Developments in Afghanistan have historically echoed in the wider region because of Afghanistan’s central location connecting the Arab and Persian regions with Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
By Md. Muddassir Quamar
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has wider ramifications for the world. Among the key questions that have come to the fore are the shifting US priorities in Asia and the Middle East and the fears about the Taliban harboring global jihadi-terrorist groups. Both these questions are intricately linked to geopolitics in the broader Southwest Asia region.
Developments in Afghanistan have historically echoed in the wider region because of Afghanistan’s central location connecting the Arab and Persian regions with Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Besides geography, cultural linkages and religious networks have played their part. For example, the ripple effects of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were felt across the region for long.
One of the outcomes of the Soviet invasion was the Afghan jihad which was planned, funded and orchestrated covertly by the US, Pakistan and the Arab Gulf countries.Though Afghan jihad succeeded in reversing the Soviet advances, it eventually led the rise of Taliban and Al-Qaeda pushing Afghanistan Into a civil war and giving birth to global jihad.
Al-Qaeda’s rise from Afghanistan in many ways shaped the violent trajectory of regional politics in the Middle East. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the disastrous ‘war on terror’ devastated not only Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen but sharpened the geopolitical cleavages in the Middle East.
The Arab Spring protests and its ramifications further worsened regional competition with Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar jostling for greater influence and power. The global jihadi-terrorism evolved post-2011 in the form of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Da‘esh for its Arabic acronym, causing mayhem in the region the ripple effect of which were felt far and wide.
Now the Taliban takeover has again raised questions about the future of Afghanistan and how it will impact the wider Southwest Asia region. So far as the US policy is concerned, it is clear that Washington is more interested in focusing on domestic rejuvenation and on the Indo-Pacific. This means that the vacuum created by the US exit will be filled by regional countries including Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey who have already begun engaging the Taliban and who will try and hope for a degree of stability to set in.
Nonetheless, there are wider cleavages so far as the regional countries are concerned. While Iran and Pakistan are immediate neighbors of Afghanistan, hence more vulnerable to security threats, Russia, China and Turkey are more interested in the economic opportunities. All these countries will be eyeing more influence, and in that respect Qatar has a head start because of its role as the facilitator of Taliban’s agreement with the US. Pakistan too has come to the fore because of its deep links with the Haqqani Network. Turkey, which has close strategic relations with both Pakistan and Qatar, thus has an advantage over its regional rivals.
Iran’s historical and cultural links with Afghanistan and association with various factions in the Afghan theater, besides good relations with Russia and China gives it some advantages but the Iranians will have to grapple with any sectarian violence that the Taliban might perpetuate or tolerate. Tehran will also be worried about a greater role for Ankara in running the day-to-day activities in Kabul. Among the important regional actors who have become sidelined in the new dynamics are Saudi Arabia, UAE and India. All three have vital interests in Afghanistan but find themselves outmaneuvered not least because of their proximity with the US but also because other regional actors are not keen for them to play a significant role.
The initial reaction from Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are indicative of what might be in store in the future. Both Turkey and Iran are keen to engage the Taliban to not only secure their interests but also to expand their regional influence. Saudi Arabia and the UAEare cautious and have kept the cards close to heart. They might use their influence in Islamabad to seek a role in Afghanistan and try to develop contacts with non-Taliban factions.
The downward trajectory of Saudi-Emirati influence in Afghanistan is notable because during the previous period during 1996 and 2001 the two were among the handful of countries that had recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Their influence on the Taliban has gradually weaned because they have distanced themselves from radical Islam, and are remolding their politics and foreign policy to moderate Islam. They have also begun to see Islamism and radicalism as security threats leading even to frictions with Turkey and Qatar.
Besides, the non-state actors in the region including Shia and Sunni militant groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, Somalia and Libya have reacted enthusiastically to the Taliban takeover celebrating it as a defeat of the US. For states fighting these groups this is not good news, as the militant and terrorist might be inspired to redouble their efforts in fighting the regimes or other regional powers.
The events in Afghanistan are not good news for Southwest Asia. None of the regional countries want further instability, hence have joined forces to work with Taliban and ease its return to Kabul. Nonetheless, this is easier said than done because of both Taliban proclivity for radical Islam and the geopolitical cleavages among the regional actors. Only time will tell what the future has in store for Afghanistan but the reactions from regional countries show the anxieties and fears of Afghanistan becoming a failed state.
(The author is Associate Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi. Views expressed are of the author and not of MP-IDSA or Government of India nor do they reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Twitter: @MuddassirQuamar)