The Afghan chessboard is up for grabs again. The unseemly exit of the Americans from Bagram airbase last week, the linchpin of the US operations these past 20 years, is an eerie remembrance of things past — especially when Soviet troops cut and ran in 1989 and the US quickly lost interest.
Certainly, the ‘graveyard of empires’ cliché holds true for Afghanistan; although it hasn’t prevented every neighbour and major power today from sharpening their gambit to play a new round on the ashes of the old great game. That’s another cliché that still holds true for Afghanistan.
Russia, China and Pakistan move in
There are the Russians, obsequiously flirting with the Taliban by inviting them to regular meetings in Moscow. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was in Pakistan recently to mend fences with Afghanistan’s neighbour that wields enormous influence with the Taliban; its special envoy, Zamir Kabulov, it’s clear, has developed a close intimacy with them.
There’s China, Afghanistan’s large neighbour in the east, bordering Badakhshan and Xinjiang provinces. In its see-saw battle with Afghan forces, the Taliban took Badakhshan, then lost, but there’s not been a peep out of Beijing. According to Fudan University’s Zhang Jiadong, writing in Global Times, China has the ability to get involved in Afghanistan’s affairs without getting entangled in it.
Perhaps China’s confidence stems from the fact that its Pakistan-based diplomats have been in talks with the Taliban at least since September 2020, offering to build highways connecting big cities in Afghanistan to the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that ends in Gwadar port on the Arabian sea, spurring both peace and commerce.
Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has returned the compliment. China is a friend, he has said, inviting it to invest in Afghanistan, pointing out the Taliban controls 85 per cent of Afghan territory. Shaheen has also promised that they won’t allow any Uyghur Islamic militants into Afghanistan.
Certainly, Pakistan’s importance for Afghanistan cannot be emphasised enough. From hosting Osama bin Laden (in whose search the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place) to brokering relationships with the big powers (US, China, Russia) to militarily advising and arming the Taliban, to cutting off ties with Afghan leaders it doesn’t like (like National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, who called the ISI a ‘brothel house’), to trying to veto affections it doesn’t approve of (like, India) — Pakistan’s position on the Afghan chessboard is so powerful that it influences every move everyone else makes.
So these past 20 years, Pakistan’s military establishment has waited in the wings while the Americans exhausted themselves and finally ran out of both energy and money; for Russia to ingratiate itself so that the military establishment in Rawalpindi can use its good offices with the Taliban to control the influx of militancy into Central Asia and the Caucasus; for Shia Iran to be shown its place by the Sunni Taliban – the Islam Qala border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan was shut down by the Taliban this weekend, thereby depriving the Afghan government of a large source of revenue; and for India to stop preening that it has been a big aid donor (about $3 billion at last count) and therefore should have a say.
Also read: Why Iran won’t smile for long about Taliban becoming new neighbour in Afghanistan
Players moving in
So, as the Americans flee, several dual citizen Afghans rush to buy plane tickets back home to the US, UK & other pleasanter capitals, and India shuts down its consulate in Kandahar, four things are clear.
First, the US has had more than enough. Second, the Chinese and Russians have cut deals with the Taliban, with a little help from Rawalpindi. Third, Pakistan is the most important player in Afghanistan today.
And fourth, the first shades of a new Iran-India tie may be in the offing, if the meeting between Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar is any indication.
India will send a senior Cabinet minister to participate in Raisi’s swearing-in on 5 August. Chabahar port on the Persian Gulf, languishing from Indian disinterest for several years, was discussed in the Jaishankar-Raisi meeting and is back on the agenda; none other than Jaishankar is expected to push it to the top when he participates in the Connectivity Summit in Tashkent on 15-16 July, where several Central Asian leaders, besides the foreign ministers of China and Pakistan will be present.
If India and Iran, with a little help from Joe Biden’s America, were, indeed, to seriously follow through on the idea to build an India-Chabahar-Afghanistan axis – they may even be able to provide an alternative to China’s intention of making Afghanistan an extension of CPEC.
The shortest route to the sea, whether to extract minerals—which Afghanistan is rich in—or to connect with Central Asia, is through Iran at Chabahar. But China is positioning Gwadar as the shortest alternative by promising to build a Kabul-Peshawar highway and linking it to CPEC.
Perhaps the Chinese are presuming too much and could receive their comeuppance. The Taliban may control 85 per cent of the country, but they haven’t won any of its major cities, leave alone Kabul. It’s unlikely the world will let Kabul fall again – like they did in 1996, when the Taliban dragged Afghan president Najibullah out of the UN compound in the capital, disemboweled him, and hanged him from the nearest lamppost – and let the Taliban take over.
In any case, the Chinese dream seems to come with conditions attached – a Chinese espionage network to hunt down Uyghur separatists was built with the help of the anti-India Haqqani Network, while little to no work has taken place on the 30-year lease to Afghanistan’s enormous copper deposits in Mes Aynak mine.
Some irony must find mention here: Soon after the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, US energy company Unocal tried to build an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan, advised by America’s South Asia hand Robin Raphel; seems she had gotten the Taliban on board on the promise of riches that would flow in as the oil flowed out. That project never took off. The Chinese are now looking at replicating that idea, on the strength of the yuan.
Also read: At UNSC, India exempted Taliban leaders from travel ban to stay relevant in Afghan crisis
New emperor in Kabul?
How the world has changed. India’s fast friendship with the former Soviet Union –whose break-up in no small measure was aggravated by its humiliating exit from Afghanistan – has been replaced by camaraderie with the US, although that equation has its limits. Russia and China are fencing for influence, neither of them entirely sure how things will turn out – and banking on Pakistan for a foot into the Taliban door. Meanwhile, India and Iran are restarting to woo each other, after a long hiatus of bitterness, although the intensity of the potential attraction remains nebulous.
As for the Afghans themselves, they watch and wait for the sky to darken and the fight to start. Will the Taliban be the new emperors of Kabul? Are the Afghans willing to jeopardise all the gains of the last 20 years? Not if they can help it. And definitely not if their friends can help them in this fight for their lives and future.
The author is a consulting editor. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.