By Ameer Ali –
With the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation and spending over a trillion dollars, and without accomplishing the original mission to restore democracy, freedom and end to Taliban terror, the collapse of the government in Kabul and return of Taliban seems unstoppable. Like in Vietnam in 1969, US is forced to cut and run from Afghanistan in 2021.
To start with, it was a mistake to go into Afghanistan and Iraq based on concocted evidence to justify the invasions. Not only that, in the case of Iraq, US President George W. Bush, quite prematurely celebrated victory and announced, “mission accomplished” from the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1 2003. It was only after that Iraq descended into a killing field. Today, President Joe Biden’s desperate pull out from Afghanistan is taking place in the midst of an emerging cold war between US and China. This is more than a mistake. It is a betrayal of the trust people of Afghanistan placed on US to save them from Taliban terror. It also shows how ill-equipped and under-trained are the Afghan Government forces, which the US trained and funded over the last 20 years.
The return of Taliban and re-establishment of an Islamic Emirate does not augur well neither for a peaceful Afghanistan nor for peace in its neighbourhood. Unless there is a radical shift towards moderation in Taliban political thinking and action as claimed by its representatives in Doha, its return would be a boost to Islamists and jihadists struggling elsewhere to achieve the same goal. If there is a real moderate faction within Taliban it will face a battle for survival with extremists. The ones that are in the forefront of the battle now do not seem to show any moderation.
Reports are already filtering in, that jihadists from UK are slipping into Afghanistan to join the rebels. There is no stopping of such elements pouring in from other parts of the world also as one by one cities are falling under Taliban control. A Taliban victory would certainly rejuvenate Islamist jihadism at least in the hot spots of Pakistan, parts of Middle East, and South East Asia. Another bloody chapter is about to unfold soon in search of that elusive Islamic Caliphate. However, once again Afghanistan has kept its reputation as a graveyard for imperialists.
The immediate victims of Taliban rule would undoubtedly be the women of Afghanistan. Whatever little they have achieved over the last two decades by way of freedom of movement and access to secular education, would be reversed and the new regime would reintroduce its own version of ultra-conservative and harsh sharia laws, under which women would virtually be prisoners at home and would be allowed to go out only with full body covers. Women can say good bye to secular education. Public hanging, whipping and stoning to death for sharia infringement would resume. The world witnessed all that in 1990s and may witness them again.
No sooner Biden decided to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, China saw an opportunity to step in and Taliban has stretched its hands to embrace Xi Jinping as a “welcome friend”. An economically weakened and militarily retreating US is now facing the economic and military might of China trying to add Afghanistan also into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Sri Lanka has already been roped into it. Slowly but surely, China, through its soft power diplomacy is encircling India, the regional ally of US and a counterweight against China’s rising influence over nations bordering the Indian Ocean.
There is one issue however, which may be of some concern for Taliban over its friendship with China. Being an avowed exponent of Islamism and Islamist rule how would the regime accommodate Xi Jinping’s anti-religious crusade and cultural genocide against the Uyghur community? China has also declared the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which had only a marginal association with Al Qaeda and Taliban in early 2000s, as an international terrorist organization. Sean Roberts’ extensive research findings published in his, The War of The Uyghurs, Princeton University Press, 2020, refutes this assertion by China. In fact, UN Security Council Resolution 1267 includes Al Qaeda and Taliban and their associates as terrorists. There is obviously a contradiction between China’s friendship with Talban and its suppression of Uyghurs. In any case, Chinese government usually does not get involved in the internal affairs or policies of a country and it would expect Taliban to do the same. Whether Taliban also, like several other Muslim countries, would sacrifice its sympathy towards Uyghurs in return for economic benefits from China will be interesting to watch.
The loss of Afghanistan to China should compel US to reconsider its future geopolitical strategies in Asia. One country that needs immediate attention is Iran. With Ebrahim Raisi, a hard-line leader at its helm, US cannot continue to maintain its sanctions against that country to please Israel and the Saudis. The Taliban regime could be check mated only through the combined efforts of Iran, India and Pakistan. Without normalising relations with Iran, US cannot achieve that. Pentagon has to work overnight for the next few months.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia