Dobrinskaya O. Japans role in the settlement of the Afghanistan issue: its motives and implications
15.01.2016 г.

Japan's role in the settlement of the Afghanistan issue: its motives and implications

Olga Dobrinskaya

The situation in Afghanistan has become a permanent issue on the foreign policy agenda of Japan. Despite the fact that there is a considerable geographic distance between the two states and there are no common security problems resulting from shared borders Japan has been actively involved in this country, especially since 9.11.2001.

The analysis of Japan's Afghanistan policy is aimed at finding the answers to the following questions. Why does Japan seek to play a role in Afghanistan? What roles does it play in Afghanistan? What means does it use to maintain its influence in Afghanistan? What are the implications of Japan's engagement in Afghanistan.

First, geopolitical considerations play a major role in Japan's perception of Afghanistan, given its proximity to the Middle East, South and Central Asia. This became especially important with Japan's efforts to increase its presence in the post Soviet space of Central Asia in the 1990s. The significance of Afghanistan can be also explained by its location as a transit route for mineral resources. Second, relationship with the US and Japan's allied commitments played a role in increasing Japan's presence in Afghanistan. Parallel to the SDF replenishment mission in the Indian Ocean Japanese government shouldered a considerable amount of reconstruction responsibilities helping the US campaign. Third, Japan's assistance to Afghanistan has an important global dimension as it strengthens Japan's leadership in the nonmilitary security sphere and its UNSC ambitions.

The history of Japan's involvement in Afghanistan shows that Tokyo has always maintained a certain level of presence there although it preferred to keep low-profile. During the Cold war Japan's initiatives were mostly associated with the ODA it provided in line with assisting the US strategy in the region. Japan's aid was mainly directed towards the human security projects, such as education, healthcare, irrigation. After the Geneva agreements were signed and the Soviet troops were withdrawn from the country, Japan appointed a diplomat to the UN Mission for Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the first case a Japanese citizen was sent overseas in a peace support mission and reflected Japan's intention to have a certain level of control over the situation in the region.

After the end of the Cold War Japan continued to assist the war-torn Afghanistan. Together with the UN it carried out two major refugee return projects. While formally supporting the ongoing 6+2 talks Tokyo undertook independent efforts aimed at assisting the peace process. Since 1996 Japan had tried to act as a mediator in the negotiations of the conflicting parties in Afghanistan, holding separate talks with each side with the aim of convening a peace conference.

Another aspect of Japan's pre 9-11 involvement is associated with its role in the preservation of Afghanistan's cultural heritage. In the Eurasian diplomacy speech former prime minister Hashimoto expressed nostalgic sentiments towards the Silk Road, and even dubbed the policy towards Central Asia and Caucasus a Silk Road diplomacy it is quite natural that the Buddhist heritage of the region attracted Japan's attention. Until March 2001 Japan held numerous talks with Taliban offering to pay for the Buddha statues of Bamiyan and hide them. Indeed Taliban's destruction of the statues dealt a blow to Japanese perception of Taliban and put an end to any attempts at further contacts. Nevertheless, it is evident that even before 9.11 Japan tried to play an independent role in Afghanistan and sought to find its niche in the region, although not all the efforts were fruitful.

The military operation in Afghanistan brought about major changes in Japan's policy towards this country. The US-led campaign demanded increased commitment to the counter-terror activities and reconstruction efforts and resulted in Japan's becoming one of key actors in Afghanistan's postwar settlement.

Japan's military contribution is associated with its participation in the Maritime interdiction operation in the Indian Ocean. Japan's decision to contribute forces to the counter-terror campaign was rather quick, although in fact Japan made minimal contributions necessary to demonstrate loyalty to the US while hedging against straining relations with oil-producing Arab countries.

The SDF provided logistical and transportation support to the coalition troops until January 2010. However, Japan did not send troops to join the ISAF because joining the international forces would indeed be much more risky than the replenishment mission because it increased the danger of being involved in military action.

In Afghanistan Japan has also explored a new security role. In April 2002 G8 adopted a plan for the security sector reform in Afghanistan, which made Japan one of the states responsible for the reform although it was the only one who did not contribute troops [1]. Japan with UN was in charge of DDR (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration) program. In order to incorporate efforts in the security sphere into its strategy in May 2002 Japan elaborated the concept of "consolidation of peace" which expanded the scope of post-conflict assistance within ODA. After finishing the DDR program Japan focused on assisting Afghanistan's ability to maintain its own security. Japan financed wages for Afghan national police, helped build police training centers, border control training centers as well as training for Afghanistan's policemen in Japan. By assisting the security sphere Japan managed to increase its contribution to Afghanistan's security while refraining from military involvement.

From the beginning of the operation Japan has been contemplating alternative forms of participation that would exclude military involvement. Initially it looked into the possibility of mediating the peace negotiations. However Japan's diplomatic channels with Afghanistan were not so strong as to enable it to play a major role in the peace process, so in the end it preferred to focus on the humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. It doe not mean that Tokyo rejected the idea of assisting the peace process overall, however it preferred to act quietly by using the informal approach in trying to carry out mediating role. By organizing round tables, academic discussions where the members of the Kabul government and the opposition were invited Japan continued its reconciliation efforts, using low-risk initiatives aimed at the peace process.

In January 2002 Japan hosted a conference on the reconstruction of Afghanistan which resulted in a pledge of 4.5 bln,dollars, with Japan providing 500 mln. dollars. This way Japan secured its role as a significant player in the postwar settlement in Afghanistan as well as ensured burden sharing with the US. It also outlined its new role as a donor aid coordinator. This role was strengthened further when in 2012 Tokyo hosted the second conference on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. It was agreed upon that Japan would take on the responsibility of mobilizing donor efforts and overseeing reconstruction assistance during the transition period. By shouldering reconstruction assistance Japan was able to do what it does best - coordinating role in channeling financial resources for human security and economic development.

Parallel to coordinating reconstruction efforts Japan has carried out a large number of human security projects both independently and in collaboration with NATO Provincial reconstruction teams (PRT). Although SDF did not join PRTs, Japan sent a diplomat as a liason officer, and JICA and Japanese NGOs carried out about 143 projects in various parts of the country.

Japan's presence in Afghanistan is also associated with building infrastructure in Afghanistan as well as routes connecting it to the neighboring countries aimed both at transportation of humanitarian goods, as part of the distribution network and for future commercial trans-border projects. Japan helped build a road connecting Kabul and Kandahar, roads connecting Afghanistan with Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Japan supported efforts at economic integration of Afghanistan in the broader development structure of Central Asia. Through ADB it supported the construction of the TAP pipeline, as well as built a southern route from Afghanistan to the sea, the route that it called "corridor of peace and stability". Japan also supported the New Silk Road project aimed at making Afghanistan a hub for regional economic development.

The multiplicity of Japan's new roles in Afghanistan covers both military and security sphere, which were relatively new to Japan, as well as various humanitarian aid and reconstruction projects which has become a signature characteristics of Japan's overseas assistance. Japan has also tried to play a role in the peace process, although it refrained from any official actions and preferred to use informal occasions to initiate a dialogue on the subject of national reconciliation.

Japan has been expanding the range of policy tools in conducting its assistance to the postwar settlement in Afghanistan. Japan's means of engagement heavily relied on its traditional checkbook diplomacy but were not limited to financial assistance. Indeed, financial support continued to be Japan's main contribution to the post-conflict settlement. After the new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan was adopted in 2009 Japan wrapped up its SDF replenishment mission and stepped up its financial contribution. Up to now it has allocated about 5.8 bln dollars.

However, Japan's involvement demonstrated its desire to move beyond purely financial support and place more accent on the human resources contribution. Therefore the focus was made on the presence of JICA and support for numerous NGOs working in Afghanistan. Japanese government called it a "whole Japan" approach, underlining that the contribution by non-government sector should also be seen as a part of the contribution by the government.

Japan's expanded role in Afghanistan has important implications both to its regional and global stance. Since 2001 Japan has become a prominent actor of the post-conflict settlement in Afghanistan, an actor which does not have visible interests in the country and thus can be considered neutral. During those years Tokyo has established good ties with Kabul, set a pattern of regular bilateral visits and a mechanism for bilateral consultations. Japan has ensured favorable attitude to its business although it is cautious to start any enterprise. This can be illustrated by the fact that in 2010 President Karzai stated that the Japanese companies would have priority rights in mining projects in the country. However this did not bring any tangible results as Japanese businessmen are reluctant to take risks given the instability in Afghanistan.

Since Japan has been actively involved in the post-conflict settlement efforts, its presence in Afghanistan as well as in the neighboring Central Asian states seems quite natural and indispensable to the development of the region. Japan's international image has also benefited from its activities directed at the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In light of Japan's ambitions to gain a permanent seat at the UN Security Council the fact that Japan's contributions to the post-conflict settlement are acknowledged worldwide is important.

Afghanistan has become a ground for cooperation with countries other than the US. First, cooperation in Afghanistan became an important milestone in Japan's relations with NATO. Although Japan did not join ISAF it made considerable contribution to assisting the security sector reform in the country. As NATO tries to secure the ties it established in its first non-European mission, Japan and NATO are deepening cooperation both at the policy level and in the practical sphere.

Japan is working closely with European Union in countering the threat from Afghanistan, especially focusing on border control management between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Afghanistan issue is a permanent subject being discussed between Japan and Russia. With Russia it has undertaken a joint project for counter-narcotics training at the Domodedovo airport. The Afghanistan issue has become a shared agenda in Japan's relations with other countries.

The combination of factors based on long-term geopolitical considerations, US pressure and international aspirations shaped Japan's involvement in the post-conflict settlement in Afghanistan. Japan has not only contributed to the international efforts but also continued and developed what it had been doing in Afghanistan before 9.11. Afghanistan has become a ground where Tokyo has been able to realize multiple roles and increase it clout in the region.

[1] The US was in charge of the military reform, Germany - police reform, Italy - judicial reform, Great Britain - drug trafficking.