THE Taliban have upended most calculations. Their lightening reconquest of Afghanistan has pushed the situation, and its stakeholders, into uncharted waters. The magnitude of change could surpass many estimates.
The United States of America is reeling from both the loss of war and loss of face. In the latest issue of the US magazine New Yorker, Robin Wright has penned an article titled ‘Does the great retreat from Afghanistan mark the end of the American era?’ In the piece, she writes: “It’s not just an epic defeat for the United States. The fall of Kabul may serve as a bookend for the era of US global power.”
The cost of the humiliating defeat in the two-decades-long ‘war on terror’ launched by president George Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — a war that for all practical purposes ended the day the Taliban took back control of Kabul and US personnel had to be evacuated from their embassy via helicopters — indeed the cost of this war is more steep than Bush and his successors could have imagined.
The New Yorker article explains: “For the United States, the costs do not end with its withdrawal from either Afghanistan or Iraq. It could cost another two trillion dollars just to pay for the healthcare and disability of veterans from those wars. And those costs may not peak until 2048. America’s longest war will be a lot longer than anyone anticipated two decades ago.”
Pakistan is in a delicately promising position after the relatively peaceful transition of power in Kabul.
President Joe Biden is under fire both from Republicans and many Democrats while he grapples with what is being described as a full-blown foreign policy crisis that may overwhelm his domestic agenda. The two-decade-long debacle, the American fatigue from its ‘forever wars’ and the battering of its perception as a global leader that its allies could rely on — all these factors may lead to a shrinking American role in this region, and perhaps even beyond. The question therefore is, will the defeat in Afghanistan become a game changer for the United States?
Afghanistan is teetering on the edge, again, after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul and the rest of the country. A civil war has been averted but the shape of things to come remains unclear in the absence of a formal government in Kabul. The Taliban are a reality though that few can ignore. Most will not. The Taliban for their part have to be careful not to give the world a reason to isolate them diplomatically and cripple them financially. The worst-case scenario is a continuation of violence and instability that has ravaged Afghanistan for the last five decades. The best-case scenario however is also a possibility given how various factors appear to be gelling together.
In this scenario, the following could take place: (1) Taliban form an inclusive government that includes leaders from the former Northern Alliance who may also have been part of the Ashraf Ghani regime, as well as representatives from all major ethnic groups; (2) this government is accorded recognition by the international community; (3) with all rivals joined in the government, fighting comes to an end and there is finally peace in the country after decades of conflict; (4) international pressure, and need for assistance, moderates the Taliban government to a degree of acceptable normalcy and the country begins to inch towards the global mainstream; (5) China and Russia as the two largest regional powers enhance their diplomatic and economic footprint inside Afghanistan, with investment leading to greater inter-regional trade and infrastructure connectivity. Prospects brighten for linkages between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative spinning off prosperity via Afghanistan.
The question therefore is, will the Taliban victory become a game changer for Afghanistan?
Pakistan is in a delicately promising position after the relatively peaceful transition of power in Kabul. After two decades of turmoil across its western border that spilled over and created havoc inside the country, Pakistan could possibly be looking at a vindication of sorts of its long-held policy about the Taliban. The general conclusion drawn by analysts and experts is that Pakistan, China and Russia have consolidated their positions in the region as a result of the latest developments in Afghanistan while the US and India have lost out.
The possible advantages that Pakistan is looking at are: (1) Kabul will not have a pro-India regime with an intelligence service like NDS actively promoting instability in Pakistan; (2) Peace in Afghanistan would mean reduced pressure of refugees coming into Pakistan, and possibly at a future date a return of some of the nearly four million Afghan refugees currently in Pakistan; (3) Pakistan could open up a land route to Central Asia and beyond and push forward its geoeconomic agenda; (4) Pakistan could also try and settle its TTP problem once and for all if the Taliban regime is willing to cooperate in all aspects; (5) a peaceful western border would enable Pakistan to focus more on the continuing threat from the eastern border.
There is of course a downside even to the upside. The fears of scapegoating by the US and other Western nations remains real even though it has not picked up momentum. However, handled deftly, and with greater support from China and Russia, Pakistan can push back if such a campaign is orchestrated. If the Taliban behave, and do the right things, the prospects of a Western blowback against Pakistan can diminish significantly.
The question therefore is, could the strategic change in Afghanistan become a game changer for Pakistan?
Exciting and uncertain times are upon us. With the two-decade-long chapter that started with the 9/11 attacks now closing, a new and promising one is opening up in our region. Are we positioned well to leverage the huge opportunities that may be on offer in the months and years to come?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2021