Henry John Temple once said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
The saying has always been a cornerstone policy for all nations. Whenever it is in the national interest of a state, it takes a decision that suits it no matter how politically incorrect that seems. The same is true for the USA decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, in sheer contradiction to its promises of nation-building. The hand-picked government of Afghanistan was left at the mercy of the Taliban which capitulated within a matter of few days and President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital in disgrace. Video footage shows the chaos at Kabul airport where hundreds of US’s local Afghan staff has been desperately trying to leave the country.
Kabul has been taken over by the Taliban and it is the speed of takeover and melting away of 300,000 strong Afghan National Army (ANA) that has surprised many, including the USA. The Biden administration very confidently claimed a few days ago that the takeover of Kabul was not a foregone conclusion and that the ANA would be able to defend their country. Experts were predicting that the Ghani government could sustain for many months without US support. After all, the ANA was trained well and was provided with the best weaponry and equipment, much better and sophisticated than their counterparts, the Taliban. Probably all analyses were made by keeping the example of the Government of Najeebullah in mind, where he was able to cling to power for a couple of years after Soviet withdrawal.
US President Joe Biden while assessing the disaster has put all blame on Afghanistan. He said that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight.” The reasons for ANA’s capitulation would be discussed for a long time to come, but the fact is that the Taliban has re-captured Kabul without much resistance. It is, hence, more important to discuss what the Taliban government in the future would be like and what will be its implications for the region.
Afghanistan’s neighbours are fearful of the Taliban especially because of their past experiences. Russia had been supporting the regime of Najibullah against the Taliban and later the Northern Alliance. Russians also fear that the Taliban government can radicalise Russia’s own growing Muslim population. Iran and the Taliban had adverse relations and the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and intelligence agents at Mazar-i-Sharif in the 1990s. China has blamed the Taliban for sponsoring the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and fears that Taliban success can indoctrinate its Muslim population in Xinjiang province. Pakistan supported and recognised the Taliban’s earlier government, but under US pressure switched sides and even deported their ambassador unceremoniously. Pakistan also fears that the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that is responsible for major terrorist attacks in Pakistan including the APS massacre can gain momentum again.
The Taliban, therefore, had to offer credible assurances, not just in talks but in deeds too, that their return to Kabul would lead to a new era and that they believe in peaceful coexistence not only within their boundaries but also with their neighbours. Reduction in violence and assurances of civil rights, in particular those of women and minority groups, as are guaranteed in Islam have to be ensured. History is witness that no single political, religious or ethnic group, no matter how strong they were, had been able to govern a diversified population peacefully without reaching a political settlement. Afghanistan is no exception and the Taliban need to take this into account.
If these fears are not put at rest fast, then the possibility of neighbouring countries sponsoring militias and warlords who will try to seize territory along the border to act as a buffer zone is quite possible. This would again plunge Afghanistan into a civil war and the region would become unstable. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that all the neighbours must join hands and support the Taliban to reach a negotiated political settlement and thus establish an all-inclusive government.
China being the regional superpower can play the dominant role here. Taliban would also be looking for international legitimacy and financial stability and China can provide both. China’s foreign minister had met the Taliban delegation a few weeks ago, signalling the future of geopolitics. After the visit, the Chinese foreign office emphasised that China wants to play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan. This is in the national interest of China as instability in Afghanistan and, by extension, regional insecurity could have a detrimental impact on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
At present, China’s economic engagement with Afghanistan is limited and well below the potential. The BRI project bypasses Afghanistan whereas it can provide the smallest route to the Central Asian states. China has repeatedly vowed to extend the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan but has taken little steps to implement it. Afghanistan can play a major role in BRI success as Afghanistan has about 3 trillion worth of rare earth material that would be required by China for its ever-growing industrial need.
If China plays a major role in Afghanistan, then this will have a positive impact on the region. People may argue how can China be successful where the USA has failed miserably. The answer lies in the major difference between Chinese and USA policy. Unlike the USA, which dictates a country to follow the western agenda, China does not poke its nose into the internal affairs of a country, hence Taliban can work more freely with China. National interests are eternal and perpetual, and to follow those interests is every nation’s responsibility.
—U.K. Dar is a freelance contributor based in Manchester, UK