As American troops exit Afghanistan, scramble for power begins

As the US and Nato military withdraws from Afghanistan as per the deadline set by President Joe Biden, the country is sliding into uncertainty. The sense of panic and power vacuum is growing in Kabul.

Even though intra-Afghan dialogue technically continues intermittently in Doha, the Taliban are moving in to fill the space being ceded by the Americans. Fighting (of varying intensity) is reportedly going on in at least 26 of the 34 Afghan provinces. With no sign of negotiated peace, hostilities between the Taliban and the Kabul government are likely to continue.

America appears to be in a rush to vacate. Weary of the ‘forever war’, no one in the US wants repeat pictures of American helicopters on embassy rooftops to rescue ‘collaborators’ as was the case in Vietnam.

Fast forward to 2021 as another ‘super power’ withdraws from Afghanistan after its ‘longest war’ with every possibility of Taliban — their adversaries whom they scoffed at and then ended up signing an agreement with — set to make a comeback for power.

No viable peace plan

Speaking at the 32nd anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani made an insightful point that the civil war that devastated Afghanistan “was caused not by the departure of Soviet troops, but by the failure to formulate a viable plan for Afghanistan’s future.”

No lesson has been learnt from that disastrous experience. Invading Afghanistan in a huff, America found itself sucked in a country about which Alexander the Great famously warned about the “the revenge of the Afghan.” Like all retreating armies, US may be leaving many to a similar fate.

Afghan security forces stand near an armoured vehicle during ongoing fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the Busharan area on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital city of Helmand province May 5, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

In this state of general melee, power vacuum is being filled by the Taliban and by various warlords. In the absence of state protection, the rise of militias is inevitable. There is also a considerable risk of the Kabul government, Taliban, various warlords and other groups contesting for space and leaving the country in a state of civil war.

Afghanistan’s importance derives from its location as a bridge between South and Central Asia. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Afghanistan is sitting atop trillions of dollars of minerals. Without peace in Afghanistan, Central Asian energy resources will remain underexploited.

Anyone who dominates Afghanistan potentially influences flow of these resources. Pertinently, the land mass comprising Afghanistan has historically had an oversized importance for those seeking power and influence. In the process, the Afghan people have long been victims of games among various rivals. The challenge for any incoming Kabul government is therefore, formidable.

US troop withdrawal

The troop withdrawal leaves the Kabul regime to face a resurgent Taliban. The subsequent power struggle will set the stage for intervention by regional players like Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran. For Pakistan, especially, with almost 2,700km border and Pashtuns straddling both sides, developments in Afghanistan — are of critical importance.

With more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan and a long, porous border (coupled with the same ethnic tribes either side), a fresh conflict in Afghanistan may inevitably spill over into Pakistan, causing both domestic and foreign policy challenges for Islamabad.

A Taliban victory on ground, which appears likely, might embolden the extremist elements within Pakistan too. Conversely, the Taliban presence in Kabul provides a degree of leverage to Pakistan.

Underlying the power play in Afghanistan is the perennial India-Pakistan rivalry that continues to play out in Afghanistan. Managing this conflict will become a challenge by itself. India’s main interest in Afghanistan is to obtain land access through Pakistan to the Central Asian markets.

This is unlikely under the current state of relations between Islamabad and New Delhi. In this game of influence peddling, Afghanistan becomes a battle ground.

Over the coming weeks and months, the developments in Afghanistan will be keenly watched in the Western capitals and in the region. The country now stands at a very critical crossroad and it is in everyone’s interest that peace and stability be prioritised.

The people of Afghanistan and the broader region deserve nothing less.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador in several countries.

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