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Emerging disruptions and emerging shifts: Afghanistan, China, and South Asia

Published onNov 15, 2022
Emerging disruptions and emerging shifts: Afghanistan, China, and South Asia

The key question thrown up by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is whether it is a defining moment for India and Pakistan, South Asia as a whole, Central Asia, and the world, and if so, how and why.

The short answer to that is that from the point of view of stability and security, it is likely to be more defining and destabilising for Pakistan and Central Asia, and strategically, for the US and West, than South Asia on the whole; and while it could have a negative impact on radicalisation in South Asia too, that likelihood is still a bit remote. Islamic radicalisation, if it happens, is more likely to happen due to internal factors rather than the Taliban victory.

Pakistan and Central Asia

It will be defining for Pakistan in several ways in the short and long term. Pakistan initially perceived the Taliban takeover last year as a victory and vindication of its strategic support for the Taliban for the last 30 years, an opportunity to exercise tutelage over Afghanistan through the Taliban once again, and to reorient Afghanistan away from India, its historic tramping ground, with the help of China using ‘geo-economics’ (a thinly disguised economic term for ‘strategic depth’).

However, there are a number of signs that its initial triumphalism is now being tempered by concern that the Taliban may not be as amenable to their control as it was hitherto, and may be fracturing, slipping away and rebounding against it, just as it did with the Mujahideen in the 1990s.

This is apparent in publicly aired differences at the level of local commanders and intermediate leadership over the fencing of the Durand Line, cross-Durand Line movement, trade issues (including trade a desire to use Chahbahar as an alternative trade route to Pakistan), and the TTP presence in Afghanistan so far papered over by the top Taliban leadership; and the blowback that Pakistan is already facing within Pakistan from TTP Pashtun radicalism.

But its potential long term effects could be profoundly destabilising for the region, especially Pakistan and Central Asia, in terms of Islamic radicalism and ethnic conflict. It could draw in neighbouring countries, raising the spectre of regional conflict and even a possible redrawing of national boundaries of Afghanistan along ethnic lines in case Taliban persecution and ethnic cleansing of non-Pashtuns especially Tajiks and Hazaras in areas like Panjsher, Uruzgan, Takhar and elsewhere get out of hand and provoke a desperate reaction. If so, it could also provoke Pashtun consolidation across the Durand Line.

Islamic radicalism is already threatening Afghanistan and the region in a multitude of ways. It has divided Afghanistan along Taliban-non-Taliban lines and alienated and excluded non-Pashtuns and minorities in general. It has deprived women of all the rights and gains they had made under the Islamic Republic, and virtually silenced and erased them from public life. It is straining the Taliban along conservative, relatively pragmatic, and radical lines manifest on the issue of the status of women in Islamic society and girls education.

Taking advantage of current divisions and instability, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K), that had been under pressure prior to the Taliban takeover, has become more active, strengthening Salafist trends over the Taliban’s Hanafi affiliation. IS-K violence against Hazaras continues, and now is turning onto the Taliban as well. The Al Qaeda remains a threat as made amply clear by the presence of Ayman Al Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul ostensibly under Haqqani protection. Pakistan’s suspected role in his targeting could not be lost on the Taliban including the Haqqanis.

Less visible but more ominous in the long run, are the multitude of kindred extremist outfits (some thirty plus, mostly Sunni) with ethnic, regional and sectarian agendas, including the Pakistani TTP, the India-focused LeT, JeM and others, the Tajik-based Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Ansarullah, the Xinjiang oriented East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and anti-Shia outfits based in Pakistan, who have been emboldened by the Taliban victory and are now poised to make their own moves in Central and South Asia from Afghanistan. Although the Taliban have projected an image of being disinterested in promoting Talibanism outside Afghanistan, Pashtun codes of conduct and radical Islamist kinship and solidarity, make any crackdown or restraints on them highly unlikely.

The Taliban’s Pashtun-centric Islamic radicalism, is also fanning ethnic animosities. The Taliban phenomenon is perceived among the Tajiks of both Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Hazaras and Uzbek majority, to be a profoundly Pashtun phenomenon although the Taliban has made inroads amongst them to a lesser or greater degree. The armed resistance to it is also around ethnic lines. The non-Pashtuns do not share the Taliban ideology.

Neither do the majority of the Pashtuns. But the opposition to the Taliban amongst Afghan Pashtuns is softened by shared tribal customs, traditions and loyalties that are not felt by non-Pashtuns, and some satisfaction in the restoration of Pashtun primacy in the Afghan polity since the Durranis came to power in the 18th century that the post-Bonn Islamic Republic was seen to have upset. Opposition has taken the form of calls for dialogue and reform or peaceful protests, but not armed resistance.

In the long run, therefore one cannot rule out conflict along ethnic fault-lines, principally Tajik-Pashtun but also Pashtun-non-Pashtun drawing in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, leading to the possible de facto break-up of Afghanistan. In a way, it would be a reversion to the pre-Durani contest over Afghanistan by Central Asian Turks, Iran and the Pashtuns, the last drawing ‘strategic depth’ from the sub-continent.

If that happens, the blowback on Pakistan will not be limited to TTP radicalism alone. It could result in Pashtun consolidation across the Durand Line, split Pashtuns between the militant Islamist TTP and the pacifist, anti-Pak Army, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), inflame Baluch nationalism and pose a huge challenge to Pakistan itself as a country. It is difficult to predict how these multiple challenges will end, and but with the support of the Army and middle class, Punjab and Sindh should hold.

India

As far as India is concerned, the Indian government feels that it can manage the fall out by dealing with the Taliban pragmatically without officially recognising it, exploring how it can score political points against Pakistan through the Taliban, containing the spillover from Afghanistan and Pakistan by reinforcing its borders and internal security, preventing the travel and movement of Afghans to India, and watching and waiting for the Afghan resistance to take shape.

Despite its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and possible development projects that the Taliban are seeking continuation of, the restrictive visa policy towards Afghans together with its dealing with the hated Taliban could however badly affect India’s political capital in Afghanistan particularly in opposition quarters.

Another spoiler could be periodic reports of LeT and JeM presence in Afghanistan that the Taliban are playing down, but are more than likely.

If however, Taliban radicalism does spill over into the Pakistani heartland, it could pose a serious challenge to India too.

Geo-political: Failure of Democracy

Its geo-political fall out could be politically more profound in the longer term. There are at least two ways in which it will be so.

Afghanistan is not the first place in Asia and elsewhere where democracy has suffered a reverse: it has taken place in Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar and Afghanistan. These may mark a general weakening of Western commitment for democracy in the developing world over security and strategic considerations. But the betrayal of democracy, women’s rights and civil liberties in Afghanistan after 20 years of western tutelage makes Afghanistan different and will be defining for the West.

There is a common view shared among those explaining the US-led failure in Afghanistan (that goes as far as President Obama himself), that Afghanistan is unsuited to western style democracy, blaming either the US for imposing it on Afghanistan, and Afghan failures in adopting it. Both these views are questionable. First, it false to argue that the 2004 Constitution on which Afghanistan’s post-Bonn dispensation was based, was an import. It was drafted after intense consultations among all shades of Afghans minus the Taliban, but in the atmosphere of the post 9/11 global war on terror and ouster of the Taliban led by the Northern Alliance backed by CIA special forces, it would have required the greatest statesmanship on the part of both the US-led West and non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan to accommodate them. Such statesmanship was simply not there. Nor would it have guaranteed success.

The 2004 Constitution had its flaws of structure, design and implementation, most of all in the degree of centralisation of power in the office of the President, but it did not fail because it was an import. It failed mainly because of shortcomings in international support for Afghanistan including democracy, and internal factors.

Although the US and NATO spent a lot of money in Afghanistan on what started out as a counter-terrorism mission against Al Qaeda; then changed after lessons learnt in Iraq, to a counter-insurgency movement; and ended as a CT and CI training and support mission, it did little to help Afghanistan develop its political, economic, trade and military capacities and enable it to stand on its own feet. Its commitment to Afghanistan was always limited by its sensitivity and higher priority it attached to Pakistan, a more populous nuclear power that it needed logistically for its mission in Afghanistan and wider regional and geo-political interests. For historical reasons, the UK played a critical role in this right up to the Taliban takeover. It continues to pursue a pro-Pakistan line on Afghanistan even now.

US ‘support’ for democracy was also limited by its early decision to limit its political involvement in Afghanistan to ‘nation-building lite’, and to backroom manipulation and political crisis management when crises manifested itself during and after every election. It did little to support democratic institutions under the 2004 Constitution besides its worthy support for civil society organisations. Over time, unfortunately, these became more associated with western values and alienated from ordinary Afghans. What is remarkable, and a testament to Afghan commitment to democracy, is the extent to which, in tandem with demographic changes in favour of the youth and urbanisation, democratic values including civil liberties, a vibrant and free media and participation of women in public life, took root in just 20 years even as the Taliban stepped up its attacks on the Islamic Republic using terrorist methods with the help of the ISI of Pakistan.

The extraordinary fact is that even in the midst of the negotiations at Doha and President Ghani’s unpopularity, most Afghans remained behind the 2004 Constitution although many wanted it decentralised towards a much more federal and/or parliamentary rather than a Presidential structure. It would not be unfair to suggest that Afghan democracy failed because of a combination of factors: weak international support, the trail of corruption from top to bottom that accompanied an artificial injection of US and NATO funds, the failures of Afghanistan’s leaders and elites, a sense of powerlessness felt by ordinary Afghans over decisions made on their behalf by their own leaders and the international community (felt most keenly as the US embarked on its withdrawal under President Trump and initiated the Doha process) and lack of time for democracy to take firm root. Despite deeply flawed electoral processes and outcomes in 2014 and 2019, even today, the vast majority of Afghans would prefer electoral democracy to Taliban theocracy.

On the economic side, the US was aware of the mineral potential of Afghanistan whose exploitation by them or friendly partners could have earned royalties that would have made Afghanistan less dependent on foreign funding, but did nothing to encourage such investments. Neither did it invest much in connectivity or the livelihood sector such as horticulture, livestock, agri-processing, crafts and cottage industries (like Afghan carpets) that would have raised standards of living and confidence of the Afghans; or promote trading arrangements that could have supported them. Its failure to press Pakistan enough on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA) to open two-way transit to the Wagah border with India, Afghanistan’s largest traditional market, was particularly telling1.

Even in the military and security sector, where the US and NATO spent the largest amount of money spawning a corrosive culture of political patronage and corruption, its security assistance was limited by its narrow CT role for which it raised competent Special Forces who performed creditably so long the US were present, but were hugely stretched as the US withdrew and the Taliban mounted their final offensive, collapsing under parallel political confusion and contradictions. It did not help that the West did not equip Afghanistan in developing a conventional, infantry-based army with the necessary mobility and equipment including guns and artillery, that could have resisted such an invasion.

In the process, in Afghanistan, the US and West have ceded ground to, and even in effect, facilitated the military takeover of Afghanistan by an extremist, Islamic fundamentalist movement backed by Pakistan for its own reasons ranging from military failure and fatigue, to strategic retreat. It will have repercussions in Pakistan and Central Asia through extremist outfits like the TTP, HuT etc. Although the US may continue to monitor and target international terrorist organisations like the Al Qaeda which it regards as its enemies ‘over the horizon’, regional, sectarian and international terrorist groups are all enmeshed and form one family, and cannot really be separated. Any of them could come to haunt the US again.

In a larger sense, taken together with the others, it also marks a ceding of ground to authoritarianism of various stripes: single party dictatorships, military rule, and extreme theocratic rule.

The West’s role in democracy promotion in the developing world has always been problematic clouded by a sense of moral or civilisational superiority and politically motivated interventionism. But faced with a genuine movements for freedom and democracy in all these places, the West has been found wanting. Despite our post-independence record of supporting freedom from colonialism, so have we.

Western academics like Richard Haas and others have already justified this arguing for “prioritising the promotion of order over the promotion of democracy2” in the current world context.

With that the idea that democracy provided a political front line of defence and a moderating influence against authoritarianism and extremism also seems to have been given up. The near intrinsic link between cultural values, political systems and security is being redefined. Even ‘order’ is primarily for the West not the rest of the world. We have seen this in the AUKUS when the US and UK fell back upon their Anglo-Saxon core when it came to their core security interests over a European NATO partner.

That has been salvaged by Ukraine. In Ukraine and Taiwan, the principles of non-aggression and ‘order’ are ostensibly in line with freedom and democracy. In Afghanistan, both democracy and non-aggression were sacrificed. In Myanmar, a non-ideological struggle for freedom from military repression has lip service and some sanctions, but little political or diplomatic support and next to no material assistance. In Hong Kong and Thailand, pro-democracy movements against the Communist Party of China and the Thai military respectively have received media coverage but been suppressed with little protest from the West.

China

The second area where the West has ceded ground in Afghanistan is China. There are four main areas where China has gained the advantage.

First, the US presence in Afghanistan was a double-edged sword for China. On the one hand to the extent that it acted as a lid on the Islamist and separatist threat to China posed by the ETIM, it was welcome. However, although China to welcomed US intervention in Afghanistan against terrorism from Afghanistan post 9/11, its long term presence at its weakest underbelly in Xinjiang was a cause of concern that grew as its rivalry with the US turned serious.

The US withdrawal in that sense removes both the security it provided against Islamic radicalism and Uighur separatism, but also its vulnerability in Xinjiang.

It is possible that the US realised it was in effect providing net security to its rivals in Central Asia: China, Russia, even Iran and Pakistan, and decided to let them handle these threats themselves. But one cannot rule out that the US also deliberately handed Afghanistan over to the Taliban to keep its geo-political and regional rivals off balance.

China hopes to manage the ETIM threat by cultivating the Taliban with the help of Pakistan, but the Taliban cannot give it cast-iron assurances. Nor can China deal with it without dealing with the entire potpourri of extremist outfits present in Afghanistan who are intimately connected. It is in a quandary. It is aware that it might step on a bear-trap set by the West. It also knows that the US is keeping a watch over China ‘over the horizon’ along with its counter-terrorism (CT) role, and now is cultivating Pakistan. On the whole China will be wary.

At the same time, China also sees strategic opportunities for itself with the US withdrawal. Even before the Taliban takeover, the Chinese had stepped up contacts with both the Afghan Taliban and the Ghani government. In 2019, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hurriedly convened a meeting of Himalayan states with Afghanistan for the first time, conspicuously without India with which it had a cooperative relationship until then, in which he offered China-Pakistan ties as a model for Afghanistan, dragging Afghanistan too in its South Asia strategy of competing with India3. For all practical purposes, China placed its fortunes in Afghanistan in the hands of Pakistan, relying on the latter as its eyes and ears in unfamiliar tribal territory, while Pakistan hoped to profit from China’s economic and strategic muscle.

FM Wang Yi is the only Foreign Minister to visit China even though it has not yet recognised the Taliban ‘government’ formally, while the Deputy Prime Minister of the Taliban, Mullah Baradar has visited China officially. However, in view of the murky security and political situation in Afghanistan and Chinese unfamiliarity with Afghanistan, China’s concrete moves in Afghanistan have not been significant as yet.

China sees it as an opportunity to fill up the vacated space for its economic and strategic interests including minerals, rare earths; direct overland links to Iran with which it has a 25 year, US$ 400 bn geo-economic deal focussed on energy with geo-strategic undertones; gain influence in the Arab world at a time when it sees the US outsourcing the latter to Israel and the West Asian ‘Quad’; and perhaps even a continental outlet to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through the Central Asian mountains, across the Pamirs, Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Ladakh ranges.

It cannot be ruled out that one strategic motivation behind China’s Ladakh adventure was to position itself better for this strategic objective besides consolidating territory claimed by it and putting India in its place for its new assertiveness and strategic ties with the US in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere. This suspicion is strengthened by its refusal to negotiate the withdrawal of it forward presence from Depsang and Demchok.

Pakistani efforts at geo-engineering aimed at reorienting Afghanistan away from India to Central Asia with Chinese help, are not likely to succeed. Geography and history cannot be changed as easily as ideological-religious brainwashing. Such a dispensation also cannot be in the Chinese interest. China and India can still turn Afghanistan into an area of cooperation instead of contestation. But for that, China will have to meaningfully loosen its strings to Pakistan over Afghanistan.

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