Having been forcibly dislodged from power in 2001, following the American invasion of Afghanistan, no one had expected that Taliban fighters would return to power two decades later.
In this stunning reversal of their political fortunes, the Taliban have achieved the unique distinction of defeating US trained Afghan forces of 300,000 on which the Americans spent nearly $100 billion over the past twenty years.
Now that the Taliban militants have gained complete control of power in Afghanistan and there does not seem to be any strong resistance to their return to power, it is worth pondering over the implications of this dramatic development.
While the Americans and their NATO allies are too busy debating who “lost Afghanistan”, and too focused on finding ways to evacuate thousand of their stranded citizens from Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, this abrupt change of guard in Kabul has caused diplomatic tremors in the region.
It has upset the applecart of prevailing assumptions about regional power configuration.
First of all, Washington and its allies were counting on the orderly and smooth withdrawal of their military presence from Afghanistan following the Doha peace agreement signed between Washington and the Taliban in February 2000.
The flawed assumption behind this thinking was that the Afghan National Army would hold the country together by fending off the Taliban spring offensive till fall 2021 when the U.S and Nato forces would safely exit the country. But it was not to be. It was in April 2021, when the Biden Administration announced that all American forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before September 2021. Faced with the specter of American withdrawal, the Ashraf Ghani government lost all hope of saving the country on its own.
Much to the surprise of all, the Afghan Army literally collapsed like a house of cards and its soldiers either sued for peace or deserted their posts. It is worth noting, the Taliban fighters took their first provincial capital on August 6 and within two weeks they were at the gates of Kabul. They encountered little military resistance from foot soldiers of the Afghan Army whose Command-and-Control structure had been heavily compromised by “systemic corruption”, “frequent transfers and postings,” “demoralization” and “lack of collective political will” to fight for their country.
These weaknesses were compounded by lack of direction and coordination at all levels. The Afghan Army could have carried out its professional responsibilities were it not for the fact that they did not have the advantage of the support of the “air cover” that the American had promised them.
The second assumption was that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will not turn out to be such a weak reed and he will display some spine in cutting a better deal with the advancing Taliban forces.
Instead, he chose to flee the country when the moment of reckoning arrived. His flight to political oblivion has come as a huge disappointment to his regional allies like India.
New Delhi feels that Taliban’s second advent to power has shifted the regional balance of power in favour of Islamabad.
For Islamabad, Taliban’s return to power is a very positive development as a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan leaves no space for India to continue to use Afghanistan as a springboard for anti-Pakistan activities.
With the downfall of Ashraf Ghani’s malevolent regime from power and it being replaced with a Taliban-led dispensation with a friendly disposition toward Islamabad, Pakistan has broken free of a nutcracker situation in which it had found itself for so many years. This development should be a sigh of relief for security planners of Pakistan.
Of course, there is a downside to this development also. Religious extremism in Pakistan might get a fillip from a Taliban-dominated regime in Afghanistan especially if this regime tries to follow its previous rule in Afghanistan.
However, there are unmistakable early signs that suggest that Taliban seem to have learnt their lessons and they are not likely to repeat their past mistakes that had made them the “pariah” regime.
Beside reaching out to the international community, the new Taliban regime has made promises that they would respect human rights, promote girls’ education, and would seek protection for the rights of the minorities. One may argue that the Taliban are making these pronouncements to win international support, to gain international legitimacy, and to overcome their formidable financial difficulties to govern the country that has empty coffers. Washington’s decision to deny the new regime access to 9.5 billion dollars placed in American banks is only going to aggravate this dire financial predicament.
It is in this context that Beijing’s role as a source of loans and investment becomes crucial. Because of its longstanding interest in Afghanistan’s multi-trillion-dollar mineral wealth especially its huge copper reserves, Beijing would be more than happy to become a source of foreign funding to Afghanistan provided Kabul does not try to export its brand of Islam to volatile Xinjiang province of China.
In a July 2021 meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the Taliban leaders held out assurances to their hosts that on coming to power, they would not support ETIM and would not lend support to forces of “separatism, extremism and fundamentalism.”
Unlike Moscow that designated Taliban as a “terrorist” group in 2003, Beijing has viewed them as a legitimate political force and supports their right to rule over Afghanistan. If Islamabad and Beijing can work together to urge moderation on the part of new Taliban and to take advantage of Taliban’s return to power by using it as a natural bridge to gain access to Central Asia, that would open a new chapter for regional cooperation, peace and development. The biggest American strategic failure in Afghanistan has been that it wasted trillions of dollars on a war which it failed to win and had to withdraw in ignominy.
The writer is a political scientist and defense analyst.