The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has triggered a new ‘Great Game’. From the time Tsarist Russia and the British Empire vied for influence in Central Asia, Afghanistan has been a pivot of great power rivalry. While London and Moscow avoided conflict and the British retreat from the subcontinent in 1947 provided a lull, things changed with the Soviet invasion in 1979. Moscow retreated a decade later, leading to the eventual rise of the Taliban, till the 2001 terror attacks on American soil led to US intervention. Washington’s retreat two decades later facilitated the Taliban’s return; its impact is reverberating across the globe.
AUKUS – NATO
Soon after Taliban walked unopposed into Kabul on 15 August 2021, President Joe Biden announced a security alliance on 15 September 2021, comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, known now by its acronym – AUKUS. This nuclear coalition was created to bypass a declining North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and European Union (EU), balance the constraints of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), defend Taiwan, and contain China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region. The AUKUS stunned Washington’s NATO and EU allies; France’s US$ 90 billion submarine deal with Australia was collateral damage.
Mocked by critics as an Anglo-Saxon pact, AUKUS is an alliance of three nations, neither of whom have land links with Eurasia. Britain, once the paramount naval power, is keen to return to Oceania, while the United States is the world’s preeminent naval power. Between them, they can provide heft to the Australian navy and help overcome Canberra’s concerns about a direct attack from Beijing, to which it has closest proximity. Australia was the natural choice to complete the alliance as it is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence gathering system presided over by the United States.
The new trilateral alliance was needed because pacts like A-NZ-US have long been dead. Moreover, New Zealand had opted for nuclear disarmament in 1985 and reiterated its decision to deny nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships access to its ports. The European Union is not a military power and some members desire a truce with China that is now the EU’s largest trading partner and investor. Europe also relies on Russian oil and gas for energy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is keen on a vast free trade area that includes China. Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin, however, welcomed the pact as ASEAN member states lack the military resources to maintain peace and security in the region.
The key concern in Washington and London is Taiwan, which the People’s Republic of China may try to seize by force. Analyst Ram Madhav observes in the event of conflict in the Taiwan Straits, Washington would need Australia as a base as the Okinawa base in Japan has become obsolete with China’s improved missile capability. The AUKUS Pact will bring the trio to Taiwan’s rescue. At the G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, in June 2021, Japan emphasised the importance of Taiwan’s security. Analyst Thierry Meyssan believes that Biden, Morrison and Johnson discussed the new alliance in Cornwall.
The presence of Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton in Washington suggests the pact goes deeper than buying nuclear submarines and could cover space, missiles, quantum computing, cyber-warfare, underwater systems, long-range strike capabilities, artificial intelligence and grey warfare on the internet. Vice-Admiral David Johnston, Vice Chief of the Australian Defence Force, also attended the White House meeting.
The AUKUS will equip Australia with Tomahawks and Hornet missiles and involve it in research into hypersonic missiles that can compete with Russian nuclear missiles. Over 18-months, the allies will decide whether the British or American submarine is the best option for Canberra, along with workforce, shipyard and training needs. Construction would begin “within the decade” and the first submarines could be operational by end-2030s.
Diplomatic engagements, however, continue. On September 10, President Xi Jinping made a telephone call to President Biden to resolve the issue of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecom giant Huawei, who was detained in Canada at Washington’s request in December 2018. She was released on September 24 after all charges were dropped; simultaneously, former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, held soon after Meng’s arrest, were released from Chinese jails and sent back to Canada.
On September 28-29, the 16th round of US-PRC Defence Policy Coordination talks were held between Michael Chase, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for China, and Chinese Major General Huang Xueping, via video conference. In early September, Beijing urged Canberra to facilitate its joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, hinting at the need for cooperation despite some glitches (Beijing imposed punitive sanctions against Australia because Canberra sought an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic). In return for TPP-11 membership, Beijing could reopen its markets to Australian products before the elections of 2022.
Meanwhile, President Biden spoke with President Macron on September 22; France agreed to send back the French ambassador to Washington. The two leaders will meet in Europe in late October. It is pertinent that France is the only European nation with nearly two million citizens in the Indo-Pacific, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 11 million sq. km., and a military presence of 8,000 personnel. It is an important pillar of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
President Macron also spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on telephone on September 21. They reaffirmed a commitment to act jointly in an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, including in the framework of the Europe-India relationship and European initiatives in the Indo-Pacific. Both leaders expressed concerns about the situation in Afghanistan, and urged the new authorities in Kabul to sever ties with international terrorism, permit humanitarian bodies to operate throughout the country, respect the fundamental rights of Afghan women and men, and permit evacuation operations to continue unhindered.
The burning question, after the AUKUS emerged as potentially the world’s most powerful military bloc, is how will it complement the Quad? The Quad members resent China’s claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea, but have articulated a broad social agenda and shied away from being perceived as an “Asian NATO”. As India is the only member sharing a large land border with China, the advent of AUKUS has spared New Delhi from being “driven” into military confrontation outside its comfort zone. India’s goals are to protect its northern frontiers and the Indian Ocean Sea lanes.
Indian foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla explained that the Quad is a “plurilateral grouping of countries with a shared vision of their attributes and values,” while the AUKUS is a trilateral security alliance. Shringla said there is no link between the Quad and the Malabar naval exercise conducted by the navies of India, US and Japan, which Australia joined for the second consecutive year in 2021. However, the Quad agenda includes counterterrorism exercises and could include Quad-plus exercises such as the French-led La Perouse exercise in the Bay of Bengal in early 2021.
As the AUKUS and Quad summits were hosted simultaneously by President Biden, the Australian Prime Minister brought his intelligence chiefs for additional heft: Andrew Shearer (director general, Office of National Intelligence); Rachel Noble (head of Australian Signals Directorate); Mike Burgess (ASIO chief); and Paul Symon (chief of overseas spy network, Australian Secret Intelligence Service). They interacted with their counterparts from India and Japan during the Quad dialogue.
The Biden Administration had hosted the first-ever virtual summit of leaders in March 2021, and on September 24, it hosted the first in-person summit, attended by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The Quad identified several areas of co-operation, notably COVID and Global Health (including delivering free vaccines in the Indo-Pacific); Infrastructure; Climate (including a Clean-Hydrogen Partnership); Critical and Emerging Technologies (including a Semiconductor Supply Chain Initiative; 5G Deployment and Diversification; Biotechnology Scanning); Cybersecurity (including sharing Satellite Data to Protect the Earth and its Waters); and People-to-People Exchange and Education (including a Quad Fellowship to nurture next-generation talent in all countries in the STEM fields).
The members observed that Beijing achieves supremacy by controlling technologies, building infrastructure and creating dependencies by encouraging debt. They proposed providing reliable alternatives to China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) by building better infrastructure, ensuring equitable growth, fighting climate change and controlling pandemics. Offering infrastructure could meet a felt need of developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Since 2015, the member countries have collectively delivered thousands of projects and over US$ 48 billion in official finance for infrastructure in the region.
The Coronavirus pandemic revived the altruistic spirit and Quad pledged to provide 1.2 billion Covid vaccine doses in the Indo-Pacific by 2022, in addition to doses financed through COVAX, India’s decision to resume export of Covid-19 vaccines, including to COVAX, beginning October 2021, was acclaimed widely. A Quad-Plus group has been formed with New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, to coordinate responses to the pandemic.
The meeting highlighted the security threats posed by China and Pakistan, and the need to monitor Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan by ensuring that UN Security Council resolution 2593, passed in August under India’s presidency, is upheld. It urged that Afghan territory should not be used to shelter or train terrorists. The joint statement denounced “the use of terrorist proxies” (Pakistan-sponsored) and called for “denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks”.
On 17 September 2021, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon hosted the 21st meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in hybrid format. Prime Minister Modi, who attended virtually, highlighted the dangers of growing radicalisation and extremism in the broader SCO region and proposed that SCO consider working to promote moderation and scientific and rational thought with the region’s youth. The SCO Summit was followed by an outreach session on Afghanistan between SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). In his message, Modi suggested that SCO develop a code of ‘zero tolerance’ towards terrorism in the region, and highlighted the risks of drugs, arms and human trafficking from Afghanistan.
Iran entered the SCO as a full-fledged member. President Ebrahim Raisi expressed Iran’s desire to expand ties with countries in Central and East Asia. He said Iran brings major geopolitical advantages to the group, including its large population, abundant mineral wealth and strategic location in the Middle East. China is keen to expand its BRI westward. Russian President Vladimir Putin observed that the MoU between the SCO Secretariat and Eurasian Economic Commission will further Russia’s idea of a Greater Eurasia Partnership covering the SCO, the Eurasian Economic Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the BRI.
After the Quad summit, some analysts suggested that India align completely with the United States and withdraw from the SCO. This is unwarranted as India straddles two tumultuous regions: Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. It faces strategic and security challenges in Eurasia and needs the Indo-Pacific for trade. India’s main security concern is terrorism and Washington’s ability to restrain terrorist militias in Pakistan and Afghanistan has declined sharply. A favourable development is that Moscow and Beijing are also threatened by terror outfits in the Af-Pak region (IS-K, Al Qaeda, ETIM etc.)
The SCO is an Eurasian political, economic and security alliance, including three-fifths of the Eurasian landmass, 40 per cent of world population and over 20 per cent of global GDP. It promotes trade, cultural and humanitarian cooperation among its members and espouses a multipolar world order and adherence to the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. There is little merit in exiting this organisation. India is not an island, but a major Asian nation linked with the Eurasian landmass. It needs the goodwill of land neighbours to mitigate the challenges it faces. Currently, and in the foreseeable future, it faces no major threat in the IOR and thus should not lose the leverage afforded by a land-based fraternity. However, amidst fast-changing regional dynamics, India may benefit by focusing on strategic autonomy and Asian centrality. As great powers converge on the Indo-Pacific, it must concentrate on its neighbourhood while minding its strategic interests in Eurasia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
AFGHANISTAN AND TALIBAN 2.0
The assumption that some countries would be friendly towards the Taliban proved premature; at the time of writing even Islamabad had not recognised the new regime in Kabul. Iran refused recognition after the Taliban failed to form an inclusive government and its shabby treatment of (Shia) Tajiks and Hazaras. Ankara followed, angry at the exclusion of Turkmen (Turkish-speakers) in the cabinet. But the more serious problem is the surfacing of deep schisms within the Taliban barely a fortnight after its victory, which put a question mark on the regime’s longevity.
The Durand Line drawn by the British in 1893 and inherited by Pakistan in 1947, which divided the Pashtun community and was disowned by successive Afghanistan governments, is currently dividing the ‘moderates’ (Doha group) and ‘hardliners’ (Haqqani Network). The ‘moderates’ led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar favour inclusion of all ethnic groups and women in the cabinet so that the regime gains international approval; they oppose the Durand Line. The Haqqani Network that dominates the government, however, wishes to recognise the Durand Line in gratitude for Pakistan protecting and nurturing the group during the two decades of American occupation.
Differences erupted on September 3, 2021, with reports of fisticuffs between Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and a cabinet minister, and injuries on both sides as their respective followers opened fire. Reports of the incident and possible death of Baradar were strenuously denied even as Inter-Services Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, rushed to Kabul on September 4 to help finalise the cabinet and entrench the Haqqani Network. Mullah Baradar disappeared from public view, surfacing only on September 13 in an audio clip claiming he was well. Later, in an interview to the state-run television, Baradar said he was travelling and denied any discord. In reply to a question, he said he could not meet Qatar foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on September 12 as he did not know that Al-Thani was coming!
However, on September 15, BBC reported that there were heated exchanges between Deputy Prime Minister Baradar and Minister for Refugees Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani at the presidential palace. The disputes centred on cabinet formation and who should take credit for the victory in Afghanistan. As it was a smooth takeover, Baradar felt credit was due to the diplomacy of the Doha group; the Haqqani group disagreed. After the fight, Baradar reportedly went to Kandahar to confer with Haibatullah Akhundzada, Amir of the Emirate. Here again, mystery persists as the supreme leader has not been seen in public for over two years, not even after returning to Kandahar after the Taliban victory.
Kabul is also grappling with a financial crisis as Washington froze over US$ 9 billion in funds held in the US Federal Reserve after the Taliban took over the country. In August 2021, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) froze over US$ 440 million in aid (due August 23, 2021) and blocked access to Special Drawing Rights assets that can be converted to government-backed money, due to “lack of clarity within the international community” over recognising a government in Afghanistan. Soon, the World Bank suspended funding for projects in Afghanistan and the independent money transfer company, Western Union, suspended services to Afghanistan.
Lacking the financial resources to help the Taliban regime, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited several countries to garner support for Afghanistan. So far, Pakistan and Qatar have sent humanitarian aid (food and medicine) and China has pledged a minuscule US$ 31 million in aid. Pakistan National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf warned that the world faces the spectre of refugees, drugs, weapons, and transnational terrorism from a destabilised Afghanistan. Conceding that Taliban leaders need to govern Afghanistan more inclusively, he pleaded that the international community create a “conducive environment” or Pakistan would be left to “bear the brunt of any negative spillover from Afghanistan”.
It is pertinent that the Taliban removed Uyghur freedom fighters from Afghanistan’s border with China. Unsurprisingly, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated, “China is our most important partner … [We] care a lot about the Belt and Road project…We own rich copper mines, which, thanks to the Chinese, will be modernised. Finally, China represents our ticket to the markets around the world”. Scholar Andrew Small, however, believes that Beijing may make some modest investments, but longer-term investments would depend on there being enough stability and security to make them viable.
The financial crisis is severe; there are reports that Taliban fighters are pressing local people for money to buy fuel and food, even seizing food from people in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Takhar, Baghlan, Kapisa and Ghazni provinces. The Taliban is unable to pay its fighters in the provinces or salaries to public servants, or even settle import tariffs on containers of food that have arrived at Karachi port. Yet, it is adamant not to allow women and girls to return to their jobs and schools so that the country can receive international aid.
Taliban brutalities have sent waves of panic across the country. Despite formal promises of amnesty for those who served the previous regime, members of the Afghan diaspora are reporting revenge killings. In several provinces, former officers of the Special Forces and women employees of the previous government have been killed at home, in front of their families. At times, family members were also murdered. The killings are filmed and sent to commanders in Arg.
On September 24, Taliban fighters forced 482 Hazara families to leave their homes in Gizab, Daikundi province, and bombed the houses when the families resisted. The people say this is “ethnic cleansing”. On October 10, journalists reported that a Taliban court gave 2000 Hazara families in the fifth district of Mazar city, Balkh province, three days to evacuate their homes.
A Shia Mosque bombed in Kunduz during Friday prayers on October 8 killed over 70 persons and injuring nearly 150; Islamic State-Khorasan claimed responsibility. On October 9, the fourth mass grave was found in Rokha district of Panjshir; all bodies had hands tied behind their backs. Unfazed by the rising sense of horror in the international community, Taliban co-founder Mullah Nooruddin Turabi told Associated Press that they will restore punishments such as executions and amputation of hands, though perhaps not in public. He said, “No one will tell us what our laws should be. We will follow Islam and we will make our laws on the Quran.”
On October 15, the Islamic State attacked another Shia Mosque in Kandahar, causing heavy casualties that had not been counted at the time of writing. Within hours of the attack came reports that Fatemiyoun (Fatimid Division) of Afghan Shia Hazara fighters, trained by late Gen Soleimani to fight Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, were returning from Syria. Some had returned in June after IS was marginalised. The development could make Iran a regional stakeholder in Afghanistan.
Impact in Pakistan
Pakistan soon witnessed violence in North and South Waziristan districts that impacted business and trade as the militants indulge in extortion and kill those who do not or cannot pay. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Quetta, Baluchistan that took many lives. Emboldened by the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP is promising to bring Sharia to Pakistan, causing concern in Islamabad.
The October 1 ceasefire between Islamabad and the TTP collapsed almost immediately as the TTP hit a military vehicle in Spinwam, North Waziristan, killing five Frontier Corps soldiers on October 2. On October 4, TTP claimed to have killed two Pakistani soldiers in Ghariom Tehsil, North Waziristan. Further, reports suggest that East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and TTP were behind the Dasu terror attack that killed nine Chinese on July 14, 2021, and the August 20 attack by a suicide bomber on Gwadar East Bay expressway project, killing two Pakistanis and injuring three persons, including a Chinese national. More significantly, Islamic State-Khorasan and al Qaeda are operating independently after their cadres were released from Afghan prisons in August. The IS-K was behind the terror attack on Kabul Airport on August 26, while the United States was evacuating its embassy staff and allies; it aimed at undermining the Taliban. The TTP reportedly receives ideological guidance from al-Qaeda and funds from Islamic State.
Military experts say the National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud, former vice president Amrullah Saleh and former minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi needs to recapture Badakshan province to link Tajikistan and Panjshir, in order to have a winning chance. It is pertinent that as Washington was planning its final withdrawal, the Taliban employed a sophisticated drone unit to assassinate Piram Qul, an ethnic Uzbek warlord and veteran of the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s. Qul joined many anti-Taliban Afghan factions, including Ahmed Shah Massoud’s Jamiati-i-Islami; his stronghold was in Takhar province on the Tajikistan border. He was assassinated on May 2, 2021, after which the Taliban moved against Atta Muhammad Noor (Ustad Atta), a powerful ethnic Tajik, former governor of Balkh province and overlord of the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. His home was attacked on July 1, when he was hosting a meeting with other warlords and politicians. Though Atta escaped unhurt, he disappeared by the time the Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif on August 14.
However, a section of the Afghan army fled to Uzbekistan when the Taliban approached Kabul. As the Taliban fails to provide food, water, medicines and economic security, and IS-K and/or al Qaeda operate in the country, Moscow may be forced to allow an anti-Taliban force to support the Panjshir Resistance from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Russia could underwrite the security of both nations via the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). New Delhi could offer passive support as it fears that Taliban rule could inspire radical Sunni fighters in Kashmir.
The annual meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), scheduled for September, was cancelled by the foreign ministers’ meeting (September 23, 2021) after Islamabad insisted on including the Taliban regime that has not been recognised by the international community.
The British representative for Afghan transition, Simon Gass, met with Taliban leaders, including acting Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi of Taliban’s political office in Qatar, on October 5, to discuss aid to mitigate Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis. Gass stressed the importance of preventing Afghanistan from becoming an incubator for terrorism, and the need for continued safe passage for those wanting to leave the country. He raised the issue of treatment of minorities and the rights of women and girls.
Russia has invited Taliban representatives to join international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow on October 20, which India has agreed to join. A US delegation met with Taliban representatives in Doha on October 9 and 10, 2021.The State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated that the US delegation focused on security and terrorism concerns and safe passage for US citizens, other foreign nationals and America’s Afghan partners, besides human rights, and the participation of women and girls in society. The US expressed a desire to provide humanitarian assistance directly to the Afghan people.
Author Brief Bio: Sandhya Jain is a political analyst, independent researcher, and author of multiple books. She is also editor of the platform Vijayvaani
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