Afghanistan was the frontline of the United States declared war on terror twenty years ago. This led to the US invasion of the country after the September 11 terrorist attacks, where there was a search for Osama bin Laden, and other leaders of the Al-Qaeda movement. The Taliban were dislodged as punishment for providing safe haven for Al-Qaeda, leading to a twenty-year occupation in an experiment to bring a democratic society to a country where power was traditionally decentralized in the hands of tribal warlords.
The Afghanistan war and occupation cost the US a staggering US $2.25 trillion. The war resulted in the deaths of 66.000 Afghan military forces and police, 47,000 civilians, and 50,000 Taliban fighters. On the US side 7,400 solders, contractors, and allied security forces lost their lives.
Over the last few months, the Taliban was able to fill the void of withdrawing US and allied forces very easily, moving back into Kabul without the need to fight. The speed of this was so quick, US and allied personnel are being evacuated in scenes of panic at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul. Overnight, the country was renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).
The US withdraw from Afghanistan has left a massive geo-political vacuum. Due to the perceived sudden nature of this event, although the withdrawal was staged over a long period of time, it’s now uncertain what exactly will happen, and which nations will be the winners and losers.
Is this a US withdrawal from Central Asia? Hardly, as the US didn’t project power from Afghanistan. US presence was primarily concerned with internal security. The US withdrawal has freed up resources and stopped a financial sink-hole. However, with no more physical presence in Afghanistan, other dynamics will occur, changing the regional balance of power.
China has the most to gain with its presence throughout Central Asia. China has a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and is developing one with Iran. China is also working with Russia under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which Iran is joining. With many Central and South Asian countries as members, this block could act as a buffer to US trade and diplomatic influence across the region.
China has a number of potential strategic interests it can now pursue with Afghanistan. China shares a 50km border with Afghanistan on the Eastern side of Afghanistan’s Badakhishan. This will allow direct air routes to both Kabul and Iran. There are currently no direct road or railway between China and Afghanistan, so the easiest route from China to Afghanistan will be through Pakistan, along the CPEC route, which is largely completed to Peshawar. This will also by-pass areas potentially controlled by the Northern Alliance.
The new land route to Iran will enhance China’s ability to trade with Iran and the Middle East, without relying on the sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf, patrolled by the Indian and US navies. China can increase its oil supply from Iran at discounted prices, and side-stepping US sanctions. In addition, the Taliban government in Kabul will provide China with the opportunity to mine rare earth metals, where China controls 80 percent of current world trade.
China is said to have agreement from the Taliban, that it will not assist the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uyghur organization that aims to establish an independent East Turkestan state, where China’s Xinjiang Province is today. China also sees that Afghanistan, as a location potentially nurturing extremist Islamic terrorist organizations may divert US and other western military resources away from containing China in other regions.
A stable Afghanistan is very much in China’s interest, and US withdrawal has given China a massive opportunity to extend its influence. China could also provide the new Taliban government an alternative source of funds, if IMF and World Bank funds are frozen.
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan will be weary of a Taliban government. Over the decades there have been numerous border clashes, and involvement by Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in the last two Chechen wars. There were Taliban offensives along the Tajikistan border last month, where over 2,000 Afghan troops were forced over the border, and residents of Badakhshan fled across the border. This led to Tajikistan president Emomali Rahman mobilizing troops and request Russian assistance. Former Soviet Central Asia is being bombarded with Islamic propaganda, where there is a growing following of Salafism in rural areas, and an estimated 5,000 militants spread around the region.
Any persecution of ethnic groups by the Taliban could lead to wider frictions. Tajiks would seek assistance from Tajikistan, and Russia, while the Uzbeks would turn to Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Russia. Iran has assisted Afghanistan’s Hazara Shiites fight against the Taliban, which has persecuted them.
The Central Asian states are a buffer between Afghanistan and Russia, where Russian President Putin has already offered the US, the use of bases within Central Asia for intelligence gathering. Any assistance for the Northern Alliance would have to come through these Central Asian nations.
The withdraw of the US may potentially increase Chinese influence in the region, a threat to Indian interests. The circumstances around the US withdraw comes at a time when the US is trying to get closer to India bilaterally and through the QUAD, and may slow up India’s warmth about closer relations in the short term.
For India, the Taliban in Kabul can be seen as a regional-political win for Pakistan. Pakistan was the home of many Taliban leaders for two decades after 9/11. The Pakistan army and ISI played a major role in the formation of the Taliban in 1994. However, its most likely the Taliban will not forget Pakistan’s cooperation with the US over the last two decades. The Taliban can also be seen as a nationalist Pashtun movement, where there is a Pakistan Taliban that was pushed over into Afghanistan by the Pakistan army. The Taliban, both Afghan and Pakistani aspire to create a Pashtun Islamic emirate.
This week, a spokesman for the Taliban, stated that they do not accept the Durand Line, a line drawn by the British back in 1893 to define the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Durand Line cut through lands occupied by the Pashtun people, who dominate the Taliban. Fifteen million Pashtuns live within Afghanistan, with a total population of 40 million, and 42 million Pashtuns live in Pakistan, which has a total population of 216 million. This is potentially and area of conflict within Pakistan if more militant and nationalistic Taliban pursue this issue, particularly if the Taliban splinters. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar spent 8 years in a Pakistani prison, a Pashtun who could be appointed appointed president of the IEA.
Europe is bracing itself for a new surge of Afghani immigrants. The BBC reported that Greece hastily constructed a 40 km fence on its border with Turkey to deter Afghani migrants. There is also an expectation that there will be an increase in illicit opiate supplies around the world, due to the US withdrawal.
The final US evacuation from Hamid Karzai International Airport cuts both ways in political perception. The mainstream media is portraying the haphazard evacuation as a major Biden administration failure, and Islamic extremist social media is using the scenes as inspirational jihadist propaganda. Malaysia’s Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), a member of the new Malaysian government sent a formal congratulatorily message to the Taliban for retaking power last week. However, the fact that the Taliban is giving the US and NATO allies free passage, points to a firm agreement and real-time exchanges in communication.
US long-term intentions towards the Taliban will be quickly assessed by observing how they deal with Amrullah Saleh and the Northern Alliance in future. Many former Afghan soldiers have made their way to the Panjshir Valley and remain loyal to self-declared Afghanistan president Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was a former minister of defence.
Some analysts claim the Taliban at the higher command levels has matured over the last twenty years, seeing the necessity to work more diplomatically, where at the lower levels in the field, the field commanders are much more hardened in their beliefs and actions.
The Taliban is an ideology based on Shariah that many within Afghanistan accept, although 20 years of liberalism in Kabul has changed those who lived under the influence of the former government. This is why the US and NATO allies, nation building strategy failed, because western concepts of democracy were not seen as compatible with the Shariah, particularly in the provinces. The Taliban follow a moderate form of Hanafi Islam, which allows local customs. Many farmers are part-time Taliban rank and file, loyal to young local commanders, who now come from a more diverse tribal background, than the older generation of Pashtuns. These younger commanders were also living within Pakistan under US occupation and the corrupt Kabul government, so have a hard-line on those who cooperated with the former regime and foreign military forces.
Here lies danger that the Taliban leaders may not be able to control the field commanders, where the worst scenario would be splits, political instability, and fighting. Taliban authority will also depend upon how the various tribal warlords accept authority from Kabul. Opposition groups from the Northern Alliance, anti-Taliban warlords, and Islamic State may resist Taliban control, which may lead to civil war. There is already some competition between the Taliban and ISIS for control over parts of the Afghan drug trade.
Time will only tell whether the Taliban takes on the mantle of being a government, or continues to be an insurgent organization intent on exporting “Islamic liberation” outside the country. The Taliban has to decide whether to engage government to government, or go back to the days where they harboured and nurtured extremist organizations. A recent UN report claims Al-Qaeda is currently present in 15 Afghanistan provinces, along with Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) veteran fighters in Syria. There are also former Daesh or ISIS fighters who fought in Iraq and Syria scattered around the countryside. Afghanistan is also hosting Uyghurs in exile. Here lies the danger and opportunity for Afghanistan.
A lot will depend upon how many countries and international organizations recognize the Taliban government. If Europe, the US, and major international organizations don’t recognize the Taliban government, then the new government will be pushed into a corner. This is perhaps why the Taliban have reached out to former president Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun tribal leader himself, to assist in forming a workable and acceptable government to the US and NATO allies. However, Russian assessments of the situation in Afghanistan are concerned with a disintegration of the new Afghan government.
The US will have to completely overhaul security, diplomatic, and trade strategies for the Central Asian Region, as this sub-hemisphere is about to undergo a shift with a kaleidoscope of new dynamics, which have to be reckoned with.