By Saber Azam*
The Biden administration made a decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan based on the Trump-Taliban agreement. Their last combat soldier may have already left. There is nothing to argue about!
The US had to end its longest war, despite public fear at the highest military echelons of the country that “it would take possibly two years for [the terrorists] to develop [their] capability” and hit back wherever they want.
Simultaneously, NATO member states and their allies have also begun to depart, leaving the population of this war-torn country to face a dramatically uncertain future. It is believed that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is part of the US’s new strategy to reshape its presence in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
They would continue defending their interests but in a different manner. Let us hope that such a move is not a prelude to a more challenging “new great game” with Afghanistan bearing the brunt of it again.
The political and strategic outcome of nearly twenty years of US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan is debatable with contradictory conclusions. However, its financial cost, human loss, and psycho-social effects are terrifying facts.
President Biden and his close advisors have certainly acted in the best interest of the US. The real losers are Afghans. Despite trillions of US dollars poured into their country and extraordinary international support, their leaders could not distance themselves from the old demons.
Soon after they took possession of the country in December 2001, the practice of ethnic and religious discrimination, nepotism, corruption, and inefficiency gangrened the fragile foundation of the regime in Kabul that was essentially a power-sharing system among political traders.
The rest is a known story! A country ruined with its peoples desperate for peace, security, and livelihood, a forceful come back of the Taliban and their terrorist associates, a questionable outcome of the Karzai and Ghani regimes, a possible new and more ferocious civil war, and a dramatically unstable Southwest and Central Asia region, to name a few significant challenges.
The Taliban have already intensified their brutal attacks on the people and government forces. Their strategy this time around is to occupy the northern provinces of the country first, cut the Central Asian supply routes, and asphyxiate the regime as soon as the last foreign soldier leaves Afghanistan.
Would the terrorist organization succeed? What does the current situation imply for Afghanistan, the Southwest and Central Asia region, and the rest of the world? Of course, no one has a crystal ball, and all prophecies have parenthetically proven unfounded about Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the following assumptions would have reasonable bases.
In Afghanistan, it is clear that the Taliban aim at snatching power by the force of their guns and brutality. Ethnic and religious cleansing would soon follow. The efforts of the terrorist organization to “conquer” the country may temporarily be challenged by the defiance of the Afghan army and the emergence of a new popular resistance movement.
Timid efforts to push for a transitional government with the inclusion of the Taliban and the establishment of another futile power-sharing scheme seem already a dead endeavor, though both Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abudullah dream of leading it.
To safeguard their interests, major regional powers could pressure the beneficiaries of their direct or indirect support in Afghanistan to agree on a “national framework for governance.” This formula would reach its target initially. However, its longevity is not guaranteed.
A chaotic situation could rapidly follow, plunging the country into ethnic and religious rivalries. Some of or all the powers mentioned above may tacitly opt to effectively control parts and parcels of the country by proxy without infringing each other’s “red lines.”
Afghanistan would be divided into pieces. The economic and social survival of the populations in such a scenario would not be sustainable, leading to the collapse of the entire country.
Would another superpower step in to fill the gaps left by the US and NATO! The Russian Federation may have no desire to do so because of the not-so-distant communist and Soviet failure that led to the current state of affairs.
On the contrary, they would probably intervene, should there be any serious threat to Central Asia by the Taliban or their associates. The People’s Republic of China has always pursued a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
However, they would not welcome the Taliban and other terrorist organizations to inspire the Uighur Turkistan Islamic Party, also known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. An alliance between the Russian Federation and China cannot be excluded to counter terrorist intrusion and advance.
India may willingly join any coalition that will effectively fight terrorism and extremism. Such a scenario would prolong the “new great game” and the agony of the Afghan populations.
Therefore, the possibility of a new dramatic civil war in Afghanistan with uncalculated consequences is real, leading to severe violations of human dignity and rights, bloodshed, and the destruction of public and private properties. In particular, women, children, human rights activists, and journalists will pay a high cost.
The Southwest and Central Asia region would face a fragile and tenuous condition, affecting several countries’ peace, stability, development, and economic prosperity. The chaotic situation in Afghanistan can easily migrate to Pakistan.
This country has been playing with fire for several decades by hosting and supporting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist entities. Despite its nuclear status, Pakistan has numerous internal problems that have been curtained due to the Afghan dilemma.
The Kashmir, Baloch, and Pashtun issues would undoubtedly add to the sharp rise of homegrown extremism in this country, jeopardizing its safety and security.
In case of their success, the Taliban and their associates would endeavor to strengthen Central Asian Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Tajikistani Ozod, and Hizbo Tahrir in their effort to carry their “jihadist” perception of Islam further to the north, even affecting the west Chines province of Xinjiang.
The Taliban could turn against the Islamic Republic of Iran too. Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed militia have been fighting each other in Syria and Yemen in particular. Having bitter memories of their defeats, the Salafists could incite the “religious students” to hit within Iran, endangering the well-being prospects of the whole region.
The claims of independence by some populations that feel suppressed or territorial claims by some states could also be fomented, using religious doctrines, resulting in a dramatically unstable Southwest and Central Asia region.
The rest of the world would greatly suffer from the undeniable political and military successes of a terrorist organization such as the Taliban. In general, other similar groups would conclude that violence and terror would be rewarded, even if they faced superpowers.
This will indeed be a dangerous mindset. Terrorist organizations in Asia and Africa, in particular, could be inspired by the “success” of the Taliban and intensify their brutalities. Furthermore, the destabilization of Southwest and Central Asia implies an explosion of the Middle East.
It would automatically lead to severe clashes between or among those who claim leadership of the region. The oil production and supply chain could be the prime target of adversary powers, affecting mainly Europe.
Despite its devastating effects for Southwest and Central Asian populations, engaging in a “new great game” and making Afghanistan a battleground of proxy wars for the third time would not favor anyone, above all the Western giants.
There seems to be a better understanding between the People’s Republic of China and India, who fear the significant rise and success of terrorism, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation, who has successful experience in fighting extremism on the other. This could instead lead to a “new global alliance” detrimental to Western interests around the world.
Expert views diverge on what could be in the best interest of the Afghan people, the region, and the rest of the world. There is no doubt that peace, stability, and serenity in Southwest and Central Asia will provide remarkable opportunities for reliable and equitable trade, cultural exchange, and mutual understanding among the peoples of the East and the West!
The miracle of the old days’ Silk Road was rooted in the peaceful status of the nations it crossed. From Shanghai and Beijing in China and Bengal in India to Venice in Italy, passing through the grueling land of current Afghanistan, the whole of Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, the caravans journeyed without hurdle.
It resulted in an extraordinary commercial, economic, and financial boom in Europe. Its revival will only provide new enrichment and development opportunities for all. Afghanistan is the key to such revitalization, notwithstanding that with peace and stability in this country, an essential element of fear in the Middle East would also disappear.
This being said, the Taliban would most probably take charge of Afghanistan in the months to come and establish an Islamic Emirate. However, their regime would not survive for more than a few years.
Unless the fundamental challenges that divide the Afghan peoples for decades, even centuries, are not addressed adequately by the Afghans themselves, the tragedies would continue on their soil. Authoritarian systems, power-sharing attempts, and any form of wheeling and dealing have not and will never succeed. The Afghan people have been determined to live harmoniously in a peaceful and stable country.
However, Afghanistan’s leadership since long proved to be incompetent. Ethnic and religious bias, corruption, nepotism, hoodlum behavior, and lawlessness of those in power marred the efforts to attain democracy, progress, and respectability. There is no way they would prove different now.
A significant impediment to peace is that actors who were (or still are) vitally involved in the making and shaking of political, military, and economic developments of Afghanistan in the last four decades seem incarcerated in a firm position that their past actions were faultless, ignoring that the nobility of leaders is determined by their humility to recognize own mistakes.
Afghanistan desperately needs a young and incorruptible multi-ethnic team of leaders. They must establish a symbiosis with the populations, create the foundations of a democratic society suitable to all components of the country, address national challenges, agree with regional powers on impediments that create discord in Southwest and Central Asia, and secure the International Community’s support in responding to global hurdles.
For this to happen, youth in Afghanistan need to come together now to save their country in the foreseeable future.
A gain in Afghanistan is a reward for all. To strengthen peace and security in the world, it is vital to support without reserve the emergence of future young leaders from within Afghanistan so that they could take charge of the country when the current phase of violence is over, something that the International Community and policymakers have systematically failed to do, so far!
* Saber Azam is a former United Nations official, writer, and regular contributor to the IPS. He has so far authored SORAYA: The Other princess, a historical fiction that overflies the recent seven decades of Afghan history through the work of a remarkable woman, and Hell’s Mouth, also historical fiction, summarizing the extraordinary work of humanitarian workers during the First Liberian Civil War.