Afghanistan – figuring out geopolitical winners and losers

Kym Bergmann / Singapore

Until the Soviet Union invaded neighbouring Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War in December 1979, no contemporary western policy makers would have spent more than a couple of seconds thinking about the place.  Landlocked, remote, backward, with an inhospitable climate and impoverished largely uneducated Muslim population and few natural resources that could be easily exploited, it was geopolitically insignificant.  Its main claim to historical fame was that it was close to unconquerable because of a mixture of geography and fiercely independent ethnic groups – as Britain discovered to its cost in the 19th century.

How rapidly that changed.  A communist coup in 1978 saw the installation of an ideologically extremely hard-line pro-Moscow government that soon became deeply unpopular because of a number of measures, such as attempts at land reform and modernising marriage customs.  An irony of the subsequent Soviet invasion was that it was an attempt to replace one communist regime with another that was a little more palatable to the general population.

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A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported approximately 640 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport Aug. 15, 2021. U.S. Air Force courtesy photo.

That did not work out as planned and Afghanistan quickly degenerated into an extremely violent civil war.  In the 1970s and 80s the United States and its allies were pitted in an ideological struggle with the Soviet Union and were fighting several proxy conflicts, including in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America.  The Soviets had just recently clocked up a huge “win” with the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces in 1975.

Then the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 suddenly and shockingly deprived the US of its strongest and most reliable ally in the Middle East, apart from Israel.  When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980 – Iraq launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbour – Washington was an enthusiastic backer of Saddam Hussein.  Remember him?  The US willingly supplied arms and free military satellite imagery to Baghdad in the hope of doing as much damage to Tehran – and indirectly Moscow – as they could.

By the early 1980s, the west and some countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia started to see the war in Afghanistan as another opportunity to weaken the USSR.  Up to 5 million anti-Soviet Afghans had fled across the border into Pakistan and many were itching for a fight.  Washington, Riyadh – and especially Islamabad, which had its own complex history with Kabul – saw a large group of disposed angry men of military age as potential holy warriors who could be armed and trained to take on the godless communists from Moscow.  And so, the Mujahadeen resistance movement was born.

Fighting intensified, with the Mujahadeen receiving large quantities of arms and ammunition – including man portable ground to air missiles – supplied by the US, Egypt, Pakistan and Britain, amongst others.  The Soviets deployed more and more troops, with which they were able to hold the cities but not the countryside and were supported by the indiscriminate use of air power. Casualties mounted on all sides and atrocities took place – but the Mujahadeen were able to operate safely from cross border sanctuaries in Pakistan and gradually gained the upper hand.

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Australian citizens and visa holders prepare to board the Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft, as Australian Army infantry personnel provide security and assist with cargo at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul. *** Local Caption *** A Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft and a force protection element from 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, departed Australia’s main operating base in the Middle East region on 22 August 2021 to evacuate Australian nationals and approved foreign nationals from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The aircraft is part of a fleet of two C-17A Globemaster aircraft, two C-130J Hercules aircraft and a KC-30 Multirole Tanker Transport aircraft deployed in support to Australian and coalition evacuation operations.

In the background, the Soviet economy was in poor shape and struggled to keep up with the arms race, especially when President Ronald Reagan moved up a gear with his strategic ‘Star Wars’ initiative, designed to make the US impervious to a nuclear missile attack.  The reformer Michael Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and started to look for ways out of Afghanistan and almost immediately started reducing forces – a process completed by February 1989.  By then the USSR had lost around 14,000 killed and 50,000 wounded.  Afghan casualties are not known but are believed to be multiples of that, with some estimates as high as 2 million deaths.

Astute readers will by now have figured out that the Mujahadeen morphed into the Taliban. After the departure of the Soviets, the civil war dragged on until September 1996 – and the Taliban then imposed an extremely harsh Islamic system of government on the country until they were in turn ousted by US backed forces in 2001. They were deposed because they had given shelter to even more extreme Al-Quada terrorists, who had launched the terror attacks on the Twin Towers.  The Taliban then followed the similar tactic of retreating to sanctuaries in Pakistan to continue the struggle, which after 20 years they have now won.

As an aside, after withdrawing forces the Russian-backed government in Kabul lasted for another 7 years, while the subsequent and very recent US-backed one lasted about 7 weeks.

After this dizzying 40-year history lesson, we now turn to the question: who benefits?  Firstly, it is almost certainly not the ordinary people of Afghanistan, who face even more conflict and economic hardship – and this is even more so for women and girls who are looking at a return to a life of oppression.  It is also not the US, which has lost a huge amount of prestige because of the appalling, amateurish way that their withdrawal has been mismanaged, creating the clear impression that Washington is no longer a reliable ally.  This is on top of 2,500 lives and an estimated $2 trillion of expenditure during the last 20 years.

Another self-perceived loser is India, whose decisionmakers continue to see foreign policy largely through the prism of intense rivalry with Pakistan – itself a continuing product of the extraordinary levels of violence that occurred when the countries divided in 1947.  The scale of the death, disruption and dislocation and the lasting scars it has caused are only dimly understood in the west.  It has caused a dynamic where every gain by Pakistan is seen as a loss to India – and vice versa.

Bizarrely, there are plenty of thinkers in New Delhi who believe that Pakistan has now “gained” Afghanistan – and that this additional land mass provides “strategic depth” into which the Pakistani Army could retreat in the event of a major conflict.  This completely overlooks the reality of geography, modern logistics and, frankly, just plain common sense – but this is the world that we live in.

Because Pakistan has been such a staunch backer of firstly the Mujahadeen and then the Taliban, it would be easy to see their victory and the abrupt departure of the US as some sort of geopolitical win for Islamabad.  The Pashtun tribe straddles both countries, with approximately 15 million in Afghanistan and 45 million in Pakistan – and ethnically they are likely to be the dominant group in the new government in Kabul, whenever that emerges.  In a complex relationship, Pakistan once considered itself to be an important regional ally of the US but is now firmly in the camp of China.

However, it might be a case of being careful what you wish for.  Pakistan also has a hard-line fundamentalist Islamic insurgency, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – the TTP.  While the Taliban were given sanctuary in Pakistan, so too the TPP has enjoyed a measure of protection back over the border in Afghanistan.  This movement is a series of loosely affiliated but heavily armed and extremely violent militias that are a large and ongoing headache for Islamabad, which is trying to steer a middle course on matters of domestic policy.  If the new government in Kabul decides to ignore the presence of the TPP it will definitely strain the friendship.

In the simplest geostrategic terms, the big winner is China.  Even though it shares a land border with Afghanistan – a strange, long, thin strip of land that is the by-product of the Durand Line from the 1890s – Beijing has stayed largely out of its neighbour’s affairs.  It was a supplier of arms to the Mujahadeen, but in a lowkey way.  On the evidence to date, it has not sought to play an active role in the domestic politics of its neighbour – unlike Russia, the US, Pakistan, India and Britain.

Without doubt given the current state of frosty relations with Washington, to see the abrupt withdrawal of US troops and then the immediate collapse of the Afghan government will be cause for satisfaction in Beijing.  Anything that is seen to weaken American influence – especially on China’s borders – will be welcome.  There might even be some who see this as damaging the alliances that the US has with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and even Australia – but that is probably going too far.

Having realised the appalling optics of how the withdrawal was conducted, the US might now seek to overcompensate with gestures of solidarity with those countries to reassure them of ongoing support in what Washington sees as an anti-China alliance.  In the same vein, expect to see a charm offensive from Washington directed to India and perhaps to ASEAN members as well – though they all prefer to see greater US engagement in more nebulous, regional security terms.

China will seek to establish friendly relations with the new government of Afghanistan, dangling carrots of foreign investment and recognition in exchange for commitments not to support any form of separatism from Muslim Uighurs in relatively close Xinjiang province.  The emergence of some form of Beijing-Kabul-Islamabad axis – even if it is largely illusory – will annoy and disturb India, which will be seen as a bonus.

For their part, the new rulers of Afghanistan will probably look for support wherever they can find it.  This means not unnecessarily antagonising anyone – not even the US.  The lessons of the failure of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – and indeed the defeat of the first Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001 – is that it is not a good idea pursuing an utterly obnoxious domestic agenda combined with support for international terrorism.  If Afghanistan is not to lapse back into the category of a hopeless failed state, a period of consolidation and nation building is called for.  The next few months will be crucial in determining whether or not this will be the case.

 

When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980 – Iraq launched an unprovoked invasion of its neighbour – Washington was an enthusiastic backer of Saddam Hussein.  Remember him?  The US willingly supplied arms and free military satellite imagery to Baghdad in the hope of doing as much damage to Tehran – and indirectly Moscow – as they could.

 

 

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