Silence on Afghanistan

By Julian Dierkes

In August 2021, the Afghan government collapsed rather suddenly and for most observers, unexpectedly. Much ink has been spilled about what happened and what is to come for Afghanistan. Yet, as far as I can tell, the government of Mongolia has remained entirely silent on the current situation.

Caveat

I am no expert on Afghanistan nor have I followed Mongolia-Afghanistan relations particularly closely beyond my general interest in Mongolian foreign policy. But, no one stepped forward to offer to write a post in response to my above query, but many responded that the topic and the government’s silence was important. If I am missing any aspects or get parts of the relationship wrong (as is likely, I suspect), I am counting on you, dear readers, to correct me.

Why would the government of Mongolia speak on Afghanistan?

Two main reasons might compel the government to respond to the current circumstances:

  1. Past engagements with Afghanistan (foreign aid, military)
  2. Perception of Hazaras as part of a global Mongol(ian) diaspora

Past Engagement

Military. Mongolia first joined the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan in 2003. Activities were initially focused on providing artillery training. The decision to deploy troops in 2003 was significant as a stepping stone in Mongolia’s still-growing peacekeeping capacity, but also in its diplomatic efforts to support multilateralism and continue to grow relations with Third Neighbours, including the U.S., winning Mongolia the appreciation if not gratitude of U.S. Pres George W Bush. Training activities later expanded to helicopter maintenance. But the next step was even more significant as the decision to deploy troops in 2009 meant active military activities in collaboration with Belgium and, later, Germany. Decisions for these deployments were probably rooted more in overall international relations thinking, particularly focused on the UN and on Third Neighbours, than specific to Afghanistan, nevertheless the engagement in Afghanistan was prolonged, involved significant numbers of troops and some of the activities that have come under particular hindsight scrutiny, namely the training of the Afghan military. At the time of the return of the latest Mongolian contingent from Afghanistan in June 2021, a total of “about 3,300 military personnel of the Mongolian Armed Forces have served in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan” (Montsame, June 16 2021). [Sept 10 2021 Addition: For more detail on the history of military engagement, see L Bolor‘s article for The Diplomat, “The Mongolian Armed Forces’ Contribution to Afghanistan“]

Foreign aid. Back in the early 2010s, Mongolia felt flush with (the promise of) resource-derived revenue streams. In 2013, the International Cooperation Fund was created as a “tool to share Mongolia’s experience in democracy and market economy with emerging democracies“.  I always found the argument plausible that while Mongolia’s experience may not represent an imagined global best practice, it was very relevant practice and experience for countries that share elements of a trajectory with Mongolia. The same holds for development lessons that Mongolia has tried to absorb, something that I discussed in the context of using Norway as a model of sustainability derived from finite natural resources. Beyond this “relevant practice” or “good practice” model, activities of the ICF also represented South-to-South collaboration and support.

Afghanistan was explicitly identified as a “target country” for the activities of the ICF given Mongolian military involvement, hopes for democratization and the potential of mineral resources. Examples of activities involving Afghan participation include a 2017 workshop on constitutional principles, but also some of the activities of the Canadian International Resources and Development Institute.

During the Elbegdorj presidency (2009-2017), the ICF was an element in the Mongolian government’s larger set of initiatives aimed at establishing more diplomatic visibility.

The ICF was shut down in Feb 2019, partly because it was perhaps too closely associated with former Pres Elbegdorj for the liking of his successor, and partly because the fiscal situation no longer seemed to allow Mongolia to engage in an activist development policy.

Pan-Mongolism

One of Pres Elbegdorj’ signature international relations initiatives was an embrace of ethnic Mongols around the world and offers of scholarships to them. The extent to which there are historical/ethnic/cultural links to the Hazara goes much beyond my expertise, but contemporary Mongolians clearly think of them as a Mongol population, like Kalmyks, for example.

It is not clear to me when these activities ended and why exactly. Surely, the handful of scholarships to Hazara students would not have a huge impact on the fiscal situation, but if these scholarships still exist, there does not seem to be much information about them.

More importantly than the existence of scholarships is the matter that these policies explicitly seem to recognize Hazara as co-ethnics. Most observers seem to agree that the Taliban have persecuted Hazara in the past. As Pearly Jacob wrote in 2011,

The ethnically Pashtun Taliban singled out the group for mass executions and forced deportations, most notably in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, and attacks on their settlements in highland towns like Bamiyan, the provincial capital., but that further persecution is also likely. [Eurasianet, Oct 28 2011]

Prospects for the Hazara under a renewed Taliban regime seem precarious at best.

Even after the US ended the Taliban’s rule in 2001, Hazaras have continued to face violence from Taliban as well as ISIS militants, who have targeted their mosques, schools and hospitals. In May this year, explosions rocked the Hazara-dominated neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul, killing over 60. A car bomb was detonated in front of a school and two more bombs exploded. Officials said most of those killed were young girls. [Rahel Philipose, The Indian Express Aug 24, 2021]

I find it odd that the potential risks that Hazara face have not prompted any kind of statement from the Mongolian government. While I am in no position to evaluate that risk, it would seem that the situation is potentially threatening, so should that not be noted?

This post specifically raises the question of accepting Hazara refugees. Ikon.mn also reported on an NGO call to accept Hazara refugees. To be sure, there may not be popular support for any government actions supporting Hazara in Afghanistan or accepting any number of refugees. Reddit user zal_yasu pointed me to some of the online reactions to the proposal of accepting refugees. Clearly, there have been some strongly negative reactions to the notion of accepting Hazara refugees online. Comments on the Ikon report are also largely negative.

The possibility of co-ethnic refugees and refugees from neighbouring countries has been a challenging issue for some time. The most obvious cases in the past have been Mongolians fleeing Inner Mongolia and North Koreans fleeing via Northeast China. More recently, there has been no public acknowledgment of any refugees coming across the long Xinjiang-Mongolia border, perhaps ethnic Kazakhs in particular. Mongolians and Kazakhs fleeing China is obviously an issue of great sensitivity to China. By contrast, any Hazara refugees would not easily make their way to Mongolia across other nations, so that this is perhaps more symbolic as a question, though surely Mongolia could signal to Afghanistan-neighbouring countries that (some) Hazara refugees would be welcome.

Why is the government not speaking about Afghanistan?

The seemingly most obvious explanation is China and, perhaps, the SCO. Clearly, the Chinese regime is somewhat gleeful about what it interprets as the U.S. failure at nation-building and democratization in Afghanistan. It is openly courting the Taliban regime as a counter-balance to U.S. influence, perhaps, and – not surprisingly – with little regard for human rights concerns. The SCO’s framing of any Islamist movements as terrorist and the overall securitization of Central Asian relations point to a security calculation that sees the Taliban regime as a chance to contain civil war to Afghanistan itself and to not let religious and tribal strife spill over into neighbouring countries, possibly including China. To understand this Central Asian context and response to developments in Afghanistan better, I heavily draw on the excellent Majlis Podcast. Given Chinese dominance of SCO decision-making, is the Chinese regime applying some pressure to countries in the region to toe their line of dealings with the Taliban? And if the Mongolian government feels like it cannot go that far given some popular interest in the fate of Hazara, is silence the option to not upset Beijing, but also not endorse that position? [Sept 10 2021 Update: On Sino-Russian alignment on Afghanistan, see D Bochkov‘s “‘Great Game’ Redux in Afghanistan” (The Diplomat)]

Another explanation for the governmental silence may be the association of many Afghanistan activities with former Pres Elbegdorj and with the U.S. to some extent. Neither of those associations are particularly attractive to the current MPP government.

While there has been no sign from recent MPP governments that there is an intention to reduce peace-keeping activities (which were the origin of contemporary Afghanistan engagement), disassociating from Afghanistan through silence may leave those policies in place without any particular attention to Afghanistan.

The democratization agenda that formed part of the impetus for the creation of the ICF is also very much associated with Pres Elbegdorj as evidenced by the fact that it was abandoned almost entirely under fellow DP-member Pres Battulga already on the domestic and international front.

Outlook

Beyond the Afghan situation itself, what does the silence say about Mongolian foreign policy under an MPP government and president?

One of the important aspects of Mongolian foreign policy to continue to watch is its manoeuvring in a world that may be turning bi-polar again. How can the Mongolian government navigate Sino-U.S. animosity especially as that is leading to block-formation. The silence on Afghanistan could thus be seen as evidence of the hope to chart a quiet, non-committal route in this regard.

Another aspect that is specific to the MPP government and Pres Khurelsukh is the fate of democracy. Yes, all MPP officials profess their dedication to democracy and highlight Mongolia’s democratic status, but what about internal and external democratization? That is an agenda closely tied to the U.S. and anathema to both of Mongolia’s neighbours. Perhaps the silence on Afghanistan is an early hint that here too, the MPP government is heading on a course of quiet and non-committal neutrality.

As I said in the opening, I have not followed the Afghanistan engagement especially closely, so I am eager to hear any views that differ from my interpretation above.

 

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Bilateral Aid, Development, Diaspora, Foreign Policy, International Cooperation Fund, Mongolia and ..., Mongolian Diaspora, SCO and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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