The Search For A Better Way: Internationally-Guaranteed Neutrality In Afghanistan


For nearly 40 years, Afghanistan has been at war. Torn apart by a conflict with international, regional, local, religious, cultural and development roots, there are no easy solutions, and the people of Afghanistan have suffered an immense toll. Even worse, the conflict shows no sign of abating. A UN report released last month showed that civilian deaths as a result of the war in Afghanistan reached a record high in the first six months of 2017, following a decade-long trend of rising civilian casualties. The country has an estimated 4 million combined internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries, and despite local and international efforts, development improves at a glacial pace.

One of the key causes of the conflict in Afghanistan is regional geopolitics. Situated on the historic route of the Silk Road, and tactically positioned between the East, West and Africa, Afghanistan has attracted foreign attention since the time of Alexander the Great. In more recent periods, it has been the site of Great Power struggles between Britain and Russia, the Soviet Union and the West, and played a key role in the festering conflict between India and Pakistan. In the past 40 years, countries including the US, Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and China have supported a variety of armed groups and insurgencies within the country, fuelling ethnic rivalries, warlordism and violence. Putting an end to this modern incarnation of the ‘Great Game’ will require a solution that is a departure from the conduct of Afghan-related geopolitics – internationally-assured neutrality.

Neutrality can be defined as a state formally abstaining from involvement in a conflict between other states, inferring both non-participation and impartiality. It can be internationally recognised in two ways: self-declared and then externally recognised and guaranteed, or externally enforced with at least partial-acquiescence from the country concerned. Switzerland and Turkmenistan are two examples of the first kind of international guarantee. In a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution in 1996, the international community endorsed Turkmenistan’s neutrality, a country that shares a border with Afghanistan. Turkmenistan has no formal security agreements with other countries, is committed to the non-use of force to settle disputes, and focuses government policy on internal affairs. It’s declared neutrality has helped it to maintain relations with its neighbours and the West, without drawing the ire of its traditional protector, Russia.

An example of the second type of internationally guaranteed neutrality is Austria. Contained in its Constitutional Act of 1955, Austria proclaimed neutrality in its defence policy and made this permanent in order to appease the Soviet Union. Austria would not join NATO, and the Soviet Union would avoid the possibility of Austria aligning itself militarily with the West, and of reunification with Germany. This policy was conditional to Austria’s re-independence in 1955 under the Austrian State Treaty (signed by France, the US, the UK and the Soviet Union), the country having been occupied by the Allied Powers since the end of the Second World War. The policy allowed Austria to avoid conflict for the duration of the Cold War, despite its strategic location between Western Europe and the Soviet satellite states in the continent’s centre. Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Austria has maintained its neutral military stance and is ranked by the Global Peace Index as the world’s fourth-most peaceful nation.

Neutrality in Afghanistan itself is not without its historical precedents. Most Afghan rulers from independence in 1919 observed the policy of biftari, a formal security and foreign policy that meant Afghanistan did not take sides in Great Power struggles. As outlined in a paper by the US Institute of Peace, this neutral policy coincided roughly with the Period of Tranquillity (1929-1978) in Afghanistan, although internal stability also contributed. It seems analogous that formal external neutrality and internal stability went hand in hand. The Communist coup in 1978, and subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979 ended Afghanistan’s neutral stance and reintroduced external interference in the country’s security and foreign policy. The cycle of violence has continued unabated since.

What would a modern version of an Afghan neutrality policy look like? A regional agreement similar to that agreed with Austria in 1955 would be a start. Afghanistan should constitutionally guarantee its neutrality, during peacetime and war. Regional and international powers would agree to leave Afghanistan, and declare this is in a treaty, giving it independence in security affairs and foreign policy. A resolution should then be put forward to the United Nations General Assembly, following in the footsteps of Turkmenistan, once the involved powers have given their acquiescence. This would enshrine Afghan neutrality in international law, and place pressure on countries with geopolitical interests in Afghanistan to honour the arrangement. The treaty would mean that Afghanistan could not enter external security agreements, yet would not preclude the transfer of military technology from other countries, an arrangement the Swiss, for example, have used.

The above suggestion is open to serious assessment and criticism. Key questions remain: how can the US and NATO, who have poured so much blood and treasure into the conflict, leave without any say in Afghanistan’s security policy? How would the central government and the people’s security be maintained? How could development be fast-tracked in order to make neutrality and independence viable? And most importantly, how will Pakistan ever agree to leave Afghanistan alone? These are important questions.

It should be said that no country that has imposed itself on the affairs of Afghanistan in the past 40 years could consider their people safer, richer or better off for it, let alone the people of Afghanistan. With a neutrality agreement, the US and NATO could achieve a face saving deal, allowing them to point to a more stable regional environment than when they invaded in 2001. They would also cease to lose lives and billions of dollars in a war effort that continues to prove itself ineffective.

The agreement would be fashioned through a step-by-step process. Neutrality should not be seen as the end, but a means to the ends of achieving peace. Neutrality is not a panacea for peace, and a comprehensive solution at all levels will be required. Pursued in parallel with grassroots and national level peace making efforts, neutrality would give a chance at peace. Additionally, when combined with these domestic processes, it would allow the money that is currently being spent on the pursuit of a military victory, hundreds of billions of dollars a year, to be redirected into development funding. Existing development agreements such as the One Belt, One Road initiative and the Economic Coordination Organisation, could be pursued in earnest, and with additional economic backing. The pursuit of neutrality will also require pre-conditions that will bring benefits of their own. For example, the Taliban have always, and will always, take issue with the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil. Neutrality will go some ways in addressing that, and could serve to bring the Taliban to the table, especially if the group has lost support from former backers like Pakistan.

Any potential deal will need to engage all the key countries involved in Afghanistan. Of particular importance is Pakistan, who would need ironclad guarantees of Afghan neutrality to lend its support to any initiative. Similar to the Soviet Union’s reservations about an independent Austria in 1955, Pakistan fears that an Afghanistan, not under its control, will align itself with India, leaving Pakistan surrounded by hostile powers. Therefore, running parallel with a process to guarantee Afghan neutrality, the international community needs to work with Pakistan and India to reduce other tensions, predominantly Kashmir. It is an arduous task, but given the domestic fiscal and security problems that Pakistan faces, including the activities of the Pakistani Taliban, a stable, independent Afghanistan must surely be an attractive proposition.

What cannot be ignored in Afghanistan is that for 40 years, foreign intervention, and the pursuit of a military victory by foreign armies, has stifled development and permanently damaged the country. Fiercely proud Afghans are unlikely to ever acquiesce to the presence of foreign armies, and the imposition of government, ideology or culture. Instead, foreign interference has stoked Afghanistan’s internal chaos. It is the definition of madness to continue on the same trajectory. A fundamental change is needed, one which succeeded historically, and that would have the support of regional powers and the international community. Neutrality fits the bill.

Isaac Ohlin

I am a student studying for a Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies in Australia. I have a particular interest in UN-related issues and conflict resolution and transformation.

About Isaac Ohlin

I am a student studying for a Masters of Peace and Conflict Studies in Australia. I have a particular interest in UN-related issues and conflict resolution and transformation.