Probably, the biggest fallout of August 15, 2021, Taliban takeover of Kabul is the tectonic shift in a world that is now no more dependent on the military unilateralism of the United States of America, symbolised by ‘regime change’, ‘shock and awe’ or ‘what we say goes’. On August 31, President Biden’s address to the American people was more like a funeral oration, giving a formal burial to a decades-old policy that in any case had been sunk in the quagmire of the ‘forever wars’, lost in the ruins left behind by the US Army in Afghanistan. It was a long time coming but nevertheless necessary. In a historic policy pronouncement, probably the most significant since President Nixon announced the opening to China in July 1971 (Dr Kissinger’s secret visit from Islamabad to Beijing in a PIA plane) President Biden proclaimed that “this decision about Afghanistan (withdrawal) is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries”. Announcing an end to “endless military deployments”, Biden added, “our strategy has to change”.
While there will be sulking, whining about ‘women’s rights’ and the usual noises about ‘democracy and human rights’, the US has decided to walk away from a tried, tested and failed strategy in the Muslim World since 9/11, which means the future of Afghanistan and our region will be shaped, first and foremost, by the Afghans themselves and then key regional countries like Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran, Qatar and the Central Asian Republics plus Turkey. Saudi Arabia and UAE will follow suit.
Thankfully, Pakistan has learned the right lessons from the flawed policies of the past on Afghanistan, bidding goodbye to ‘strategic depth’, eschewing the ‘go it alone’ approach or trying to play ‘favourites’ with one or the other faction.
The Afghan Taliban too are now a more mature and more ‘modern’ 21st Century phenomenon, more media-savvy, more tolerant, more inclusive and, above all, more open, ready and willing for foreign engagement, regional and global. More importantly, they are less ideological, more pragmatic and do not seem to have a rigid Pan-Islamic worldview, rather, their vision and role are apparently confined to ruling Afghanistan, albeit, with a religious colouring, which is their raison d’etre. They realise that the Afghanistan of 2021 is not the Afghanistan of 1996: it is a more open, vibrant society, which is keen to build a better future through economic development and connectivity with the region.
There are three main elements which will determine how the momentous developments of August 15 mark a genuinely new chapter, an end of an era of 42-years of constant conflicts since 1979, or a reversion to the past, where cleavages and confrontation made Afghanistan a ‘playground’ of the variations of the ‘Great Game’.
First, this is the biggest trial for the Afghan Taliban, how they handle challenges like Reconciliation at home which will lead to Recognition abroad, resulting in Reconstruction funded by the friends of Afghanistan who would seek enduring stability for it and the region. Pakistan can help such a Consortium for Reconstruction, including the Western countries, primarily the European Union.
Second, the manner in which the Afghan Taliban handle the 12,000 plus foreign terrorists on Afghanistan’s soil, like the anti-Pakistan TTP, the anti-China ETIM, the anti-Iran Jaishul Adl, the anti-Uzbekistan IMU, the anti-Russia Chechens and the anti-West Al Qaeda and ISIS. This is the bottom line on which future ties of the Afghan Taliban with its immediate neighbourhood will be determined. Since there’s a regional consensus on this issue, Kabul will find a receptive response from neighbours in fashioning an effective counter-terror strategy to eliminate this scourge from their soil.
Third, with the retrenchment of American military power, the region is seeing a two-fold historic transition, from military might to economic connectivity, and from US hegemony to a China-influenced region that is being knit together by the roads, railways, pipelines, economy, and energy projects of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). It’s almost as if there’s a handover of the region from the Americans to the Chinese, as China can be the main beneficiary to fill the ‘power vacuum’.
In the last 100 years, two such ‘handovers’ of power are noteworthy: the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War II, resulted in the Sykes-Picot (foreign ministers of UK and France) carving up of the Middle East, and the emergence of British-French colonial control in place of Turkey. And then post World War II, the ‘handing over’ of the Middle East and Muslim World by Britain to the United States, which was then basking in the ‘American Century’. Interestingly, this is the first such ‘handover’ in 100 years where the ‘transfer’ of power and influence is not within the West, but from a declining West to the rising East, to a non-Western conglomerate of countries belonging to the region. The shift in the global balance of economic and political power is now obvious.
Already a new ‘Crescent of Connectivity’ is in the making through ‘PIA’, Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan, supported by China and woven together through the BRI. The Afghan Taliban have already announced that “China is our main partner” to provide economic support, humanitarian assistance for Coronavirus Pandemic, mining and other investment. CPEC is also a success story, and the China-Iran 25-year strategic partnership agreement is already in place since March 2021.
The China factor also overwhelms Indian ambitions for regional hegemony, given the ‘shock therapy’ Indian troops received at the hands of China in June 2020, which have resulted in 250,000 Indian Army troops, including a Strike Corps, tied down on the border with China, providing a welcome breather for Pakistan.
The crucial question is whether this tectonic change delivers unity in Afghanistan and peace in the region. Or is it a prelude to a new Great Game? There is nothing inevitable in any process of history, man-made policies or decisions can be reversed or changed.
The influential American writer and columnist, Tom Friedman, in his column in The New York Times on August 23, 2021, mischievously hinted at this possibility. With America gone, Friedman wrote: “Afghanistan then will be a huge problem for its neighbours, particularly Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran. Maybe Biden had that in mind all along.”
The main challenge for the Afghan Taliban and regional stakeholders like Pakistan is to prevent an ‘American problem’ from becoming a ‘regional problem’. In that case, a new chapter will begin with the birth of the ‘Asian Century’ marking the demise of the ‘American Century’, focusing on connectivity and cooperation rather than conflict and confrontation.
Pakistan can be the biggest beneficiary of this change, as it provides ‘strategic space’ to Pakistan and greater leverage in a region, where the two-front situation that Pakistan faced has now been reversed to the detriment of its larger eastern adversary, giving Pakistan greater room to manoeuvre, both regionally and internally. (The writer is Chairman of the Senate Defence Committee).