Afghanistan under Taliban: Implications for the region and the world

| Isha Tripathi
  • Even if Taliban has dislodged the democratic civilian government of Afghanistan, it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain its hold and run a government for all of Afghanistan.
  • The larger background cause running here is the US-China rivalry which is not only claiming the peace, stability and lives of Aghans, but also putting to peril those in Central Asia and South Asia.
  • The entire episode is being received by Islamic fundamentalists all over the world with great glee as evidence of the superiority and unconquerability of Islam as they see it.
  • American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a further push to multipolarity in the international system as the dominant hegemone USA becomes more and more inward oriented.
  • For China and Pakistan, it is great folly on their part if they are under the assumption that they can control terrorists. Such pets often bite their masters, as Laden did USA.
  • This is an opportunity for India to diversify its foreign policy tactics, and make moves towards becoming a dominant player in the region.

“May Islam spread globally” – thus read a Talibani victory poster. Ever since the takeover of Kabul by Afghanistan, people around the world have been glued to their televisions and smart phones as images of the takeover, followed by images of Taliban’s jovial celebrations and Afghan’s desperation followed suit. The last takeover of Afghanistan by Islamist fundamentalists was brought to end by US intervention, and the current crisis has been brought on by US withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is indicative of the changes in the dynamics of international political scenario- increasingly isolationist America and more assertive China are the defining undercurrents of international politics of today. As all eyes focus on Afghanistan at this crucial juncture, the implications of this scenario need to be pondered over, because the effects of this takeover will not be restricted to Afghanistan and its neighbours, but will reverberate across the globe.

While the situation is still unfolding, there are some reasonably sure assumptions that can be made. First, a democratic government ‘of, for and by’ the Afghani people that is respectful of their rights is a distant dream. The signature Talibani repression is again pervading various facets of Afghani society, especially against women. The UN Security Council passing resolutions calling for Taliban to form inclusive government and not allow terrorism to breed on Afghan soil is like hoping water would not be wet.

Second, USA will maintain a distance from direct military involvement of the same scale as earlier. But that does not necessarily imply that it will not interfere via other means. For instance, before the withdrawal of its ‘last’ troops from Afghanistan, USA was already reaching out to the Central Asian Republics (CARs) for setting its base, and has troops stationed in Pakistani territory. It is still up at arms against ISIS-K, which has set base in Afghanistan.

Third, China will increase its engagement in Afghanistan, and with the Taliban further. A stable Afghanistan is in China’s best interests given its two main concerns- repression of East Turkistan Movement (ETM) and expansion of the multi-trillion-dollar Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). China has been engaging in fruitful relationship with Taliban for quite some time now, given its good relations with iron-and-blood-brother Pakistan which is Taliban’s foster parent.

Fourth, there will be no stability in near future in Afghanistan because there are too many parties laying claims to a piece of Afghanistan- Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda, local warlords, Afghan nationalists like Saleh, etc. As it is Afghanistan has not been a land of peace since centuries due to its geo-strategic location. It has been ravaged by contending forces time and again.

The larger background cause running here is the US-China rivalry which is not only claiming the peace, stability and lives of Aghans, but also putting to peril those in Central Asia and South Asia. For all the lip service that is paid to the cause of humanity worldwide, when it comes to struggle for power and domination, human lives only matter so much. America China and others will utilize the opportunity to sell weapons, gain greater influence, etc and really help Afghanistan only if doing so furthers their own interests. Afghanis are the biggest losers in the situation. One can only pray that the rivalries of the bigger powers do not raze Afghanistan to ground like Syria. What the current situation implies for other key players in the region is discussed below.

South Asia

“We have this right, being Muslims, to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India, and any other country.”

This statement by Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen is an augur for things to come in the region and the world at large.The risks affiliated with the strengthening of Islamic extremist ideology resonate more loudly in South Asia where there is a large mass of Muslim population, some of which is unfortunately prone to radicalization. A demonstration of this zeal was the bomb blast by Tehrik-i-Taliban in Quetta on 5th of September. Bangladesh, India, Maldives as well as South East Asian nations are gearing up to deal with the domestic impact of the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The issue of Afghan refugees will also become contentious, in both internal and international political scenes. Other terrorist organization as ISIS and Al Qaeda will find bases in Afghanistan, and South Asian nations are their favourite targets, especially India. But unlike the rest of South Asia, Pakistan is running pillar to post to ensure that Talibani government receives international recognition because after all it is their biggest supporter and ally. Looks like Islamabad’s partnership with terrorists will be paying dividends because now their value for China as well as all other key players in the region has increased as interlocutors.

CARs and Russia

Like South Asia, CARs are also apprehensive of increased terror threat and refugee crisis that will ensue. Tajikistan is aiding the Northern Alliance in Panjshir, so that there is some leverage over Taliban. The Central Asian region, that has been relatively ignored in international affairs so far, will now draw traction- China needs them for BRI, USA needs them for a foothold in the region, Russia considers it under its own spere and is resentful of interference from either of these here. Russia might be glad with American absence from its backyard, but it is positively wary of the present chaos.

China

China is in desperate need of stability in the region or Xi Jinping’s ambitious BRI will end up being a fiasco. American troops maintaining stability here, while China built roads and parleyed with Taliban was an optimal status quo for Beijing. Of course, owing to its friendship with Pakistan and its state policy of unscrupulous extension of finance, it will seek to make the best out of this situation but it is a difficult and complex scenario. Taliban is eager to gain international recognition, and in need of weapons and funds, all of which China is willing to provide them in exchange for implementation of BRI and stifling of East Turkestan Movement. The flagship CPEC, which is facing increasingly violent protests from Baloch nationalists is the most crucial and yet the most threatened part of BRI. Instability in Afghanistan will, without a doubt, percolate into Pakistan. In short, simply because of America’s retreat, China’s plate is full of worries now.

USA and its allies

The US and Taliban signed a deal in Doha on 29 February, 2020

The dominant narrative with respect to America in this situation is that Afghanistan has lived up to its reputation as the graveyard of empires. While the loss of face is true, this withdrawal was not a spur of the moment decision. In light of its so-called Cold War 2.0 with China, this decision serves American interests in that now it is China that has to deal with the Taliban, other terrorist groups that will breed there, and the general instability which will hamper its global ambitions. The situation also creates trouble for Iran and Russia. Considering its history of relationship with Pakistan and the fact that Islamabad helped evacuate US troops, perhaps America is sure of a foothold in Pakistan. In that case, other than a loss of face, which time and suitable propaganda will wipe out of public memories eventually, America has suffered no loss here.

A negative impact, albeit minor, is the dip in its credibility as a reliable partner. This is evidenced in the increasing demand in the European Union to strengthen its own military capacities instead of relying primarily on US support, and have more autonomy in terms of foreign policy. Japan, a nation keenly farsighted, has already been revising its defence policies since China embarked on its Middle Kingdom dream. In a first, Japan allowed its defence personnel to draw arms in a foreign country i.e., Afghanistan while helping with evacuations. Israel has, like India, always spoken against supporting any terrorist because being a Jewish state, it is a favourite target for Islamic fanatics.

Apart from these apparent and much discussed geo-political implications of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, there are several understated but important implications of this situation in international relations which deserve wider attention.

More power to Islamic extremism globally

This Islamic resurgence has come riding on the back of a humiliating withdrawal of the white, non-Islamic superpower. The entire episode is being received by Islamic fundamentalists all over the world with great glee as evidence of the superiority and unconquerability of Islam as they see it. Countries like India and Bangladesh are rightly apprehensive of the motivation this will provide to extremists within their countries, and the kind of support they will now manage to salvage from Afghanistan. An increase in spate of terrorist activities, not just in South Asia, will ensue. The 3rd September terrorist attack in New Zealand is a case in point where a Sri Lankan Muslim vowing allegiance to ISIS stabbed multiple people in a shopping complex.

Moreover, the reluctance displayed by most countries in outrightly denouncing the Talibani takeover of Afghan governance, for whatever reasons, is lending a legitimacy to extremism. This is by far the most disturbing precedent because it exposes the hypocrisy of the flagbearers of liberty and democracy, primarily USA and Europe.  

From unipolarity to multipolarity

American withdrawal from Afghanistan is a further push to multipolarity in the international system as the dominant hegemone USA becomes more and more inward oriented. The status quo established since the end of the Cold War is decidedly changed now, but until a new balance is reached, frictions will increase as each country will try to secure itself in this time of increased uncertainties.

End of liberal global era?

The supremacy of the liberal world order has been professed since the latter half of last century, with scholars declaring it to be such panacea that they foresaw the end of ideology. But now the biggest exporter of democracy is perceptibly defeated in its ‘civilizing mission’ in Afghanistan, and it is the Communist China and its military-state ally Pakistan which are seen as key to resolving the Taliban conundrum. This a heavy set-back to the narrative of liberal global order. As the global instability increases, countries will guard their borders against refugees, and become more and more inward looking. This is not to say that globalization will reverse, but that its counter-trends will gain strength.

Instability in nuclear weapons rich South Asia

The biggest concern created by the Taliban situation in Afghanistan is its proximity to Pakistan which has a history of dubious nuclear behaviour. Pakistan and Taliban’s common friend China also has a shady track record when it comes to responsible international behaviour, the biggest demonstration of which is its handling of the Wuhan Virus. It is plausible that one of the many terrorist outfits active in the region can obtain nuclear arsenal, and there is no telling who their target would be. These concerns have been raised time and again, President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton being one of them.

Conclusion

Several days since the capture of Kabul, Taliban has not been able to announce its government and stories of altercations amongst different factions within Taliban are bubbling to surface. Even if Taliban has dislodged the democratic civilian government of Afghanistan, it is unlikely that it will be able to maintain its hold and run a government for all of Afghanistan, when they can’t even protect the Kabul airport from attacks by ISIS. Taliban cannot fight and govern at the same time becausecapability and resources are both constraints.

For China and Pakistan, it is great folly on their part if they are under the assumption that they can control terrorists. Such pets often bite their masters, as Laden did USA. India will have to shore up its security because Pakistan, China, and terrorists- none wish well for it. This is an opportunity for India to diversify its foreign policy tactics, and make moves towards becoming a dominant player in the region. Perhaps this is also the right time to consider expanding its military presence beyond its own borders. Iran is already baffled with its shaking economy, and now on top of it, it has to deal with Sunni/Wahabi extremists in power next door. Turkey and Middle East will also have a say in the matter, and their participation will add another layer to the already complex scenario. As the global status quo is changing, tensions will rise and conflicts will spread. Let us see what lessons this generation of world leaders take from history.

References

  1. The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton
  2. The End of Ideology: On the exhaustion of political ideas in the fifties by Daniel Bell
  3. Afghanistan: Russia faces its own risks and uncertainty by Ian Hall
  4. Gravitas: Taliban holds chilling victory parade by Wion
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