InternationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 1

US and regional players’ interest in Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is becoming dangerous with each passing day as the Taliban are trying to capture more territory, while the government forces are trying to repel their attacks, resulting in large-scale bloodshed as a peace process in not making any headway. By the start of August, deadly fighting was taking place between the Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for the control of key southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and western province of Herat. Reportedly, hundreds of fighters from both sides along with scores of civilians have been killed.

Importantly, the Taliban, since May 2021, when the US and NATO started withdrawing the remaining of their forces from Afghanistan, have launched a multipronged full-blooded offensive against the ANSF, but they have changed their strategy. Previously, they desisted from taking control of the 34 provincial capitals of Afghanistan and kept on capturing as many district headquarters as possible. However, now with full-fledged attacks on provincial capitals in Helmand, Kandahar and Heart, the Taliban want to control all provincial capitals. On August 6, the Taliban were able to capture Nimroz province.

It may be part of a strategy of the Taliban leadership that unless they have territory in the form of provinces they won’t be able to negotiate with the Afghan government from a position of strength. At the moment, the United States and other important regional players, except Pakistan and Iran, are also trying to influence events in Afghanistan. The US and regional powers’ struggle to influence the outcome of the civil war in Afghanistan would be decisive in prolonging or limiting the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan. Which power will be able to influence the events and their outcomes in Afghanistan would depend upon two factors. The one is the interest of the particular global or regional power and its interaction with the prevailing situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

In this connection, the US still seems to be the most important player in Afghanistan despite having pulled all of its ground troops from the country after nearly 20 years of a commanding presence there. The significance of the US role in Afghanistan can be ascertained from the fact that despite having no more air force stationed in Afghanistan, recently it launched air strikes on the advancing Afghan insurgents in order to prevent them from capturing key states. Although it has not been reported clearly from where the US conducted the air strikes, yet it has the capacity to launch it from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea from its aircraft carriers anchored there. Although the air attacks by the US have not come in a large number so far, yet their number and frequency would depend upon the rapidly changing situation in the Afghan war theatre. However, despite having the capacity to launch air attacks on the Taliban, the US may not conduct repeated air attacks on Taliban positions considering it futile to stop advancing them when the ANSF forces are surrendering without much resistance. Nevertheless, Washington has unequivocally made it clear that a Taliban control and government in Afghanistan would not be acceptable to it. Only the Taliban as part of a broad-based government could be welcomed to the power corridors in Kabul.

In the unfolding situation, some theories are also making the rounds that Washington had deliberately started withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan and that too with a brisk pace. According to one such contention, the US wanted to compound the conflict and crisis in Afghanistan. The foremost reason is to tell the world that it has been the US forces’ presence along with their NATO allies that maintained somewhat stability in Afghanistan and prevented the Taliban from overrunning the country. Afghanistan’s war has been the longest of America’s history and its forces could not trounce the Taliban despite having more than 100,000 troops, including its NATO and other allies, at one point in time. Thus, the US has to justify its Afghan war of exactly 20 years, costing a mind-boggling $3 trillion, not only to its own public but also to the international community. The second important reason, which certain analysts are pointing out for the US strategy to deliberately compound the crisis in Afghanistan, is that regional players, particularly China and Russia, could be sucked into the Afghan conflict theatre. There are said to be two reasons for the strategy. If China is able to successfully replace America and fill the power vacuum in Afghanistan, it would be a win-win situation for Washington. However, it is important to understand that China would not have a military presence in Afghanistan but could act as a mediator among parties to the conflict.

Washington knows that Beijing, for its own reason, also cannot assume an off-hand approach in the Afghan conflict as it fears that its separatist Islamist movement militants of East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) are present in hundreds in Afghanistan and have been getting support from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The ETIM has been fighting for a separate Islamic state in the Xinjiang region of Western China. Recently, the Taliban political office head, Abdul Ghani Biradar, visited Beijing and held meetings with the Chinese foreign minister and other officials. According to sources, the Chinese authorities conveyed to the Taliban leadership that it would not tolerate the presence of ETIM militants and elements in Taliban-controlled territories of Afghanistan. It is important to note that the recent terrorist attack on Chinese engineers working on infrastructure projects in Dasu on the Karakoram Highway, which killed nine of them, was made by ETIM militants with the help of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Both ETIM and TTP militants had mostly relocated to Afghanistan after the Pakistan military forces conducted large-scale operations against them and their foreign and domestic affiliates in the aftermath of the December 16, 2014, terrorist attack on a Peshawar school, in which 140 schoolchildren were ruthlessly massacred, resulting in a countrywide uproar to launch a decisive action against militants and terrorists. After their infiltration into Afghanistan, the Afghanistan National Directorate of Security (NDS), its key intelligence agency, established links with ETIM and TTP militants and brought them together to use them for terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The ETIM could only contribute to the strategy of attacks in Pakistan, if it aimed at Chinese workers and interests.

As India is another important regional player trying to influence the outcome of events in Afghanistan, it has used its strong links with the President Ghani government and the NDS to create problems for its arch-rival, Pakistan, and regional nemesis, China. The Afghan Taliban have also provided support to the ETIM and the TTP in Afghanistan. Now Delhi and the Afghan government want to exploit the situation by using the two groups to create problems, primarily for Pakistan and also for China. It is important to note that in the situation, the US would only like to justify its two-decade-long war in Afghanistan but at the same time also wants that stability return to the war-devoured country as instability and conflict may again result in safe havens for Al-Qaeda and its global militant-terrorist outfits in Afghanistan.