Taliban’s Cakewalk to Kabul and the New Strategic Geography

Reports have emerged that a United States Department of State cable warned the US administration of a swift fall of Kabul. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has also been apprising Washington of the Afghan forces’ inability to hold the country against the Taliban, but President Biden ordered a withdrawal in haste anyway. In another news, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has declared Taliban as more “clear-headed” than the past and called for the breaking of stereotypes.

It is in the context of the “New Cold-War” narrative that such news became more important. There exists a belief that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is part of the US’ intelligent design to leave behind a belligerent body in power which could pose threats to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This narrative is supported by the fact that the Doha Peace Talks emboldened Taliban, excluding Ashraf Ghani’s government from the process.

The plausibility of this narrative is a subject of contestation. There are a few reasons why the future of the region’s geo-politics should not be entirely imagined around it. First, this narrative de-emphasizes the US’ failures, asserting that its most embarrassing withdrawal is somehow its smart strategy; Second; it overlooks the active agency of the Taliban that is going to be involved in its interaction with the world; and third, it fails to see the prospects for Afghanistan’s ethnic warlordism of becoming a US proxy instead of Taliban.

With the new security formations emerging along the Tajik frontier, the Taliban will be pushed closer to China – a power that pledges to recognize its sovereignty without imposing values – a power interested in plain commerce.

As Amrullah Saleh has announced his caretaker presidency from Panjshir – a historical stronghold of the Northern Alliance, the Tajik militancy has shown signs of resurgence in the northern provinces. This will make the situation in the country’s north hostile for Taliban. Besides, not having been on exemplary terms with Taliban, Tajikistan has given mixed signals. Its foremost fear would be the spilling of the Taliban ideology through its borders. The country has previously supported Burhanuddin Rabbani-led Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s. It also supported the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.  Interestingly, the Afghan ambassador to Dushanbe displayed a garlanded photo of Saleh as his rightful president, after demanding an Interpol-arrest of the renegade President Ghani.

Such a scenario creates a challenge for the Taliban on the 1300 km long border with Tajikistan. The Northern Alliance militancy will try to capitalise on this situation by trying to revive its close partnership with the West. It has been supported by the US in the past and exercises influence in the northern provinces. The US could use the Alliance to keep Northern Afghanistan unstable by pouring in proxy support through Tajikistan whose importance has skyrocketed right after the fall of Kabul.

The Taliban, however, has come back in power with a keen interest in their soft image and a diplomatic impulse. Like any government, they will be looking for the best deal which surely the US cannot offer at the moment. With the new security formations emerging along the Tajik frontier, the Taliban will be pushed closer to China – a power that pledges to recognize its sovereignty without imposing values – a power interested in plain commerce.

China has shown great restraint from interfering with the domestic realities of its partner-borrower countries. Although it does uphold the ideals of human rights and good governance discursively, but it also makes sure that development assistance and trade partnerships do not meddle with anyone’s internal affairs.

One of the advantages that China will get by getting closer to the Taliban is the insulation of its Uyghur problem from the region’s politics. To keep the Taliban disinterested in Xinjiang and influences of political Islam outside its borders, it will treat the Tajik problem as Afghanistan’s internal issue which could make both the governments collaborate against the Northern Alliance on different levels.

As much as the Taliban presence in Kabul exasperates the international civil society, there can be no denying the fact that the outfit is going to remain in power in Afghanistan and the world must deal carefully with it.

Even though the US’ involvement in new proxy warfare in Afghanistan is foreseeable, it will be hard to run this partnership in the old fashion. As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has struggled to stay integrated since the end of the Cold War, now is its lowest moment. The NATO nations are struggling to share the threat perception of Washington. Germany’s refusal to send its troops back into Afghanistan can be a testament to it.

Therefore, the most likely avenue for the US to sustain its influence in Afghanistan is the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), whereby India and the US could be seen as the most active perpetrators of proxy warfare in Afghanistan. This hostility will be used to disturb the northern Afghan frontier to impede the expansion of the BRI.

As much as the Taliban presence in Kabul exasperates the international civil society, there can be no denying the fact that the outfit is going to remain in power in Afghanistan and the world must deal carefully with it. The urban dissent as shown recently in a few districts, when protestors replaced the Emirate’s flag with the Afghan Republic flag, will be a test of the Taliban’s claims of peace and inclusivity. Too much careless support for any dissent will make it easier for the regime to label the urban agitation foreign-supported and part of the Northern Alliance conspiracy. This could invite fierce crackdown and violence on civilians. A demonstration of this was seen in the Iran protests of December 2017 when Trump’s support was used by Tehran to treat the dissenters with an iron fist.

If the international community wants a stable Afghanistan, it is pertinent to prevent it from becoming a chronic proxy war theatre like in the past. Recognizing Taliban – as the US itself has signaled – will open ways to bring the Taliban into the ambit of the international mainstream politics and keep it concerned about its soft image and human rights. Plus, this is the only way to help create an inclusive government in Afghanistan. The best strategy is to get the new Taliban regime to integrate the dissenting warlords into the power structure. There is no doubt that the Taliban’s rule will be no cakewalk like its conquest of Kabul. The international community should understand this and help the Afghan people more innovatively.

Hamraz Sarwani

Hamraz Ahmad is an Assistant Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research and has a post-graduation in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He tweets @HamrazSarwani

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