America's Afghanistan exit will pose a challenge for other powers

Washington's withdrawal will not necessarily mean Beijing will be eager to fill the vacuum

Afghanistan’s neighbours are busy preparing to deal with the consequences of the US’s withdrawal from the country in less than two months. After Washington spent 20 years and $2 trillion on a losing war, its ongoing exit has further reinforced the impression that it cannot manage an occupation.

The Americans are fatigued, which is what has prompted them to cut their losses and begin ending their forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to come cost-free. In fact, it may even invite costly surprises.

US President Joe Biden’s decision to complete the withdrawal by September 11 – the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on American soil that led to the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq two years later – was inevitable. It is a continuation of his predecessor Donald Trump’s plan, which suggests bipartisan consensus for a pullout.

As Zalmay Khalilzad told me recently, the planned withdrawal is the outcome of the dynamic situation in Afghanistan. “I think that our policy has evolved and adjusted to the circumstances,” the US’s top diplomat on the Afghanistan peace process said. “Initially we thought [that] the Afghans we supported had defeated the Taliban, and that the Taliban had disappeared, and that there was perhaps a military solution. But over time, it has become clear for reasons that there is too little time to explain that there was no military solution, that the Taliban had reconstituted, and that the [military solution] to bring the Taliban to accept what was acceptable to us and to the other Afghans did not work.”

Nevertheless, a feeling of concern has gripped Afghanistan’s neighbours not only over the prospect of renewed chaos and the probable restoration of the Taliban’s extremist and tyrannical rule across the country, but also the possibility that other extremist groups – particularly ISIS and Al Qaeda – could once again use Afghanistan as a base to threaten them as well as the West.

All sides, including bigger powers such as China and Russia, had hitherto relied on America’s presence to keep the region secure and help to further their individual interests there. But now, they all have to reassess those strategic interests going forward.

India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia are all preparing for the inevitable changes to follow in Afghanistan but also for competition to increase their influence there. Of course, once bitten decades ago, Moscow may be too shy to get involved again. But it does worry about the resurgence of extremism in its arc of influence, including Central Asia.

Despite these concerns, Mr Khalilzad is hopeful that some of these stakeholders will try to ensure stability and prosperity in the region.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad speaks to the media after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the conflict between Russian and Georgia at United Nations headquarters in New York August 11, 2008.    REUTERS/Keith Bedford/File Photo

He pointed out that, in light of Afghanistan’s circumstances and needs – and the international and domestic landscape – a monopoly of power by the Taliban will not stabilise the country and, therefore, will not be accepted as “normal” in the foreseeable future. This will mean the Taliban has to adapt and evolve. Mr Khalilzad also stressed that the US will not allow groups and individuals that threaten the US and its allies to use Afghan territory as a launchpad.

“I believe all three [India, Pakistan and Iran] have a common interest in ISIS not gaining influence in Afghanistan,” he said. “All three would like to see stability at one level in Afghanistan. [Pakistan, for instance, would see that] the markets of Central Asia would open more efficiently.”

Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat, also put the ball in the regional players’ court, when he said that war and peace in Afghanistan largely depended on its neighbours – particularly India, Pakistan and Iran. “These three countries need to agree – at long last – that peace in Afghanistan is in their [collective] interest,” he said, while stressing that the US, China and Russia must see peace as a guarantor of their interests.

Mr Brahimi made an interesting point about the unanticipated consequence of the international community’s dim view of the Taliban. Blaming all those involved for the current situation, he said: “Everybody jumped to the conclusion that the Taliban was a creation of Pakistan. Even when they controlled 95 per cent of the country, the international community – including the US – failed to recognise them. That was a terrible mistake.”

Also a terrible mistake, it seems to the likes of Mr Brahimi, is if China were to rush to fill the vacuum left by the West. To assume that China and Pakistan are “taking the opportunity of US and western withdrawal to become the masters of the game in Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake – the same mistake that the Soviets have done, that the US have done [by essentially] ignoring the fact that the Afghans want to be masters in their own house”.

Indeed, Russia has learned the lessons from the erstwhile Soviet Union’s gamble when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 before pulling out 10 years later. Moscow will know that the Taliban itself is not a threat to it, especially given they are already reportedly in contact with each other. However, the Taliban will be unable to control the cross-border threat that could be posed by other extremist groups. It, after all, has a tacit understanding with ISIS, whereby the latter will not seek any influence in Afghan domestic issues, in return for the Taliban not restricting its movements across borders into neighbouring countries. According to some estimates, ISIS commands 3,000 fighters and nine bases in Afghanistan.

ISIS has no qualms about the Taliban controlling Afghanistan, particularly given overlaps in their ideologies. ISIS could seek to make Afghanistan its new strategic base from which to push into Central Asia, China and the Caspian Sea. According to some ISIS watchers, there are indications that fighters in Syria, Iraq and Libya are being mobilised to relocate to Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.

This would not only be a cause for concern for Russia but also for China and India – given Afghanistan’s proximity to Xinjiang and Kashmir, respectively. And it is for this reason that Mr Khalilzad does not believe the US withdrawal will necessarily give the likes of China some sort of victory in Afghanistan.

One wonders, though, whether the bigger concern for the Biden administration is that the US withdrawal would lead to the revival of extremist groups, the subjugation of women, the violation of human rights and the reinvention of extremism itself.

Published: July 18th 2021, 4:00 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National