A new regional ‘Great Game’ in and around Afghanistan?
Series Conflict and Fragility

A new regional ‘Great Game’ in and around Afghanistan?

01 Sep 2021 - 17:47
Photo: Two Black Hawks and a Chinook prepare to land at Forward Operating Base Connolly to pick up Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates after he visited troops in eastern Afghanistan in 2010. © DVIDSHUB / Flickr
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The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has turned into a fiasco, leaving a de facto power vacuum. What damage have the unfolding events done to the reputation of the West? What kind of regional dynamics are to be expected? In the sixth and last episode of the Dutch series '20 years after 9/11’, David Criekemans analyses the geopolitical consequences.

American president Joe Biden stubbornly stuck to the withdrawal deadline of 31 August 2021 without considering the rapidly evolving situation on the ground. Even when Biden stopped supporting the former Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani, the president did not force any concessions from the Taliban.1

Biden withdrew from Afghanistan because of a purely domestic political calculation. By giving the Taliban carte blanche, all investments in the areas of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the position of women may have been in vain. From now on, those words will sound very hollow if the West dares to mention them again. As international politics is like a ripple across the waterline, one can wonder what other groups in the world will think when faced with important foreign policy choices. Will they not think twice about joining the Western or the Chinese model?

Geopolitical strategies and ‘Western values’
The most dramatic potential consequence for the Biden administration is that the president himself may now have jeopardised a key US foreign policy objective. On the White House website, for instance, priorities are stated such as restoring the 'global standing' of the US in world politics (after Donald Trump), defending America’s values and human rights, and, importantly, rebuilding democratic alliances around the world.2

Biden wants to focus his foreign policy agenda on building a large-scale alliance of democracies to contain China. In addition to Europe, therefore, he sees countries such as India, Japan, South Korea (where American troops have been stationed for 70 years for geostrategic reasons), Australia, and more as part of this alliance.

Criekemans - The commander of the Kabul Military Training Center introduces in 2011 then US Vice President Joe Biden to Afghan recruits. NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan - Flickr
The commander of the Kabul Military Training Center introduces in 2011 then US Vice President Joe Biden to Afghan recruits. © NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan / Flickr

As it turns out, Afghanistan was crucially located in that broader geopolitical strategy because of transport networks and the presence of raw materials that are of great importance for an energy transition. So, the question remains whether Biden has not seriously undermined his broader geostrategic agenda by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the American president left behind and completely ignored ‘another Afghanistan’ that had been growing for 20 years. This group is symbolised by a young generation of women and men that could contribute to a new country and offer the long-term stability needed to gradually eradicate terrorism’s roots.

In recent years the US military has offered China and Russia stability without them having to invest much in it themselves

Overall, things could have been very different. Biden could have gone to the United Nations Security Council months ago to create a stable transitional framework together with regional actors. But there has been no fundamental diplomatic conversation with Moscow and Beijing for years, and Washington did not want to grant them this opportunity either by going through the Security Council.

Paradoxically, however, in recent years the US military has offered China and Russia stability without them having to invest much in it themselves. Moscow and Beijing now see Biden's withdrawal, and especially the chaotic way in which it took place, as a victory. For them, this was proof that the Western model does not work, and the West cannot offer peace or stable development.

Criekemans - View of Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan in 2009. United Nations Photo
View of Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan in 2009. © United Nations Photo

After about a week, nonetheless, both Moscow and Beijing seem to be waking up to a new reality. They will initially tolerate the new Taliban 2.0 regime as long as it does not become a base for radical Sunni fighters. For the time being, Moscow thus looks disparagingly at the last resistance stronghold in the Panjshir Mountains led by ethnic Tajik Amrullah Saleh (who proclaimed himself the acting president of Afghanistan) and Ahmad Massoud, the son of former Northern Alliance resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Unlike the situation between 1996 and 2001, these fighters are now surrounded by the Taliban, with no contiguous territory as far as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This makes their future supply lines difficult, but perhaps not impossible. That is also the main reason why especially Massoud wants to negotiate with the Taliban (as opposed to Saleh, who feels this is useless and wants to fight with external support). In the past, the Taliban were never able to control the rugged Panjshir Mountains. It now remains to be seen whether Massoud will be able to force more moderation from the Taliban to achieve a 'more inclusive' Afghanistan.

After all, the Taliban wants to create an Islamic Emirate centred around Sharia law. Some say their leaders are looking to the Gulf emirates, which combine religious conservatism with a foreign presence of nationals and inflow of capital and goods from abroad. They do so to keep the country running and to avoid opposition from the population with its diverse ethnic groups. But then the provisional winner will have to make some fundamental concessions.

Criekemans - In 2012 in Herat, Afghanistan, women line up to collect bags of split chick pea, wheat, and cooking oil being distributed by the UN World Food Programme (WFP). United Nations Photo
In 2012 in Herat, Afghanistan, women line up to collect bags of split chick pea, wheat, and cooking oil being distributed by the UN World Food Programme (WFP). © United Nations Photo

The chances of this are not nonexistent but seem very limited for the time being. Perhaps this is also one of the last chances for the international community to weigh in on the future regime and to save what can be saved in terms of former investments in social capital, education, justice, women's rights, etcetera.

Importantly, what does democracy, rule of law and human rights mean after ‘Afghanistan’ if the West dares to mention these concepts again in the future? Both rivals and allies have taken note of these dramatic and chaotic events. They will not have failed to understand their potential implications in the longer run, including for Biden’s so-called ‘coalition of democracies’ to contain the Chinese model.

Expected risks and regional dynamics
Ironically, the Taliban's negotiating position is weaker now than it was before. They may not control and consolidate the whole Afghan territory yet, and the resistance could have simply gone underground. Part of the Afghan army has also fled to Uzbekistan, and something may be brewing there. If the Taliban are unable to provide stability and security to Afghanistan, and if terrorist organisations such as ISIS-K or Al Qaeda continue to wreak havoc, one can expect that the position of the Russian Federation will gradually shift.

A nightmare scenario for Moscow is that the north of Afghanistan would destabilise

A nightmare scenario for Moscow is that the north of Afghanistan would destabilise and terrorist groups would try to migrate towards Russian territory and create chaos over there. Moscow would itself never invade Afghanistan with military troops but could allow that a counterforce would be set up from the territories of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to support the current Panjshir resistance.

Uzbekistan is particularly important since a part of the former Afghan army has fled to the country. In such a scenario, the Russian army would just commit to the security of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).

In such a scenario, a repeat of the former ‘Northern Coalition’ could be in the cards. Much depends on whether the Taliban can deliver basic services in terms of water, food, medicine and economic prosperity to the north. If that is not the case, northern cities such as Mazar-i-Sharif could once again revolt against the Taliban, as they did so twice between 1996 and 2001. It thus remains to be seen whether the Taliban can consolidate the territory.

Criekemans - Royal Engineers construct a bridge in Afghanistan in 2012. Defence Images - Flickr
Royal Engineers construct a bridge in Afghanistan in 2012. © Defence Images / Flickr

Massoud seems to offer peace in return for a level of autonomy for the northern territories, and this also includes the position of the Sharia law in society. If the Taliban are willing to compromise on this, which is currently unlikely, then a more inclusive Afghanistan would perhaps still be possible after all. European countries are hoping that, by promising continued humanitarian help and economic aid, they can still steer the Taliban regime towards more ‘inclusiveness’. Nobody knows whether this is feasible and realistic in practice.

There are increasingly clear indications that elements of IS/Daesh (also known as IS-K or IS-Khorasan) and Al Qaeda are operating separately from the Taliban. Around 12 August 2021, the Taliban opened all Afghan prisons to use these radical elements as a proxy in the fight against the regular Afghan army. They could now become a liability. Whereas the Taliban have instrumentalised Al Qaeda and the so-called Haqqani-network in the past for their agenda against the former Afghan government, IS-K constitutes one of their fiercest rivals.

Indeed, with the terrorist attack on Kabul airport of 26 August 2021, this group tried to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban (as though they were cooperating with the occupier) and their ability to govern (as though they cannot offer any stability and security). It is unclear how this will play out. Some Pashtun might feel the Taliban are not radical enough or that they are desperately seeking legitimacy via international negotiations, and hence join IS-K. The promulgation of Western weapons left by the Americans and the former Afghan army – in particular small arms such as rifles – could prove to be a very deadly combination.

New Delhi may, in the end, choose to start supporting the Afghan opposition passively

Another country that could join such an effort is India. New Delhi sees the Taliban takeover as another achievement by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). A Taliban rule in Afghanistan could also lead to an overflow of the radical Sunni fighters in Kashmir.

This has been the case in the past. That is why you now hear cries of distress in Indian military circles to make India into a ‘fortress’.3 New Delhi may, in the end, choose to start supporting the Afghan opposition passively and later even actively once the Indian presence in Afghanistan has safely returned home.  

This, in turn, puts the Pakistan-China axis at risk. These days, Washington refuses to voice much criticism towards Pakistan, which has been conducting a weakening policy towards Afghanistan for many decades. In the process, weapons and even fighters freely circulate between the shared Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Former general and president of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf has openly admitted in an interview with BBC journalist Yalda Hakim that this has always been Pakistan's geopolitical strategy.4

Pakistan's security service ISI can be seen as a 'state within the state'. The Taliban emerged on Pakistani soil between 1979 and 1989 during the Soviet occupation. At that time, mainly Pashtun Afghans fled to the country. They were given shelter, food and instruction in Sharia law in the so-called madrassas or Koranic schools. Talib literally means student; taliban is the plural. In other words, the Pakistani government has an ambiguous attitude towards the current developments in Afghanistan.

Criekemans - Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline in 2014 after ending the mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. DVIDSHUB - Flickr
Marines and sailors with Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan load onto a KC-130 aircraft on the Camp Bastion flightline in 2014 after ending the mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. © DVIDSHUB / Flickr

The security community within the country may, however, have a different position than 'foreign affairs'. This puts China in a difficult spot. Indeed, as part of a kind of hedging strategy, the Chinese openly (but not heartily) recognised Taliban negotiator Mullah Ghani Baradar when Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Baradar in the Chinese city of Tianjin on 28 July 2021. The People’s Republic of China just wants to do business in the region, in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing thus hopes that the Sino-Pakistani trade corridor can continue to function securely.

Terrorist activities on Afghan soil would cross a red line if they support the plight of the Muslim Uighur minority in western China or endanger the functioning of the aforementioned economic corridor with Pakistan. Beijing, in turn, must be careful not to get dragged into Pakistan's geopolitical agenda regarding India as this could also deplete Chinese resources in the longer run. Beijing might rather opt for expanding its influence via the ‘soft road’ of geo-economic cooperation and infrastructure investments.

The emergence of a regional ‘Great Game’
The Americans have now left the Afghan territory. Will that, however, be the case in practice? The American intelligence services are all too aware of the bigger geostrategic picture. Perhaps several things will have to be 'steered in the right direction' behind the scenes.

The Dutch-American geopolitical thinker Nicholas John Spykman wrote before and at the beginning of the Second World War that whoever controls Eurasia's Rimland can steer world politics in a decisive direction.5 American geostrategic thinkers and planners will soon have to take this classic out of the bookcase again.

A new regional ‘Great Game’ in and around Afghanistan seems to have only just begun

Europe should also be attentive, for example by considering alternative geo-economic offerings regarding structural investments in the broader region. After all, the territory of the European Union is nothing more than a demographically shrinking peninsula of a much larger Eurasian landmass.

All possible European levers in the field of technology, industry, agriculture and trade can also help defend our interests and values in the longer term. The question remains how and what a longer-term strategy would actually look like. Brussels still needs to learn how to think geopolitically.

For all these reasons, a new regional ‘Great Game’ in and around Afghanistan seems to have only just begun.6 The tragedy is that the fate of human lives is hardly of any concern. They appear to be merely pawns in a much larger struggle over spheres of influence, security and opportunities for economic development.

  • 1. For a thorough analysis of what went wrong in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, see David Criekemans, ‘Was deze uitkomst in Afghanistan echt 'onvermijdelijk'? 'Biden dreigt eigen buitenlandse agenda te ondermijnen', Knack, 16 august 2018.
  • 2. The Biden-Harris administration immediate priorities’, The White House.
  • 3. Read for instance ‘Eye On Taliban, Former Army Chief Says Need To Step Up Kashmir Outreach’, NDTV, 21 august 2021.
  • 4. The interview between Pervez Musharraf and BBC journalist Yalda Hakim was conducted on 9 July 2018. Yalda Hakim referred to it several times during the live coverage of BBC World News of the Western evacuation at Kabul airport at the end of August 2021.
  • 5. For an analysis of Nicholas John Spykman's geopolitical work and its impact on International Relations and world politics, read David Criekemans' upcoming book Geopolitics and International Relations. Grounding World Politics Anew, to be published by Brill Academic Publishers at the end of 2021. See also the new international book series ‘Geopolitics and International Relations’ under the guidance of book series editor David Criekemans.
  • 6. Citing Wikipedia, “the term ‘Great Game’ was a political and diplomatic confrontation that existed for most of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century between the British Empire and the Russian Empire, over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and South Asia. It also had direct consequences in Persia and British India”

Authors

David Criekemans
Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Antwerp (Belgium)