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Is the Violent Endgame in Afghanistan Leading Up to a New ‘Great Game’?

The US’s hasty retreat may have been compelled by its desire to tackle its perception of “Chinese threat”.

The continued unconditional withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, despite the Taliban’s brutal and aggressive push for a military victory and their refrain from participating in intra-Afghan political dialogue, proves – if there was a need for any proof at all – that the Doha deal between the US and the Taliban didn’t provide any framework for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. It was mere political cover for US withdrawal, aimed at shifting the responsibility of the inevitable civil war onto Afghan players in the conflict.

This is not to suggest that the US shouldn’t have withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan. On the basis of a different plan, the US could have withdrawn its troops without legitimising the Taliban, incentivising terrorism and pulling the rug from under the feet of the Afghan republic. Even the declaration of the so-called extended troika in March regarding the non-acceptability of imposition of Taliban’s emirate appears to be a thing of the past as Pakistani officials are backing out from their commitment to the said declaration.

By June, it became quite clear that Afghans are being thrown to the wolves once again and the Afghan republic is being sacrificed at the altar of a new “great game.” Some members of the US Congress and civil society leaders raised their concerns about the implications of Talibanisation in Afghanistan for human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. So President Joe Biden invited President Ashraf Ghani and his team to counter the impression that the Afghan republic was being abandoned by the US. But this was reminiscent of window dressing rather than a change in the US script for endgame in Afghanistan.

The most repeated argument in favour of the quick US withdrawal has been “to end the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan.” It’s difficult to disagree with this argument. Barack Obama’s declaration of a drawdown plan in 2011 for 2014 had also charted a path for completing the withdrawal by 2016. But as pointed out earlier, this aim could have been achieved without letting the brutal Taliban militia, which has a terror tainted past and present, take control of the unfortunate country.

However, there are probably other, more important reasons for the current US script for the endgame in Afghanistan. One of them is the US perception of the “Chinese threat” and the significance and urgency of meeting this challenge. The aforementioned US perception led to adopting a new policy towards Asia when the Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, with the potential of translating Chinese soft power into monumental international political influence. The strong bipartisan US response to this perceived threat is well known. The reactivation of the Quad and even drawing the G7 forum into containing China makes things clear. But the most revealing evidence of the said policy in relation to Afghanistan came on record during Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s briefing to the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations on May 18. Congressman Steve Chabot asked that while the Biden administration has said it is imperative to leave Afghanistan to focus on more serious threats like China, “[W]ith US gone, China and Russia will be able to exert greater influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Was that discussed during policy review and why not given more weight?”

Khalilzad quoted the Review Comprehensive. “There was also the consideration that Russia and China and others are beneficiaries of our presence in Afghanistan. That the challenges of Afghanistan threaten everyone’s interests. Terrorism for example, and that they were free riders,” he said. It’s pretty clear that from now onwards, there will be no more ‘free riders‘!Afghan vital for US to create hurdles

The US campaign against China isn’t confined to its strategy in Afghanistan, although it remains vital for creating hurdles in the Eurasian bridge, the lynchpin of the BRI and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project which has the potential of connecting western China with the Middle East.

If the readouts from the recent meeting between President Biden and President Putin in Geneva are anything to go by, the US seems to be softening its stance towards Russia in a bid to isolate China. It’s at least partially similar to the change in the US’s stance towards Maoist China in the early 1970s for pulling it away from the erstwhile Soviet Union. As pointed out earlier, the US is making efforts for dragging its allies in Europe and elsewhere into revisiting their relations with China. But in a growingly multipolar world, the US campaign against China may not be as successful as its campaign against the Soviet Union was in a bipolar 20th century.

However, the new ‘great game’ among the big powers may further polarise the East Asian region, with South and Central Asia remaining favourite grounds for proxy wars. The biggest attraction is the existing extremist/terrorist structures from previous wars over the past four decades and the availability of client state and non-state players for working as local contractors.

The Taliban remains the most trusted ally of the Pakistani security services. The country also has around 36,000 unreformed and in many cases even unregistered religious seminaries that produce most of the cannon fodder for the Afghan war. We can now understand the resistance of the Pakistani security state to implement nationally approved reforms like the 20 points National Action Plan in December 2014, supported by the All Parties Conference and later also adopted by parliament in legislation. Iran has its own experience in the war of attrition and proxy wars in the Middle East, as well as in Afghanistan.

The aggressive propaganda campaign of western and Pakistani media against the Afghan republic is part of a psychological war in favour of the Taliban. But the silver lining is the lack of ideological polarisation among common Afghans that existed in previous wars. It’s particularly so when the Taliban continues its war against Afghans and their infrastructure after embracing the US. The unpopularity of the Afghan government does not translate into the Taliban’s popularity, which is seen by common Afghans as Pakistan’s proxy. Violence and terror remain the main weapons of the Taliban, which does not have any significant political capital or ideas for normal governance. This is not going to work in Afghanistan of the 21st century, although it can bring death and destruction on a large scale in a war-devastated country. The Taliban’s bloody campaign in the north of Afghanistan can attract the wrath of surging Pan Turkism in Central and West Asia. Those who are creating stateless swaths of territories in parts of Afghanistan for anti-Chinese and anti-Russian militants don’t realise that apart from strengthening terrorism, they are also fomenting ethnic earthquakes which can destabilise most of the states in the region with catastrophic consequences. China has so far refrained from showing its military muscle on the regional level, except on its border with India. But it may be forced to reconsider this policy in self-defence if it sees the East Turkestan Islamic Party getting active in the Wakhan corridor.

Afrasiab Khattak is a former Afghan Senator and analyst of regional affairs.

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