by M Serajul Islam
In this picture taken on August 13, a Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city, after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege.— Agence France Presse
DRAMATIC developments are taking place in world politics and strategic affairs. The developments are taking place in flux and very fast where it is difficult to determine at this stage the direction towards which the changes are leading and the shape of things the changes would lead to when the flux ends and its impact is known. That could take quite a while.
The most major of the developments concerns the United States and its role in Afghanistan. The Americans will leave Afghanistan after 20 years, fighting its longest overseas war in history. They will leave the country to the very forces that they had gone to defeat and destroy, namely the Taliban, that is now certain to dominate the interim government that the Americans want to see in power as they depart.
The Americans started the war in Afghanistan to punish the Taliban for giving sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers that allowed them to carry out the 9/11 attacks that president George Bush described as ‘an attack on the heart and soul of the civilized world.’ They spent more than $3 trillion in Afghanistan and at the peak of the war and they had 140,000 troops in the country. Their war on terror in Afghanistan resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghan men, women and children as ‘collateral damage.’
The last of the American troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11 with the Taliban as powerful, if not more, than what they were when the US forces entered Afghanistan in December 2001 with NATO forces to demolish and destroy them. The United States would also be leaving Afghanistan having failed miserably in establishing in the country any structure of stable governance. The United States in its long stay had assured time and again that it would leave Afghanistan in the hands of an elected government embedded firmly on democratic foundations. It would leave instead with the country on the cusp of falling once again in the hands of the Taliban with the government it had established on the run.
The United States would be leaving Afghanistan in the geostrategic sense in a manner that it had hardly expected. It finds that its power to negotiate a peace deal even by placating the Taliban to ensure a stake for the present Afghan government and its supporters in the interim government is no longer entirely in its hands. That power has gone into the hands of Russia, the successor state of the former USSR, its old nemesis of the Cold War against whom it had fought in Afghanistan for nine years between December 1979 and February 1989 on different sides of the country’s then dangerous political division of the Mujahadeen and the communists.
Russia is now taking advantage of the turn of events in Afghanistan in its favour and against the United States. It is working on the principle of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ based on which it is coming closer to China like it was never since the 1950s to push their common enemy the United States into the corner. To strengthen the strategy, it is now meeting the Taliban and the Kabul government in intra-Afghan talks to reach a peace deal in the shape of the interim government after the departure of the US troops.
The meeting is taking place in Qatar where the Taliban has a diplomatic mission under the troika that was set up two years ago as a Russian initiative with the United States and China. The ongoing troika will be extended as Russia has invited Pakistan. India has been excluded because, according to Russia, it has little or no influence on the contending Afghan parties with the Taliban vehemently opposed to it. With the Russian and Chinese relationship now the best in many decades and China in a hand-and-glove relationship with Pakistan, the Americans will not be in a position to dominate talks in negotiations in the extended trioka.
It appears that the Americans had not figured out these geostrategic equations properly, that it was not just giving up its physical presence in Afghanistan, the countries that would fill up the vacuum upon its withdrawal from Afghanistan are countries not just strategically much better located than it but countries such as China and Russia that are extremely powerful. Thus the Biden administration is now being criticised by many strategic analysts in the Unitd States for leaving Afghanistan hastily without figuring out the geostrategic equations properly and realistically.
Many US and western analysts together with analysts in India were visualising the strengthening of the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue, or the Quad, as a military alliance against China not too long ago. They were also speculating about Quad plus, that it would be strengthened with the inclusion of a few other countries. Some of these analysts mentioned Bangladesh in that context. The prospect of Quad plus has now vanished into the thin air. The enthusiasm of strengthening the existing Quad by strengthening Washington-New Delhi cooperation has also taken the back seat.
The powers that do not favour China and Russia coming together over Afghanistan with Pakistan as an ally have more reasons to worry. A Chinese initiative is afoot for a Quartet for West Asia comprising China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, where India has been left out. Indian foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar met the Taliban in Qatar on June 21. He also visited Tehran, sidelining US sensitivities. He would be in Tehran again for the inauguration of the new president. These visits and follow-ups have acquired new urgency as India finds itself on the wrong side of the strategic divide in West Asia and Afghanistan. And with the position of the United Sates weakening in these strategic regions by its withdrawal from Afghanistan, India finds itself isolated, with its adversaries China and Pakistan gaining considerably in the region.
Meanwhile, Russia has re-established its historic ties with China of the 1950s as mentioned earlier. India’s historic ties with Russia that saw the two countries sign that game-changing Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in 1971 that assisted the Bangladesh liberation war profoundly is not the same at present. In April, Russia’s powerful foreign minister Sergey Lavrov failed to meet the Indian prime minister on a visit to India on the pretext that the Indian prime minister was not in Delhi. He was denied the meeting because he had tied his visit with a visit to Islamabad that in New Delhi’s unwritten protocol is not acceptable to India.
The Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are on the conquering spree even while their delegates are negotiating peace with the extended troika in Qatar. The talks are continuing. The conquering mood of the Taliban underlines manifestly that the future of Afghanistan would depend to a large extent on their action and decisions once they acquire the dominant position in Afghanistan after the departure of the US troops. The Taliban have successfully withstood the power of not just the US military alone but its NATO allies for long 20 years. There is no doubt that during their short rule over three quarters of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 when only three governments had recognised them, they made many serious mistakes, brought shame and denouncement to themselves and defamed Islam.
Is it the same Taliban that would return to power in Afghanistan once the US forces withdraw? Or have their experiences of the past two decades taught them lessons to remedy many of the mistakes they committed while they ruled Afghanistan in 1996–2001? The answers would be given by time and the world must wait. For the present, the world would do better to pause and ponder over history. The United States would be withdrawing from Afghanistan the same way as the Soviet Union had and before them, the British.
The Afghans collectively have established that the world would be wiser leaving Afghanistan to the Afghans because when invaded, they have the habit of defeating the invaders. And while the world ponders, if it ponders at all, it would only be fair to ponder also over the hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghan men, women and children who died as collateral damage in the so-called war on terror of the United States.