The end of the forever Afghan War
This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on April 19, 2021 and can be accessed here.
The United States is finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. US President Biden has announced in a symbolic show that the US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan on September 11. At the same time, NATO troops will also accompany the US troops in quitting the country. What this will mean for Afghanistan and other countries in the region is something we will need to watch out for.
While four American Presidents have tried to withdraw from Afghanistan, Biden has been the first to make troop withdrawal a definite one. Even former President Trump made troop withdrawal conditional on promises from the Taliban, but Biden’s new announcement rests on no such premise. Even after the Doha Agreement in February last year, violence has continued, particularly through targeted assassinations. According to the BBC, “A year on from the US-Taliban deal, a wave of targeted killings of civilians has terrorised Afghanistan, even as the nation seeks a political route to peace. Assassins have come for the country's judges, journalists, and activists, using motorcycle drive-by shootings and magnetic "sticky bombs" hidden under cars… The Taliban have been accused of using the assassinations to eliminate their critics ahead of a return to power, and instil a deep fear in those left alive.”
The decision to quit Afghanistan cannot escape from criticism either way. Within the United States, lawmakers and intelligence officials have argued that withdrawal would likely mean that the Taliban would come back in power and take over the Afghan government. Indeed, the Taliban has received the news of the September withdrawal as a sign that they have won the war. If a transition government is to be set up, it is likely that
Several countries, including Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Iran as Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, will be closely invested in the US withdrawal. China, for instance, released a statement, “saying Washington should accommodate legitimate security concerns of the regional countries to prevent "terrorist forces” from taking advantage of the chaos in the war-torn country.” The Chinese border state of Xinjiang, a source of human rights contention (particularly in the last two months with the ban of Xinjiang cotton), is home to Uyghur Muslims who, the CCP fears, may be radicalised by extremists from the Middle East. Therefore, Beijing sees building relations with both the Taliban and the Afghan government as an integral part of their strategy to ensure stability in Xinjiang. It has mediated between Pakistan and Afghanistan and even invests heavily in Afghanistan’s development.
Like China, the Indian government is worried about peace in the region after the US withdrawal. India’s position consistently has been that any peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled. It is particularly worried about the increase in terrorist activities in the Kashmir region. India takes a different approach to deal with the situation, though – it openly backed the Northern Alliance and the moderate Afghan government currently in power. India has also been a considerable investor in Afghanistan, built the parliament in Kabul, and offers scholarships and technical assistance to Afghani people.
Afghanistan even emerged as one of the fronts where India and China could cooperate during the first informal summit back in 2018. The Wuhan summit explored the possibility of conducting joint training for officials, which was then carried out a year later. Could this cooperation deepen once the US withdraws? Or will India and China continue to find more differences than similarities in their neighbourhood, particularly with Pakistan's involvement? Since the US is intent on redirecting the troops from Afghanistan to the Asia-Pacific, what does that mean for competition between China and the US? None of these questions have clear answers though, we will see some indications before the year is up.