The instability in Afghanistan is due to the evil designs of the Taliban and other radical terrorist groups, and their external mentors Pakistan and China. It is hoped that Russia will correct its mistake of supporting the Taliban.
New Delhi: The post-Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan is having immense geopolitical consequences for both South and Central Asia, as well as for the global community. The existing impasse in Afghanistan raises certain hypothetical questions. These are:
A) Whether the United States and Nato allies’ withdrawal will be a temporary phenomenon.
B) Will Russia get an upper hand in Afghan geopolitics looking at its pro-active engagement with its newfound ally, the Taliban?
C) What kind of a role China and Pakistan, known for destabilising Afghanistan by supporting radical and terrorist groups for years, will play in the foreseeable future?
D) How will Iran respond if a radical Sunni Taliban take over power in Afghanistan?
E) To what extent will Central Asian countries play a role in bringing peace in Afghanistan as any political turbulence in this country will have a major impact on this adjoining region?
F) Finally, how will India respond to the developments taking place in Afghanistan domestically and regionally?
For the past 20 years, US and Nato forces took steps to bring normalcy to Afghanistan, but in vain. Though there was an implicit understanding between the US and Russia in the beginning to restore normalcy in Afghanistan, both took different approaches towards this goal. Moscow is now cultivating the Taliban to achieve its own geopolitical goals. Though US and Nato troops started withdrawing from Afghanistan but there are reports to suggest that the United States is looking towards having bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to keep an eye on Afghanistan. Strategic analysts are of the opinion that both Tashkent and Dushanbe can emerge as frontline allies for US moves in Afghanistan. If this report is correct, then it may certainly create a new geopolitical competition between Russia and the West led by the US.
The Joe Biden administration is vehemently defending the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden emphasised on 8 July 2021 that “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build. And it’s the right and the responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” At the same time, Washington as part of its larger grand strategy in Asia does not want to lose its clout in Afghanistan. This is more so in the context of Washington’s strategic goal to contain China and also due to its own geopolitical move in Indo-Pacific.
Coming to Russia’s future role in Afghanistan, Moscow is not pursuing a coherent foreign policy on Afghanistan. By inviting the Taliban to the Moscow peace process in March 2021, Russia embraced its former strategic foe. Russia’s move will actually take a reverse gear in the longer run in Afghanistan if Moscow follows its present strategy of appeasing the Taliban and blaming the democratically elected Ashraf Ghani government. Kremlin should understand that Taliban is not a reliable partner to ensure peace in Afghanistan. However, Moscow has beefed up its military presence in Tajikistan to contain the impact of Afghan violence.
The irony is that Russia also is depending too much on Pakistan and China in addressing the present stalemate in Afghanistan. And this despite the fact that both Islamabad and Beijing are playing a nefarious and destabilising role in Afghanistan by supporting and patronising terrorist groups such as the Taliban and ISKP among others. In fact, the Ashraf Ghani government has accused Pakistan of providing overt and covert support to the Taliban, ISKP and other radical groups. Pakistan is doing so as part of its policy of achieving “strategic depth” in Central Asia through Afghanistan. On the other hand, China is supporting the Taliban to achieve its geoeconomics goal of BRI, which is passing through Afghanistan. Also, Beijing wants to enlist the necessary support from Taliban so that it can perpetuate further atrocities on its Uyghur population. The Taliban never condemned Chinese atrocities on its Uyghur population. The recent visit by Taliban delegates to Beijing is proof of this fact.
Turkey and Iran too have their geopolitical ambitions in Afghanistan. However, a Shia Iran does not want a radical Taliban, who are Sunnis, to take over Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran wants to end its geopolitical isolation by holding negotiations with the US on the nuclear question. One can see a larger role for Iran in Afghanistan in future. Turkey too is taking a keen interest in Afghan politics and wants to station its troops to protect Kabul airport. However, under the Erdogan regime, Ankara has a history of patronising Islamist radical terror groups, which puts Turkey on the backfoot.
In this regard, one can envisage a positive role by Central Asian countries particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan who share borders with Afghanistan. Though these three countries are Russia’s frontline strategic partners, they are bearing the brunt of the problem including large-scale exodus of refugees from the northern part of Afghanistan. One additional incentive for Central Asian countries is that through a stable Afghanistan they can participate in the Chahbahar project developed by India in Iran. Already, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan have shown an interest to participate in the Chahbahar project.
Following the post-Nato withdrawal from Afghanistan, the situation is becoming more complex and also providing challenges to India. Over the years India has been playing a key role in the developmental activities of Afghanistan and has earned the goodwill of the Afghan people. The completion of the Salma dam on Hari river and the initiation of MOU for the construction of the Shahtoot dam are noteworthy in this regard. Similarly, India is also providing humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in a number of spheres. The latest being the supply of Covid-19 vaccines. It may be highlighted here that External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, during his visit to Moscow in July 2021, underlined “a political solution should mean an independent, sovereign, united and democratic Afghanistan”. Similarly, in his address to SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting at Dushanbe and in the plenary session on “Central and South Asia: Connectivity” at Tashkent in July 2021, Jaishankar spelled out India’s approach to resolve the Afghan crisis through democratic dialogue and development.
The quintessence of India’s approach to Afghanistan—as articulated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during an interaction with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in a virtual summit on 9 February 2021, is: “India has been supporting a peace process that is led by Afghanistan, owned by Afghanistan, and under Afghanistan’s control.”
Afghanistan’s political scenario is changing, so also its ramifications on the geopolitics of regional and international security. There is a need for both the US and Russia to arrive at a common platform to resolve the present crisis in Afghanistan despite their differences on many bilateral and global issues. Russia’s engagement with Taliban to resolve the Afghan crisis is a dangerous move. There is a need to isolate both Pakistan and China from the Afghan peace process for their nefarious role, which is contributing to the present stalemate in Afghanistan. Similarly, Iran can be a useful partner in the fight against the radical Taliban. Hopefully, both Teheran and Washington will be able to minimise their differences because of the Afghan situation. In this context, India can certainly play a major role in bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Nalin Kumar Mohapatra teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org