Thursday, 21 October, 2021

Afghanistan neighbors see opportunity, peril in Taliban takeover


It’s not exactly a reprise of the “Great Game,” the fierce competition among 19th century empires seeking plunder and power in Central Asia.

But the abrupt end of the American era in Afghanistan has left the country’s neighbors eyeing one another warily, sensing both opportunity and peril.

“There’s a geopolitical scramble going on,” said Jason Campbell, a Rand Corp. researcher who specializes in international security. As regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan joust and jostle, he said, “everyone has interests to safeguard.”

Even broken by decades of war, Afghanistan is viewed as a prize, a vital strategic crossroads since ancient times, its mountains and valleys stippled with largely untapped mineral and energy resources.

Yet bordering countries, as well as some in the wider region, fear a Taliban-led state could pose a potent threat — as an exporter of extremism, or a fountainhead of refugee flight, or both. Afghanistan shares frontiers with six other countries — Iran to the west, Pakistan to the south and east, a trio of former Soviet republics to the north, and a thin corridor abutting China.

Mindful that its hosting of Al Qaeda triggered the U.S.-led invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., the Taliban movement now says it will not allow the country to be used as a haven for outside militant organizations.

Even if that pledge is sincere, it could prove difficult to fulfill. One such militant group, Islamic State, has a foothold in Afghanistan and an avowed enmity toward the Taliban, which is in the process of forming a government after seizing control of the country in mid-August. The United States, ending a 20-year effort to subdue the fundamentalist group, pulled out its last forces late Monday, ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline.

Facing vast skepticism at home and abroad, Taliban leaders are trying to counter the direst expectations. They have urged Afghans to remain in the country rather than fleeing, promising its 38 million people more moderate policies than during their harsh turn in power a generation ago. They insist they have no quarrel with anyone.

“We don’t want to repeat any conflict again,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared days after the group took control of Kabul, the capital. “We would like to live peacefully.”

As the Islamist movement turns its focus from the field of battle to the halls of governance, Afghanistan’s neighbors wonder whether immense domestic challenges — a collapsing, aid-dependent economy, along with a humanitarian crisis spurred by hunger and internal displacement — could trigger social upheaval that spills across borders.

While the West deliberates over how and whether to engage diplomatically with the Taliban, countries in Afghanistan’s more immediate orbit have little choice but to forge relationships of some sort, however makeshift. And the new order is already changing the power dynamic among nearby states.

Even as heavyweights such as Russia and China are expected to try to fill the void left by the U.S. departure, other and sometimes much smaller actors are busily cementing ties with the new Taliban rulers.

The tiny Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, a U.S. ally, is wielding outsized influence as a dependable intermediary for Western governments and international organizations to the Taliban, whose leadership in exile it hosted for years. The Qatari capital, Doha, was also the scene of U.S.-Taliban peace talks.

Qatar served as a key landing pad in the massive U.S.-led airlift that preceded the American military pullout, with cargo jets flying a near-constant loop between Kabul and Doha. Qatar is working to get Kabul’s airport up and running again for commercial and aid flights.

One of the Taliban’s more complicated new-old relationships will be with Pakistan, which for two decades engaged in the delicate minuet of formally allying itself with the U.S. while serving as a Taliban sanctuary. Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed in 2011 in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, although Washington never publicly accused Pakistan’s government of knowingly harboring him.

Many senior Pakistani officials rejoiced outright over the Taliban victory, and Pakistan’s powerful spy agency nurtured figures who may now play important roles in the new Taliban-led government. Those include Khalil Haqqani, a senior leader of a Taliban splinter group that bears the family name, based in the tribal borderlands.

But Pakistan also has good reason to worry about its own homegrown extremists, who may be emboldened by the Taliban win. And tensions could worsen between Pakistan and its nemesis India, which had close ties with Afghanistan’s now-deposed government and was deeply shaken by its fall.

Russia, which suffered its own Afghan military debacle more than three decades ago, openly gloated from the sidelines as the Americans pulled out. In the latest in a series of broadsides, President Vladimir Putin declared that only “tragedies and losses of life” had arisen from the American mission.

“The result is zero,” he told an audience of teenagers in the Russian Far East on Wednesday.

The U.S. presence that Putin so derided, however, brought a measure of stability to the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan — states that border Afghanistan and are considered by Russia as a defensive buffer. Analysts said that even as Russia seeks to position itself as a regional guarantor of security, it will be watching closely for signs of strengthening Islamist movements in the Central Asian states on its southern flank.

Kate Mallinson of the Russia and Eurasia program at the British think tank Chatham House said that while the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the disorderly American pullout made for pungent Kremlin talking points, the long-term picture for Moscow is far more complex vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

“I would say that this kind of propaganda victory is more Pyrrhic than triumphant,” she said in a Chatham House webinar this week.

As was the case in Russia, state-controlled media in China issued a stream of caustic commentary about U.S. troops’ final days in Afghanistan, jeering that American allies such as Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province, should worry about Washington’s trustworthiness.

China has some security concerns of its own, including whether the small slice of adjacent Afghan territory could serve as a base for terrorist attacks by Muslim Uyghurs, a persecuted ethnic minority from Xinjiang, in China’s far northwest.

But above all, Beijing unabashedly views Afghanistan as a prime business opportunity.

Chinese companies are looking to the country’s mineral deposits, including lithium, an essential material in batteries for laptops, smartphones and electric cars. China also plans to reopen the giant Mes Aynak copper mine near the Afghan capital and is eager to expand its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Even so, Taliban promises are likely to be viewed with caution, said Campbell, the Rand analyst.

“China certainly sees opportunity there, but the question is to what degree it can trust the Taliban to deliver,” he said.

Afghans, for their part, tend to harbor few illusions of altruistic motives on the part of neighbors near or distant. Many are profoundly mistrustful of an outside world that has sought for centuries to exploit the country and its people.

The Scottish author and historian William Dalrymple, who has written extensively about Britain’s disastrous military entanglements in Afghanistan in the 1800s, said Taliban rulers, even though indigenous, would now face the same problems that foreign would-be subjugators once did.

Those include a fractious Afghan populace and “centrifugal” forces generated from within the movement, he wrote in the online magazine UnHerd.com after the Taliban takeover.

“As the Taliban transforms its military command into a government for Afghanistan, alliances and tribal configurations … are already being tested,” Dalrymple wrote. “Only time will tell if the movement remains united or splinters into regional Taliban fiefdoms.”

Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Kabul contributed to this report.

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