Events are taking shape around us at a quick pace which could cultivate a strategic shift in the region to impact every country based here as well those which have lingering interests in this part of the world. The epicentre of this shift is Afghanistan where the previously incumbent government of President Ghani has given way to the Taliban in a bloodless surge that surprised not only those who were watching the events, but the victors also who were not expecting such a smooth transition as was ultimately witnessed. Only the Kabul airport remains under the supervision of the Americans for purposes of evacuation of troops and people, a process which is expected to be completed by August 31. Thereafter, Taliban will be perched in the saddle of power after a break of twenty years from the time when they were removed through a combined US-NATO operation.
While the Taliban rule the last time they were in power was brutal which left behind horrible memories of beheadings, amputations, and stoning as well as denial of basic rights to people, there are numerous questions hanging around regarding what kind of government they plan to institute this time around. Will this be a replication of the last one which, according to their singular interpretation, was in accordance with the Sharia law, or will this be relatively liberal with a spattering of relief for people in terms of rights and freedoms?
The initial signs emanating from a string of their leaders are positive with commitment to form an inclusive government that would respect human rights, more specifically the rights of women to study and work. Unlike last time, the Taliban have also declared a general amnesty for all their adversaries including members of the last administration whom they are even willing to induct into the new government. Negotiations are in progress in an effort to forge consensus on some basic issues before the composition of the next dispensation is finalised, but not before the last foreign troops have departed from the Afghan soil as a token of total Taliban victory over yet another adversary – the US and its allies this time around. We have come a full circle from times when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan last to now when they are being handed the reins of power in a virtual bloodless surge across the expanse of the country spanning a mere seven days. It has been such a remarkable turnaround testifying yet again that Afghanistan is no easy prey for any power to devour. It comes back to haunt the aggressors, be they the British, or the former Soviet Union, or the Americans and their allies in the NATO.
There is another question which is going to occupy the minds of people. This relates to the possibility of strategic developments in this part of the world now that the US and the NATO are on their way out. A number of people have written about it in the past and more of them will be glued to their laptops projecting possible scenarios for the future. In the event peace returns to Afghanistan, and with China and Pakistan tied together in a strong and time-tested strategic partnership, will they be able to extend the economic corridor already existent under the CPEC banner to Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and beyond, thus turning this region into the new strategic power house of the world? The very thought is stimulating!
Post withdrawal of foreign troops, and with the US, Europe, and the international monetary organisations having stopped the flow of funds to Afghanistan, the Taliban regime will have no option but to look towards other countries which would be willing to engage with it to ensure its economic survival. China is the first country that would come to mind because of multiple reasons: first, it has not only invested heavily in Pakistan, it is also in the process of doing so in Iran; second, it is eager to have a peaceful and stable Afghanistan that would control the flow of terrorism from its soil, and, third, connectivity is an integral part of its programme to take its economic diplomacy further for reaping long-term strategic gains. In the event this happens, of which there is immense likelihood, the whole region would be connected in an economic corridor linking China with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and on to Central Asia, Russia and beyond. That would open a world of opportunities for all countries that are linked in this chain which, potentially, could alter the economic and strategic dynamics of the region, turning it into the new mover and shaker of the world.
Having unnecessarily alienated themselves from playing a functional role in reshaping this region by blocking the flow of funds and support, will the Americans, the UK, Europe and the rest of the world let this change happen by remaining mere spectators sitting a fair distance away, or will they alter their policy of coercion to take on the role of inclusion which would safeguard their core interests in this part of the world? In this process, will they also be looking at reviewing their overall policy for the region, or offer it all on a platter to China?
The prospect is imbued with tantalising possibilities for game-changing developments in the region with Pakistan, together with its strategic partner China, poised to play a pivotal role in piloting this transition. This, to a certain extent, will also atone for the cardinal policy blunder it committed back at the beginning of its journey as an independent country when it plucked itself from the region it is based in to shake hands across thousands of kilometres of turbulent waters constantly brewing with upheavals and storms. This liaison brought it nothing better than a transactional relationship which was controlled by unequal and untenable drivers.
But there are challenges remaining on the way to realising peace. Having gravely miscalculated the fast-changing dynamics in the region, India has ended up as the big loser. But it is badly bruised and would be itching to launch itself again in an even more deceptive role to sabotage the prospect of peace in Afghanistan. That is what Pakistan and other countries, which are desirous of peace, have to take notice of and ensure that no one is allowed to derail the process which can likely alter the fate of the whole region.
This is not going to be an easy task as India is already busy building the ousted and disgraced leaders into heroes, projected as fighting for the rights of the people of Afghanistan. This is nothing but an attractive euphemism for them to restart their project of pillaging the country which is exactly what they have done for the last two decades as borne out by the SIGAR papers with reams piled upon reams containing harrowing evidence of the complicity of the very same leaders in a ceaseless mission to scavenge their country and deny its people their right to peace and security. Ever since the ruling concoction was put together behind the façadeof ‘democracy’, Afghanistan plunged into an era of multiple aberrations: massive corruption in all echelons of the government structure, constant shifting of goals of the mission, an excessively flawed attempt to change the Afghan culture, an incompetent, ill-disciplined and ill-trained national army fed on the US people’s taxes, lacking in motivation to fight, a perpetually terrified leadership that Americans would withdraw leaving them vulnerable to ouster and an extremely disenchanted people who were promised the moon, but were deprived of even the basic necessities of life.
In spite of the fact that the Afghan leadership knew more than a year in advance of the US plans to withdraw its troops, and in spite of the fact that they had a standing and fully equipped army of over 350,000 personnel armed with the most modern fighting machines and gadgetry, they are complaining to have been deserted by their allies. They don’t realise that, at the end of the day, it is not the sophistication of arms, or the numbers that one may have that determine the outcome of a war. It is the motivation that drives people to fight. It is this motivation that the Afghan military lacked to an abysmal degree. The reasons are also clear: the leaders were not rooted in people and, therefore, opted to run away rather than stay behind to lead their charges. That is why the military did not even pick up their arms and, instead, surrendered meekly before the advancing Taliban.
India is trying to repeat an old story. But circumstances have changed. Security dynamics have undergone a transition. People are tired of seeing blood in their midst. The hunger for peace has increased. The spoilers have been unmasked and their intentions sprawled out bare. With Pakistan having endeavoured ceaselessly for peace in Afghanistan to advance its geo-economic calculus, the coming few months are going to be of the utmost importance in determining which way things are likely to move in redefining the fate of this part of the world. With spoilers’ desperation increasing, it is imperative to forge closer, sustainable and mutually beneficial partnerships between Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Iran, Russia, and other countries. This will pave the way to the making of the new strategic power corridor. All countries of the region stand to gain, individually and collectively, from this epoch-making development to change the shape of their future – away from strife and turmoil of war by espousing the enshrining principles of peaceful co-existence for ensuring a prosperous future for their people.
Notwithstanding the most disorderly withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan which has also endured the spectre of terrorist attacks resulting in the death of over 100 people including 13 US marines, Afghanistan is soon likely to be free of foreign presence on its soil. That would not only signal the commencement of its journey to securing peace in its midst, but also contribute to the same in the larger region. It is hoped that this phase will leave behind the harrowing and grievous marks which a war that has lasted for over four decades would have inflicted upon the consciousness of the people who have virtually been born and bred in the battlefields. It will take some time, may be a lot of time, but peace is such an unbelievable tonic that it can heal the deepest gashes. And then Afghans are brave and resilient people who can transform obstacles into opportunities to write a new chapter in their lives and the fate of their future generations.
Afghanistan shall rise. So shall the region. This appears to be the chosen destiny to pursue by the people who are fortunate to be witnessing some transformative events taking shape in their midst: a new strategic power corridor is taking shape to expose the region to a world of opportunities for peace and economic connectivity.
Raoof Hasan is the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on information, a political and security strategist, and the founder of the Regional Peace Institute.