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The Financial Express

The Afghanistan imbroglio has become more convoluted


The Afghanistan imbroglio has become more convoluted

On  July 8, US President Biden had observed that the Afghan people must decide their own future and that he would not consign another generation of Americans to the two-decade-old war. The President also implied that the war-torn country had pretty much always been a mess, so if it falls apart again it will be returning to a historic norm. In this regard Biden also acknowledged the uncertainty about what that would look like. Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the President had said: "No, it is not." However, he also admitted, "the likelihood there is going to be one unified government in Afghanistan controlling the whole country is highly unlikely". It appears that he and his Advisors were not completely correct in their assumptions.

At that time Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also mentioned that this unfolding crisis where the Taliban were claiming that they were controlling greater swathes of Afghan territory did not "mean you can sustain that or keep it over time."  He was obviously wrong in his calculations. By the middle of July it became evident that the Taliban, emboldened not only with the US and NATO troop withdrawal but also the peace talks in Doha being deadlocked, decided to press for full military victory- and that is exactly what happened.

The last two weeks of August, before the complete departure of US, British and NATO troops, witnessed several unfortunate and deadly incidents. Each day brought uncertain consequences. The world followed with horror the death of nearly 170 persons including 13 US service members who were killed as a result of suicide bombings at the Kabul airport by the affiliates of the local followers of the Islamic State at the end of August.

 The situation as it stands today has seen the political dynamics in Afghanistan transforming into a totally unravelling chess-board. Despite the gruesome activities in Kabul, the US and other coalition aircrafts have been able to facilitate the evacuation of more than 123,000 people from Kabul airport since  August 14 -- a day before the Taliban took control of the capital.

The dreadful attacks by IS affiliates and the failure of the former US and NATO-supported Afghan government led by their President Ashraf Ghani -- who ran away from his duties in Afghanistan during the crisis -- has led President Biden to be critical of their role.

US President Joe Biden has subsequently made an interesting observation about this unfortunate turn of events. He was categorically clear: "We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong -- incredibly well equipped -- a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their airforce, something the Taliban don't have. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future." The Taliban can only agree with this observation.

It may be recalled that of the staggering US Dollar 1 trillion, a hefty US Dollar 83 billion was spent on the military, at the rate of over US Dollar 4.0 billion annually, mostly on arms purchases originating from the US defence industry's military-industrial complex, plus maintenance, servicing and training. The Afghan debacle also claimed the lives of 2,400 US soldiers and over 3,800 US private security contractors, plus more than 100,000 Afghan civilians.

Geo-political strategist Alastair Crooke has, within this scenario, made a remarkable remark -"the Taliban we see today is a far more complex, multi-ethnic, and sophisticated coalition, which is why they have been able, at such breath-taking speed, to topple the Western-installed Afghanistan government." They, according to Crooke, are also aspiring to play a regional role as a pluralist Sunni Islamist government which will respect different religious sects, and permit girls and women to be educated. Some of this is already evident, but with the premise that education facilities will be separate for girls and boys.

An interesting question has also arisen about why China, India, Russia and the US have been so keen pertaining to Afghanistan. There is the geo-political angle but there appears to be another significant factor.

Julia Horowitz from CNN revealed on August 18 that, Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world but the Taliban today are apparently sitting on US Dollar 1 trillion worth of minerals that the world desperately needs.  Apparently, in 2010, US military officials and geologists revealed that the country, which lies at the crossroads of Central and South Asia, had mineral deposits worth nearly US Dollar 1 trillion that could dramatically transform its economic prospects.

Supplies of minerals such as iron, copper and gold are scattered across provinces. There are also rare earth minerals and, perhaps most importantly, what could be one of the world's biggest deposits of lithium-- an essential but scarce component in rechargeable batteries and other technologies vital to tackling the climate crisis. Rod Schoonover, a scientist and security expert has also mentioned that "Afghanistan is certainly one of the region's not only the richest in traditional precious metals, but also the metals needed for the emerging economy of the 21st century." Demand for metals like lithium and cobalt, as well as rare earth elements such as neodymium, is soaring as some countries are trying to switch to electric cars and other clean technologies to slash carbon emissions. It may be mentioned that three countries - China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Australia - currently account for 75 per cent of the global output of lithium, cobalt and rare earths.

Security challenges and a lack of infrastructure have till now prevented the extraction of most valuable minerals in Afghanistan but it is being hoped particularly by China that this might change soon under Taliban control. Consequently, they have extended  their hand of friendship.

Bilal Kuchay, an analyst who has been tracking India's efforts in Afghanistan has made some interesting comments. He feels that the Taliban's return to power is a major setback for India in view of its close relations with the Afghan governments for almost the past two decades. New Delhi has invested US Dollar 3 billion in development projects, offered scholarships to Afghan students, and helped construct the Afghan Parliament building at a cost of US Dollar 90 million, earning huge goodwill for its efforts. In addition, India according to their Foreign Minister Jaishankar has been involved in "400-plus projects" that had been undertaken in all 34 provinces of that country. Bilateral trade between the two countries had also increased significantly over the years and reached US Dollar 1.5 billion in 2019-2020. India is probably feeling a bit insecure now because they see the Taliban as a proxy of its archrival Pakistan.

The sudden collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul and the capture of that city precipitated an unprecedented exodus of diplomats, foreign aid workers and Afghans who worked for Western countries and feared reprisals from the Taliban.

The last US military flight left Kabul airport on Tuesday, August 31, marking the end of a 20-year presence in Afghanistan and America's longest war. The C17 aircraft took off with the US Ambassador onboard.  Celebratory gunfire by the Taliban was heard after the last plane departed. The aircraft's departure was the final chapter in a contentious military effort, which eventually saw the US handing Afghanistan back to the very Islamist militants it sought to root out when American troops entered the country in 2001. It also was the end of a massive evacuation effort that began on  August 14 soon after the Taliban took over the country.

 US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has described the evacuation as a "massive military, diplomatic and humanitarian undertaking" and one of the most challenging the US has ever carried out. "A new chapter has begun," he said. "The military mission is over. A new diplomatic mission has begun." He added that while the US had suspended its diplomatic presence in Kabul, transferring operations to the Qatari capital of Doha, it would continue its "relentless efforts" to help Americans, and Afghans with US passports, to leave Afghanistan if they wanted to. He has also underlined that the Taliban needed to earn its legitimacy and would be judged on the extent to which it fulfilled its commitments and obligations to allow civilians free travel to and from the country, protecting the rights of all Afghans including women, and preventing terror groups from gaining a foothold.

Farhana Haque Rahman, associated with UN institutions for a long time has significantly pointed out that the UN refugee agency UNHCR, given the evolving dynamics is preparing for around 500,000 new refugees in the region by the end of this year. As with many past estimates that could prove optimistic. It may be noted that according to her, even before the Taliban's rapid advances in August, conflict this year had displaced an estimated 390,000 people within Afghanistan, and some 14 million were seriously short of food, with prolonged drought across much of the country.

Consequently, one can only conclude that this latest exodus from Afghanistan is unlikely to resolve the growing problem within that country. Those who have escaped will also face a far more hostile world. This will be so because the tide of international opinion, often driven by rejectionist nationalism, has slowly been turning against refugees in general.

The world, particularly the neighbours of Afghanistan - Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran - has in their own way not only been carefully following the chaotic changing scenario within that country but also trying to avoid creation of further instability. They are doing so to gain ground for better future bilateral relations by underlining some international support for the Taliban ruled country. Russia has already done so by calling on the United States to release Afghan central bank reserves that Washington has blocked after the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

The first of September started the next chapter of the long war that has plagued Afghanistan. It is true that America's longest war is probably over, but the battle for Afghans within Afghanistan has certainly not come to an end.

 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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