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Dancing to the Taliban’s drums

Why has peace proven so elusive in Afghanistan, and will Biden’s arrival to the White House make an ounce of difference

Shrouq Tariq, Friday 4 Dec 2020
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People from different parts of the world were cheering when Trump lost the US presidential election, content for the victory of Joe Biden. But is it something to be happy about? Especially for Muslims inside and even outside the US, and particularly in South Asia?

US President-elect Joe Biden’s approach to moulding US foreign policy would be rather painstaking and sharp as compared to his “America First” predecessors.

South Asia has become a very important region for America in the past few decades, ever since the rise of China and the Afghan Taliban dilemma.

But why was and still is the US so afraid of the Taliban, who basically have no proper military means to attack America? What’s the actual reason for the physical presence of American troops, for all these years, inside Afghanistan?

Politically, they were to organise a “peace process”. I use the phrase in quotation marks because I’m sceptical if all these years of warfare actually bought about peace in the region, and in Afghanistan in particular, or if it was real peace process in any sense of the words.

This all started because of 9/11. But the actual reasons for staying in Afghanistan were different. First, the rising power of China and its growing “friendliness” with Pakistan. The Chinese are and have been posing threat for the Americans since decades now, and America needed a base to tackle them from closer quarters. Hence, the long stay in Afghanistan.

The second reason was the Russian invasion during the Cold War and the control it wanted to have in the region. America had to tackle this, also, through Afghanistan. The Afghan problem is also important for Russia’s energy and hydrocarbon strategy in Eurasia, which is primarily about Russia’s access to the region’s energy resources and control over trade, transportation and communication corridors.

Which takes us to the third reason: the resources in Central Asia. Post‑Soviet Russia has perceived oil and gas resources as both a strategic asset and a strategic instrument in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Central Asia not only contains vast hydrocarbon fields, both onshore and offshore in the Caspian Sea, that have the potential to serve as an alternative to OPEC suppliers, but is also one of the most important crossroads and intersections of the world’s energy communications in the North‑South and Europe‑Asia directions.

The influence of the two powers inside Europe is also of vital importance. The main motivation behind Russia’s involvement in the region is to maintain Russia’s status as the main transit route for energy exports from Central Asia to Europe, in addition to limiting the influence of other players in “Russia’s own backyard”. This explains why Afghanistan is important for everyone.

One of the socially constructed images of Afghanistan since 1991 is that of a “potential energy corridor”. The West dreamed of connecting Central Asia to a warm water port to have direct access to the region’s hydrocarbons. In the 1990s, Turkmenistan had a deal with the Taliban and the UNOCAL oil company to build a trans‑Afghan pipeline into South Asia. India and Pakistan both desperately seek to connect to Central Asia to solve their energy needs, especially in the case of India, which must explore ways of supporting its ever‑growing economy and industry. This is a major aspect of its foreign policy.

Since 11 September 2001, two alternative pipeline projects have been advanced: the US‑backed Turkmenistan‑Afghanistan‑Pakistan‑India (TAPI) 6 pipeline and the China‑backed Termez‑Kabul‑Peshawar‑India (TKPI) 7 pipeline. However, because of instability in Afghanistan, the feasibility of both projects remains in question. The United States has also attempted to “promote” Afghanistan’s role as an “economic land bridge” between Central Asia and South Asia by promoting a broader vision for the Central Asian region called the “Silk Route Strategy”. This project involves not only pipelines but also largescale infrastructure projects that would unite the region. This pretty much explains the huge war of investment in the region, between the Americans and the Chinese, and why Afghanistan is of vital importance. Another reason that Afghanistan is highly important for Russia and America is its potential to destabilise the entire region. It doesn’t stop here though. The fact that Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer and supplier of cannabis, raw opium and heroin is the last but not least important reason why Afghanistan occupies a significant place in US foreign policy thinking.

That being said, why is the “peace process” crippled now? Why is America leaving? The answer is, American lost the longest war in its history after Vietnam, because there is no peace deal going through the gate without the help of Pakistan, whether the Taliban and the Americans meet in Doha or any other part of the world. Regional observers believe that the strategic playing cards of every party to the negotiations are currently presented on the table and they also believe that the change in leadership in the White House won’t affect much on the ground. Hence, the Afghan Taliban, till this moment, rejects any face to face with a representative from the present Afghan government, since the latter is representing and is supported by other stakeholders in the Afghan file, such as India and Russia. Therefore, Pakistan and China, its strategic partner in the region, have agreed on a common strategy of using the Taliban card in the negotiation process with the Americans. The finale that has already been presented on the table, since day one, is that the Americans have to withdraw its forces down to the last soldier from Afghan land. With the change of administration in Washington from Trump to Biden, America will have to face the Taliban’s music and the complexity of its rhythm, in order to find a face-saving way out of the Afghani swamp that is suitable for Americans who voted for the Republican Party.

Though it’s not ending just this way, Afghanistan is shaken and it will take some time for a durable solution to emerge for the Afghan problem in the region, for Pakistan, India, Russia and China.

 

The writer is a researcher in the South Asian region and holds an MPhil in defence and strategic studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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