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Even after the withdrawal of US forces, Afghanistan will continue to shape regional strategic matrix

Discarding old hesitations and building new geopolitical coalitions will be critical for a successful Indian engagement with the Afghan microcosm.

Written by C. Raja Mohan
Updated: April 20, 2021 9:10:39 am
China’s expanding relations with the different nations of the Gulf and Central Asia and a deep partnership with Pakistan lends much potential depth to Beijing’s role in Afghanistan. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The impending withdrawal of all American soldiers will not diminish the importance of Afghanistan as a geopolitical microcosm. As in the last five decades, Afghanistan will continue to showcase the main international trends. These range from shifting great power relations to the growing role of middle powers; from the spread of religious radicalism to the enduring agency of local forces who know how to play the outside powers.

The exit of US and NATO forces after two decades of military intervention underlines the end of the unipolar moment in international affairs. If the ferocious American response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington highlighted the enormous weight of American military power, the withdrawal now points to the limits to the use of force. Ending US military involvement, however, does not necessarily make Washington marginal to the future evolution of Afghanistan. The US remains the most significant global power even after the end of the unipolar moment. Its ability to weigh in on multiple issues is considerable.

Washington has promised that it will continue to support Kabul during and after the withdrawal. While the nature and scope of that assistance are not clear, President Joe Biden is under some pressure at home not to be seen as abandoning Afghanistan. Nor can the US President ignore the dangers of Afghanistan re-emerging as a breeding ground for international terrorism. Even if the Taliban quickly overruns the Kabul government, its leadership will have to think of the day after. The US will figure prominently in any Taliban strategy to win international diplomatic recognition and political legitimacy. It will also need Western economic assistance for stabilising the war-torn country.

If the 1980s turned out to be an intense final decade of US-Soviet Cold War, Afghanistan was the major theatre where it played out. Russia, the great power successor to the Soviet Union, is determined to play an important role in the future of Afghanistan. As a member of the UNSC, the joint leader of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with China, and a major source of weapons, Russian clout is real. Above all, Putin brings plenty of political will and strategic chutzpah to compensate for Moscow’s loss of superpower status as we have seen across the world, from Venezuela to Myanmar and Mozambique to Syria.

In his speech announcing the withdrawal last week, Biden cited the emerging challenges from China as one of the reasons for the military pullout from Afghanistan. Biden’s reference was, of course, to the Indo-Pacific and the sharpening US contradictions with China in East Asia. Yet, China is also widely seen as the biggest beneficiary of US withdrawal. Could China succeed Russia and the US as the most important external power in Afghanistan?

If the US is a distant power, China is Afghanistan’s neighbour. Unlike Russia, China can deliver massive economic resources to Afghanistan under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s expanding relations with the different nations of the Gulf and Central Asia and a deep partnership with Pakistan lends much potential depth to Beijing’s role in Afghanistan. In the last few years, Beijing has been dipping its toe in the waters of Afghan peace diplomacy. Both Kabul and the Taliban have seen China as a valuable partner in the pursuit of their divergent interests. Beijing has often talked of extending the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan.

China’s potential contribution to Afghan geopolitics is complicated by Beijing’s lack of experience in navigating the treacherous terrain of South West Asian politics. But Beijing is a quick learner. China is also vulnerable to the extremist politics of the region that fan the flames of religious and ethnic separatism in China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang province.

Through the last four decades and more, Afghanistan has been the incubator of Islamic radicalism and a laboratory for its weaponisation for geopolitical ends. In the 1980s, the US-sponsored the Afghan jihad against the godless Soviet Union; since then the Islamic radicals have directed the jihad against the West. To make matters a little more complicated, some of the religious extremism is driven by sectarianism that rival Muslim powers leverage against each other. One of the biggest imponderables of the Afghan future is the kind of influence Islamic radicals might regain in the country under Taliban rule and its consequences for the subcontinent, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

The Afghan dynamics are not just about rivalries between big powers. Kabul’s neighbours have had much say in shaping Afghanistan’s evolution. Pakistan and Iran, which share long physical borders, have had the greatest natural influence on land-locked Afghanistan. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Shah of Iran took the regional lead on Afghanistan. After the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the hostility between Washington and the Islamic Republic, Pakistan became the frontline in the great game. The Gulf Arabs began to chip in too.

Iran’s stakes and ambitions in Afghanistan are high and the Islamic Republic contributed to the regional coalition against Taliban rule during 1996-2001. Iran’s regional influence has increased significantly over the last two decades and Tehran is bound to play a decisive part in Afghanistan’s future. The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, told the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi last week that a return to the 1990s and the restoration of the Taliban’s emirate in Afghanistan are simply not acceptable.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the only countries other than Pakistan to recognise the government-run by its leader, Mullah Omar. They have taken a back seat in the current round of Afghan diplomacy, but would certainly return to the centre stage sooner than later. Meanwhile, bold Qatar and ambitious Turkey have injected themselves into the Afghan jousting.

The focus on external powers should not give the impression that the local actors in Afghanistan are mere pawns. The opposite is true — they have agency of their own. All of them know how to manipulate external powers for their own ends in Afghanistan. The dominant image of the Taliban, for example, as a creature of the Pakistan army is misleading. The Taliban is quite capable of making independent deals with the rest of the world. The Taliban’s opponents, too, are likely to fight for their interests and will seek out external partners.

As the contradictions at the three levels — international, regional and local — intersect with each other, the new Afghan picture will be painted in multiple shades of grey. Several contentions unfolding in and around Afghanistan promise to reorder the region again. Delhi needs much strategic activism to secure its interests and promote regional stability in this flux. Discarding old hesitations and building new geopolitical coalitions will be critical for a successful Indian engagement with the Afghan microcosm.

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 20, 2021 under the title ‘The great Afghan microcosm’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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