by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 7, Muharram, 1443)
The stunning defeat of US-NATO forces in Afghanistan has opened up space for rearranging the political landscape in West Asia. Even the British corporate mouthpiece, The Economist, acknowledged this reality, albeit grudgingly.
How the outcome of US defeat is utilized will have far-reaching consequences for the region. For the first time in many decades, America’s malign influence has been considerably reduced even if not completely eliminated. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours—Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia—now have a unique opportunity to establish genuine peace in the region. This will require close coordination and careful attention to ground realities.
There are clear winners and losers in the Taliban’s defeat of American forces in Afghanistan. We can easily dismiss the US-imposed order and a string of Afghan puppets that pocketed vast sums of money to become multi-millionaires during the 20-year war. These two-bit players were propped-up by American military presence and fled when US troops left. We can also ignore the Afghan army; it had no motivation to fight because their commanders were corrupt and incompetent.
Regional countries have been greatly affected by more than 40 years of war in Afghanistan. Two countries in particular have borne the brunt: Pakistan and Iran. Both have hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the late 1970s at enormous cost to their economies. They have also suffered social and political dislocations. While these challenges have not dissipated, recent developments open up opportunities that can help ameliorate the deleterious effects of four decades of war.
Let us identify the winners and losers. Among regional powers, Pakistan has undoubtedly come out on top. Its stand, articulated over many years that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan—essentially meaning that the US cannot win militarily—has been vindicated. True, previous Pakistani rulers—General Pervez Musharraf, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif—betrayed their country’s interests for personal gain but this changed when Imran Khan became the prime minister.
Pakistan was the primary target of Afghan hostility fostered by the US and India. It also faced terrorist attacks from Afghan soil that were aided and abetted by the Indian intelligence agency, RAW, working in tandem with its Afghan counterparts. India had set up a string of ‘consulates’ on the Afghan-Pakistan border. These ‘consulates’ provided cover for RAW agents to coordinate, finance and direct terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. With Taliban’s victory, RAW agents as well as Indian diplomats fled the country. Not only were all ‘consulates’ shut down but the Indian embassy in Kabul also closed its doors.
True, India has not lost all its assets in Afghanistan but in the absence of on-the-ground presence, its agents cannot operate as effectively and have had to go underground. The Baluch and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist outfits have also been orphaned. Their financiers’ flight from Afghanistan has left them vulnerable. They may regroup if the internal situation in Afghanistan is not stabilized soon but it seems highly unlikely.
The US and its NATO allies have been dealt a severe blow. The US in particular has suffered a humiliating military and political defeat from which it will be difficult to recover. This was the direct result of hubris, arrogance and a syndicate of criminals that had hijacked American policy for their own ends. There was no reason to attack Afghanistan despite 911. No Afghan was involved. And the US stayed in Afghanistan for far too long even when it was clear as early as 2004 that it could not win.
Further, there was no clear articulation of the mission. Military commanders complained in private that they did not know what their mission was even if in public they maintained the fiction that they were ‘making progress’ and were ‘about to turn the corner’. They maintained this farce because that is what the oligarchs, banksters, and corporate thieves especially in the arms-manufacturing industries, wanted.
Into the vacuum created by America’s defeat have stepped in such players as China and Russia. China in particular has played its hand deftly. It assiduously refrained from any military involvement, concentrating instead on economic aspects. It has invested nearly $1 billion in the copper mines in Afghanistan and when the internal situation is stabilized, it is likely to advance its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which Afghanistan would become an important component linking up with Russia through Central Asia.
In late July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had welcomed a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar to Tianjin. In addition to Taliban assurances that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorist activities against any country—an important consideration for China—future economic cooperation was also discussed. China has also announced it wanted friendly relations with the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. And Taliban representatives have said that since China is an economic power, they would welcome its investment in development projects in the country.
This brings us to Russia and Islamic Iran. Both have walked gingerly avoiding the many pitfalls. Since 2017, Moscow has hosted discussions on Afghanistan’s future to which the Taliban have also been invited. Russian President Vladimir Putin went so far as to say that “outside forces must not impose their views on Afghanistan.” At a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow on August 20, Putin said: “The Taliban movement today controls almost the entire territory of the country, including the capital. This is the political reality, and one must proceed from these realities, preventing the collapse of the Afghan state.” He went on: “It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing someone else’s values from the outside, the desire to build democracy from outside according to other people’s patterns, without taking into account any historical, cultural or religious peculiarities. Completely ignoring the traditions by which other people live.”
Displaying acute political deftness and living up to its stated policy of fostering unity among Muslims, Islamic Iran has overlooked past Taliban hostility to forge new relations. Since at least 2010, Tehran has established relations with the Taliban and hosted numerous delegations. True, Iran had maintained good relations with the previous Afghan regimes as well and invested heavily in the development of Western Afghanistan. These proved beneficial for both countries. Tehran also resumed fuel supplies to Afghanistan at the request of the Taliban in another sign of improving relations.
For Iran, a relatively peaceful eastern border is vital. Further, the flow of drugs from Afghanistan under US occupation has been a major concern. The CIA had turned Afghanistan into a narco-state. There would be great relief in Iran to learn that the Taliban intend to eradicate poppy cultivation, as they had done during their short stint in power from 1996 to 2001.
To effectively utilize the opportunity afforded by US defeat, regional countries must coordinate their policies keeping in mind the well-being of the long-suffering Afghan people. After 40 years of war, they need peace. It is not a tall order to expect of Afghanistan’s neighbours.