The writer is an
analyst and the
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The Taliban’s blisteringly fast takeover of Afghanistan has stunned security and diplomacy experts worldwide. The Taliban has promised women’s rights, media freedom, and amnesty for government officials. Taliban wished for peaceful relations with other countries and that no group will be allowed to use Afghan territory for attacks against any nation. The Taliban say they want to form an inclusive, Islamic government with other factions. The Taliban’s rout is likely to cause a significant shift in the geopolitics of South Asia, and it could be particularly a nightmare for India, given the country’s historically tense relations and border disputes with Pakistan and China. Afghanistan was a loose alliance between the then government in Kabul and the West. But the world is likely to see Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China coming together to play the next chapter of the Great Game.
The US and its NATO allies spent billions of dollars over two decades to train and equip Afghan security forces. But the Western-backed government was rife with corruption. Afghan Commanders exaggerated the number of soldiers to siphon off resources, and troops in the field often lacked ammunition, supplies or even food. Their morale further eroded when it became clear the US was on its way out. As the Taliban rapidly advanced and surrendered Kabul and nearby provinces were captured without a fight. Biden called the situation in Afghanistan gut-wrenching but rejected blame for what’s happening. He said he stood squarely behind his decision to pull US troops out.
Now Islamabad has reasons to believe that it’s the winner because its all-weather friendship with China will be useful in Afghanistan. Moreover, Beijing is not shy of showing its might anymore. China can and will play the game now according to its own rules. China also has economic interests in Afghanistan, which can help fulfil its ever-growing need for minerals. And the idea of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—one of the first Belt and Road Initiative projects—into Afghanistan is welcomed by both Pakistan and Afghanistan. A strong partnership with Pakistan, which has considerable influence with the Taliban, enhances China’s prospects in Afghanistan. This positive assessment, however, is subject to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Beijing is hopeful, and it is no surprise that it was among the first to offer a conditional welcome to the Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul.
The world is likely to see
Pakistan, Russia, Iran and
China coming together to play the next chapter of the Great Game.
Russia and Iran also seem to be on the same trajectory – neither has evacuated its embassy, and both nations’ diplomats are still working in Kabul. Russia, like China, is eager to engage with the Taliban. Moscow has also kept India out of the troika process. Set up in 2019, the troika to negotiate peace in Afghanistan included the United States, Russia, and China. Pakistan was included in an extended troika this year. Until now, Pakistan has been out of this Indo-Russian-US-Chinese dynamic. That has begun to change in recent years due to the expanding engagement between Moscow and Islamabad.
In these circumstances, President Joe Biden’s justification for ending the US military intervention in Afghanistan is the importance of coping with new challenges from a rising China in the Indo-Pacific region. The convergence between Indian and US interests in the Indo-Pacific rapidly grew in the final year of the Trump administration and has continued in the first months of Biden’s tenure. The Biden administration’s ambitious plans for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a coalescing strategic partnership with Australia, India, and Japan is known as the “Quad”—have put New Delhi at the very top of Washington’s list of strategic priorities. If the United States defends its retrenchment in Afghanistan in the name of confronting the China challenge, many see fresh opportunities as well as challenges coming Beijing’s way in the wake of the US withdrawal.
India sees this as a loss and a big win for Pakistan. Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan gives Pakistan strategic depth against India. Pakistan was not happy with the growing ties between the US and India. The biggest challenge India will face is whether to recognise the Taliban government or not. The decision will get tough, especially if Moscow and Beijing decide to acknowledge the Taliban government in some form. China is now a major partner for Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. It also takes a keen interest in the affairs of Bhutan and the Maldives. A Chinese-Pakistani partnership in Afghanistan will indeed be a major setback for India on its sensitive northwestern flank. China’s massive economic resources could be a powerful force multiplier for the Pakistan Army in reshaping the turbulent Afghan theatre. Moscow’s growing strategic partnership with Beijing in recent years is now acquiring a new dimension with the Russian tilt toward Pakistan and the Taliban.
After their stunning capture of Kabul, the Taliban have tried to convey a sense of calm. The country’s struggling economy also made it feel vulnerable. How exactly does the Taliban plan to keep all systems running, in one of the poorest countries of the world that depends on more than $4 billion a year in official aid and where foreign donors have been covering 75 percent of government spending, is an urgent question. The state’s bankruptcy has tempted some Western donors into thinking that financial pressure — in the form of threats to withhold humanitarian and development funding — could be brought to bear on the new rulers of Afghanistan. Germany already warned it would cut off financial support to the country if the Taliban introduce Shariah law. But those hopes are misplaced. Taliban had claimed the country’s real economic prize: the trade routes — comprising highways, bridges and footpaths — that serve as strategic choke points for trade across South Asia. With their hands on these highly profitable revenue sources and with neighbouring countries, like China and Pakistan.
Trafficking in opium, hashish, methamphetamines and other narcotics is not the biggest kind of trade that happens off the books. The real money comes from the illegal movement of ordinary goods, like fuel and consumer imports. In size and sum, the informal economy dwarfs international aid. It is estimated that informal taxation — the collection of fees by armed personnel to allow safe passage of goods — raised about $235 million annually for the Taliban and pro-government figures. By contrast, the province received less than $20 million a year in foreign aid. A southern province in the heartland of Taliban supporters, Nimruz and Ghorghory, the administrative center of Khashrud District, these two towns alone could be worth $18.6 million a year for the Taliban if they maintain the previous systems of informal taxation, including $5.4 million from the fuel trade and $13 million from transit goods. A bigger prize was the customs house in Zaranj officially provided the government with $43.2 million in annual duties — with an additional $50 million in direct taxes in 2020 -there was found a significant amount of undeclared trade, particularly of fuel, taking the true total revenues from the border crossing to at least $176 million a year. It’s estimated that the Taliban earned $84 million last year by taxing Afghans who trade with Iran. More than $2 billion in trade passed through those crossings last year, according to official figures, it suggests that the actual numbers, once informal trade is included, could be twice as high.
The Biden administration, yet to come to a formal position on how to respond economically to the Taliban’s takeover, reportedly froze Afghan government reserves held in US bank accounts — that American leverage over the Taliban could come from issues related to sanctions. But the windfalls from cross-border commerce — a single border crossing to Pakistan, captured in July, brings in tens of millions of dollars a year in illegal revenues — are making the Taliban, now ruling the Afghan state, into major players in South Asia’s regional trade. That means, crucially, that the usual methods by which recalcitrant regimes are subjected to international pressure — sanctions, isolation — are less applicable to today’s Afghanistan. This is only one of the many ways the West, now forced to reckon with a Taliban-run Afghanistan, has been humbled by recent events. But it may be among the most consequential.