American withdrawal from Afghanistan has pushed entire South and Central Asia into a new tension because an unstable Kabul can be the new cold war battleground for the US against China and Russia permitting Middle Eastern and Indo-Pak rivalries to continue on the sidelines. Every country is concerned even as the race for converting the challenge into opportunities has already begun, writes Masood Hussain

A top Taliban leader shaking hands with the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his special visit to Qatar an intra-Afghan dialogue is in progress for over a year but without any visible outcome.

Taliban, busy retaking Afghanistan inch by inch in bloody battles taking place round the clock, have completely shocked the region. After all, it is the second superpower fleeing the country within 32 years from the “forever war”.

The emerging masters of Afghanistan, however, regret that the US pushed the deadline of withdrawal of NATO troops to September 11. Unlike invasion, the US-led NATO withdrawal has been staggered. In May 2014, Barack Obama announced the cessation of all combat operations by the yearend and full withdrawal by 2016. That year most of the 130 thousand allied troops left Afghanistan leaving a little less than 10 thousand.

His successor Donald Trump halted the process and attempted a consensus with the Taliban. Under the Doha Agreement of February 29, 2020, the US was supposed to leave by May 1, 2021. Joe Biden amended the plans and pushed the deadline to 9/11/21, the twentieth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers in the US. The fact is the withdrawal is actually on.

The Taliban delegation in the US-brokered Intra-Afghan Talks in Doha. PiC; Wikimedia commons

The “America’s longest war” has cost 240 thousand lives (including  71344 civilians; 2442 American service members; 3800 private security contractors, 1144 non-US NTO personnel, 78314 Afghan military and police; and 84,191 opposition fighters) and cost the US $2.6 trillion. Now when NATO is moving out from the ‘graveyard of empires’, the entire region is tense.

Experts share a sort of unanimity in the fact that the alteration in the balance of power can have different outcomes for different countries. Beijing perhaps was the only country that clearly stated that the US’s “hasty withdrawal” has “impacted the Afghan domestic peace process and negatively affected regional stability”.

Almost every country has its basket of worries and it does not exclude the Americans, especially at a time when China is still not disengaged fully on India’s Kashmir ‘borders’. At the same time, however, the states see opportunities in post-withdrawal Kabul as well.

Civil War Fears

Writing in the News International, Saleem Shafi, a Geo TV journalist reported the situation is worst in Afghanistan. The intra-Afghan dialogue, now in progress for a year in Doha is not offering anything. The warlords of the yore have started purchasing weaponry. These include almost all the non-Pashtun leaders and the erstwhile members of the Northern Alliance. “The Taliban too are busy training day and night and building an organized and well-paid militia,” Shafi wrote. “In this uncertain and fragile security environment, the Afghan elite class is searching for a safe abode in the UAE, Pakistan, and other countries.”

An Intra Afghan meeting in Russia. Rashid Dostum is seen. Interestingly he had gone wearing a Marshal uniform which the Taliban did not permit. Dostum, a former Vice President is a major leader of the Northern Alliance.

Shafi believes that pressures for Pakistan are building up. “The gap between the two sides is widening due to the pressure being exerted by Pakistan on the Taliban at the behest of the United States over the past one year… The US itself has appeased the Taliban and is giving them concessions but is demanding that Pakistan pressurize the Taliban into accepting this or that despite knowing the fact that the Taliban are not ready to accept any demand,” he wrote, insisting that the US has delegitimized the Kabul government to the extent that everybody is seeing Taliban as the ultimate master of Afghanistan. “The Taliban are also furious over why Pakistan is not accepting the Taliban emirate as it did in the past.”

“Can we keep the state and its vital institutions together after the withdrawal? That will be our biggest challenge. If we manage to keep our key institutions together, we can manage the rest.” Mohammed Umer Daudzai, Afghanistan’s special envoy to Pakistan told The Week, early May. He has helped Delhi in the negotiations in December 1999 over the IC-814 hijack and has experience of dealing with Pakistan for the last 40 years.

“The territories that the government controls are shrinking by the day and are largely limited to urban areas while the Taliban either control or are contesting for dominance in the bulk of the country. Twilight zones always wear a deceptive look with the sun assuming a larger-than-life-size and glow as it approaches the horizon — and then it simply plops down, so abruptly, unceremoniously, that it may not even get noticed,” MK Bhadrakumar, an IFS officer with 29 years of experience, who was part of Indian diplomatic delegation in post-Najibullah Afghanistan wrote in The Tribune. “That is what is unfolding in Afghanistan.”

Red Army and Taliban

How To Spy, Now?

The immediate crisis, however, is for the superpower itself. The US was toying with the idea of hiring the Turks to keep a detachment at the Kabul airport but the Taliban have rejected it. Now Recap Tayyib Erodgan, after meeting Joe Biden and NATO leaders at Brussels is seeking Pakistan and Hungary support in encouraging its 500 troops to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport at Kabul operational.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad with and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, after the two signed the peace agreement at Qatar in Doha on February 29, 2020. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing.

A New York Times report said the CIA, the US spy agency, is under pressure to find “new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes” post-withdrawal. The report mentioned the “last-minute efforts” by US officials to secure bases close to Afghanistan for future operations.

Taliban, Moscow and China have publicly asked neighbours to avoid offering bases to the US forces.

Pakistan seemed a natural choice. Americans actually used Shamsi airbase in Western Pakistani to hit targets deep inside Afghanistan, a facility they lost in 2011. Americans are negotiating with Pakistan for a base, the report said. They are also exploring the possibility of reusing some earlier bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan but this time Moscow is opposing the idea.

“But the scramble for bases illustrates how US officials still lack a long-term plan to address security in a country where they have spent trillions of dollars and lost more than 2400 troops over nearly two decades,” the report pointed out. Though CIA Director secretly flew to Islamabad and met the military and intelligence chiefs, Dawn reported Islamabad refused his request for a meeting with Imran Khan saying “only a counterpart meeting between heads of government of Pakistan and the US is possible”.

Will Pakistan Oblige Biden?

Pakistan was fundamental in managing the agreement but once it was signed, Islamabad was elbowed out. The policy did not change even after Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump. The crisis in Pakistan is that a feeling in the strategic community and the ground zero is that any help extended to Washington would mean helping Delhi.

A Taliban leader shaking hands with a Taliban leader. Though a general impression is that the Taliban are a creation of Islamabad but both Taliban and Pakistan have rejected it. Pakistan, however, has helped the Taliban talk to the US.

“Moreover, asking for the military base from Pakistan at this stage can be construed by some as an effort to fix Pakistan in the US’s Indo-Pacific policy, meant to contain China,” Muhammad Hanief, a former colonel in Pakistan army, now a senior research fellow of SVI, Islamabad wrote in Pakistan Observer. In case, the bases are provided, Hanief assesses, Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban will be adversely impacted, Pakistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan’s relations with China will take a hit. “Moreover, ultimately, when the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan, then Pakistan may not have a friendly Afghanistan on its west.”

Writing in The Diplomat, strategic affairs specialist Syed Ali Zia Jaffery has given three reasons for Pakistan not obliging Washington. Firstly, Imran Khan’s campaign against US drone strikes in Pakistan. Secondly, Pakistan will ill-afford aiding the US in spying on the Taliban, the most powerful players in Afghanistan. Thirdly, offering a base to the US for combat missions will “likely be a cause of concern” for China and Iran.

Chief Negotiator Abbas Stanikzai

“Coupled with the US aversion to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), this means that should Pakistan allow US forces to operate out of its territory, Washington would almost certainly use that advantage to keep tabs on CPEC, which is expected to expand and gain momentum. Both Pakistan and China would not like to see the US physically lurking around CPEC hotspots, including the critical Gwadar port,” Jeffery wrote. “Should Pakistan commit to giving bases to the US, not only will Khan’s bid to reset ties with Iran be discredited but also his role as a mediator in the conflicts involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US will be questioned. Additionally, Pakistan’s delicate balancing act in the Middle East will be disturbed, something which would present a plethora of challenges laden with grievous security implications for Pakistani policymakers to contend with.”

Scare In The Region

A general impression is that Delhi is clueless as American withdrawal is altering the balance of power in the region. This may be correct but it is also a fact that Islamabad is no less worried. It is tense over the prospects of a possibility of a civil war that can send new flocks of refugees to Pakistan or the re-emergence of a strong Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) adding to the security woes in its ‘strategic depth’.

Taliban on computers, a class in progress.

“Even before the withdrawal began, instability in Pakistan has steadily increased. The outlawed militant group Pakistani Taliban, known as TTP, has taken advantage of the situation and increased cross-border attacks in Pakistan,” a detailed report in Nikkei Asia said. “Last month, Chinese Ambassador Nong Rong barely survived a suicide attack by TTP in Quetta. Last week, the group killed nine security personnel in multiple attacks near the Pakistan-Afghan border.”

The apprehension is that TTP will have “safe pockets” in areas straddling the 2670 km Durand line, the Pak-Afghan border. There are reports that the two Taliban though working separately may have ties.

This uncertainty can impact the US $50 bn CPEC. “CPEC has not traditionally been a top target of TTP in Pakistan,” the Nikkei quoted Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at Wilson Centre, saying. “But in recent months, anti-China rhetoric has [surfaced] in TTP propaganda, especially because of China’s oppression of Uyghur Muslims.” Already, Pakistan has invested $532 million on the fencing part of the border but it is not foolproof.

The fears are legitimate. “Pakistan’s grand plans of connectivity and becoming the hub of Central Asian trade and transit, making the CPEC a viable project that starts paying for itself, and generally gaining both politically and strategically from a friendly and peaceful Afghanistan, will come a cropper,” Sushant Sareen wrote in a commentary on ORF website. “Worse, a long and bloody civil war will spill over into Pakistan, what with refugees streaming in and the blowback of Afghanistan’s instability impacting Pakistan’s security.”

“We need peace in Afghanistan,” Pakistan premier Imran Khan said in a joint press conference with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon in Islamabad on June 2. “If the US leaves without a political settlement, like when the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the resulting situation could lead to losses for Pakistan and Tajikistan. It could affect connectivity and trade and we [Pakistan and Tajikistan] fear that terrorism could increase.”

It was adequately said by Pakistan army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa on April 22, 2021, after meeting Kabul’s ambassador in Islamabad: “peace in Afghanistan means peace in Pakistan.”

What Taliban and Kabul Are Talking For Afghanistan In Doha?

That is perhaps why Islamabad is hugely investing in Afghanistan these days especially after the Qatar intra-Afghan dialogue is not offering anything. Currently, a Track-II Kabul-Islamabad dialogue is underway in Pakistan. Apart from politicians, academics, activists and journalists, former diplomats, the conference will also have the attendance of some people who were also engaged in Qatar.

This is in continuation with earlier efforts when the Taliban and Kabul government met in Murree in 2015, and the same year, in Urumqi (Xinjiang) and then on June 20-19 in Burban (Iran). Ankara and Moscow have also hosted the intra-Afghan talks in recent months.

Indian Fears

India and Pakistan are playing a serious rival game in Afghanistan. Though both are supportive of a self-governing Kabul, there are sharp differences. Islamabad is completely pro-Taliban, and Delhi is supporting the fledging Kabul democracy. While Pakistan contributed to thrashing out an agreement between the US and the Taliban, Delhi refused to look face to face with the Taliban.

Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov meets with Afghan and Taliban representatives in Moscow ahead of a conference for the centennial anniversary.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghanistan’s incumbent President., Ashraf Ghani

Some media reports have claimed that Delhi has opened a window to the Taliban (“factions and leaders” who are perceived as being “nationalist” or “outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran”) but the latter have not confirmed it. Taliban Spokesperson in Qatar Dr Naeem told Afghan news-gatherer Pajhwok that claims were baseless and untrue. “This is an ambiguous and baseless statement,” he was quoted saying. “I read this report but I cannot approve it,” another Taliban media person, Suhail Shaheen told the agency.

Interestingly, MK Bhadrakumar, ridiculed the “esoteric” and “self-serving narratives” saying the discovery of “a ‘nationalist’ wing” in the Taliban is “no small ingenuity”. Prudence demands, he wrote in The Tribune that “we cut down the staff at our mission in Kabul to the barest minimum, and as we did in 1992, take a daily call”. He suggests Delhi wait till the real situation emerges.  This, he says, from his experience of meeting Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and Abdul Rasool Sayyaf after 1992.

With Delhi pushed to the sidelines, Kabir Taneja wrote on the ORF website that India is in the same situation as it was when the Taliban were ruling Afghanistan (1996-2001).

“India – along with other countries like Iran – formerly supported the Northern Alliance, a multi-ethnic coalition then led by Ahmad Shah Masood, a Tajik politician and military leader,” he wrote. “Indian engagement with former figures from the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban figures is now cropping up again.”

Hijacked IC 814 being surrounded by cadres of Taliban in Afghanistan in 1999.

It was in this backdrop that Vice President Rashid Dostum, the former Uzbek warlord, General Atta Mohammed Noor; and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, all visited Delhi. For a follow-up meeting, NSA Ajit Doval had a Kabul visit. “While Moscow and New Delhi have discussed Afghanistan, the increased depth of Pakistan–China cooperation could become the premier challenge for New Delhi as Islamabad’s Afghan interests are supported by Beijing’s financial prowess,” he wrote.

The China Factor

Western analysts say that China was supportive of the US attack on Afghanistan in wake of 9/11 because it feared the Taliban ruled country could become “a source of instability on China’s border” by hosting “Uyghur extremist organizations seeking an independent Xinjiang.” Xinjiang has a 70-km border with Afghanistan and China has apprehensions that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) may get bases and support in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

In Qatar, Chinese officials with Taliban. Beijing has donated the anti-Covid19 vaccine to the Taliban.

Later, however, China started identifying the opportunities the crisis offered. In a recent commentary, CNN quoted Yun Sun, director of the China Programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, writing that Chinese experts are divided “on whether the US withdrawal from Afghanistan presents more challenges or opportunities.”

But in no way, will Beijing be supportive of American soldiers staying around Afghanistan. At a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of five Central Asian states on May 12 at Xian, Yogesh Gupta, one of former IFS officers wrote in The Tribune, the Chinese Foreign Minister suggested that “they should not allow the US to station its forces and equipment in Central Asia after its military withdrawal from Afghanistan”.

Bejing, off late, has been talking about the UN playing its “due role” and 8-member (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan) Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) must pay more attention to Afghanistan.

Post-US Afghanistan

China has had an interesting approach towards Afghanistan. It will stay in contact with the Kabul government and the Taliban at the same time. In December 2000, the Chinese Pakistan Ambassador met Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar. Taliban co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is reported to have visited Beijing in June 2019.

With Kabul, China made a lot of promises but could not move beyond the US $70 million military aid from 2016 to 2018. This could be the reason why the trade between China and Beijing is not as good as it is between Delhi and Kabul.

Now, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are part of a trilateral dialogue – the fourth edition took place virtually early this month – with the avowed objective to have a “harmonious and friendly dialogue with in-depth and fruitful discussions.” The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is part of this dialogue. Beijing, if the telephonic conversation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with his two counterparts is any indication, hopes “Afghanistan’s future leadership will pursue a moderate Muslim policy, promote a foreign policy of peace, maintain a friendship with neighbouring countries, and firmly combat all forms of terrorism.”

Since the intra-Afghan talks in Qatar have not yielded anything, Beijing has offered to hold talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

China, India’s respected strategic affairs writer C Raja Mohan believes can deliver massive economic resources to Afghanistan under BRI. “China’s expanding relations with the different nations of the Gulf and Central Asia and a deep partnership with Pakistan lends much potential depth to Beijing’s role in Afghanistan,” he wrote in The Indian Express. However, Beijing would face experience issues in navigating the treacherous terrain of South West Asian politics. “But Beijing is a quick learner.” It is in constant touch with the Taliban and the last meeting took place last week in Doha in which the Taliban thanked Beijing for sending the Covid19 vaccine. It assured the security of all the Chinese companies working in Afghanistan.

A Complex Game

The post-withdrawal game in Afghanistan is more complex than it seems.

A few Taliban leaders in Qatar where they run a proper office for a few years now.

“What is happening in Afghanistan is a gathering of anti-China powers while Pakistan is out of the picture,” seasoned Pakistan journalist, Khaled Ahmed wrote in The Newsweek Pakistan. “Actually, Pakistan has no friends in Afghanistan and should fear the coming to power of the Pashtun against the other Afghan nationalities that have benefited from the 20-year US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan.”

Khaled has his own justification for his assessment.

For the Climate Change summit that Joe Biden hosted, unlike India, Bangladesh and China, Pakistan was initially left uninvited.

Targeting China, the US is using the Quad (US, Australia, Japan and India) in the India Pacific and refused Delhi’s suggestion to include Russia. In reaction, Moscow attempted to embrace Islamabad tightly.

The US is involving Turkey in post-withdrawal “Afghan talks” because Istanbul is at odds with China over the persecuted “Turkic” Uyghur’s.

In reaction, China is making investments in the region to force America to meddle in Central Asia. The most recent is US $400 bn Chinese investment in “almost-nuclearized” Iran. (Critics say no investment is taking place.)

“But in Afghanistan, India, with its 11 per cent growth rate, is going to make life difficult for Pakistan whose economy is languishing below zero per cent,” Khaled writes. “India is too big for Pakistan to counter: even its Gulf Arab friends invest their money in the “functional” Indian economy.”

Khaled asserts that Pakistan can look towards another refugee influx including “emancipated” Afghan women, and thousands who had applied for US visas but are not getting them. He sees Afghanistan going back to its earlier avatar: “..South dominated by the Pashtun with Pakistan as a neighbour; and north dominated by non-Pashtun Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbek-Turkmen, reaching out to India in the past but now landlocked from South Asian politics.”

Will it lead to the use of the Pakistan corridor for India-Kabul trade? Will the post-US Afghanistan see Turkey and Pakistan competing against each other? Will it somehow see the return of bilateralism between India and Pakistan?

The Iran Angle

C Raja Mohan sees the new great game differently as the withdrawal marks the end of the “unipolar moment in international affairs”.

A Taliban delegation in formal talks with Iran foreign minister in Tehran.

Afghanistan, he believes will continue to showcase the main international trends, ranging from “shifting great power relations to the growing role of middle powers; from the spread of religious radicalism to the enduring agency of local forces who know how to play the outside powers”.

Washington, he asserts is unlikely to leave Afghanistan to its fate as new rulers in Kabul would require the White House for reconstruction, political legitimacy and diplomatic recognition. With everybody talking about Pakistan, Iran’s stakes and ambitions are being underreported. Last time, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were the main Muslim countries that recognised Taliban rule. Unlike them, Iran contributed to the regional coalition against Taliban rule during 1996-2001.

“Iran’s regional influence has increased significantly over the last two decades and Tehran is bound to play a decisive part in Afghanistan’s future,” Raja Mohan wrote in late April. “The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, told the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi last week that a return to the 1990s and the restoration of the Taliban’s emirate in Afghanistan are simply not acceptable”.

But Daudzai offers a different picture. He insists that Iran and the Taliban enjoy “very good” relations, to the extent that there is suspicion that Iran might even be supplying it with arms. Now it remains to be seen as Iran elects its new president.

So is Afghanistan become the new rink for battling the Middle East rivalries? In that situation, where will Turkey and Pakistan be placed? Answering all this is too premature right now.

The Silver Lining

Certain things are, however very visible. Even though “Pakistani army and the government are on the same page,” Daudzai told The Week, “there is fear about the domino effect,” the Taliban return will have on Pakistan. Back then, there was no TTP and now the Taliban “is no longer as loyal to Pakistan as it used to be” because it is “expanding its relationship with Russia, Iran and the Arab countries”. It is Taliban 2.0 that is two decades younger than the one Mulla Omer led.

Only a year back, nobody was interested in the Taliban and now everybody wants to have a meeting. In this photograph, the Taliban are seen getting the most of the media limelight.

Daudzai said, “a moderate Afghanistan” suits the interests of Islamabad and Kabul. He sees loud-thinking and shifting narrative in Pakistan from geo-security and geopolitical to geo-economic interest and regional connectivity are major shifts in the region.

“Things have to change on the western front in Pakistan’s view and they will have to bring some changes on the eastern front,” Daudzai, who knew the policymakers in Delhi, also, said. “There are some openings, I understand. At least they tell me that they have some initial openings of dialogue with the other side, too.” But he insists the current thought process coincides with the term of General Qamar Bajwa. “We don’t know whether his successor will think exactly like he does,” he insists.

That is where Kashmir appears on the horizon.


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