Power Vacuum in Afghanistan: A By-product of An Incompetent Geopolitical Contract

I still recall the evening of December 18, 2011, when I read the news of the last U.S. troops being pulled out of Iraq, that ended an eight-year-long military involvement in the region. Somehow the news instantly gave me an uneasy feeling knowing that a catastrophic storm was awaiting and will mark the beginning of a cataclysmic civil war. Within hours of U.S. military troops leaving the land, Iraqi’s rival Sunni and Shi’ite factions resumed a kind of political infighting that threatened a lurch back into turmoil. Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an immediate dissolution of his Sunni deputy and issued an arrest warrant for the Sunni Vice President. Not only Sunnis gradually lost the authority of power in the government and security discourse, but the Sunni elites, who challenged Maliki were subsequently either tortured or killed. Out on the streets, after the ISF raided the home of Iraq’s minister of finance, who was also a member of Iraqiya coalition, Sunni protest broke out in Fallujah; and the fire spread across the country. Iraqi Security forces killed between 50-65 civilians on Maliki’s order. This led to the most notorious consortium in the history of global terrorism – an alliance between the Sunnis and ISIS. On July 21, 2013, ISIS initiated a 12-month campaign called the ‘Soldier’s Harvest’ on Iraqi security forces, teamed up with Sunni tribal leaders and former Baathists, and ultimately forcing ISF to evacuate Fallujah and remnants of its government. Soon after, ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib prison freeing up to 1000 minacious inmates, including senior al-Qaida leaders and militants. Empowered and endued with Sunni support, ISIS officially seized Fallujah, parts of Ramadi and Mosul, by June 2014. By gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash and armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S. military troops. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. Not just the Middle East, ISIS spread its terror tyranny globally as well with strategic attacks on Paris and Brussels.

So, what led to the birth of ISIS? Two words – Power vacuum; and the U.S. policy in Iraq between 2010 and 2011 actively created this geopolitical conditions in which ISIS thrived.

Stages of Power Vacuum – From The Birth of ISIS in Iraq to Rise of The Taliban in Afghanistan

If one thing that we have learned from the U.S led invasion in Iraq is that an incompetent geopolitical contract abhors a political vacuum. In political science, the term power vacuum is an analogy that deconstructs and artificially manufactures power relations and political conditions in a country that has no identifiable central power or authority. In a critical situation like this, the inflow of armed militia, insurgents, warlords, dictators, and military coups to fill this vacuum becomes an organic response, and it comes with a cost – the cost being a noxious civil war and national unrest. On the other hand, a power vacuum can also thrive in conditions following a constitutional crisis where the majority of the ruling government entities resign or are removed, giving birth to an unclear anecdote regarding succession to the position of power. 

What happened in Iraq starting December 2011, and what is happening in Afghanistan today in 2021, is a result of a power vacuum – a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Twenty years after being forced into power annihilation by the U.S led military bases in Afghanistan, the Taliban is now actively resuming its power as the U.S continues to execute its full exit. Within hours of Joe Biden announcing the official termination of U.S military involvement in the country, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani worded a farewell post on social media, vocalizing that he must leave the country to prevent bloodshed. Today, the only remnant left of his political presence is his departing statement, “Long Live Afghanistan.” With the President fleeing the country, and creating a constitutional crisis of succession to the position of power, what we are witnessing is the manifestation of the initial stage of power vacuum. Soon after the President abandoned the country, the Taliban released a statement declaring that the group has taken over Kabul, a capital city of 6 million civilians, and is working to restore law and order. Considering the reputation of the Taliban – infamous for brutality, repression of women, and execution of religious minorities in the past, the idea of restoration of law and order appears antagonistic.

However, I am not interested in deconstructing the inimical and deleterious ideologies of the Taliban, but unfolding the mechanisms of the power vacuum in Afghanistan. With the Taliban now actively trying to fill this power vacuum created after Ghani’s disappearance, the second stage is at play. The primary question here is not about who will form the national government, but what type of alliance will be established among entities to procure this power. The typology of this alliance – its fundamental values, utility, durability, and workability, will regulate Afghanistan’s democracy and sovereignty in the coming years. If one turns back to 2011 in Iraq, you will recall how the alliance between Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS gave birth to a global terror reign. This was a direct result of abysmal policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops from Iraq. So, the question is – now that the U.S military troop has ended its twenty-year-long involvement in Afghanistan, what type of alliance will be formed to fill this power vacuum? Will it be as catastrophic as Iraq? As the Taliban continues to coercively occupy the cities, Matthew Levitt, Director of Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy adds, “The possibility is very strong that Afghanistan will have both – a weak government and a government that has a close alliance with the elements of al-Qaeda. To add, there is an element of ISIS, ISIS Khorasan, as well. Although the Taliban doesn’t like them, but as we are witnessing the effort to evacuate people through Kabul airport and the threats of ISIS suicide bombers coming into Kabul, the fact is that the Taliban probably won’t for a very long time have control over all of the city, let alone all of the country. So, there will be an element of a safe haven even for groups that the Taliban doesn’t like – groups and alliances that will use Afghanistan as a base from which to operate and carry out terrorist attacks nationally and globally.” 

It is worth noting that the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda started with its leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who pledged their allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in kid 1990s, and accepted Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) of all Sunni Muslims. Al-Zawahiri later re-affirmed this pledge to Omar’s successors. Soon after, al-Qaeda gained substantial freedom to operate in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In return, al-Qaeda doled out money to the Taliban. Since then, to up till now, the alliance between Taliban and al-Qaeda has flourished mutually. Soon after the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda congratulated the group and spoke about their alliance for Kashmir liberation in India. A letter was addressed to the Taliban by al-Qaeda and was shared on Twitter by a journalist. It read, “Allah! liberate the Levant, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir, and the rest of the Islamic lands from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.”

If this alliance continues to grow stronger to seize power, the probable birthing of one of the deadliest terror organizations is certain – a terror entity that would not only have passive support of the Taliban but would surpass the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq. This is a direct result of Biden’s ham-fisted deliberation to exit Afghanistan abruptly, leaving a space to harbor national unrest, the collapse of a democratically elected government, procurement of this political vacuum by insurgents, and brutal violence by the Taliban against its civilians. In short – the fall down of Afghanistan democracy.

The third stage of the power vacuum is yet to mature in Afghanistan. This stage expediates the process of procurement of power, if any of the entities trying to seize power acquires economic funding and gets equipped with advanced military weapons. Jan Pieterzoon Coen, a leading officer of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, said, “There’s no trade without war; there’s no war without trade”. He was right. The establishing of power requires a trade that allows an alliance of immaterial ideology between groups and hoarding of material resources (weapons and money)  to execute the ideology. In 2011, the Islamic State armed itself with two divisions’ worth of military weapons and ammunition that were left behind by the U.S military troops. They used these weapons to terrorize the civilians, execute opposition, and expand their captured territory. Another material resource may include stolen or funded cash apart from military machinery. For example, by gripping Mosul alone, ISIS gained $480 million in stolen cash. And, within six months, ISIS became the world’s most well-funded and equipped terrorist group in the world – controlling approximately 100,00 square kilometers of territory across Iraq and Syria at its zenith. So, what we observe here is that the acquisition of economic funding or military weapons gives birth to an effectively exercised political control through coercive means, and internalization of this coercive mechanisms by the civilians. In both cases, the mission is accomplished – an attempt to seize power vacuum by occupying the land and psyche of its civilians. Today, a similar narrative is at play in Afghanistan. The speed with which the Taliban swept across Afghanistan is reminiscent of Islamic State militants taking weapons from the U.S.- supplied Iraqi forces, who like the Afghan Air Force offered little resistance. Grey Myer and Scott Neuman writes, “The Taliban wasted no time in gloating over their new war booty. Photos and video posted to social media show the Taliban posing with captured aircraft, trucks, Humvees, artillery guns and night-vision goggles captured. Such equipment could be used to suppress internal dissent or fight off their rivals. Before the Taliban captured it, the Afghan air force had more than 40 operational U.S.-made MD-530 helicopters. The Taliban has already shown itself ready and willing to use U.S.-made small arms and other technology. Non-weaponry technology like the Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, U.S. devices containing biometric data, could be used to find potential threats in hiding. I have fallen into the hands of Taliban.” This stage is climacteric

in materializing the procurement of power into a reality. Even if they would be protest in Afghanistan against the rise of the Taliban as the central power, Taliban will use the overwhelming amount of potential weaponry to stifle the dissent and expand their captured territory to places like Panjshir valley.

Who will procure the power in Afghanistan?

The Taliban will eventually seize power, but it would form a weak government, with under-the-table alliance with al-Qaeda; and would potentially foster the inflow and breeding of other groups like ISIS and  ISIS Khorasan in Afghanistan. With opium and rich copper deposits, the international intervention is likely to be seen – motivated by self-interest as opposed to the interest of advocating for civil rest and peace in Afghanistan. Beijing has already held a talk with Taliban officials over the implementation for strategic engagement. It is highly possible that the $25 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project is extended to Afghanistan now that the U.S has vacated the country. Financial support would most likely be delivered hand-in-hand with Beijing’s strongest ally in the region – Pakistan, allowing the Chinese government to persuade the Taliban to sever links with East Turkestan Islamic Movement group, who have executed terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province. On the other side of the border, India – a Hindu extremist governed country, is also in injudicious talks with the Taliban.  Taliban’s close association with al-Qaeda can potentially create a political defilement and unrest in Kashmir, India. This may manifest into border security threat and infiltration of terrorists – manufactured by al-Qaeda, but with the Taliban’s blessings as the central power. To conclude, to think of Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’ is a zombie narrative. It is being revived to deflect, distract and distort the failure of Biden and the U.S military policies in Afghanistan. The truth is far simpler than we complicate – The creation of a power vacuum in Afghanistan is a direct result of abysmal foreign policy deliberation and the abrupt exit of the U.S military troops. It is indeed a by-product of an incompetent geopolitical contract. Biden’s administration must be held accountable for harbouring a space for demolition of a democratically elected government and rise of the Taliban terror in Afghanistan.

Parul Verma
Parul Verma
Parul Verma is a political analyst and a human rights activist. Her work analyses transnational conflict, peace-building and peace-keeping in relation to Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland and Kashmir. She has also written extensively on minority lynching and violence against women in India. Her work has been published in more than 20+ academic journals and international media establishments. Her part-time job involves talking gibberish to her two naughty rabbits – Whiskey and Beer! For any query or feedback, contact her at parul_edu[at]icloud.com.