With the United States ringing in the formal end to two decades of misadventure with a C-17 military aircraft on Monday ferrying out the last of the American troops one minute before the 31 August deadline set by US president Joe Biden, Afghanistan now stares at a convulsive future under the Taliban.
The last American soldier to leave Afghanistan: Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the @82ndABNDiv, @18airbornecorps boards an @usairforce C-17 on August 30th, 2021, ending the U.S. mission in Kabul. pic.twitter.com/j5fPx4iv6a
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) August 30, 2021
Its rocky deserts and rough terrain have seen multiple empires crash and burn through history. Washington is merely the latest. As the US reflects on “two decades of mistakes and collective failure”, it is worth noting how three major players in the region — China, Pakistan and India — are poised to tackle the geopolitical consequences of America’s exit and the collective challenges that will inexorably emerge.
The withdrawal of the US and the Taliban’s lightning takeover of power has left China, the putative superpower, facing a dilemma — whether to eventually move in to fill the geopolitical vacuum and secure its interests that will inevitably bring a set of onerous commitments or stay circumspect and avoid getting sucked into the geopolitical quicksand. Beijing’s recent manoeuvres reveal a dialectic division in the thinking process.
As an emerging global hegemon, China has ever-expanding national security and economic interests. It must define, protect and promote these interests and look to shape global events to facilitate further its rise. That calls for deeper engagement in its near geography.
However, China is determined not to make the mistakes that the USSR or the US has committed in Afghanistan. The Chinese Communist Party has studied scrupulously the reasons behind the fall of the USSR — that made a ruinous military bid for Afghanistan, hastening own downfall — and is noting with interest what it interprets as terminal damage to America’s reputation and influence in the aftermath of Afghanistan debacle.
In a press conference on 17 August, two days after the Taliban walked into Kabul and sent the Biden administration into a tailspin, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said: “Wherever the US sets foot, be it Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars in the mess it has left… A model copied from another country can hardly fit or stand in a country with distinctively different history, culture and national conditions. Solving problems with power and military means would only lead to even more problems.”
Aversion to military intervention even in revanchism has generally been China’s preferred strategic choice. It relies on salami-slicing to fulfill its agenda of territorial aggrandizement and tries to stay below the conflict threshold — a tactic that hasn’t always worked with India. As it manages its own rise and shapes its sphere of influence, China has defined the trajectory of its rise in thoroughly antithetical terms to the US. It wants superpower status, has patiently chalked out plans to become the global hegemon by 2049 but wants to achieve these goals without any expansive security commitments.
This poses some constrictions on China. It may have been gloating at US discomfiture during the bungling exit and its state media may have gone to town claiming that America’s credibility and reliability is in crisis but China had so far been quite content with America’s role as the security guarantor next door in a region that is a veritable witches’ brew of terrorism and ethnic insurgency.
It is being said that with the US vacating its presence, China is free to launch commercial projects, expand its Belt and Road Initiative and tap into the riches that lie buried within Afghanistan. Chinese state media has been telling stories of an impoverished nation that needs to be rapidly developed, resulting in feverish anticipation among private Chinese entrepreneurs of profiting from lucrative construction and infrastructure projects.
Chinese commentators such as Zhou Bo, a former PLA Colonel, claimed in New York Times that “though critics have raised the point that Chinese investment is not a strategic priority in a less secure Afghanistan… they have a reputation for investing in less stable countries if it means they can reap the rewards. That doesn’t always happen so smoothly, but China has patience.”
And yet Chinese state entrepreneurs, who know better, have struck a more cautious and sombre tone, and are fearful of being caught in the morass of sanctions or scared of being cut-off from the global banking network. Global Times quotes one spokesperson of a Chinese state-owned enterprise as saying, “without policy guidance, investing in Afghanistan is highly risky and not cost-effective. For example, the funds for building the highway project were loaned from the Asia Development Bank, but we didn't even earn a penny.”
The stories of China charging in to unearth the rare minerals in Afghanistan must be tempered with the reality that the copper mine project in Mes Aynak, for which a Chinese state-owned firm won exploitation rights in 2007, is yet to commence work.
To quote Chinese analyst Yun Sun of Stimson Centre in War on the Rocks, “as long as the security environment remains unstable, China is unlikely to launch major economic projects in Afghanistan. The American troop presence there was not the factor hindering Chinese economic activities. In fact, Chinese companies had benefited from the stability that US troops provided. Therefore, the US withdrawal is unlikely to encourage major Chinese investment.” What we have, in essence, is mixed messaging. China wants the world to judge the Taliban “more rationally”, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi tells US secretary of state Antony Blinken that “all sides must proactively guide the Taliban” and China’s special Afghan envoy calls the Taliban a “friendly” bunch and vows continued engagement.
And yet, Chinese president Xi Jinping tells his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that “all factions in Afghanistan to build an open and inclusive political structure through consultation, implement moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies, thoroughly dissociate from all terrorist groups, and maintain friendly relations with the rest of the world, especially neighboring countries.”
This is not 64D chess, but a likely reflection of the lack of strategic clarity that dominates current Chinese thinking on Afghanistan. For all their bluster, China’s top leadership is worried about the security fallout. Beijing fears an explosion of radical Islamist groups, inspired by Taliban’s victory, taking the region hostage and has low confidence on the Taliban’s ability to provide the political stability and security guarantee that China seeks in its periphery. Chinese concerns would have intensified with the suicide blast at Kabul airport and the US airstrikes that have followed, and it would only serve to deepen its reluctance to step into the quagmire
China is extremely worried about the resurgence of China-specific groups such as the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM), a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uighurs, and Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) that has issued a statement congratulating the Taliban for their “victory”.
China will expect Pakistan to wield its influence over the Islamist groups hosted, nurtured and backed by Islamabad. The Taliban themselves have gone out of their way to woo China and have promised all safety and security but Beijing has seen this movie before. It remains deeply sceptical. It also understands that even Pakistan has limitations on its control over a faction-ridden Taliban.
As GMF analyst Andrew Small writes, “China isn’t naïve enough to think that Taliban control of Afghanistan magically transforms a country that has been at war for decades into a place where they can comfortably do business. Their investments can still be threatened by local grievances, an assortment of jihadi groups, foreign intelligence services, guns for hire, factional divisions, and a host of other factors, even in circumstances where the Taliban are largely able to maintain order.”
China is unlikely to send its troops (except perhaps as part of a UN peacekeeping mission) inside Afghanistan, and despite knowing that its involvement in the war-torn country will inevitably increase, it will remain averse to making elaborate security commitments, even if to safeguard own interests. Therefore, Beijing may refrain from expanding its interests within Afghanistan until it is sure of sustainable stability even at the cost of scaling down its imperial ambitions. So far, its policy seems to be that of continued engagement with the Taliban.
Beijing assesses that the ideologically motivated Taliban aren’t likely to change, neither will they sever ties with the myriad terrorist groups with whom the Taliban share an umbilical jihadist chord. But it knows that the Taliban are desperate for investment and international recognition and hopes to use these as leverage to pressurize it to clean up its house and form a modicum of an “inclusive” government.
In its hour of glory, Pakistan is worried. Its powerful military establishment has long coveted and connived for a situation in Afghanistan where a Pakistan-friendly (if not controlled) government is in power, and the country is free of India’s presence and American military footprint. All its wishes have turned into reality. Perhaps a little too quickly and readily for its liking.
To quote from the University of London professor Avinash Paliwal’s column in Hindustan Times, “Fifty years after losing East Pakistan in 1971, Rawalpindi has finally, to its mind, achieved a strategic win that it deeply desired. Unlike on its eastern front, Pakistan doesn’t have a strategic adversary to its west anymore.”
Rivalry with India is the raison d'être of Pakistan’s existence. The magnitude of the development that left India with a black eye, causing New Delhi to close its consulates, shut down the embassy and evacuate diplomats has therefore caused Pakistan much satisfaction. Along with it, the fact that a rag-tag army of Sunni Islamist fundamentalists has defeated and humiliated the world’s sole superpower means that Pakistan — which has trained the fighters and nurtured their leadership — may legitimately look forward to a period of undiluted strategic influence on its western front. The memo was to celebrate in private, but some political leaders possibly didn’t get the memo.
What the world saw as a mainstreaming of terrorists with Taliban’s takeover, Pakistan’s prime minister termed as “breaking the shackles of slavery”. Never mind that thousands of Afghan nationals preferred to risk their lives and flee the country instead of trusting the Taliban. A few clung on desperately to American military aircraft and plunged to their deaths.
“The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI”, writes Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to the US military in Afghanistan. The Taliban (meaning ‘students’ in Pashto) studied in the religious seminaries of Pakistan’s Pashtun-dominated provinces and its founder Mullah Omar received ISI training during the war against the USSR.
As a partner of America’s ‘war on terror’, Washington gave its major-non-NATO ally “more than $33 billion in assistance, including about $14.6 billion in so-called Coalition Support Funds paid by the Pentagon to the Pakistani military between 2002 and 2018,” notes Sadanand Dhume in Wall Street Journal.
Most of that money was spent by Pakistan’s powerful military generals in propping up the very Taliban that the US was fighting, ostensibly with Pakistan’s help. Islamabad gave the group and its leaders safe haven, financial, logistical, military and even diplomatic support while officially acting against the group as America’s ‘ally’. In the last leg of Taliban’s coup against the beleaguered Afghan government, Pakistan even strategized for the Taliban.
“In the last three months as the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, the Pakistani military waved a surge of new fighters across the border from sanctuaries inside Pakistan, tribal leaders have said. It was a final coup de grace to the American-trained Afghan security forces,” writes Jane Perlez in New York Times.
Pakistan sees in Taliban’s rise, therefore, the fructification of its two-decade-old project. Having secured its prize, however, Islamabad is now in a quandary. For one, the rapidity of the Afghan government’s collapse and the fluidity with which the insurgent group gained power has robbed Pakistan — which had hoped to install itself as a broker of political settlement — of some leverage. A Taliban that is in total control of the levers of power in Afghanistan will need to heed little of the demands that Pakistan is likely to place on them.
And therein lies Pakistan’s biggest worry. For a nation that has seen centuries of sectarian and ethnic strife, Afghanistan may witness the Taliban facing internal resistance at some point in time, leading to sustained instability. That possibility has caused Pakistan to pitch and press the Taliban for an “inclusive government”, sharing some power with different groups and warlords.
Regardless of the actual control, Pakistan may wield over the Taliban, for all practical purposes it now owns the political and security situation in Afghanistan and will be held responsible in that role by the world at large. More importantly for Islamabad, China will most certainly lean on it to keep the radical elements in check and faltering in that responsibility is not an option for Pakistan.
The crown of thorns that Pakistan has won through years of hard work may seem thornier still if Afghanistan suffers an economic meltdown.
The Biden administration has already frozen the Afghan government’s reserves held in US bank accounts as US treasury bonds and offshore gold reserves. So, the Taliban can access only 0.1-0.2% of Afghanistan’s total international reserves of roughly $9 billion, reports the BBC. The IMF, too, has suspended Afghanistan’s access to resources, and so has the World Bank, leading to even more downward pressure on the economy of a country whose 75 percent civilian budget comes from foreign aid. Afghans are already feeling the pinch with prices of everyday essentials shooting through the roof, salaries remaining unpaid and long queues outside cash-starved banks.
Fearing a likely economic collapse, inevitable unrest and another explosion of refugees at its door, Pakistan is threatening the West (read the United States) with an ultimatum that unless the sanction noose is loosened, and if Afghanistan is engaged with, there will be another 9/11. Having issued the threat in his interview with The Times, London, however, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf has since backtracked. It may have sounded too grotesque, but Yusuf hopes that Washington got the point.
The pressure on Pakistan, therefore, is palpable as the first flush of victory dissipates and the hangover associated with a security nightmare at the border and a fragmented political landscape beyond it sets in. Pakistan remains fearful of the Taliban’s victory inspiring instability, chiefly from the myriad jihadi movements active within its borders. Pakistan also remains discomfited by the fact that the Taliban still maintain ties with the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) — the Pashtun militant group that has vowed “to war with Pakistan until it secures an independent Pashtunistan”.
Finally, Pakistan would also note Taliban’s continued overtures to India that resulted in the first official diplomatic meeting between India and the Taliban on Tuesday in Doha. In reaching out to India, the insurgent group is risking Pakistan’s ire, which indicates that the Taliban are willing to hedge their bets.
Nearly all postmortems of Taliban’s ascension and America’s defeat throw up the conclusion that India has been the second-biggest loser from the fiasco, with its two decades worth of investment in the America-installed democratic government in Afghanistan going up in smoke. In a recent event, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat admitted that while India anticipated a Taliban takeover and had done “contingency planning”, the timeline took New Delhi by surprise.
That “contingency planning” meant steady deduction of diplomatic staff and clandestine channels with the Taliban, but India kept betting on the Ashraf Ghani government staying put for at least a couple of months. As Ghani fled and his government caved in without a fight, India shut down the embassy and flew out its remaining diplomatic staff even as Pakistan, China and Russia kept theirs functional.
The nearly $3 billion that India has spent so far since 2001 in building dams, roads, electricity transmission lines, infrastructure projects, schools, hospital, education and capacity building, technical assistance and training of Afghan officers in its military academies, duty-free trade and scholarships to thousands of students are now at risk. As External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said in November 2020 while speaking at the Afghanistan Conference in Geneva, “no part of Afghanistan today is untouched by the 400-plus projects that India has undertaken in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces”.
While these projects and India’s footprint are at risk, New Delhi’s biggest concern is preventing Afghanistan from turning into a nursery for terrorist groups antithetical to India. Taliban’s victory is sure to embolden the India-specific terrorist outfits such as Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) — that carried out the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.
Anand Arni, former R&AW official, writes in Takshashila Institution that LeT, which he calls a “clandestine special forces unit of Pakistan’s ISI”, has become more active in Afghanistan of late after a brief hiatus, and “there have been persistent reports of several hundred LeT militants being spotted in Kunduz and in Kunar.”
Apart from the security challenges that arise for the restive Jammu and Kashmir from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and a more confident Pakistan that orchestrates the terrorist groups, India also faces erosion of its strategic influence. The closing down of its presence in the war-torn nation robs the Indian security establishment of crucial over-the-horizon leverage and cripples its ability to gather the intelligence needed to secure its interests.
Most of the bleak assessments on India arise from the axiomatic belief that the Taliban is a monolithic entity, and buried under a mountain of gratitude it would do Pakistan’s bidding. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Shortly before India flew out its diplomats, senior Taliban leader Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai reportedly requested New Delhi to retain its diplomatic presence.
Stanikzai would continue with his outreach to India. On 28 August, in a 46-minute video posted on the Taliban’s social media platform, Stanekzai spoke on the Taliban’s relations with regional powers and on India, he said: “India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past, “ adding that “trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us,” according to Hindustan Times.
The following day CNN-News18 quoted Stanekzai, considered to be third in pecking order among Taliban’s senior leadership, as saying that the Taliban is interested in developing “friendly” relations with India, said that the infrastructure projects built by India are Afghanistan’s “national assets”, and requested India to “come and start again and finish the incomplete projects”. He also said that “There is no doubt that there is a long political and geographical dispute between India and Pakistan. We hope they do not use Afghanistan in their internal fight, they have a long border, they can fight amongst themselves on the border. They should not use Afghanistan for this and we will not let any country use our land for this.”
It is too early to say whether the Taliban is seeking to balance its ties with Pakistan by using India as leverage. That is in the realm of speculation. What isn’t, is that the Taliban was showing a marked interest in opening an official channel of communication with India.
That occurred on Tuesday when India announced that its ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, a former joint secretary at the MEA looking after Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, has held formal talks with Stanekzai, the head of Taliban’s political office in Doha, “at the Embassy of India, Doha, on the request of the Taliban side.”
In a readout, the MEA said, “discussions focused on safety, security and early return of Indian nationals stranded in Afghanistan. The travel of Afghan nationals, especially minorities, who wish to visit to India also came up. Ambassador Mittal raised India’s concern that Afghanistan’s soil should not be used for anti-Indian activities and terrorism in any manner. The Taliban Representative assured the Ambassador that these issues would be positively addressed.”
Several points are worth noting. First, the meeting occurred at Taliban’s request. Second, it was conducted inside the premises of Indian embassy in Doha and third, a top Taliban leader was formally involved. It cannot be a coincidence that the first official diplomatic overture between the two sides took place just two days after India, as UNSC president, signed off a statement that stopped short of naming Taliban in a paragraph that called for Afghan groups not to support terrorists.
It is also worth considering that while India’s stakes — in absence of the democratic government in Afghanistan which it had been explicitly supporting — are considerably low, the same isn’t true of the Taliban that risks inviting Pakistan’s displeasure. It points to Taliban’s effort in normalizing ties with neighbours with an aim of gaining international recognition, and equally an opportunity for India to look forward in cautious optimism.
Relatedly, though Pakistan enjoys an upper hand in the regional geopolitical realignment, India, as former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has suggested, should encourage Pakistan in its boast as the “most influential actor in Kabul”. That opens up the chance for India to hold Pakistan responsible for lapses in Afghanistan’s political and security environment that may inevitably arise because Islamabad is trying to juggle too many balls in the air.
“What though the field be lost? All is not lost,” wrote John Milton. These lines could be India’s guiding principle.