Afghanistan: Top Trouble Spot
Afghanistan holds the uniquely dubious distinction of being the only country that has been in the news solely for wrong reasons during the last four decades. Starting with the Soviet occupation of this country in December 1979, the country underwent several convulsions, which threaten to continue into the future as well. The manner in which events have been unravelling within this country during the last few months ever since the withdrawal of troops of United States of America gained momentum conveys the message that this region would retain its position as the top trouble spot of the world for some more years, if not decades, to come.
US troops landed in Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of the bombing of the twin towers of World Trade Centre in New York by terrorists owing allegiance of Al Queda. Retaliatory action from the western world led by Washington was swift as armed forces led by US occupied this country. The government in Kabul led by Taliban was disbanded while its leaders fled, either into the hinterland or to Pakistan. An interim government led by forces and factions opposed to Taliban was formed in Kabul to run the administration. However, the troops stayed behind, ostensibly to assist the administration, but in reality, to protect the administrators from the Taliban.
If the think tanks in US and the western world had expected that the strength of Taliban would deplete during the two decades they were out of power, they were completely mistaken. Taliban continued to mount a low intensity warfare against the government in Kabul on a relentless basis demonstrating that they remained a very potent force. The support they continued to receive from their benefactors in Pakistan was a big factor in ensuring the survival of this organisation. The lack of support to USA amongst the other countries in the immediate neighbourhood, with the sole exception of India, also worked in favour of Taliban. The inability of Afghan society to arrive at any sort of consensus regarding adoption of a democratic system of governance strengthened their case even further. Moreover, the successive administrations propped up by US and western countries were riven by infighting and corruption and soon alienated themselves from large sections of the local population.
The anxiety of USA to get their troops out of Afghanistan within the shortest possible timeframe also contributed towards improving the position of Taliban. Criticism arose within USA about the continuous stationing of their troops in Afghanistan and the huge amounts of money being pumped into that country without any tangible results to show. There was also the issue of waning pubic interest about the happenings in this region after the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2010. Both Barak Obama and Donald Trump promised to end the presence of US forces there and the former even set 2014 as the deadline for doing so. However, this could not be accomplished as Obama administration realised that withdrawal at that juncture would leave Afghanistan in a bigger mess than what it was in 2001. Trump too wanted the forces to be back home during his presidency but realised that this was easier said than done.
The decision of the Trump administration to open negotiations with Taliban boosted the credibility of this organisation and they made the best use of it. Doha conference of February 2020 arrived at a decision regarding withdrawal of US forces within 14 months provided Taliban prevented operations of Al Qaeda within their areas of control and started talks with Afghan government. Taliban did not agree to abjure violence nor did they give any commitment about working with the US supported administration. The fact that attacks on government forces continued without respite even after the said conference stand as proof of the confidence of Taliban and the impunity with which they conduct themselves.
The return of Taliban government in Kabul brings the clock back to precisely the same point where it stopped 20 years ago, when US led troops first entered the country. Taliban has not given anyone reason to believe that they have amended their ways or will try to provide a system of governance that provides equal treatment for all, irrespective of gender or religion. If anything, their past history suggests that they will be even more pumped up after withstanding the might of the US forces. Hence, one can expect a regime fired up by vituperative vengeance, trying to settle past scores, instead of looking forward to the future and letting bygones be bygones.
How will the return of Taliban affect the other countries in the neighbourhood of Afghanistan and the rest of the world? It is not in doubt that Islamabad will be happy to see Taliban back in power in Kabul. However, the same cannot be said about the other two countries- Russia and China- with whom Afghanistan share a common boundary. China will definitely rejoice at seeing US forces leaving from this territory with their tail between their legs. But this joy is likely to be tempered with the anxiety at the possibility of Islamic fundamentalism rearing its head in the Muslim majority Xinjiang province, which is prone to ethnic violence and is located on the border with Afghanistan. There are also reports that Beijing has set their eyes on the huge mineral deposits in Afghanistan. China has invested heavily in their relations with Pakistan and hence will be looking to Islamabad to help them in maximising benefits of US withdrawal while limiting any adverse fallout.
Russia remains an enigma as Moscow has studiously stayed away from taking sides in the ongoing civil war. This could also be on account of having burnt their fingers once in this country during the 1980’s. The impression Moscow gives is that irrespective of who runs the government in Kabul, priority should be for stability. Like China, Russia too have worries about export of fundamentalist forces into Central Asian republics, which could turn out to be happy hunting grounds for those trying to recruit more and more young jehadis.
Effect on India
Which brings one to the question about how these developments could affect India. Though India does not share a physical border with Afghanistan, Delhi had invested heavily into sustaining the US supported regime in Kabul. The close relations between Pakistan and Taliban certainly add to the worries of the Indian diplomatic and military establishments. The out of work jehadis had contributed to worsening of the situation in Kashmir during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and India will not want a repeat of that. It would not be an exaggeration to say that amongst all the countries in South and East Asia, India stands to lose the maximum on account of return of Taliban to power in Kabul.
Finally, the long drawn presence of US troops in Afghanistan and the low intensity war that took placethere on a near continuous basis during the last 20 years have produced a new breed of mercenaries trained in the art of fighting and working in war zones. These “stateless actors” will find themselves at a loose end after the withdrawal of US forces. These new generation “dogs of war” are bereft of any ideology and hence capable of offering their services to any individual or organisation that offers them a decent deal. The price that the rest of the humanity will be forced to pay for the damages inflicted by these legionnaires should be also factored in when determining the true cost of the foolhardy military expeditions undertaken on this country by the super powers of the world.