Afghanistan in mid-2021 is witnessing the full operationalisation of the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral blueprint scripted by this Troika to pave the way for Afghan Taliban resurgent military offensives for regime-change in Kabul of the US-allied democratically elected Kabul Government headed by President Abdul Ghani.
The above scenario stands facilitated by US President Biden’s abrupt decision to order exit of US Military Forces from Afghanistan much before the earlier announced date coinciding with 9/11. This has given an open field to be exploited by the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral supported Afghan Taliban to attempt to install a Trilateral-friendly Government in Afghanistan.
Doomsday scenarios being painted by certain vested sections of Western media prophesying a complete Talibanisation of Afghanistan by regime change in Kabul, however is debatable, as perceptionaly this time around it is not going to be a cakewalk for Taliban riding into power in Kabul.
Comparative parallels cannot be drawn by recalling the easy run up of Taliban victorious takeover of Afghanistan in the wake of the Civil War chaos post- Soviet withdrawal of 1989.
In 2021, the United States exit of US Military Forces ground presence on Afghanistan soil does not amount to United States “abandoning” Afghanistan like the 1990s. The United States involvement in Afghanistan continues as manifested by United States providing offensive air strikes from US Air Forces in The Gulf and Central Asia to aid Afghan National Army forces to blunt Taliban offensives attempting capture of provincial capitals as prelude to ultimate capture of Kabul.
The above continuing United States involvement with Afghanistan provides the contextual background to analyse the China-Pakistan-Russia power-play currently in play in Afghanistan.
In this unfolding power play we need to first examine the strategic objectives of the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral which they expect Taliban victories to deliver followed by an examination of the degree of resistance and endurance that the Kabul Government and its Afghan National Army can offer in blunting Taliban military offensives, and lastly taking the sum total of these two factors as to how the United States will respond to secure the Kabul Regime against Trilateral backed Taliban offensives to topple the Kabul Government.
The Trilateral evolved more sharply in focus in the last decade emboldened by US Administrations of different political dispensations declaring US intentions to drawdown/ withdraw US Military Forces from Afghanistan and even declaring timelines for the same. The security and stability of Afghanistan against Taliban Threat was not the crucial determinant. The overriding US determinant of United States was US domestic politics compulsions.
While United States decisions on this aspect wavered spasmodically the China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral was abundantly clear that the United States was not there to stay put in Afghanistan and asserting that the US mission in Afghanistan was not ‘Nation Building’ but to ensure that the Taliban was no longer a potent threat to dominate Afghanistan fully and recreate this nation once again as the ‘Mecca of Global Terrorism’.
The above coupled with Taliban readiness to enter into Peace Dialogues with the United States exclusively at Doha. It was only lately that Taliban reluctantly agreed to engage the Kabul Government in reconciliation dialogues. As follow-up events indicate the Taliban were not sincere in implementing the peace guarantees that they promised to the United States but have resorted to violent military offensives against the Kabul Regime coupled with targeted suicide bombings/attacks against Afghan Government and Army installations/officials.
Obviously, large scale military offensives by Taliban insurgents could not be taking place without military aid from China and Pakistan Army and professional expertise and participation of Pakistan Army Officers, Special Forces and aerial logistics support. Russia if not actively involved in the foregoing cannot be absolved as it has tacitly gone along with the China-Pakistan strategic blueprint.
Notably, Pakistan with financial resources limited is unable to sustain an insurgency in Afghanistan without China’s aid or by using drug money that Afghan Taliban generate in areas under their control.
Pakistan along with Iran are Afghanistan’s geographical contiguous neighbours. Pakistan has a long disputed border with Afghanistan but China has only a short 43 km long common border in a highly mountainous Wakhan Corridor adjoining China’s restive Muslim region of Xingjian. Russia shares no physical contiguity with Afghanistan – something which Russia lost in disintegration of Former Soviet Union.
Yet in the run-up to 2021 strong convergences emerged amongst China, Pakistan and Russia impelling them to push the Afghan Taliban to once again establish their complete control over Afghanistan and establish them in power in Kabul.
Pakistan always since its inception had strategic ambitions that Afghanistan provides strategic depth against its perceived threat from India. This urge gets intensified more when Pakistan finds that except for Taliban Government 1:0 regime in Kabul in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s successive regimes have been India-friendly. The Afghan Taliban for decades stood nurtured, financed, trained and aided by Pakistan Army including providing of ‘safe sanctuaries’ in Pakistan’s frontier regions.
China has been in liaison with the Afghan Taliban ever since its inception and along with Pakistan and UAE had diplomatic links with Taliban. China is gravely concerned about the security of Xingjian Region where the Uighur Muslims ETM combine have an ongoing insurgency against China’s genocide of Uighur Muslims. China desires that Xingjian can be insulated securely with a Taliban Government in Kabul. China also eyes Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits which a Taliban regime most willingly would provide access for Chinese exploitation.
Russia is concerned about the strategic vulnerability of its Central Asian Republics adjoining Afghanistan — still its rea of influence — arising from a US-friendly Kabul Regime in power. With Russia –United States relations in an adversarial mode, Russia being in strategic nexus with China against the United States and Pakistan having subjugated itself fully in the China strategic orbit, the sum total of convergences of the Trilateral should be apparent.
Standing in between realisation of China-Pakistan-Russia Trilateral’s strategic end-aim of preferring a Taliban Government in power in Kabul is the crucial factor of the determined resistance and endurance to blunt Taliban offensives of regaining power in Kabul is the dogged resistance of the Ghani Regime in Kabul and that of the Afghan National Army.
Democratically elected Kabul Governments, however devalued by vested Western media analysts, and the Afghan National Army now effectively blunting Taliban offensives in conjunction with US Forces have imbibed fair degree of battle hardened experience. The situation cannot be compared with the fee run to Kabul that Taliban had in 1990s when US had completely abandoned Afghanistan.
In 2021 coupled with the above is the continuing United States involvement in Afghanistan despite exit of boots on the ground. While boots on the ground will now be of Afghan National Army, they will have at their disposal massive support of US Air Force to blunt Taliban offensives.
Can it be forgotten that in US military intervention in Afghanistan to displace Taliban Regime in Kabul following 9/11 attacks the US supported Northern Alliance blitzkrieg to Kabul in support of US intervention was paved with ‘Shock& Awe’ massive US Air Force bombings.
Evident this time around is also the a greater will of Afghan people themselves in form of Local Militias, war-lords and vigilante groups determined not to let Afghanistan’s downslide and buckle to Taliban’s brutal medieval Islamic suppression when last in power in Kabul. It can be assessed that the Taliban would have a handful trying to capture major towns as has been evident so far at Herat and Kandahar.
Recent Afghan reverses against Taliban offensives should not be taken as accurate indicator of Kabul Government’s resolve or the fighting in combat of the Afghan National Army against Taliban onslaughts. These can be attributed to abruptness of US Forces exit.
Analytically, this is an important indicator and input for the United States as it decides America’s ‘Next Steps’ in the wake of exit of US Military Forces from Afghanistan. It may or may not be taken as a political signal for the Trilateral to revise its script on Taliban’s capabilities for complete mastery over Afghanistan.
In either eventuality what can be said to be certain is that Afghan Taliban’s complete victory or partial victories is bound to generate a Civil War in Afghanistan with grave prospects for all Major Powers in play in this war-ravaged nation.
The United States finds itself therefore in a piquant and challenging situation in terms of US global predominance and that of Greater South West Asia. Can the United States “concede” to China in an adversarial mode to USA ,the vast strategic spaces, geopolitically vital for US National Security and presently the Area of Operational Responsibility of US Central Command?
Contextually therefore, the United States has to consider three crucial options—–(1)Complete abandonment of Afghanistan (2) Continue ‘US Involvement’ with graduated US military force applied from Afghanistan’s contiguous peripheries against Taliban offensives against Karzai Government (3) Fresh military intervention in Afghanistan.
Of all the three options open, the United States will be tempted to use the ‘Middle Way’ second option. It affords the United States to apply different instruments of state, both military force and diplomatic and economic means in a graduated manner. Intensification and escalation would be the United States own choice.
However, with lack of Afghan Taliban’s success in establishing complete mastery over Afghanistan the Trilateral, especially China and Pakistan, may be tempted to raise the stakes for United States continued involvement in Afghanistan by means other than boots on the ground. In that scenario, the United States needs to prepare itself to take ‘Hard Decisions’ on Pakistan whose sordid role of ‘Double Timing’ the United Sates and undermining US security interest for last two decades in Afghanistan is historically recorded.
The United States would be well advised not to count on China as a responsible stakeholder in Afghanistan’s security and stability. China’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan are synchronous with those of Pakistan and ensuring that Pakistan establishes ‘proxy control’ of Afghanistan through the Afghan Taliban.
Concluding, it needs to be stressed that if in United States strategic calculus Afghanistan continues to figure high as a vital component in US National Security Strategy in Greater South West Asia, then imperatives exist for United States to pull out all the stops even so as it adopts the ‘Middle Way’ option. Concurrently, it may have no other option but to apply diplomatic and economic coercion on Pakistan and generate counter-pressure points against China elsewhere to draw away China from Afghanistan’s ongoing disruptive power-play.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of Royal British Army Staff College Camberley and combines a rich & varied professional experience in Indian Army (Brigadier), Cabinet Secretariat and diplomatic/official assignments in USA, UK, Japan, South Korea, and Bhutan.