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What Does NATO Withdrawal from Afghanistan Mean for Regional Actors?

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By September 11, 2021, NATO’s 20-year operation in Afghanistan will come to a close. That date marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil that prompted the invasion of the Central Asian state to eradicate the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda extremist group which used the country as a base for global terrorism.

America’s longest and most expensive war is coming to an end, but the country left behind finds itself in a state of turmoil. Peace talks between the internationally recognized Afghan government based in Kabul and the Taliban held in Doha, Qatar, have stalled. The Taliban’s hand in negotiations is becoming increasingly strong as the group has managed to seize power in roughly ⅓ of Afghanistan’s administrative districts sending Afghan government forces fleeing across the borders of neighboring states. Many districts have fallen to the Taliban without much resistance from the NATO-funded and equipped government forces compounding fears that Taliban influence and power will only grow as coalition forces complete their withdrawal.

The NATO withdrawal creates significant hurdles for regional stability and a power vacuum in Central Asia. There are several players, both internal and external, who are seeking to fill the void left by the Americans and their allies. Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, China and Russia seem poised to play the next “great game” in the so-called “graveyard of empires”. Some of these states have a vested interest in the stability of Afghanistan to ensure regional security and foster economic interests as well as mitigate the spread of extremism and narcotics flows from the state. Some actors stand to benefit from the current instability; supporting rival groups in hopes of enhancing influence and having the upper hand on geopolitical adversaries when the dust settles on the Afghan conflict. This paper will identify some of the most prominent outside actors in the current Afghan crisis, what those actors seek to gain in Afghanistan, and how they will try to achieve those aims.

Pakistan

Pakistan is arguably the most active actor in Afghanistan at this point. Pakistan has longstanding ties to conflict in Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan was an important base for the Mujahidin who eventually waged a guerilla war against Soviet invaders. Pakistan aided the United States in promoting opposition to the Soviets in Afghanistan and was incredibly successful in this role. In the contemporary context, Islamabad has maintained close ties to the Taliban offering support in military hardware, intelligence, being a haven for those fleeing NATO coalition advances in Afghanistan. There are cultural links between Afghan and Pakistani communities with Pashtun tribes living along the borders. Pakistan is one of the major actors that is thriving in the current instability caused by NATO’s withdrawal. The links between the Taliban and Islamabad allow Pakistan to wield considerable influence in Afghanistan; Pakistan has been increasingly pursuing a policy separate from its former close U.S. ally, with relations damaged between the two over Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups. Islamabad also maintains a poor relationship with the internationally recognized government in Kabul. Recently, the Afghan government has recalled senior diplomats from its embassy in Pakistan over the alleged kidnapping of the ambassador’s daughter on the Pakistani soil. Pakistan is also in constant competition for influence in the region in opposition to its historic rival, India.

Despite benefitting from the current turmoil in Afghanistan, its ambitions have become more nuanced in recent years. Pakistan has been growing closer with China, described as its “iron brother” and is a major recipient of investment under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan is being forced to re-evaluate its policy in Afghanistan to protect its links to China and prospective projects under the BRI. China is interested in promoting stability in the region, it has been hesitant to invest in Afghanistan due to previous experience with instability damaging economic prospects in the country. Pakistan and China have engaged with the Taliban and Kabul in a trilateral format to promote peaceful resolution in the country, solidifying both states’ role in the peace process and protecting a potential economic corridor. There is also the prospect of a rail line linking Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for both passenger and cargo freight that will not move forward without security guarantees in Afghanistan.

Despite playing the role of destabilizer for decades, Pakistan now seeks to reimagine its role as one of a mediator and promoter of economic stability and regional connectivity. Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban, although still strong in some groups within the Taliban, are strained by the perception of the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy in Afghanistan. The two do share common interests and goals in the country, including opposition to the Kabul government; the Taliban is careful to distance itself from Pakistan to some degree in hopes of projecting itself as an independent and legitimate actor. The Afghan Taliban has also refused to distance itself from the Pakistani Taliban despite repeated attempts at pressuring the group to do so by Islamabad. The United States has also put pressure on the Taliban in peace talks to remove military personnel and structures from neighboring countries, a direct reference to Pakistan where the Taliban has a significant presence on the ground.

India

India’s aims in Afghanistan are very clear: to counter the influence of Pakistan and to reduce the potential for Afghan territory to be used as a base for anti-Indian extremism. India has long been opposed to the Taliban and maintained a policy of non-engagement with the group. This policy has recently changed due to the changing conditions on the ground. This is not unique to India, many states that have formally declared the Taliban a terrorist organization have been forced to accept the likely scenario that the Taliban will remain a consistent force in the country moving forward. The Indian government has supported the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul through investment and diplomatic support. With the Kabul-based government losing control of large swathes of territory and widely seen as corrupt and unpopular, New Delhi has engaged with the Taliban in direct talks.

Indian assets have been targeted by Taliban groups with close ties to Pakistan, such as the Haqqani Group, for years. Indian investment and support in the governance of Afghanistan were also largely contingent upon the (relative) security and stability provided by NATO forces in the country; these investments are now at risk of becoming a sunk cost with little to show. India under BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to take a more active role in international affairs, particularly in countering Pakistan and China’s influence on the Asian continent. India may seek greater involvement in the Afghan peace process; likely through increased coordination and cooperation with Russia and Iran. Besides, India may want to utilize its position as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which China and Pakistan are also members, to find common ground on the Afghan security issue with its traditional adversaries. It is also important to note that if the Taliban seeks to become a legitimate governing force in Afghanistan, cooperation with New Delhi will be important as it is an important regional player with significant economic and political clout. This cooperation may take the form of greater separation between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services which India views as a hostile actor and promoter of anti-Indian terrorist activities.

Turkey

Turkey’s position in Afghanistan presents many opportunities for the only Islamic-majority member of the NATO alliance. Turkey’s foreign military presence under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been significant with active involvement in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey’s relationship with the United States and other NATO allies has been tense in recent years. Its military involvement in Syria and Libya has not been received positively by all parties, and its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems drew the ire of the alliance, ending with Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter program.

Turkey has recently attempted to restore its reputation with NATO allies and the United States after some viewed Erdoğan as increasingly authoritarian and too close to Russia. It has offered to secure Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, seen as an essential link to the world for international diplomats to remain in Afghanistan following NATO withdrawal. The government in Ankara is also seeking to increase its involvement in Afghanistan as a mediator with the Taliban; Turkey has hosted the Taliban and Kabul-based government for talks in Istanbul earlier this year.

Greater Turkish involvement in Afghanistan as a security guarantor and mediator, welcomed by NATO allies, is not being received positively by all parties. The Taliban have gone on record stating that a continued Turkish military presence in Afghanistan is not acceptable. The group believes that Turkish troops remaining in Afghanistan violate the terms of the 2020 peace agreement with the United States that stipulates NATO troops are obliged to withdraw from Afghanistan. They believe that Turkey, despite being “a great Islamic country”, is still an occupational force that will not be tolerated. Russia may also be unenthusiastic about a greater Turkish role in Afghanistan. While Russia does have a vested interest in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, recent competition with Turkey for influence in its Central Asian sphere of influence (particularly, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) means an enlarged security role for Turkey in its backyard may be received coolly by Moscow.

Iran

Iran, which shares a 900+ km land border with Afghanistan, also intends to play a greater role in Afghanistan following the departure of its NATO adversaries. Iran, a Shiite-majority nation, has a complicated relationship with the Sunni Taliban. The two have long had ideological differences that have been glazed over due to a common enemy in the United States. The Afghan government has accused both Iran and Russia of training and equipping Taliban militants on Iranian territory for attacks on NATO and government forces. Iran is forced to take a more realist approach to the Taliban. Despite ideological differences, it recognizes that the Taliban will remain a powerful influence in Afghanistan and sees its best prospects for influence in the region through cooperation with the Taliban and traditional allies like Russia.

Iran also has economic and demographic considerations pertaining to the Afghan conflict. Iran is home to 780,000 registered Afghan immigrants and refugees in addition to an estimated 2.1-2.5 million undocumented Afghan migrants. Iran faces a future demographic crisis; its population is aging, its economy is in decline, and fertility rates are far below the necessary levels to spur future economic growth. With the impact of Western sanctions sending the Iranian economy into a tailspin, Iranians are now hesitant to have more children as economic prospects in the country decline. The Afghan crisis provides Iran with a potential surge in migration that may help mitigate population decline and strengthen its negotiating power in resolving the conflict.

Russia

Russia’s position in Afghanistan is multifaceted. The historical memory of the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979-89 which is widely regarded as a significant contributing factor to the decline of the Soviet Union still weighs heavily on many Russians. Russia also maintains close security ties to the states that border Afghanistan, namely: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Russia’s largest foreign military base is in Tajikistan, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led military alliance, figures to play a major role in any fallout from the Afghan crisis to secure the borders of member states. Russia has deployed tanks to the Afghan-Tajik border and plans to hold joint exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in August along the border regions. Russia considers Central Asia and the former Soviet states to be its sphere of influence and maintains this influence through its role as the primary regional security guarantor. The current Afghan crisis represents a significant challenge to this role.

Russia’s long-standing opposition to a NATO presence on its southern flank is well-known, but the “hasty” withdrawal of the coalition forces threatens to provoke instability across the entire region. Russia fears that Afghanistan’s internal instability could spread to fragile neighbor states, such as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. It also has legitimate concerns about the prospect of Afghanistan being used as a base for extremism targeted towards Russia or supportive of terrorists in Russia’s Caucasus regions. There is also the issue of the Taliban’s role in the narcotics trade in Central Asia. Russia has an interest in the stability of Afghanistan and the ability to reduce the flow of Afghan heroin through Central Asia and into Russia.

Russia will be an important actor in Afghanistan moving forward, and there are unique opportunities to collaborate with traditional allies and old adversaries alike. The Taliban, formally a terrorist organization under Russian law, were invited to Moscow for talks regarding the Afghan peace process in March 2021. Russia will likely coordinate with its allies in the CSTO and SCO to take a larger role in promoting stability in Afghanistan. Direct unilateral military involvement in Afghanistan by Russia is unlikely due to the legacy of the Soviet-Afghan War but collective support vis-a-vis multilateral forums remains in the realm of possibility. It has also recently been reported that Russia has made a surprising bid for cooperation on Afghanistan with the United States. At their summit in Geneva earlier this year, President Putin made an offer to President Biden for U.S. forces to utilize Russia’s Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan military bases for intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The United States has still not committed to acting on Russia’s offer, but after promising greater cooperation at the Geneva summit the potential for enhanced cooperation on Afghanistan is not out of the question despite tensions between the two powers.

China

China shares similar ambitions to Russia in maintaining the stability of Afghanistan. China considers the Taliban a terrorist organization and is wary of the group due to its previous support for separatist Uighur Muslims in its bordering Xinjiang autonomous region. However, like Russia, China understands that the Taliban presence in Afghanistan is an undeniable reality. It recognizes that a degree of cooperation with the Taliban is necessary to maintain stability and influence going forward. In 2019, Beijing held talks on the Afghan peace process with the Taliban seeking to establish ties with the group it had previously opposed. China is seeking to play an active role in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan following the NATO withdrawal. The country’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are significant investments that require regional stability to flourish. China has dangled the prospect of greater Afghan involvement in the CPEC as an incentive to maintain stability in Afghanistan where it has previously been hesitant to invest.

Like Russia, China is incredibly concerned about the prospect of Afghanistan being used as a base for exporting extremism into its territory, particularly in Xinjiang. Flows of narcotics into China via Afghanistan are also a cause for concern for decision-makers in Beijing. The Chinese government has maintained its best prospects for mitigating these potential issues through active engagement with the Taliban and the incentive of monetary support in exchange for stability and non-interference in domestic affairs. The Taliban has responded positively to overtures from the Chinese government and has pledged not to interfere with China’s internal affairs, although the level of control they exercise over its various factions is still unclear. China’s unilateral military involvement in Afghanistan is unlikely. Instead, China is likely to utilize its role as a leader within the SCO to pursue multilateral solutions for promoting peace and stability in the region. It will likely collaborate with Russia and other regional players, including the Taliban and the Kabul-based government, to ensure that the conflict does not spill over into Chinese territory and to secure its investments in the region.

What Happens Next?

The power vacuum in Afghanistan left by the United States and its NATO allies is quickly being filled by several regional players. Some states, such as Pakistan, hope to take advantage of longstanding ties to the Taliban to exert considerable influence over the Afghan peace process and to gain the upper hand over regional rivals namely, India. States such as Turkey and Iran stand to benefit (to some degree) from the internal instability of Afghanistan.

For Turkey, a greater role in security in the region enhances its Central Asian presence and appeases NATO allies. For Iran, collaboration with the Taliban allows for a greater influence in a territory previously occupied by adversaries while the flow of migrants may mitigate some of its own internal struggles.

China and Russia, relieved that the NATO presence on their borders has been significantly diminished, still have a vested interest in the stability of Afghanistan. For China, the overwhelming majority of its concerns are economic. Stability will allow for greater investment in the region and the protection of existing assets. For Russia, security concerns are paramount in Afghanistan. It fears that instability may spread to its Central Asian neighbors and that it may be forced to play a greater military role in the region as the primary security guarantor for CSTO allies.

These countries have been actively engaging with the Taliban and the Kabul government, hedging their bets in anticipation of a power-sharing agreement between the two parties in the near future. Despite previously viewing the Taliban as a terrorist organization, both China and Russia recognize the need to engage with the group to secure influence in the country going forward.

For all actors involved in the Afghanistan conflict, there is a certain “wait-and-see” mentality; most actors are engaging with all sides hoping to secure influence regardless of the outcome and to avoid a civil war that may spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be and how the situation will develop in Afghanistan following the conclusion of the NATO and U.S. withdrawal from the country.

From our partner RIAC

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The failure of the great games in Afghanistan from the 19th century to the present day

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Whenever great powers have tried to make Afghanistan a colony, they have always been defeated. British imperialism and its “civilising mission” towards backward (and therefore terrorist) populations – a mission equal to that of the time when Great Britain established itself as the first drug pusher to the Chinese Empire with the two opium wars of 1839-1842; 1856-1860: an action that was terrorist at the best.

The Russian Empire and its exporting the orthodox faith and the values of the Tsar towards the barbaric (and therefore terrorist) Afghans. The Soviet Union and its attempt to impose secularisation on Muslim (and therefore terrorist) Afghans in the period 1979-1991. The United States of America that thought it could create parties, democracy, Coke, miniskirts, as well as gambling and pleasure houses by bombing the Afghan terrorists tout-court.

In this article I will try to explain why Afghanistan won 4-0, and in 1919 – thanks to its rulers’ wise skills – was one of the only six actual independent Asian States (Japan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen), so that at least the barroom experts – who, by their nature, believe that History is just a fairy tale like that of Cinderella and stepmother with evil sisters – reflect on the nonsense we read and hear every day in the press and in the media.

In his book I luoghi della Storia (Rizzoli, Milan 2000), former Ambassador Sergio Romano wrote on page 196: “The Afghans spent a good part of the nineteenth century playing a diplomatic and military game with the great powers – the so-called “Great Game” – the main rule of which was to use the Russians against the Brits and the Brits against the Russians”.

In the days when geopolitics was a forbidden subject and the word was forbidden, in the history textbooks of secondary schools it seemed that the United States of America and the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had fallen from the sky as large as they were on the atlases. I still remember that in the dialogues between professors and high school students, it was stated that the two powers could not be called colonial, since they had something messianic and redeeming in themselves (therefore anti-terrorist).

It was only thanks to western movies that the young people of the time understood how the thirteen Lutheran colonies had extended westwards into lands that we were led to believe had been inhabited by savage villains to be exterminated (hence terrorists) and by uncivilised Spaniards, as Catholics, to be defeated. Moreover, we did not dare to study Russia’s expansion eastwards and southwards, at the risk that the high school students – unprepared, pure and enthusiastic – would understand that the homeland of socialism had no different assumptions from all other imperialisms.

Sometimes the students heard about the great game or, in Russian, the tournament of shadows (turniry teney). What was the great game? Today it is mostly remembered as the epic of freedom of the unconquered Afghans, but in reality its solution meant the alliance between Russia and Great Britain, which lasted at least until the eve of the Cold War. A key position that is sometimes too overlooked, and not only in scientific and classical textbooks, but also in many essays by self-proclaimed experts.

British aversion to the Russian Empire – apart from the “necessary” anti-Napoleonic alliances in the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Coalitions – dated back to the 17th century and worsened considerably in the 19th century. Although Russian exports of grain, natural fibres and other agricultural crops were made to Great Britain – because the Russian landowners were well disposed to good relations with the Brits in order to better market those products abroad – there were no political improvements. The opposition came more from Great Britain than from Russia.

Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1825-55) – in the late 1830s, during his trip to Great Britain in 1842, and later in 1850-52, i.e. just before the Crimean War (1853-56) – often tried to bring about normalisation, but due to British suspicions and doubts (the Russians were considered to be terrorists) this did not occur.

What worried the Foreign Office – created in March 1782 – was Russia’s fast march eastwards, southwards and south-westwards. Great Britain could feel Russian breath on it from the three sides of India. The Russian goals with regard to Turkey, the successes in Trancaucasia and the Persian goals, not to mention the colonisation of Central Asia, initiated by the aforementioned Tsar Nicholas I, and conducted vigorously by his successor Alexander II (1818-1855-81), were – for Her Britannic Majesty’s diplomats and generals – a blatant and threatening intimidation of India’s “pearl”.

In the north-west of the Indian subcontinent the British possessions bordered on the Thar desert and on Sindh (the Indus River delta) which constituted a Muslim State under leaders residing at Haidarābād, conquered by the Brits in 1843. To the north-east of Sindh, the Punjab region had been amalgamated into a strong State by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Ji (1780-1801-39) who, as a simple Governor of Lahore (Lâhau) on behalf of the Afghan Emir, Zaman Shah Durrani (1770-93-1800-†44), had succeeded not only in becoming independent, but also in extending his power over Kashmir and Pīshāwar, creating the Sikh Empire in 1801, which was overthrown by Great Britain during the I (1845-46) and II (1848-49) Anglo-Sikh wars; the region became what is known as the Pakistani Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the North-West Frontier Province).

Given the British expansion into the neighbouring States of Afghanistan and Persia, Russia’s influence was trying to creep in; hence the Brits were paying close attention to what was happening on the border of the great Northern “neighbour”.

Russia had long been aiming to make its way to India through Western Turkestan, but that steppe region was inhabited by the Kyrgyz in the north-east and the Turks (Turkmen) in the south-west.

After unsuccessful attempts at peaceful penetration, the Russian Governor of Orenburg, Gen. Vasilij Alekseevič Perovskij (1794-1857), prepared an expedition against Chiva: it involved crossing about a thousand kilometres of desert and was thought to be easier to make during the winter. The expedition left from Orenburg in November 1839, but the cold killed so many men and camels that the Commander had to give up the venture and turn back (spring 1840). For a long time, the Russians did not attempt any more military infiltrations there.

In Persia, instead, Russian influence was strongly felt: Tsar Alexander II pushed the Shah, Naser al-Din Qajar (1831-48-96), to undertake an enterprise against the city of Herāt (which dominated the passage from Persia and Western Turkestan into India): it had detached itself from Afghanistan and had been a separate State since 1824. The Persian expedition began in the autumn of 1837: Herāt resisted strenuously, so much so that in the summer of 1838 the Shah had to renounce the siege and accept Britain’s mediation for peace with the sovereign of that city. That diplomatic move was therefore also detrimental to the influence of St. Petersburg. Even the first relations established by Russia with the Emir of Afghanistan did not lead to any result.

In those years, Russia was busy quelling the insurrections of the mountain populations in the Caucasus, where the exploits of the alleged Italian sheikh, Mansur Ushurma (Giambattista Boetti, 1743-98), in the service of the Chechen cause, still echoed.

Through two treaties concluded with Persia (1828) and Turkey (1829), Russia had become the master of the region; however, it found an obstinate resistance from the local populations that still persists today.

The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) was one of the most important military conflicts of the great game and one of the worst British defeats in the region. The Brits had started an expedition to Afghanistan to overthrow Emir Dost Mohammad (1793-1826-39, 42-63), the first of the Barakzai dynasty, and replace him with the last of the Durrani dynasty, Ayub Shah (17??-1819-23, †37), who had been dethroned in 1823, but he renounced. Not wanting to cross the Sikh country in order not to arouse mistrust among the Sikhs, the British entered Baluchistan, occupied the capital (Qalat), then penetrated into Afghanistan and advanced without encountering serious resistance as far as Kabul, where on August 7, 1839 they installed their own puppet, Shuja Shah (1785-1842), formerly Emir from 1803 to 1809.

Dost Mohammad was caught and sent to Calcutta. A the beginning of 1841, however, one of his sons – Sher Ali – aroused the Afghans’ rebellion. The military commander, Gen. William George Keith Elphinstone (b. 1782), got permission to leave with 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 non-combatants to return to India. In the mountain passes near Kabul, however, the expedition was taken by surprise and annihilated (January 1842). The commander died as prisoner of the Afghans (on April 23).

The Brits obviously wanted revenge: they sent other troops that, in September of the same year, reconquered Kabul: this time the Brits – intimidated – did not deem it advisable to remain there. Convinced they had reaffirmed a certain prestige, they withdrew and, since the Emir they protected had died on April 5, 1842, they agreed – helplessly – to Dost Mohammad’s return to the throne. He conquered Herāt forever for Afghanistan.

Russia did not just stand by and watch and asserted its power in the Far East. In the years 1854-58 – despite its engagement in the Crimean war: the first real act of the great game, as Britain had to defend the Ottoman Empire from Sarmatian aspirations of conquest – it had established, with a series of expeditions, its jurisdiction over the province of Amur, through the Treaty of Aigun – labelled as the unequal treaty as it was imposed on China – on May 28, 1858. Shortly afterwards the fleet arrived at Tien-Tsin (Tianjin), forced China into another treaty on June 26-27, thus obtaining the opening of ports for trade, and the permanence of a Russian embassy in Peking. Moreover, in Central Asia, Russia renewed its attempts to advance against the khanates of Buchara and Kokand (Qo’qon), and had once again led the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Qajar (1853-96-1907), to try again the enterprise of Herāt (1856), which had caused again the British intervention (Anglo-Persian War, 1856-57) that ended with Persia’s recognition of the independence of the aforementioned city. The Anglo-Russian rivalry thus continued to be one of the essential problems of Central Asia, for the additional reason that Russia gradually expanded into West Turkestan, Buchara and Chiva between 1867 and 1873.

After the Russian conquests in West Turkestan, Dost Mohammad’ son and successor, Sher Ali (1825-63-66, 68-79), came under the influence of the neighbouring power, which was trying to penetrate the area to the detriment of Britain. On July 22, 1878 St Petersburg sent a mission. The Emir repelled a similar British mission at the Khyber Pass in September 1878, thus triggering the start of the war. The Brits soon opened hostilities, invading the country with 40,000 soldiers

 from three different points.

The Emir went into exile in Mazār-i-Sharīf, leaving his son Mohammad Yaqub (1849-79-80, †1914) as heir. He signed the Treaty of Gandamak on May 26, 1879 to prevent a British invasion of the rest of the country.

Once the British First Resident, the Italian Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari (b. 1841) went to Kabul, he was assassinated there on September 3, 1879. British troops organised a second expedition and occupied the capital. They did not trust the Emir and raised a nephew of Dost Mohammed, Abdur Rahman (1840/44-80-1901), to power on May 31, 1880. He pledged to have no political relations except with Britain.

The former Emir, Mohammad Yaqub, took up arms and severely defeated the Brits at Maiwand on July 27, 1880, with the help of the Afghan heroine Malalai Anaa (1861-80), who rallied the Pashtun troops against the attackers. On September 1 of the same year Mohammad Yaqub was defeated and put to flight by Gen. Frederick Roberts (1832-1914) in the Battle of Kandahâr, which ended the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

This brought Afghanistan permanently under British influence, which was secured by the construction of a railway from the Indus River to the Afghan city of Kandahâr. Since the railway passed through Beluchistan, it was definitively annexed to British India. In 1880, Russia began the construction of the Transcaspian Railway, which alarmed the Brits who extended the section of their “railroad” to Herāt.

It was only with the accession to the throne of Imānullāh (1892-1919-29, †60), on February 28, 1919 (Shah from 1926), that Afghanistan took its foreign policy away from Great Britain through the Third Anglo-Afghan War (6 May-8 August 1919), by which the Afghans finally threw the Brits out of the picture (Treaty of Râwalpindî of August 8, 1919, amended on November 22, 1921).

As early as 1907, the Russian government had declared it considered Afghanistan to be outside its sphere of influence, and pledged not to send any agents there, as well as to consult the British government about its relations with that country.

Indeed, Britain soon gave up direct control of the country, given the fierce fighting spirit of its people, who had humiliated it many times, and contented itself with guarding and keeping the north-west Indian border under control.

In reality, the great game has never ended. As Spartacus Alfredo Puttini stated (La Russia di Putin sulla scacchiera, in “Eurasia”, A. IX, No. 1, January-March 2012, pp. 129-147), upon his coming to power Vladimir Putin found himself grappling with a difficult legacy. Gorbachev’s policy of katastroika had dealt a lethal blow to the Soviet and later Russian colossus.

Within a few years, Russia had embarked on a unilateral disarmament that led, at first, to its withdrawal from Afghanistan and then from Central and Eastern Europe. While the State was heading for collapse and the economy was being disrupted, it was the very periphery of the Soviet Union that was catching fire due to separatist movements promptly subsidised by those who – in the great game – replaced the Brits. Massive US aid to the heroic anti-Soviet patriots, who were later branded as terrorists.

In a short time the real collapse occurred and the ‘new’ Russia found itself geopolitically shrunken and morally and materially prostrated by the great looting made by the pro-Western oligarchs in the shadow of the Yeltsin Presidency.

To the west, the country had returned to the borders of the 17th century; to the south, it had lost Southern Caucasus and valuable Central Asia, where the new great game was soon to begin. In other words, the process of disruption would not stop, and would infect the Russian Federation itself: Chechnya had engaged in a furious war of secession that threatened to spread like wildfire to the whole of Northern Caucasus and, in the long run, called into question the very survival of the Russian State divided into autonomous entities.

This was followed by the phenomenon of “orangism” in 2003-2005 (Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan): the various caricatures of oxymoronic “liberal” revolutions aimed at moving certain governments away from Russia’s influence.

Ultimately, the central power had been undermined on all sides by the policy of Yeltsin and his clan, aimed at granting extensive autonomy to the regions of the Federation. Public property, the glue of State authority and the instrument of its concrete activity to guide and orient the nation, had been sold off. Over time, Putin put things right, and the rest is condensed into the restoration choices of the plebiscitary vote in his favour.

In the end Afghanistan also saw the US failure, which I have examined in previous articles.

The Asian sense of freedom is summed up in the expulsion of foreign aggressors from their own homelands and territories. Someone should start to understand this.

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The Post-US Withdrawal Afghanistan: India, China and the ‘English Diplomacy’

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The recent developments in Afghanistan, the impatient Tri-axis and the emphatic India at SCO, with the ‘English Diplomacy’ at display that tends to blunt the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea mark a new power interplay in the world politics. It also shows why the US went for AUKUS and how it wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific.

Afghanistan has turned out to be the most incandescent point of world politics today deflecting the eyes from the South China Sea and Gaza Strip. What is more startling is the indifferent attitude United States has shown to the other stakeholders in the war torn state. While Brexit appears to have created fissure in the European Union the AUKUS effects further marginalisation of France and India against the US-British and QUAD understandings. The vacuum that US have created in Afghanistan has invited several actors willing to expand their energy access to central Asia and Afghanistan provides an important bridge in between. The TAPI economics (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) and huge Indian investments are endangered by the Afghan security question and make it imminent for India to stay in Afghanistan as a reckoning force.

The Taliban and the Troika

While the Russo-Chinese and Pakistani engagement with the Taliban’s takeover was visible the US exit has invited the wrath of other stakeholders like India, Saudi Arabia and Iran. India is significantly affected because of its huge investments of over 3 billion dollars over two decades in Afghanistan that would become target of the orthodox retrogressive Taliban regime. The government of India’s stand on Afghanistan is that an ‘Afghan peace process should be Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled. Any political settlement must be inclusive and should preserve the socio-economic and political gains of the past 19 years. India supports a united, democratic and sovereign Afghanistan. India is deeply concerned about the increase in violence and targeted killings in Afghanistan. India has called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire’(MEA).

However, the takeover by Taliban that endangers India’s strategic and capital interests has made it pro-active in the state. Probably for the first time in Afghan history, India has shown aggressive tones against the militant government which may create problem for Kashmir in the longer run. The Pakistani air force’s engagement over the Panjashir assault by Taliban has unravelled the larger plans of destabilisation in South Asia.

In the meantime China has unequivocally expressed its willingness, as was expected to work with Taliban. The visit of Taliban delegation, led by Abdul Ghani Baradar who also heads the office of Taliban at Doha, met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials in Tianjin, on July 28, 2021. The visit followed the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Kureshi’s visit to Beijing and unravelled how the two states have been supporting the Talibani cause. Although, China has its own perceptions about Xinjiang and Mr. Wang even told the Taliban “to draw a line” between the group and terror organisations, specifically the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which has carried out attacks in Xinjiang. Russia too has shown interest in Taliban and it didn’t plan to evacuate its embassy at Kabul. Its foreign ministry official Zamir Kabulov said that Russia will carefully see how responsibly they (Taliban) govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions.

The little Indo-Russian engagements over Afghanistan have minimised the scope of cooperation over the decades now. Although, Russia has been trying to follow a balancing policy between India and Pakistan yet its leanings towards the latter is manifest from its recent policies. “The extent of Russia-Pakistan coordination broadened in 2016, as Russia, China, and Pakistan created a trilateral format to discuss stabilizing Afghanistan and counterterrorism strategy. In December 2016, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks on combating Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), which were widely criticized in the U.S. for excluding the Afghan government.” (Ramani). The deliberate neglect of Afghan government and Indian role reveals the neo-Russian policy in South Asia that de-hyphenates India and Pakistan and sees Pakistan through the lens of BRI and at the cost of North-South Corridor. The Chinese and Russian belief that by supporting Taliban they will secure security for their disturbed territories and escape from terrorism appears to be unrealistic keeping in view the Taliban’s characteristics which are chameleon like i.e. political, organizational and jihadi at the same time looking for appropriate opportunities.

Is it the Post-Brexit Plan?

The Brexit ensures a better space for Britain; at least this is what Brits believe, in international politics following the future US overseas projects. However, it for sure annoys some of its serious allies with the new takes. The announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact, a historic security pact in the Asia-Pacific to contain China is an important step in this direction. The Brexit and the US-withdrawal seen together mark a shift in US policy perception of Asia that aims at Asia Pacific more as compared to Central Asia. It has not only betrayed India in Afghanistan but also France through AUKUS which sees an end to its multibillion dollar deal with Australia. France now shows a stronger commitment to support India in its moves against Taliban and Pakistan’s interventions.

President Macron recalled French ambassadors for consultations after the AUKUS meet that dropped France deliberately from the major maritime security deal. The French anguish is not about its absence in the deal by the Canberra, Washington and London but being an allied nation, its neglect in the secret deal. “The announcement ended a deal worth $37bn (£27bn) that France had signed with Australia in 2016 to build 12 conventional submarines. China meanwhile accused the three powers involved in the pact of having a “Cold War mentality”(Schofield 2021). It also reminds one of the Roosevelt’s efforts at truncating French arms in Asia, especially in Indo-China and the consequent sequence of betrayals by the US. AUKUS also symbolises the ‘English diplomacy’ of the English speaking states just like the Five Eyes (FVEY), an intelligence alliance consisting of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Started around 1946 the member countries are parties to the multilateral UKUSA Agreement, a treaty for joint cooperation in signals intelligence. Recently there have been voices for taking India, Japan and South Korea also into its fold to strengthen the contain China job.

The Wildered QUAD

While the first ever in-person QUAD summit approaches near, the announcement of AUKUS shows haze that prevails over the US decision making. President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japan’s Yoshihide Suga meet at the White House for the summit on September 24, 2021. This follows the virtual meet held in March 2021. How apposite it would be to declare a maritime deal at a time when the QUAD meet is about to take place with the same motives and plans, notwithstanding the fact that QUAD has a wider platform for discussion like climate change, cyberspace, pandemic and Indo-Pacific. Is there an uncertainty over the realisation of QUAD? However, AUKUS  unravels the US intentions of first line preferences and second line associates in its future projects that will further marginalise its allies like France, Germany and many other states in future.

SCO

At SCO meet at Dushanbe India has unequivocally announced its view of the situation that takes Taliban as a challenge to peace and development in Afghanistan and South Asia. Prime Minister Modi remarked that the first issue is that the change of authority in Afghanistan was not inclusive and this happened without negotiation. This raises questions on the prospects of recognition of the new system. Women, minorities and different groups have not been given due representation. He also insisted on the crucial role that UN can play in Afghanistan. India’s investment in the Iranian port of Chabahar and the International North-South Corridor along with TAPI are central to its argument on the recent developments in Afghanistan. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar had also remarked in July 2021 that the landlocked Central Asian countries can benefit immensely by connecting with the huge market of India and the future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and that the world must not let the new generation of Afghans down (Hindustan Times). The Indian message is clear and received huge support at Dushanbe and India is poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan, where the US and Russia have failed miserably.

The Internal Dynamics

The internal dynamics in Afghanistan presage a government by uncertainty in the coming months as Sirajudin Haqqani of Pak supported Haqqani network, captures Mulla Baradar, the man who settled the deal with US at Doha. It appears from the Pakistani backed government of Haqqani that Baradar has been dumped for his commitment for inclusive government expected to be pro-west against the Sino-Pakistan expectations. The US reluctance to remain engaged in the troubled region marks a shift in US foreign policy but the exclusion of its allies from Indo-Pacific plan are bound to bring new engagements in world power politics. While US dumped Afghans France and Israel appear as new hopes for Indian led moves against the undemocratic terrorist forces in Afghanistan.

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South Asia

Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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