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US retreat from Afghanistan escalates neighbours’ scramble to fill the gap

This next stage of the endless war will only lead to more suffering as new players jockey for position while the Taliban increases control

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
24 April 2021, 8.00am
Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, where human rights are diminishing
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Getty Images / Paula Bronstein. All rights reserved

President Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by 11 September is seen as final unless there is a sustained Taliban campaign to force the US military into a rapid and ignominious retreat. In that event, the troops would stay throughout the winter but Taliban leaders have little need to force the Americans out and are most likely content to wait the four months beyond the original May departure date.

In Afghanistan, there are widespread fears that the Taliban have already been so successful that they will quickly assume full control, initially of rural areas and then the whole country. That prospect creates concerns for many, especially for women’s rights.

For now, the impact of the US pull-out on the Afghan government’s negotiations with the Taliban is difficult to assess. The weak administration in Kabul of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has been protected from having to find a deal by the US presence, and the Taliban have also been able to play for time by blaming the US occupiers for all ills.

In any case, this is all overshadowed by what the United States does next and any idea that the Pentagon is taking its complete leave of Afghanistan is a myth. The main post-occupation aim will not be to support human rights and the development of Afghanistan but to prevent a new upsurge of al-Qaida, Isis and other paramilitary groups that might threaten US interests there or abroad.

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Remote warfare

In addition to the 2,500 US troops in the country, there are reported to be another 1,000 who are not counted in the official tally, many of whom are assumed to be special forces. As The New York Times put it: “The murky accounting results from some Special Operations Forces having been put ‘off the books’, Pentagon officials say, to include some elite Army Rangers, who work under both the Pentagon and the CIA while deployed to Afghanistan.”

There are also 16,000 civilian contractors, including 6,000 Americans. Some of those may remain, especially the more than 1,000 who already have armed roles, as many of them are former special forces soldiers now under contract.

Many of these contractors would be available for intelligence gathering but they would just be a small part of an intervention capability, all part of a more general transition to low-profile, remote warfare. Much of this remote warfare would involve airstrikes relying heavily on standoff weapons and armed drones to minimise risks to aircrews.

Back in the early days of the war, 2001-2, the US linked up with Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to take on Afghanistan. Now, new links are expected to be made, to the annoyance of both Beijing and Moscow.

More generally, the US can use carrier-based air power in the Eastern Mediterranean and Arabian Seas, there is still a large base on Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean and there are many facilities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates, not forgetting the regional air force headquarters in Qatar and the new naval facility at Duqm in Oman, handily located outside the congested waters of the Gulf (and also available to the UK in its new ‘imperial east of Suez’ role).

Due to its links with the Taliban, Pakistan leads the pack ahead of India, China, Turkey and Iran

All of this relates to the United States, but there are also upwards of 10,000 troops from other NATO states, including the UK. They have been planning to get out in September, even though many of them have been playing significant training roles. The security situation is so uncertain though, that the retreat may even be brought forward to 4 July.

The much wider picture in the coming months and years will be intense international power plays as neighbouring states jockey for position in this latest stage of ‘The New Great Game’. The British and Russian empires were central to the century-long struggle known as ‘The Great Game’, but neither is that significant any longer, especially Britain. Since geopolitical interest in Central Asia was renewed in the 1990s after the area’s mineral wealth became available to foreign interests after the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Russia has remained largely on the sidelines, and the major players now are Pakistan, India and China, along with Turkey and Iran.

Pakistan leads the pack due to many long-term links between its powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban. Pakistan’s absolute priority is to minimise any Indian influence in Afghanistan, whereas New Delhi seeks the direct opposite. The Pakistani army, in particular, fears India almost to the level of paranoia, convinced that the Hindu nationalist creed of Hindutva is all about creating a greater South Asia incorporating Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and, of course, Pakistan.

That may be seen as over the top by some outside commentators but Modi’s stridently nationalist BJP government, especially its behaviour in Kashmir, looks to Pakistani army leaders as proof of what they have been warning about for years.

One outcome of this is that Pakistan is more than happy to improve its relations with China, and recent reports that China might look for a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan is likely to be as much welcomed in Islamabad as it is resisted in New Delhi.

The game evolves

China has previously trained Afghan troops in mountain warfare, but over different terrain in China, whereas this new role would involve peacekeeping in Afghanistan. China fears that a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan could fuel opposition among the Islamic Uyghurs in north-western China. Whatever the extent of that fear, Beijing can see obvious advantages to such a close link in terms of its long-time competition with India. That, in turn, pushes New Delhi closer to Washington, and so the ‘Game’ evolves.

Meanwhile, Iran will build up its many existing connections in Western Afghanistan. It has little liking for the Taliban and also fears the continued smuggling of heroin across the border that fuels its substantial domestic drug problem. Even so, like China it wants to increase its connections with Afghanistan, not in its case because of India but as part of its opposition to what it sees as the threat from the US.

Extending the ‘Game’ further, there is Turkey, considered likely to be the one NATO country that would prefer to keep some troops in Afghanistan. Turkey recognises Afghanistan’s geopolitically important location, as well as its considerable mineral riches, and sees the country as a useful addition to its potential sphere of influence.

What is lacking in almost all of these machinations is a concern for the people of Afghanistan – although that hasn’t changed much since the US and its allies went to war with Afghanistan in the first place, two decades ago.

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