The United States, the world’s leading economy, with trillions of dollars flowing into the international system annually through the American economic machine, has for the past twenty years seen Afghanistan as a hazard.
In particular, the neo-conservative American elite such as George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their crew wanted to eradicate terrorism (the kind that might threaten the United States) and entered the country in 2001.
Afghanistan, they saw as the cradle of this threat. The country under the orthodox Taliban regime, at that time, had descended into medieval practices. Moreover, the transnational terrorist group al-Qaeda had found sanctuary in the South Asian state and conducted acts of sabotage on American interests.
Today, Ashraf Ghani’s government holds little sway over Afghan territory. Warlords-backed local administrators frequently disregard his orders; rockets were fired outside the presidential palace at his inauguration, and his government does not raise enough revenue to cover its expenditure.
Nevertheless, in his recent article in the Foreign Affairs, he vowed that if Taliban forces intend to continue the fight and pursue the path of chaos and violence, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (A.N.D.S.F.) will fight them.
However, many questions arise will they fight to protect the general populace or the Ghani regime? The Afghan Army is composed of 180,000 personnel. Will they continue to receive foreign aid and equipment post-U.S withdrawal?
Robert Gates, the former American defense secretary, has appealed for continued American financial assistance to the Afghan military and the United States not to repeat the mistakes of abandoning it, as it did in the 1990s.
Therefore, the first question is whether an amicable settlement between the two warring factions can be churned out. One of the solutions seems to be to set up an interim government without any political ambitions.
Afghanistan’s laws of nature
There are primarily three dimensions to the Afghan Peace Process. First is the Intra-Afghan aspect. Second is Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors and, finally, the critical factor on the future role of global powers.
Disrupting an already fragile political ecosystem regarding the intra-Afghan dimension, different interest groups might fragment in an already divided state and vie for national power if the country descends into a possible civil war post-US withdrawal.
In this case, the two main factions would be the current Afghan regime, backed by the West, claiming its legitimacy through popular elections (although it had an abysmally low voter turnout). On the other hand, is the anti-government faction led by the Afghan Taliban, who are on a march and sensing imminent victory.
How the Taliban claim legitimacy is not based on the Western liberal democratic model. Their interpretation of laws is also not a standardized common-law-based model. They are what would in legal jurisprudence be classified as belonging to the ‘naturalist’ school of thought.
Moreover, the constitutional arrangement that they seek is also still unclear. The core issue is under what kind of legal system the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan regime would contest against each other? Over the years, the vacillating chronological development of the Afghan constitution (from monarchy to democracy to theocracy back to democracy) has also been covered well by Haroun Rahimi.
It is a topic in itself for a separate article.` The second dimension is Afghanistan and its relations with its neighbors. Afghanistan, in the ’90s, was a battleground for the proxies of regional countries. However, in the 21st Century, it seems that the dunes have shifted.
Over time the alliance structure of regional countries and their Afghan allies have changed; no regional country wants a hostile neighbor. However, the pertinent question is whether the regional states can cooperate to avoid this problem.
Pakistan’s five primary concerns viz-a-viz Afghanistan include (a) cross-border terrorism, (b) Indian influence in Afghanistan, (c) drugs, and narcotics trade, (d) looming refugee crisis due to a chaotic Afghanistan, and (e) water issues.
Sensing an impending worst-case scenario for them and their allies in Afghanistan, India, has also opened up contacts with those in the Afghan Taliban leadership, not aligned with other regional states. However, Pakistan’s red line is the Indian role in Afghanistan, particularly given its history of supporting proxy groups inimical to Pakistan’s interests.
Pakistan will once more face the blowback if chaos reigns in Afghanistan. Forces, politically and ideologically aligned with ultra-right-wing outfits, might become emboldened. According to the Washington Post, certain groups will see significant blowback, “the women of Afghanistan, the journalists, judges, and the democracy activists who will be left to the Taliban’s mercy.”
Central Asian Republics (C.A.R.’s) might also face the consequences of an Afghanistan that descends into civil war. According to S.M Ali, a director at the Center for Aerospace and Security Studies, Pakistan has been the most’ affected collateral damage’ of the Afghan war. Pakistan has already signaled its shift from geo-strategic to geo-economics.
It has learned the lesson of not involving itself in the Afghan quagmire. Now Pakistan needs a long-term viable Afghan policy that recognizes global and regional dynamics, the rule of law, and the security considerations of regional powers.
One welcome development would be the operationalization of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (T.A.P.I.) gas pipeline. Turkmenistan is a resource-rich country, and connecting it with resource-poor India would offer a plethora of opportunities for Pakistan, which seeks to become a gateway for regional integration.
The third dimension is the relations of any future Afghan setup with the West and other global powers. This dimension is where economics will play a crucial and sustainable role. If allowed to make a meaningful impact, i.e., without the intermediary of a predatory governance structure, economic development will deter the production of drugs and the grounding of transnational terrorist outfits such as I.S.I.S. and Al-Qaeda.
China, being a neighbor, might be able to link the country with its Belt and Road Initiative and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (C.P.E.C.) projects. In the U.S., the expectations include military use of corridors with political, social, and ideological expectations.
China: Another complication for the U.S. in Afghanistan
In a recent webinar organized by the Institute of Policy Studies, Brigadier (r) Shahid Nazir stated that “Americans are trying to wash their hands clean and hand the reins to regional powers such as China and Russia.”
However, according to Dominic Tierney, America can handle a modest growth of Chinese influence in Afghanistan. The Chinese presence in Afghanistan is not an existential threat to the United States. Furthermore, Ambassador Jilani, former foreign secretary of Pakistan, stated that China is one country that is respected by all factions in Afghanistan.
Therefore, China’s mediatory role post-American withdrawal will be pivotal. It is pertinent that there is a peaceful solution post the American withdrawal, and the country does not descend into a civil war. In addition, economically, there is a need to help Afghanistan, which is still a war-ravaged economy.
It would be a herculean undertaking; however, through regional cooperation, a doable one. China, the primary country with the ability to undertake this, has expectations for providing an economic corridor with no political, social, and ideological demands.
According to Dominic Tierney, the key to a successful American strategy in Afghanistan lies not ‘in American soldiers but American dollars.’ Kabul raises $2.5 billion in revenue annually and spends $11 billion. The budgetary fiscal gap of three-quarters is covered by foreign aid.
The lack of tax generation can be partly attributed to what has been described as endemic corruption in Afghan revenue-generating governmental organs. According to S.I.G.A.R. 2021 first-quarter report, “Afghanistan has long been perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt states, and the government’s anti-corruption efforts have suffered from vague strategies and insufficient actions.”
Thereby, government officials and Congressmen in the United States are wary of continued foreign assistance to Afghanistan. This is because it can backfire by creating patronage networks for corrupt officials, dividing Afghan communities, and boosting the ‘insurgency.’
Suppose the U.S. Congress decides to discontinue foreign assistance to the country post the withdrawal. In that case, which donors will the current Afghan regime find to fulfill its financial obligations?
On the other hand, in his book Directorate S, Steve Coll has uncovered how the Afghan Taliban have generated their revenue streams through shadowy trade networks, narcotics trade, and patron-client relationships with various regional countries. Will those relationships sustain post-U.S. withdrawal is a question that time will be the best judge.
Apart from the economic lens, there is the security one. Which, if any country, would provide military bases to the U.S. at the cost of undermining national sovereignty? Pakistan’s Foreign Minister and Prime Minister stated that Pakistan’s government would not be involved in any such undertaking.
Moreover, Russia might dissuade the Central Asian Republics (C.A.R.’s) from providing bases to the U.S. The United States already has a substantial military presence in various Gulf countries. However, operating from there would be costly and inefficient.
In a nutshell, the U.S. wishes to protect the political gains in human rights, women’s education, and democracy in any future Afghan setup.
However, interference in the internal affairs of another state is a violation of International Law. Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter disallows even the United Nations from intervening in a state’s domestic affairs.
Even though International Law is often trampled by the strong actors on their whims and lacks an effective enforcement mechanism, the principle of “sovereign equality” of all states is a cardinal principle of International Law.
While most Afghans might not be well-versed in International Law, however, American policymakers and those belonging to multilateral organizations who intend to make any future policy for the country are.
Will they turn a blind eye and let realism take the front seat, or will they uphold the principles of International Law to strengthen an evolving global order as postulated by neo-liberalism?
Howsoever, and whosoever answers these critical questions, must keep in mind the betterment of the future generations of Afghanistan, as the country has seen more than forty years of unnecessary carnage and violence.
This end might have been the stated aim of some Western policymakers; however, the way they went about it has cost them a fortune in blood and treasure and an image that might take years to re-build. Instead, modern-day imperialism was on display in the twenty years of the Afghan war, the kind that looked to install an alien system on an ancient civilization.
However, currently, the left-leaning Democrats in the United States despise this kind of imperialism. The rightists in America also loathe it, for they see it as government handouts (out of American taxpayers’ money) to a foreign government.
Therefore, the essential question remains, who is willing and able to take Afghanistan out of the war-ravaged economy and provide a more prosperous and peaceful future for the South Asian country?
Omer Aamir is a Researcher for Security & Legal Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies. He has done B.A LL.B (Hons) from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Pakistan. He Tweets @pakistaniforeva.