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The future of Afghanistan

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, first announced by President Trump, then delayed by President Biden is now an on-again activity.  President Biden, one must guess, wanted to make a big deal out of the withdrawal of the last 2500 US troops from Afghanistan by rescheduling it to September 11th.  What is more important is that in his announcement he provided a harbinger of what comes next.

In announcing the withdrawal, the president said that India, Pakistan, Russia, China, and Turkey have a significant stake in the stable future of Afghanistan and these regional stakeholders should do more to bring peace to this war-torn country.  This was tantamount to asking these countries, all of which have interests in Afghanistan to compete in bringing a peace that they can accept.  His administration also endorsed a Turkish sponsored peace conference, which may be held in September.

Probably the most consequential regional competition for influence in Afghanistan will be the contest between India and Pakistan. India seeks to cultivate Afghanistan as a reliable bulwark against Islamic militants, including Pakistani-backed groups, while Pakistan seeks to counter what it regards as an Indo-Afghan nexus to encircle and weaken it. To put this competition in perspective one must consider that:

  • India and Pakistan pursue mutually exclusive objectives in Afghanistan and leverage sharply different tools to achieve their respective goals. Pakistan utilizes militant groups, including the Afghan Taliban, as strategic proxies, while India places considerable weight on its economic influence among Afghans.
  • India and Pakistan view each other through an adversarial lens.
  • Pakistan is the regional actor with the most influence in Afghanistan owing to its patronage of a resilient Taliban insurgency, though the Pakistan-Taliban relationship is replete with tension. India believes supporting the existing Afghan system best serves its interests. However, India is unlikely to deploy, the military power necessary to generate conditions favorable to its interests.
  • Pakistan may decide to punish India in Afghanistan as an indirect reaction to India’s decision to mainstream the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Russia’s interests in Afghanistan center on ensuring its security and preventing the destabilization of the Afghan-Central Asian border area. Three of the Central Asian countries adjacent to Afghanistan — Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan — are Russian allies within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union.

An additional Russian policy goal is to keep Afghanistan as a neutral state that cannot be used as a launching pad by other powers, especially the United States, against Russia. Afghanistan’s geographic location — already considered by China, India, Iran, and Pakistan as a site for several transport and energy projects in the region — attracts Russia as it seeks to play a major role in Eurasia. Although Russia’s current economic participation in Afghanistan is weak, it does try to ensure its economic interests there.

China recently expressed concern over the US’s decision to withdraw all its troops from Afghanistan by September, saying Washington should accommodate legitimate security concerns of the regional countries to prevent “terrorist forces” from taking advantage of the chaos in the war-torn country. The Chinese also slammed Washington for linking the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan to focus more on the threats posed by China, saying the fight against terrorism is in the common interest of all parties.

A foreign ministry spokesman said:

“The current security situation in Afghanistan is still complex and grim and the problem of terrorism is far from being solved. Foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan should withdraw in a responsible and orderly manner to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan and to avoid terrorist forces from taking advantage of chaos. The US is the biggest external factor affecting the issue of Afghanistan. It must take full responsibility for preserving the outcomes of Afghanistan’s peaceful construction and reconstruction and accommodate legitimate security concerns of the countries in the region,”

In short. the Chinese are concerned that Islamic terrorists will export their terrorism to China.  What actions China will take to prevent this is to be seen.  But the Chinese are not known for a reluctance to act.  Just how is the question.

Turkey has staked claims for the mantle of leadership of the Turkic world stretching from the Black Sea to the steppes of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Simply put, the Turkish role in Afghanistan and Central Asia will challenge its relationship with Russia, which is already under strain in Libya, Syria, Caucasus and potentially in the Black Sea and the Balkans.

Equally, the US hopes to keep Iran off balance regionally by encouraging Turkish revanchism. The Turkish-Iranian rivalry is already palpable in Iraq where Washington hopes to establish NATO as a provider of security. Serious rifts between Turkey and Iran appear also over Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Afghanistan’s future probably figured prominently in the discussions during Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif’s recent 6-day regional tour of Central Asian capitals.

Overall, these geopolitical realignments are taking place as the US intensifies its conflicted relations with China and Russia. But, for Turkey, the intervention in Syria has proved profitable. The Turkish-controlled territories of northern Syria consists of a more than 8,000-square-kilometre area already. The Turks probably have no intentions to vacate its occupation and may even seek to expand it area of control.  The US has supported Turkey in this area.  Of course, it is in Syria where the allegiances are directly in conflict.  The US and Turkey are supporting the Syrian separatists while Iran and Russia are supporting the Assad regime.  Having these players in opposition in Syria may carry over to their positions in Afghanistan.

But attempts at a diplomatic resolution continue.  The United Nations, Turkey and Qatar announced recently that a high-level conference between Afghanistan’s warring sides will take place in Istanbul later this month. The meeting is aimed at accelerating peace negotiations and achieving a political settlement to decades of conflict. Their joint statement said the conference will take place between April 24 and May 4. The three co-conveners said they are “committed to supporting a sovereign, independent and unified Afghanistan.”

The surprise announcement came a day after a Taliban spokesman said the insurgent group would not attend a peace conference that had been tentatively planned to take place in Turkey later next week, putting US efforts for a peace plan in jeopardy.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric, responding to questions about the Taliban announcement, said: “My understanding is that there are still internal deliberations going on within the Taliban. An invitation was extended to them,” he said. “We very much hope to see them participate.”

In the agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration committed to removing the last of its troops from Afghanistan by May 1, but the Afghan government blames the Taliban for rising violence and for not abiding by its provisions.

President Biden’s announcement Wednesday that the withdrawal will be delayed by more than four months has upset the schedule for this conference. The Taliban has balked at reports that American troops would remain after May 1 and has warned of “consequences” if Washington reneged on the deal and the withdrawal timeline. One of the consequences may be reprisals against the remaining US troops.  This would put the Biden administration in a quandary—To respond with punitive military action or pretend the attacks never occurred.  This response would be closely watched by all of the contestants in the Afghanistan competition as being telling on how the US will act in both the above-mentioned negotiations and ALSO in the bigger national conflicts that the administration has confronting it.

Most likely the Taliban will defer on participation in any peace conference until after the US withdrawal is completed.

In spite of the Biden administration spin all is not peace and quiet in Afghanistan.  There are numerous claimants for a say in the future of this landlocked mountainous country.  How will it turn out?

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