US withdrawal from Afghanistan; re-emergence of Taliban; stability of the region
All eyes are on Afghanistan’s changing situation since the day the United States (US) began withdrawing its forces from the country after 20 years of its controversial war, which it had named as ‘war on terror’. The US in response to the September 11 attacks, had led a military campaign along with its international partners (NATO troops) against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban government in October 2001. Since then, besides spending tons of money on this war, the US Army alone has suffered over 3,000 deaths and thousands of injuries at the hands of Taliban. According to a Brown University study in 2019, the US had spent around $978bn on war in Afghanistan.
Finally, President Biden on April 14, 2021, announced withdrawal from Afghanistan to end the two-decade U.S. military presence in the country. Earlier in February 2020, Trump administration in its agreement with the Taliban, had committed to withdraw military forces by May 2021, after Taliban committed to prevent other groups from using Afghan soil for activities that threaten the United States or its allies. The Taliban who were in power when the US army invaded the country has declared the American withdrawal their win and Super power’s defeat.
At this point of time, the Taliban has regained control over 85 percent of the land of the country while as it is heading towards the Capital city of Kabul to dislodge the present regime. Many believe —whether the Taliban takes over the country or the present combat ends up with a stalemate between the Afghan official forces and the Taliban— the country is bound to enter into another phase of deadly violence and instability, which eventually will not only destabilize the country once again but will also impact the neighborhood countries. They say the changing scenario would also have its implications on the strategic interests of many regional countries, who have been involved in the rebuilding of the war torn country and stabilizing its official regime over the years.
To know how the emerging situation in Afghanistan would impact its neighboring countries, particularly those of South Asia, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke with some political analysts. Here are the excerpts:
With the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, there is going to be a serious impact on the region; the full implications cannot be foreseen as yet though. In the given situation, there are many possible scenarios. Two of them are the most possible. First, there would be a stalemate between the present regime, in case nobody emerges as a sole victorious. Second, the Taliban might take over the country and emerge as a victorious force. In both of these scenarios, we would have a chaotic Afghanistan in the near future and that would have some serious implications for the region as a whole. Simply because whatever the benefits of the stability of Afghanistan would have been there for other countries like China, Pakistan, India would not be there anymore. This region would plunge in continuous and a long spell of instability and it will, eventually, be disastrous for the Afghan society. Their developmental works, education, health sector, and the overall economy would be the worst hit.
Even if the Taliban emerges as the sole victorious force and succeeds to form a government in Afghanistan, there would be chaos in the country. Firstly, the Taliban government would not be able to get recognition from the international community. Even countries such as Pakistan and China would not be among the first to recognize the Taliban regime. Taliban’s recognition would be depending on how they behave after coming into power. The world would like to see what kind of policies they pursue, and what would be its attitude towards women, once they take over the country. Secondly, there would be forces within and outside Afghanistan who would work for destabilizing the Taliban government; and these forces would not allow stability in the Taliban led country.
For creating stability in Afghanistan, the best possible alternative would be working out an agreement between the present regime and the Taliban. Such kind of agreement can accommodate not only local stakeholders but will protect the strategic interests of neighboring countries as well. However, the Taliban does not seem to be interested in this kind of arrangement.
In case Taliban succeeds to emerge as a victorious force in Afghanistan, India would be impacted most. Because India has been completely on the side of the present regime; and it has invested a lot for this regime. Even at this point of time, India continues to be on good terms with the present regime. That way, India’s stakes are much higher than any other country. The fact of the matter is that there has been a zero-sum game going on between India and Pakistan in terms of the situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has always been trying to see that India is out of Afghanistan. While, India, on the other hand, has always tried to manoeuvre the situation for its own strategic gains. Another dimension of the situation now is that China is already active in the region. That means China and Pakistan would be collaborating in Afghanistan’s future scenario. In this scenario, Indian influence would be reduced. That is something India has to be concerned about.
The present situation in Afghanistan is pretty bad. There is a lot of violence and more territories are falling to the Taliban — the group that has become a symbol of ultra-violence in the country over the years. Sadly, the Taliban has not been able to make its case of refinement. It has failed to build trust in dialogue as well. Also, the group has failed to convince the international community that it can be a stabilizing force in the country. Since the Taliban’s past too has been biter, the analysts, and experts whether sitting in the West or anywhere else are not much hopeful about the better and peaceful future of the country. If the Taliban topples the Afghan government then there would be a huge boost to the Islamist forces, and once Islamist forces are encouraged, everyone in the region around would be vulnerable.
In this scenario, Pakistan too is afraid of approaching problems. It is, particularly, apprehensive of a fresh inflow of refugees from its Western borders into the country. It is not only about Pakistan, the changing scenario in Afghanistan would impact the whole region.
Sadly, the US started withdrawing its forces without consulting other stakeholders. Even if there were any consultations, those were superficial and authoritative in nature. Americans did speak to India, Pakistan, and the Afghan government. Even the countries like China, Russia, Iran, Turkistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also should have been taken on board by the US before leaving Afghanistan. No doubt that America could have not been there till eternity. Since they did not succeed in 20 years and there was no hope of its success even if it would have stayed there for another 20 or 40 years. Also, anti-Americanism is rooted in Afghanistan because of the way they conducted the whole operation. Therefore, sooner or later, the Americans had to leave the country, but they should have left it less messy, with the cooperation of other regional stakeholders.
Unfortunately, the complex demographic composition of the country has made the situation more vulnerable. As many as 46 percent populations of the country comprise Pashtuns, 26 percent are Tajiks. Then there are plenty of groups of Hazaras and Uzbek. This composition makes it more complex. Once the Taliban takes over the country fully, there are least chances of peace. It would continue to be a violence-torn country, and the brunt of the situation would be on every neighboring country including Pakistan, which has actually created the Taliban. ISI and the Pakistani military had created this group out of refugees in Benazir Bhutto tenure. Former Pakistani president and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged this fact a number of times when he was in power. Now the same country claims that it has no influence over Taliban. Pakistan is now afraid of the possibility of the Taliban and Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) getting together to create trouble for it in its regions like Balochistan and other border areas. On the other hand, the blame game between Pakistan and the existing official regime of Afghanistan is also going on.
Now coming to India, though India has no border with Afghanistan but has a historic relationship with that country. Even in the past 20 years, India has invested a lot in Afghanistan in terms of development. The problem with India is that it is seen as an ally of the US. Since China and the US are in competition with each other, India has stakes in the changing scenario. Let us presume that China gets some control of the thing in the Taliban-led Afghanistan. In that case, it would not let India to pursue its strategic goals in that country. China has already created a situation for India in Eastern Ladakh. Since China has money, military power, and resources to fund the Taliban and back it, Pakistan is also helping China to enter into Afghanistan. Pakistan believes that China would reward it the economic assistance, it wants, and would also allow Pakistan to use the Taliban to work as its proxy in the region. China itself might not be using the Taliban as its proxy but Pakistan has been habitual in using extremist elements.
Since the Taliban, apparently, is taking over Afghanistan to establish its own regime there, India’s strategic influence in the country would surly deteriorate. In this changing scenario, Pakistan has more leverage in Afghanistan than India. Earlier, India used to have a great influence on the official regime of the country; and that is why India has invested about rupees 23,000 crores there in terms of development in the power sector, education and so on during the past twenty years. All this investment would give India strategic leverage in the region, but now things are changing. It is because of this change that, with the Taliban capturing more and more territories in the country, New Delhi had to pull out its diplomats from Kandahar.
However, I do not think that the Taliban’s taking over Afghanistan, would create any security problem for India in terms of Afghan militants coming to Kashmir, as they did in the 90s after the USSR had left the country. I say this because after taking over the full control of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s priority would be to get international recognition for its government. In this situation, why would Taliban unnecessarily create hostility with India, which is not even its bordering country?
Secondly, there has been only a single incident of infiltration since February last year, when both India and Pakistan decided to declare a ceasefire on borders. At a time when even Pakistan sticks to its assurance that there would be no infiltration, why should the Taliban try to create hostility with India? Therefore, I don’t see any security threat to India, even if the Taliban takes over Afghanistan.
America’s decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan to give a formal closure to its almost two decade old “war on terror” campaign has once again unsettled many equations in the region and stake-holders are forced to re-negotiate their positions. The ‘graveyard of empires’ has always been at the centre of the Great Games. Interestingly, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir after its inception became part of the then Great Game that involved the Czars of Russia on one side and the ever growing British Empire on the other, and that’s what explains the renewed British interest in the Himalayan region. And today also, what has and is happening with regards to Kashmir is, among other factors, attributed to possible changes in the Afghan scenario.
Although it’s questionable that what does America’s withdrawal mean: Does it mean its exit from any possible future role in Afghanistan’s politics? Well! I don’t think so. It is only reducing significantly, not completely eliminating, the US military presence in the war torn land; and thus allowing the local actors a somewhat free play.
An importance aspect of the much anticipated and forthcoming US withdrawal is the future dispensation of Afghanistan. Taliban is fast gaining ground. The group has already been in the negotiations with global and regional players for a long time now, and it is also gaining military control over the land each passing day. Therefore, Taliban is the only group that is most likely to re-establish its control over Afghanistan. Taliban’s return is no doubt a testimony to their resistance and victory; in fact their relevance and importance was established the day America sat with them on table. However, Taliban’s makeover and revision of many of its earlier policies and posturing is also a key factor that needs to be analysed and understood. It reminds me of an old philosophical debate about ‘the ship of Theseus’ as to which one would be called the real Taliban now; it’s earlier rigid, deeply conventional ghost or refurbished, reoriented, ready to engage with the modern world avatar. In its earlier government the group seemed averse to ways and means of modern age but now they are speaking the political and diplomatic lingo currently in vogue, while pursuing their goals militarily too. They haven’t abandoned their basic idea and goal of establishing an Islamic emirate, but at the same time they are mixing no words in assuring the international community, and most importantly the regional stake holders, that they won’t let their government and land under their control to be used to “destabilize” any State or for some foreign agenda. Thereby the group is trying to allay the fears of some of its neighbours and also international community; and is also trying to shun its earlier “mercenary force” image. The group has taken significant steps to look more flexible and inclusive too.
As I said earlier, Afghanistan lies at the centre of the in-process global economic and political power shift, therefore, any development in Afghanistan is going to impact the equations of multiple-players playing at different ends. All the neighbouring countries China, Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia have high stakes in the game. All these stakes are both converging and diverging at different points. For instance, given its strategic location Afghanistan’s condition has a bearing on the OBOR initiative, similarly Pakistan’s possible advantage in the scenario will put pressure on India and vice-versa, a possibility or perception of West using Afghanistan’s future dispensation to keep check on Iran’s influence in the West Asia, in addition to other regional issues shall be on Iran’s list of concerns. There are many such scenarios that are emerging and have caused the churning we see in the region right now. There is a famous poem by Alama Iqbal on Afghanistan that kind of sums up this discussion. He says:
Aasiya yak paykar-e-aab-o-gil ast
Milat-e-Afghan dar aan paykar di last
Az fasad-e-oo fasad-e- Aasiya
Dar kushaad-e-oo kushaad-e-Aasiya
i.e., Asia is like a human body and Afghanistan is its heart; and if heart is stable the whole body will be stable.
Everybody has assumed that the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan would mean that the Taliban will take over. Although the Taliban are showing some advancement in the territories of the country, yet I think it is too early to predict anything about the future of the country except that the country seems to be in for a period of uncertainty and instability. We can recall that even ten years ago, the Taliban claimed to have their control over 70 percent of the Afghan territories; and now they say they have captured 85 percent of the land. The fact of the matter is that they are yet to reach the main hub of government forces —Kabul, for example. They are also less in numbers, if compared to the government forces. Therefore, I think it is premature to say that the Taliban are about to topple the government and take over the country.
That said, the emerging situation in Afghanistan is of great concern to the neighbouring countries because uncertainty and chaos in that country would surely have an impact on the entire region. We can see that the concern is being expressed in terms of the huge number of diplomatic activities by neighbouring countries. For example, India’s foreign minister is travelling across the region and going to Russia and other central Asian countries. Pakistan too has been active in this regard. The preoccupation of the neighbours is evident from how in the Central and South Asia connectivity conference in Tashkent the main topic seems to have been Afghanistan. The spat between the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Pakistani PM Imran Khan there showed the palpable unease between the two with the former accusing Pakistan of not using its influence with Taliban to push it to talk and failing to prevent ‘jihadi’ Taliban fighters from entering Afghanistan in the last month resulting in increasing violence across the country. I think the changing situation in Afghanistan would impact Pakistan most because the deep state of that country has connections with the Taliban leadership. Pakistan, infact, publically asked the US to leave Afghanistan number of times. However, now they seem to be afraid of the repercussions. Now Pakistan says that the US should have not left hurriedly. The fact of the matter is that situations in Afghanistan have always had implications for Pakistan. Even after the Soviet invasion, the spill over has always been there in Pakistan.
The new circumstance emerging in Afghanistan has its implication for India as well. The goodwill, India had created in Afghanistan over the years is threatened; and India’s huge developmental investment in that country is also going to be lost. Because whether the Taliban succeeds in taking over the country or not, the instability is going to be there after Americans leave. Though India is now trying to reach out to the Taliban, it is difficult to say whether these efforts will bear any results or not. I say this because we don’t know how much influence the Taliban leaders sitting in Qatar do have on those who are in Afghanistan.