“They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands,” said Sir Robert Walpole. The first British Prime Minister’s words echoed in the House of Commons when MPs succeeded in getting the declaration of war against Spain passed. The premonitory words of the prime minister fell on deaf ears as the house roared in jingoistic frenzy. Seven years later, the British economy was in tatters and none among those who once asked for war were now ready to take the blame.
History is full of episodes where myopic individuals celebrated Pyrrhic victories with a lot of pomp and drum-beating but were not ready to take responsibility for its consequences. Perhaps the current chest-thumping and ebullient welcoming of regime change has the same connotations.
The War on Terror is a haunting example of this phenomenon. In November 2001, G.W. Bush, capitalising on the tormented emotional state of his voters, had rushed to war, infamously declaring “you are either with us or against us.” A couple of months short of two decades later, the most advanced army of the world retreated in the darkness of a quiet August night, leaving behind an unfathomable puzzle for Afghanistan and its neighbours.
A country beleaguered with ethnic strife, that was fueled by the demands of the Cold War between the USSR and the USA, turned into the site of a holy war against infidels under Henry Kissinger’s Dual Containment policy. The Western powers along with their Gulf allies funded the Jihad against the so-called godless communist onslaught. As the USSR plunged into an economic abyss, it withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, allowing the USA to change its policy too, leaving Pakistan to handle the mess alone.
The optimistic view is held by the neighbours of Afghanistan, mainly Pakistan
In an attempt to deal with thousands of religiously motivated guerilla fighters, Pakistan embarked on the new doctrine of “Strategic Depth” which eventually resulted in the creation of the Taliban. However, the strategy backfired when passenger planes were used to attack targets in New York and Washington by Al-Qaida, a global terrorist network based in Afghanistan and hosted by the Taliban. Thereafter, in another paradigm shift, Pakistan joined the allies to hunt down and eliminate the jihadis it once nurtured and trained at the cost of its socio-economic fibre.
This reluctant change of heart – according to skeptics in the USA – cost Pakistan even more dearly. The loss of billions of dollars to the economy was coupled with the loss of around 100,000 lives of civilians and armed personnel. Soon, this global effort to wipe out terrorist hideouts metamorphosed into the Afghan nation-building process, which was, in reality, a thinly veiled disguise for the US to continue maintaining its presence in the region that became the epicenter of global power politics.
Two contesting views can be identified in the debate about what will happen in this new episode of the Great Game that is being played in Afghanistan on print, electronic and new media.
The optimistic view is held by the neighbours of Afghanistan, mainly Pakistan. They see the US withdrawal as a victory for pro-Islamabad forces. Moreover, they believe that other countries surrounding Afghanistan have learned a lot in the last twenty years and, since their focus is on their economic progress, they would like stability in the region. Therefore, the formula to stabilize Afghanistan is simple: China will pump all the financial support required and other neighbours will control the ethnically diverse warring groups and warlords for the sake of peace.
It seems that the Americans have learned the same lesson as the Soviets did in the 1980s. Both Elephant and Donkey administrations failed to identify clear objectives for their involvement in Afghanistan. In the words of James Dobbins, former U.S. diplomat, “We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich. We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.” Now the USA will only invite trouble if they interfere in the region again.
India and the USA would love to play the role of game spoilers – much as their strategic rivals did before. Peace and stability are a distant dream for Afghans
Russia, another big player in this game, would also try to play a stabilizing role since it has seen the success of its Primakov doctrine in the Middle East. Thus, Putin along with his big boys would silently want increased Russian influence in the region, and the American exit from the region is a good incentive for the completion of its strategic ambitions. Therefore, all the stakeholders have to gain from this situation.
However, the pessimistic view parts ways with this rosy picture. It raises serious concerns regarding the ability of the Taliban to run the country without imposing their brand of strict Sharia laws. The Taliban are loath to tolerate dissent and allowing a heterogeneous country to come to be, with multiple ethnic, sectarian and religious groups. The resistance to letting this happen will automatically result in human rights violations and suppression of minorities, especially women.
Moreover, the pessimists argue that China is merely replacing the US as the new hegemonic power in the region. It is doubtful that its intentions towards Afghanistan would be much more altruistic than those of the US before. It would simply like to calculate the ROI on its investment. It would also like to extend its Belt and Road project by establishing hegemony in Afghanistan. The most lucrative bait will be the untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan. Thus, China will only indulge its resources if sufficient returns are guaranteed.
No matter how the future unfolds, the people of Afghanistan will be the ultimate losers. In both the optimistic and pessimistic predictions outlined above, it remains an unfortunate fact that the future of Afghans is not in their own hands. The multilayered diversity will only result in the replay of history as different groups will be working to protect the interests of their paymasters. In addition, India and the USA would love to play the role of game spoilers – much as their strategic rivals did before. Peace and stability are a distant dream for Afghans.
For people delighted by the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed, many setbacks await, up ahead. Neighbouring countries like Pakistan cannot afford prolonged conflict in Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan is likely to be severely affected by the spillover of the conflict in terms of the refugee influx, terrorism and obstacles in geo-economic regional connectivity. The consequences of such an eventuality, when Pakistan itself is experiencing political instability and economic meltdown, can be disastrous. It seems that the policymakers in Islamabad are faced with Hobson’s choice – but they only have to see in the mirror to find who’s responsible!
The author is an academic and can be reached on the following email: [email protected]