It was the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell who described the nature of war as one that determines not who is right but who is left. Nowhere in the world is this description more applicable than the United States’ war in Afghanistan. After two decades of conflict, what is left is a bruised and battered country whose future now is as uncertain as it was 20 years ago. The United States spent more than $2 trillion and lost over 2,400 soldiers in the war with little to show for it in terms of substantial achievements. The question today is not what the United States can do to achieve its objectives, but how it can minimize the damage it has incurred through its presence in Afghanistan.
Previous U.S. presidents made the mistake of trying to answer both these questions at the same time, proposing conditional withdrawals subject to variables beyond the United States’ control. These unattainable conditions were what turned a short incursion to overthrow the Taliban regime into a forever war, making the United States yet another victim of the “graveyard of empires.”
The recent announcement made by President Joe Biden regarding the U.S. military withdrawal is different from those made by his predecessors. The United States seems to have understood that the only option it has available to break free from its forever war trap is to not set any condition for its withdrawal. The more conditions Washington sets, the more unlikely they are to be fulfilled, and the more likely it is that the United States remains bogged down.
Unfortunately for the Afghan government in Kabul, this decision seems to throw them under the proverbial bus, leaving them at the mercy of domestic actors. The Taliban had showed reluctance regarding an upcoming intra-Afghan peace summit scheduled to take place in April in Turkey. In the aftermath of Biden’s announcement, the Taliban hardened its refusal to attend and the summit has been postponed until after Ramadan and possibly much longer. Given that peace in Afghanistan hinges upon the success of intra-Afghan negotiations, the current trajectory of events presents the future of Afghanistan as quite precarious and uncertain.
The effects of this uncertainty will manifest themselves throughout the region. In the past, nearby states like Russia and China benefited greatly from the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, which served to quell the spread of extremism beyond its borders. However, the United States’ military withdrawal is expected to unleash new forces in the region, subsequently requiring more involvement from geographically proximate powers wishing to safeguard their own interests.
Russia has kept a close eye on developments in Afghanistan, which during the Soviet period directly bordered the USSR. The Soviet Union fought its own disastrously long war in the country from 1979 to 1989. In case of a U.S. withdrawal, non-state actors may move more freely in the region, proliferating their ideology and radicalizing Muslim populations in Russia and the Central Asian states. In the past, the Russian government showed its support for a political settlement between the government and the Taliban; however, with the current dynamics, that seems an increasingly difficult result to achieve. Hameed Hakimi, a research associate with Chatham House, believes that Russia is now looking to establish its own patronage networks in Afghanistan to gain advantage over other regional powers. These proxy groups would be useful in shaping events in Afghanistan as per Russian expectations.
For China, Afghanistan holds both security and economic value. Afghanistan borders China’s Xinjiang province, which Beijing deems to be affected by terrorism, extremism, and separatism – its so-called three evils. Over the past few years, China has provided the Afghan government with $70 million military aid to bolster its counterterrorism efforts – especially in the Wakhan corridor. However, the unconditional withdrawal might prompt China to diversify its options and strengthen relations with the Taliban. China has been developing itself as a global leader in renewable energy technologies and Afghanistan sits on $1 trillion worth of rare earth mineral reserves expected to spark Chinese interest. The security situation deterred China from exploring these resources in the past. However, it is possible that China would seek to cultivate relations with Afghanistan that would enable it to extract these resources. Any future Afghan regime seeking to diminish its dependence on aid would welcome such an investment.
The U.S. withdrawal is expected to affect Iranian interests as well. A stable Afghanistan would prevent Iran’s exposure to threats posed by non-state actors like the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). Yet, it is unlikely that the current trajectory of events will be seen favorably in Tehran. With the Taliban having a stronger negotiating position at present, it is predicted that any government apparatus formed after the United States’ exit will be dominated by the Taliban’s presence. Given their history, such elements will push Afghanistan into Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence – a move detrimental to Iran’s regional standing. In the past, Saudi Arabia gave up its support for the Taliban under pressure from the United States. Once the United States exits Afghanistan, such a pressure is unlikely to persist. Iran might try to mitigate the effects of such an outcome by strengthening the presence of its own proxy networks in Afghanistan.
Biden’s withdrawal announcement seems to have ruffled some feathers in India – a regional player with much to lose under current circumstances. Since 2001, India has invested over $3 billion in Afghanistan to foster a strong relationship with Kabul. Over the past two decades, it was able to use its presence in the country to ensure strategic encirclement of Pakistan and thwart Pakistan’s strategic depth doctrine. The United States’ withdrawal changes India’s standing in Afghanistan. The Taliban, now gaining ground, are expected to shift the balance of power in favor of Pakistan. If the past is to be of some guidance, it is possible that disengaged fighters from Afghanistan might shift their attention to the Kashmir insurgency – a repeat of 1989 events. These losing stakes will push India to lobby the United States for reconsideration of its withdrawal terms in favor of ones that provide pro-India elements with a share in Afghanistan’s power circles.
In terms of stakes in Afghanistan’s situation, Pakistan remains second only to Afghanistan itself. The conventional view suggests that the news of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would be welcomed with open arms in Pakistan. Yet, a departure without an agreement over Afghanistan’s future government could spell trouble for Pakistan. Such an exit is predicted to exacerbate the conflict in Afghanistan, with the potential of spilling over into Pakistan. It would not only mean an influx of refugees into an already stressed Pakistani economy but also give drugs and weapons smuggling a new lease on life. Therefore, Pakistan faces a paradoxical situation. While on one side the strengthening of Taliban’s bargaining position bodes well for Pakistan’s interests, such a strengthened position can lead to instability in Afghanistan, thereby harming Pakistan’s interests.
As the United States prepares to exit Afghanistan, the future of Afghanistan remains uncertain. The United States’ current bargaining chip for deterring the Taliban from a hostile takeover is the international recognition – or lack thereof – of a future Taliban government. Observing the history of the Taliban’s previous regime, such a deterrence is quite weak on its own. If the current trend continues, the intra-Afghan dialogue is most likely to end in failure. Such a failure would push Afghanistan toward instability and jeopardize regional interests. Therefore, it is up to regional stakeholders to break the current intra-Afghan deadlock by nudging parties toward the bargaining table. If they don’t, they too will be engulfed in the crisis that follows the departure of the U.S. military from Afghan soil.