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Spillover Effects of a Taliban Afghanistan
The upheavals and violence that Afghans have witnessed in the last few decades is simply distressing. Since 1979, landlocked Afghanistan has been turned into a decaying dump yard of Cold War rivalries, with players like the Taliban being used as proxy actors to accomplish short-sighted objectives. The repercussions of those ugly power plays have taken up a ghastly shape today.
The much anticipated “political solution” to the Afghan problem has taken a dangerous downward spiral at the expense of the peace and stability of the region. The signing of the 2020 peace agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, which laid down for the withdrawal of American forces, is now proving to be catastrophic. The country today has been engulfed in a state of absolute havoc, with a feeling of impending doom gripping Afghans, with those that are able to, lining up in front of different embassies to find a way out of their country.
The “negotiated political solution” that is envisaged in the Afghan peace process is nothing but a sham, much like the experiment of 1992. The only thing that differentiates these two time frames is the potency of the Taliban to maintain its power grip, which unfortunately is much more serious this time. In 1992, the plan to form an interim government with the Taliban was haphazard. It was a weak and battered regional actor comprised mainly of Sunni Pashtuns. Today, along with the Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks have also joined forces with the Taliban, providing it with a much broader base of support.
The terror group has now steadily crawled out of its traditional strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and it is spreading its roots into northern and western Afghanistan. This time it has been cautious enough to consolidate power throughout the country all at once. Things would still be amenable if the Afghan government would have taken certain events as a wake-up call. The fall of Kunduz in 2015 or the soaring activity of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan since 2016 were seen as a mere tactic to upgrade the negotiating power of the group. If acknowledged at the right time, it might have provided the government with a much-needed bargaining position, to carve out a niche for itself in the ongoing peace process, rather than being completely marred by the Taliban.
An anxious neighborhood
Many analysts are of the view that the spillover effect of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would be gravely challenging to the overall security of the region. Things are not looking very optimistic for the countries lying in the vicinity of Afghanistan.
Pakistan, which has always favored an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, demanded to be at the steering wheel on any kind of solution to the Afghan problem. From assisting in the birth of the Taliban to sponsoring, nurturing, and harboring them, Pakistan has contributed greatly to the bloodshed in Afghanistan. As a stark deviation from its 1990s character, the Taliban this time wants to break free from Pakistani influence. It wants to set down its own foreign policy and to portray itself as a credible, international player, not just as some regional proxy player to be used for further political aspirations.
The neutrality that the Taliban has maintained on the Kashmir issue or agreeing to back-channel engagements with India provides enough backing to the argument. In the last few years, the Taliban’s dependence on Pakistan has also decreased considerably. Wanting to control the Taliban this time will probably backfire on Pakistan. Taliban affiliates working in Pakistan like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other secessionist groups with links to it will be used by the Afghani Taliban to keep Pakistani interference at bay. Today, the Afghan Taliban remains in a strikingly firm position to safeguard its own interests and autonomy.
Although Pakistan has been successful in achieving its goal of a stronger Taliban poised to march into Kabul, things won’t be a smooth ride for them either. For starters, any sort of prolongation of the civil war in Afghanistan is bound to paralyze Pakistan. Already, there has been a massive build-up of refugees at the Afghan-Pakistan border, compromising the country’s security. Pakistan’s grand aspirations of becoming a major trade and transit hub in Central Asia or profiting off from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will suffer an unrepairable blow if Afghanistan devolves any further.
Outside of Pakistan, things will also be challenging for India. India has always been a major ally of the incumbent Western-backed Afghan government, which the Taliban rejects. India has always viewed the Taliban as an extremist group, incapable of governing Afghanistan. Moreover, the bonhomie between the Taliban and Pakistan has been another stumbling block. Many analysts have even gone as far as to relate India’s revocation of Article 370 that granted autonomy to the Jammu and Kashmir region, as a preemptive action to the Taliban threat at its northwestern border. Maintaining security and suppressing secessionist rebel groups in the northwestern part of India will now be more difficult. A Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for these hardliners, with Pakistan easing up any access routes.
In the last few years, India has put enormous money and effort into developing Afghanistan. Afghanistan has also been an ardent participant in all SAARC initiatives and programmes. Whatever achievements and prosperity were achieved in the last decade will be undone with the Taliban gaining control over all of Afghanistan. The destruction of the Indian-sponsored Salma Dam is a harbinger of things to come. India today remains extremely wary of the future of other projects where it has heavily invested like the Afghan parliament building or the TAPI pipeline. Indian foreign policy experts also remain skeptical about the success of back-channel dialogue with the Taliban.
China cautioned the U.S. to withdraw its troops in a phased manner. China remains immensely anxious about the future of its ambitious projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or the Belt and Road Initiative designed to pass through the region. Moreover, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has ramifications for China’s internal security as well. Afghanistan borders China’s Xinjiang province. Like India, China is deeply worried that the Taliban regime will provide militant groups with tactical and strategic help that will pose a security challenge to China.
A pragmatic lookout
Theoretically, the 2020 peace agreement laid down an arrangement for the sharing of powers between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But as reality and history speak, no fancy worded agreement can possibly implement that. Already, the Taliban have won 120 districts since May 1st and within a few days, it will capture more, with nothing but a half-spirited Afghan National Army as the only form of resistance. If rightly predicted, in 6 months or so, the real power in Afghanistan will lie at the hands of the Taliban.
Given these circumstances, Afghan’s neighbors are very rightly worried about their own security. With no U.S. troops to contain the Taliban, Afghanistan’s neighbors will simply have to fend for themselves. It still remains to be seen how much Pakistan will help keep Afghanistan stabilized. The reins of security of the region will thus have to be controlled by India and China, in the absence of the U.S. Some sort of consensus needs to be arrived at among the regional powers on the Afghan question. Multilateral bodies like the SCO, the Heart of Asia Conference, or the SAARC, can provide the platforms needed to solve the matter regionally without outside interferences. Because at the end of the day, no matter the strife and conflicts, neighbors have to help each other out to maintain balance and peace in the region. As the old proverb goes: “A burned neighbor’s house, does not make yours look better.” Similarly, a “burned” Afghanistan will pose hazards for all its neighbors.
Anondeeta Chakraborty is a recent graduate in Political Science. Her research interests mainly lies in the domain of international geopolitics, with specialisation in conflict and security studies. She has published her works with a number of esteemed platforms, like Eurasia Review, The Taiwan Times, South Asia Monitor etc. Currently, she is working as a research writer with the Society for Policy Studies (New Delhi).