of fuel. The Russians were always clear that it could not be used for anything lethal, which is a problem if you’re fighting a war. So this is why, for all the bluster, the actual policy toward Pakistan has not changed and is unlikely to change. The Pakistanis could shut down the lines. There is an assumption among U.S. military [leadership] that Pakistan would not take those steps—such as closing down the air space—as it would be tantamount to an “act of war.” I am not sure how sensible this assumption is. And remember, Trump is expanding our presence [in Afghanistan], which is to say, we are more dependent upon Pakistan than we were before Trump’s new policy. And it is Pakistan that is largely responsible for providing all manner of support to those groups, such as the Haqqani network and the Taliban, which are murdering our allies in and out of uniform in Afghanistan as well as our troops.
The promulgation of the JCPOA created interesting possibilities. It was conceivable that we could have begun moving things—at least for the ANSF or potentially for the U.S. forces—through Chabahar. Or one could have even considered moving matériel through that very short distance of Iranian air space. I am not suggesting swapping one dubious partner for another; however, just having another partner would have helped put pressure on Pakistan and relieved our dependence upon Pakistan.
Even prior to the JCPOA, the United States and the Iranians were on the same page in a general sense: that we didn’t want the Taliban back in power [and] we wanted to resist Pakistan’s efforts to promote Sunni extremists in the country. With the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA we not only have lost an important opportunity to develop an alternate route which would benefit American interests in Afghanistan, but we have also jeopardized the viability of Chabahar itself, which will harm Afghanistan’s economic interests over the long term.
What do you mean by the viability of Chabahar itself?
A deep sea port by itself is not a useful entity. For firms to send their ships to Chabahar, there must be a commercial ecosystem that includes companies that manage the flow of ships, enterprises to offload cargo from the ships and onto other conveyances, firms that provide ship maintenance and resupply, [and] transport companies that move cargo between ships and road and rail, among other enterprises. Usually deep sea ports are accompanied by special economic zones and are fitted with terminals to move oil and/or gas from the ships to smaller vehicles for distribution. Giant container ships are extremely vulnerable to wind and tide, and there are few companies that can handle these kinds of ships. In other words, the port is not itself an asset of interest. Without the system of commercial activity, the port itself is useless as no one will send their cargo to that port. A good example of a port that is not being used is the Chinese-built deep sea port in Gwadar (Pakistan).
Even prior to Trump assuming the presidency, investors were wary of putting money into Chabahar because they were not clear whether such investments would run afoul of U.S. law. These investors were looking for a clarion signal from the United States. Without those investors—whose business will help convert the port from an empty space to one that sees a healthy traffic of ships with the means of moving cargo to and from the ships to road and rail routes—Chabahar will not be a viable port. At the end of day, there has to be a value proposition. No one will want to use Chabahar if there are competitive alternatives.
A year ago I was in a trilateral with Indians, Iranians, [and] Afghans. At that time, there was still not a clear American “go ahead” to international investors to make this a practicable deep sea port. Without such a clear signal from Washington, no one wanted to put money into this project only to discover that they could not do business with U.S. financial institutions. Obviously, Trump has made this inordinately more difficult by withdrawing from the JCPOA. Without those investors who make this port enterprise remunerative, the port itself will not become a transport hub.
And the effect on Afghanistan? Why is this important for Afghanistan?
Because Afghanistan is completely dependent on Pakistan for imports and exports. Afghanistan has no other cost-effective access to warm water. For Afghanistan to be able to pursue its own independent foreign policy, it needs access to Chabahar. There are no other cost-effective access points for Afghanistan. As discussed, the NDN is a system of transit networks across numerous countries’ ground and air space, which requires bilateral agreement and transit costs that add up. Many analysts labor under the illusion that this is a material alternative to Pakistan and thus obviates Chabahar. But one need only look at a map to see why the various routes tied to the NDN are hugely expensive, inefficient, and simply make Afghanistan dependent upon Russia instead of Pakistan because Russia exercises enormous influence over the Central Asian states that comprise the NDN.
For many of us who watch this region, the question of the day is: how can we foster a community to protect Chabahar in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA specifically, and more generally as U.S. traditional leadership in Asia seems in peril?
I fear that that we can expect increasing hedging from traditional allies in Asia and maybe even greater alignment with China, which is expanding to fill the void that United States has left.
Needless to say, India and China are direct competitors in Chabahar. China was anxious to step into Chabahar if India did not manage to get the job done. But this may be a place where we need India and China to help create a safe investment space to make Chabahar viable despite their competition elsewhere. If we think the China option is a bridge too far, then we have to ask ourselves: what are the other options? The Japanese are no longer interested in Chabahar. Is it possible to establish some sort of insurance program that would protect investors? At the end of the day, we have a collective action problem as all these different countries are hedging against each other and uncertainty about American leadership and policies. The upside of countries gravitating toward China is the possibility of protecting Chabahar. However, unless India can persuaded that this is a good thing, this may rile India even though it does not have the assets to make Chabahar sustainable on its own. India has a lot at stake, which may make India more inclined to be competitive rather than cooperative with China.
China is needed in Afghanistan for other reasons. Namely, Afghanistan needs a railway. There are already railheads in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to which Afghanistan can link up. This means that Afghanistan is close to being connected with rail lines to these neighboring countries. But what country is both capable of building such a railway and adequately risk acceptant to consider doing so? China is probably the only possibility. However, such a proposition will most certainly disquiet India.
Afghanistan needs the two biggest actors, China and India, to forswear their competition elsewhere to cooperate there. This is a hard ask of New Delhi.
During Obama’s tenure, the Indians were signaling that they could take on more in Afghanistan. This created some exciting possibilities. For example, why couldn’t the Indians supply the ANSF with uniforms and be responsible for moving them into Afghanistan—possibly through Chabahar? It is an expensive proposition for Americans to be sourcing these uniforms. India has a huge footprint of making and supplying uniforms. Why are we dependent on Pakistani GLOCs for this? The geography of Afghanistan is not going to change—there are two easy ways into Afghanistan: Pakistan or Iran. If the United States wants to increase the odds of helping to forge an Afghanistan that can stand up to Pakistan, the United States needs to realize that Iran is a better bet than Pakistan.
In earlier U.S. Iran sanctions legislation, there was the possibility of an exception specifically written in for “reconstruction assistance or economic development for Afghanistan.” Under this provision, an exception could have been made for Chabahar if one were to tie it to needs in Afghanistan.
This is a superb point, which I forgot to note. In principle this is correct. But to make the argument that Chabahar should get an exception to advance goals in Afghanistan would require the Trump regime to muster political will and expend political capital. I think a successor to Obama would have been willing to do this. But, let’s be frank: the Iran policy pursued by the Trump regime is not driven principally by U.S. security interests. Instead, Trump is pursuing Israel’s interests as a part of his fervent appeals to the American evangelical voter. Obama was more willing to confront Israel. Trump has gone out of his way to appease Israel largely for U.S. domestic political concerns. If Trump or his policy team cannot look at a map, evaluate the data on terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and conclude that working with Iran to secure Afghanistan is far less deleterious to U.S. interests than working with Pakistan, I have a difficult time imagining how anyone in his administration would carve out an exception for Chabahar under the grounds that doing so would be advantageous to our efforts in Afghanistan. But yes, in principle, you are correct.
What about Japan’s involvement in investing in Chabahar? There have been numerous press articles about Japan’s interest.
From what I can tell, the Japanese are no longer interested. Japan wants to use its assets to check Chinese expansion. But it doesn’t make sense to place resources in a questionable business environment when doing so runs the risk of running afoul of U.S. financial sanctions.
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