As US-led NATO forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, General Scott Miller — the United States’ longest-serving military commander in the area — told the BBC that the priority of NATO troops is “the risks to our forces” and “the risks to the future of Afghanistan.” General Miller’s comments come before September 11, 2021, which marks the 20th anniversary of the so-called “war on terror.” He underscored his prediction that Taliban violence would worsen, but that history would have to write the story of Afghanistan.
Former Afghani president Hamid Karzai told BBC World News that the NATO deployment over the past 20 years delivered mixed results. Reconstructing the country’s infrastructure, facilitating education, and helping nation-building all produced positive outcomes for the country and are welcome. However, Karzai emphasized that NATO’s military strategy to fight extremism and terrorism has failed.
In turn, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen responded that any US forces remaining in Afghanistan after September 11, 2021, would violate the Doha agreement and warned that the Taliban would “react” to any continuing international military presence. He called for a complete withdrawal of all international forces from the country.
So, what factors play into how Afghanistan’s history is written? And which players will be involved moving forward?
From a strategic and historical point of view, the war in Afghanistan is significant for many global powers. NATO forces were deployed in Afghanistan primarily to obliterate Al Qaeda which had carried out the 9/11 attacks. So the notion that NATO failed in this military mission is to some extent abhorrent. Although NATO forces had significant success in degrading Al Qaeda in the region and removing its “cephalothorax” in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the remnants of their operatives have dispersed throughout the Arabian Peninsula, reorganizing to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
If present-day ISIS is an offshoot of Al Qaeda, then Al Qaeda itself is an offshoot of the Afghan Mujahideen and the Taliban. Behind the scenes, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan played key roles in creating the Afghan Mujahideen and Taliban to fight the former Soviet Union. What happened in 9/11 and the subsequent global war on terror (GWOT) that began in Afghanistan, followed by the American invasion in Iraq and the conflict in Syria, are therefore interconnected by-products of protracted Cold War–era proxy wars instigated by major powers.
Today, a resurgent Russia competes for influence in Central Asia. On the one hand, it claims at the UN to be “ready to engage in cooperation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)/China, USA, and other international partners, including through the meetings of Troika plus Pakistan to facilitate for the Afghan parties an ‘acceptable-to-all agreement’ that would establish a sustainable peace in the country.” On the other hand, Russian military intelligence is involved in “black-ops” to arm, train, and fund the Taliban to destabilize the US-led NATO presence in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, an increasingly aggressive Beijing cooperates with Moscow, Tehran, and Islamabad to reconnect and revitalize its relations in Afghanistan as well as its ties with the Taliban in particular. China sees the Taliban as an important ally to advance its multi-trillion-dollar mega projects: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Without a stable Afghanistan, Beijing’s anticipated strategy to increase connectivity and trade between Central Asian and Eurasian nations will not become a reality.
But Ameya Pratap Singh argues that the PRC has a legitimate concern regarding the withdrawal since there is a strong possibility of the resurgent Taliban potentially linking up with the East Turkestan Movement and providing safe haven to Uighyur Muslims. Nilofar Sakhi notes that Beijing and Moscow are hoping to subvert Washington’s intentions in Afghanistan. Since “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” China and Russia are “now more aligned than they’ve been since the mid-1950s.”
Alternatively, Iran continues to provide crucial economic, military and political support to proxy militants — especially the Afghan Taliban — all in the name of regional stability and, to some extent, counterterrorism. Although Tehran does not want an ideologically Sunni Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in its backyard, it does recognize the Taliban in order to gain political leverage in the region and beyond. Tehran has just hosted a meeting between Afghan, Taliban, and Iranian Foreign Ministry officials. With this meeting in its capital, Iran has demonstrated its commitment to being a major power in Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, the US-led NATO needs to strengthen partnerships with newfound regional allies such as India to have a sphere of influence over other regional rivals. Such an Indo-American partnership depends on India, Russia, and China: on India if it wishes to move into the American orbit, on Russia if it wishes to maintain its 50-year friendship, and on China if it plays a more proactive role in Afghanistan. In all likelihood, India will once again balance its relationships between the US and Russia but will work to counter China’s moves. Recently, India has found it difficult to gain influence in Afghanistan since the PRC provides massive foreign aid, development assistance, and political support to Kabul.
India has always believed that it is a vital military and economic power. The withdrawal of almost all US and NATO forces from Afghanistan will create a power vacuum that China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan will most certainly exploit. This Beijing–Moscow–Tehran–Islamabad axis would impact New Delhi, thus India must continue to engage the Taliban in Doha.
India has already deviated from its previous policy of disengagement with the “Taliban, and its security officials had discussions in Doha, Qatar, with Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as being ‘nationalist’ or outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran.” Despite India’s lengthy involvement, it has never had a dedicated policy for Afghanistan. Most powers would not have considered an American and NATO withdrawal in 2021. Only now that it stands alone is India interested in speaking with the Taliban. Sameer Patil has told the authors that “India will make sure that it remains a player in the Afghan reconciliation process because that is the only way for it to neutralise the activities of other adversarial players like China and Pakistan and prevent both from joining hands with like-minded countries like Russia and Iran.” Both Russia and Iran provided support to non-Taliban factions whereas Turkey aligned more with the Taliban.
For Pakistan, Afghanistan has always served as strategic depth against India in both offensive and defensive postures. Offensively, Afghanistan is Pakistan’s staging ground, with established training and logistics bases just over the border. Defensively, Pakistan could retreat to Afghanistan if Indian ground forces successfully crossed the Indo-Pakistan border, also known as the Line of Control (LoC). As in 1989 when the Soviets left Afghanistan, India once again faces incursions over the LoC. Except this time, without US-led NATO forces in the neighbourhood. Pakistan’s foreign intelligence agency — Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) — will, for a second time, direct Taliban’s hardcore Islamist, trigger-happy leaders and factions towards Kashmir to infiltrate and attack Indian territory. This had been Pakistan’s primary element in its “make India bleed from a thousand cuts” policy, but since India’s counter-infiltration grid has been enhanced over the last decade, the primary element might be drones.
Despite the current military, political and diplomatic stalemate, the United States, Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan remain critical players in all negotiation settlements regarding the conflict in Afghanistan. Therefore, any significant change in this conflict will only be achieved when these sovereignties intervene solely on their legal and moral responsibility to protect, rather than advancing on motives of national interests, hegemonic culture, or selective bias.
As the departing lead power in Afghanistan, the US must involve and include these global powers in the Doha peace process to discuss their concerns with Afghan political factions. Only when all national stakeholders engage in fruitful dialogue can a government be made functional. The Taliban is actually a ‘Lernean hydra’: cut off one of the innumerable heads, and two more will immediately replace it. Since the profit motive primarily drives the Taliban, the US needs to dominate its “proxy-masters” instead of the proxy itself to attain peace in Afghanistan. It will most certainly need its allies to do so.
Featured image: NATO in Afghanistan
Siddhant Hira is an incoming 2021 National Security Studies Masters student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He writes and researches on the intersection of Special Operations Forces, Intelligence, International Security, and Foreign Policy — especially in the Indian context — and on Sino-Indian relations. Siddhant can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kagusthan Ariaratnam is a defense analyst and consultant with over 25 years of experience. He currently works as a research analyst at Project O Five. Kagusthan can be reached by email at email@example.com