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Remarks by Avinash Paliwal

Published onNov 15, 2022
Remarks by Avinash Paliwal

I shall focus on the response of the West and of China to Afghanistan.

Over the last year since the fall of the Islamic Republic, we have learned much about Western responses to Afghanistan. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was both a pretty long goodbye and a long expected goodbye. But when it did finally happen, it happened in a very unplanned and rash manner, sacrificing whatever gains had been made over the past two decades.

By the “West”, I mean the European Union, the UK and the United States as well as Australia and Canada. If I had to characterise the broad response to, or feeling about Afghanistan today in those parts of the world, I would describe it first of all in negative terms — as a lack of interest in a conflict which Westerners now understand they cannot resolve. There is an awareness that the West cannot address the domestic fault-lines of Afghanistan, whether religious, sectarian, ethnic, economic or cultural.

There is also a sense of relief in the West about NATO not being tied up in Afghanistan in the way it was for the past two decades, especially given the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the war that is going on there. This sense of relief has been openly voiced by the Biden administration, which is glad to have ended the occupation of Afghanistan in order to be able to shift the US geopolitical focus from South Asia and the Middle East onto Europe. Whether correctly or incorrectly, many in the West now see geopolitics again in a much more post-second-world-war frame. ​​

And third, I think there is a sense of shame. It is important to underscore this. In certain Western academic and policy-making circles, there is an acknowledgement that “look, we did fail and this was not a failure which was meant to be”. In such circles, it is recognised that the failure did not arise only from the way the war was executed — that the whole project was fundamentally mistaken, and that it had been known to be mistaken for a long time. The end, as it occurred, was something that had been long foretold.

These are the three sets of perceptions that drive policy making in the West, so far as Afghanistan goes. The practical effect is that Western governments are now attending mainly to two key aspects of the situation in Afghanistan.

One is counter terrorism. Ambassador Mukhopadhaya, has rightly drawn attention to the various Islamist outfits in Afghanistan which have domestic, regional or even global agendas. Those with global agendas range from Al Qaeda to Islamic State; but even the Taliban themselves have demonstrated that they have a wider regional agenda. If we look at the connections between the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan, then we see not only ideological affinity, but also a lot of battlefield gratitude. When the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, one of the first things they did was to release a lot of TTP figures from the prisons who had been imprisoned by the Islamic Republic. And these TTP figures were either allowed go back to Pakistan or inducted into leadership roles within the Taliban hierarchy in Afghanistan. So the Taliban is a movement which we need to acknowledge has cross border influence inside Pakistan and hence a regional agenda, if not in terms of direct franchises at least in terms of pushing militant political Islam beyond its boundaries without being seen to do so directly. This is something that it is important to keep in mind.

This is where the counterterrorism focus in America but also in the EU and in the United Kingdom comes into sharp relief. American influence in Afghanistan has not ended. Rather, the shape of that influence has changed. The US is now operating in Afghanistan through its over-the-horizon counterterrorism capability, and it is doing so successfully.

One of the great case studies is the targeting of Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri in a compound 3 km away from the periphery of the presidential palace in Kabul. The fact that al-Zawahiri was in Afghanistan was not a surprise for a lot of Afghanistan- watchers. It was known that Al Qaeda was present, and that the Doha agreement was never going to rupture the larger relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Indeed, if anything, Al Qaeda has been deepening its roots in Afghanistan, and the Taliban takeover has actually facilitated that process, expanding the scope for Al Qaeda's ambitions and operations rather than restricting them. But the fact that Al Qaeda was in such a tight embrace with the Haqqani Taliban in particular, was something that took some observers by surprise, given the promises that had been made. The fact that the US was able to carry out the attack so successfully was also a surprise.

One aspect of the al-Zawahiri attack provides a very telling indication about the nature of the Western counter terrorism approach to these evolving situations. This is the very tightly held secrecy about where the drones came from. In one sense, of course, this is merely a tactical issue; but it has huge geopolitical consequence. True, there have been conjectures that the drone may have come from the Gulf states. But I am sceptical about these conjectures, not least because the capability appears to be lacking. The US has bases in the Gulf, and it has drones that can fly far enough to reach Afghanistan, but they would have to pass through turbulent regions including Iranian airspace, which is much more costly to execute in real time than just having a base in Pakistan and carrying out the attacks from there. If, as seems likely, the drone did in fact fly over Pakistani territory, that means we are looking at a very different quality of relationship moving forward between the Americans and Pakistan. The Americans are cultivating Pakistan’s military. This is particularly significant, given Pakistan’s serious domestic troubles, both on the governance front and on the economic front. The Pakistani military top brass does not know how to handle the potent Islamic populism coming from the camp of Imran Khan, which is eroding their power. Consequently, they are trying to diversify and deepen their relationship with the Americans, in the belief that the US will, at the end of the day, want to ensure that there is no serious political dislocation within Pakistan. And the UK has played a very important behind the scenes role in facilitating this dialogue between Pakistan and the US. This explains the recent decision to upgrade Pakistan’s F16s.

This US over-the-horizon counter-terrorism strategy is not, of course, in any way capable of reducing the militancy of Islamist organisations in Afghanistan, or of altering the trend towards radicalization in Afghanistan. However, the regional powers, with American support as well as with their own independent measures, may be able to gain some traction within Afghanistan. The Government of India, for example, has concluded that there is a hope that if they cultivate the right factions within the Taliban, they might at least be able to obtain intelligence enabling them to prevent an attack by the Al Qaeda units based in Afghanistan from happening on the Indian soil. There is reason to suppose that this combination of regional and Western efforts to counter Afghanistan-based terrorism will deepen and will move forward over time.

The second important strategic issue that has emerged out of Western ennui, relief and shame is a new Western rhetorical focus on human rights and women's rights in Afghanistan. The reason for this is, of course, the violent misogyny that we have seen from the Taliban over the past year, with the Kandahar Shura not allowing girls to get educated, despite widespread popular demand among the people of Afghanistan. My reading is that these decisions have been driven by multiple kinds of factional rivalries and factional interests — with the political beneficiaries being not the Kandahar Shura but the Haqqani network, which has acquired a strategic windfall.

Western hostility to the treatment of women by the Taliban has received strong global support. In the United Nations, we have seen big and small countries alike making very strong statements about it. But the unfortunate fact is neither the UN itself nor most of the governments around the world who have engaged in such rhetoric have any very significant leverage over the Taliban that could actually make things happen on the ground. As far as human rights and women's rights are concerned, there is a need for a deeper conversation — a reflection on how improvements can be brought about. The West and others need to consider how the Taliban's behaviour on this seriously fundamental issue can be changed moving forward?

Turning to the question of China’s involvement in Afghanistan, Mukhopadhyay is right to say that China has always been interested in Afghanistan, and perhaps there are more openings for China after the US withdrawal. But China's presence in Afghanistan has always been somewhat conditional. China is there. It's a neighbor. But it has never really known what to make of its influence in Afghanistan. It wanted to participate in the negotiations in 2014, when it became part of the Coordination Group promoting peace talks; but it did nothing in terms of actually influencing the outcome of those negotiations. The whole thing happened in Doha. Equally, China wants to have an oversized infrastructure and economic presence in Afghanistan, and it did acquire rights over the copper mine. But the situation on the ground now is such that it has not been able to do much at all with these rights.

Both former Presidents — Karzai and Ghani — wanted China to use its good offices to bring the Taliban to the table before August 2021. But the Chinese took up a position behind Pakistan, despite evidence being offered by the government of Afghanistan that Pakistan was supporting the Taliban. It was almost as though the political aspects of Chinese foreign policy in Afghanistan had been outsourced to Pakistan. And this was something that was not lost on the Afghans.

Ironically, this failure by the Chinese to back the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan may be one of the reasons why the Taliban are now so wary of banking on Chinese promises of involvement. The Taliban understand that it is not going to be easy for China to establish a model of relationship with Afghanistan similar to that which it has with Pakistan, because of the huge tensions between Afghan and Pakistani nationalisms. This is something that the Chinese have failed to recognise; they have not even started to address the bilateral tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There is one further, counter-intuitive point. Although it looks at first sight as if the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has opened space for China to enter Afghanistan, I believe that the Chinese would actually have found it much easier to enter Afghanistan in earnest, economically or otherwise, during the American presence. Actually, that was a much more stable period, despite all the incidents — and hence a period in which it would have been more straightforward for the Chinese to enter and to see through the exit of the Americans. But the Chinese did not have the confidence to do that.

It is the dislocation of Russian power in Central Asia that really opens up space for the Chinese. The conflicts now springing up between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, provide a clear sign that Moscow has lost its ability to act as the arbiter of conflicts in what it considers to be its strategic backyard. And that really gives Chinese the space to influence the politics moving forward if they really want to do that. If they first occupy that space and then come into Afghanistan, they might begin to make a serious impact. In this context, we need to keep a careful watch on the Tajik and Panjshir resistance to the Taliban. There are sparks of armed, organized resistance in northern sectors of the country which are traditional pockets of resistance. And at present, France is playing the role of trying to bring together some of these resistance groups, doing some of the shuttle diplomacy that India used to do in the 1990s when bringing the Northern Alliance together. But today noone is seriously invested in the resistance as a counterforce to the Taliban. If the Chinese, after pursuing a serious Central Asian strategy and occupying the space vacated by the Russians, were then to enter the political scene in Afghanistan — perhaps not in the next year, but three or four years down the line — that would be something worth keeping an eye on.

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