The Disaster in Afghanistan, Part II

No one will be unscathed.

By Vivek Y. Kelkar, Mumbai

Read Part I here.

If Pakistan’s dilemmas are complex, none of Afghanistan’s neighbours—nor anyone in the region—can reasonably expect to go unscathed if the country implodes.

Tehran’s Catch-22

Zaranj, in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, is right on Iran’s border. It’s a crucial trade crossing, a major source of customs revenue for anyone who controls it. It fell to the Taliban last Friday, after a week of fighting. A few days before, Taliban forces captured another vital trading town on the Iranian border, Islam Qala, in Herat province.

Both times, a significant number of Afghan central forces retreated into Iran—as did thousands of refugees, including women and children. The UNHCR estimates nearly a million Afghan refugees now live in Iran. For the past four decades of turmoil in Afghanistan, the government in Tehran has largely been a willing host, even allowing refugees access to Iran’s social and education systems. The persecuted Hazaras, and other Shia tribes from Afghanistan, have found Iran welcoming. But Tehran’s problems are now manifold.

First, hit badly by US sanctions, Iran is in dire need of trade from Afghanistan. The fall of Zaranj and Islam Qala jeopardizes trade worth $US3 billion per annum. Critical plans to build a railway line that would move Afghanistan’s mineral exports to Iran’s ports are now in jeopardy.

Next, it makes it more likely that ever-more opium will flow into Iran, which already has one of the highest addiction rates in the world. For the Taliban, control of the trade routes is crucial. The opium trade provides major revenues; Iran is a critical pathway to the sea routes that transport Afghan opium to the wider world. The Taliban will need more arms and manpower to control the country. Facing a cash crunch, it is bound to ramp up opium production. Iran will be among the first to experience the consequences.

In recent months, the Iranian government under President Ebrahim Rasi has stepped up its diplomatic outreach to the Taliban. But Tehran harbours no illusions about the relationship. In Iran’s reckoning, Afghanistan is the weak link in the chain of proxies it has built up in Asia as a counterweight to Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Tehran still needs the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria. The Hazara and other Afghans who make up the Fatemiyoun in Afghanistan have not yet found their bearings in their conflict with the Taliban. Iran has no other proxies there with established bases, funding, sources, and supply lines who could play a role like that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, or the Shia militias in Iraq. Another open front on Iran’s northern and eastern borders could send its already beleaguered economy into a tailspin, creating internal tensions that Khamenei’s regime will find difficult to manage.

China’s chessboard

On July 28, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, met the head of the Taliban Political Commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. After the pro forma criticism of American policy, Wang Yi took pains to point out that over the years, China had always refrained from meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The withdrawal of US and NATO troops, he proposed, meant “the Afghan people now have an important opportunity to achieve national stability and development.”

Baradar, in turn, praised the Chinese as friends of the Afghan people. The Taliban, he promised, “will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.”

China’s wooing of the Taliban is not new. In 2015, Beijing organized secret talks between the Taliban and the Afghan central government in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. It has since maintained dialogue with several Taliban leaders. On July 13, the Global Times—the CCP mouthpiece—asked rhetorically, “How big a security threat does China face as Taliban draws closer to border with Xinjiang?”

None, apparently, because “the Taliban is quietly transforming itself to improve its international image, easing the concerns of and befriending neighboring countries.” The article is clearly meant to suggest China’s friendly disposition toward the Taliban:

Chinese observers noted that China and Russia, as the major responsible powers in the region, will cooperate more with all parties in peacefully solving the Afghanistan issue and its reconstruction work, and that Afghanistan will not become a “graveyard of empires” for China and Russia, since both countries uphold the principle of non-interference. 

Many have seen, in this pretense of bonhomie, an effort by China to step into the vacuum left by the US. But all rhetoric aside, China is the regional power most threatened by this development. Xinjiang, its vulnerable underbelly, is right next door to Afghanistan’s Sunni Pashtun regions. The Wakhan corridor, a narrow 90-km stretch of land linking Afghanistan, Pakistan and Xinjiang, is a potential hotspot. In recent years, China has built military installations in the southwest and north of the corridor, but it remains a point of vulnerability. China’s BRI interests in Pakistan and Central Asia are particularly vulnerable. Instability consequent to the region’s radicalization could mean severe economic setbacks.

Yi underlined the problem starkly when he noted that China had experience of such radical groups as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which have attracted dissident Uighurs. The UN has designated ETIM a terrorist organisation. Yi sought reassurance. “We hope,” he said at the meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin,

the Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region.

But that is unlikely. ETIM’s fighters are already embedded within the Taliban, along with several other banned and militant fundamentalist groups. Even if we assume Baradar is absolutely serious about not engaging “in acts detrimental to China,” should the Taliban consolidate its power in Afghanistan, its fighters would find it hard to resist calls to help their oppressed Islamic brethren gain autonomy from unbelievers.

Terror and Xinjiang apart, in recent years China has placed some big bets in Asia that make Afghan stability critical to their plans. Afghanistan and the links it provides to Central Asia are critical to China’s Belt-and-Road economic diplomacy and the access it seeks to ports in Pakistan. Beijing has long eyed Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, too, and made key bets in its mining, oil, and gas industries—though not all its bets have been successful.

In 2020, according to Chinese Ministry of Commerce data, China invested about US$4.4 billion in Afghanistan, much of it in mining. Both the Amu Darya oil basin project and the Avnak copper mine have faced considerable resistance from locals and major security threats from militants, leading to delays and cost overruns.

Ironically, it was the US security umbrella that kept these projects from being abandoned completely in the face of resistance. China’s tightrope walk in Afghanistan will get even more precarious without a security blanket; it can scarcely expect one from the Taliban.

Is Russia playing roulette?

The Taliban’s gains are equally worrying for Moscow. It can scarcely afford its sphere of influence in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan to be destabilized by religious fundamentalism, especially because Russia is home to nearly twelve million Muslims. Dagestan and Chechnya, though geographically far from Afghanistan, remain highly vulnerable to the import of the Taliban’s radical ideologies and to fundamentalist organizations that sympathize with it. On August 11, Russia initiated a meeting in Doha with the US, Pakistan, and China to discuss the Afghan dilemma.

Russia has clashed repeatedly with ISIS-linked forces in the Northern Caucasus. The Taliban’s recent victories in Badakhshan and Takhar, provinces right next door to Tajikistan, have caused considerable alarm in Moscow. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahman has expressed severe disquiet to both Moscow and China about the proliferation of fundamentalist groups in the region; he specifically noted that militia closely affiliated with the Taliban have tried repeatedly to enter Tajikistan.

But the region’s unease is also an opportunity for Moscow to raise its global diplomatic profile—an opportunity it won’t miss. The instability presents Moscow with a chance to expand its role as a major power broker in conflicts from Syria and Lebanon to the Caucasus and Central Asia. It will allow Moscow to expand its economic influence through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a body that until now, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have resisted joining.

On August 5, Russia carried out military drills in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a show of force for the region. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu recently announced that Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were “combat ready.” Russia’s S-300 missile systems in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, are being upgraded in accordance with Russia’s goal of expanding its regional military bases.

Russia will play the long game—but much will depend how the Taliban plays its own cards in the chaos to come in Afghanistan.

A Tragic Economy

An early 2020 World Bank report put it plainly: “Afghanistan’s biggest economic challenge is finding sustainable sources of growth.” This is profoundly ironic, given Afghanistan is sitting on some of the world’s richest mineral reserves, valued by various estimates between one and three trillion dollars.

The same report noted that nearly 44 percent of the country’s labor force works in agriculture. Some 60 percent of its households derive income from agriculture. “Private sector development and diversification,” the report noted,

is constrained by insecurity, political instability, weak institutions, inadequate infrastructure, widespread corruption, and a difficult business environment Grants continue to finance around 75 percent of public spending. Security expenditures (national security and police) are high at around 28 percent of GDP in 2019, compared to the low-income country average of around three percent of GDP, driving total public spending of around 57 percent of GDP.

The Afghan economy grew an average 9.4 percent per annum between 2003 and 2012. But since 2015, growth has slowed to an average 2.5 percent. The World Bank’s data makes it plain how much the country depended on US and multinational forces for stability and the economic growth it permitted.

The report warned that since 2015, several development indicators have been slowing—or more worryingly, reversing. As the report candidly noted,

Aid flows decreased from around 100 percent of GDP in 2009 to 42.9 percent of GDP in 2020 (with the number of international troops declining from more than 130,000 in 2011, to around 15,000 by end-2014, to around 10,000 today). Declining grants led to a protracted contraction of the services sector, with an associated deterioration in employment and incomes. The security situation deteriorated, with the Taliban insurgency gaining control over increased territory and intensifying attacks on military and civilian targets, with civilian casualties totaling more than 10,000 per year between 2014 and 2019.

What the report did not say was that unemployment and low income, coupled with the lure of radical ideology, multiplies the risk of a spillover of instability across the region. During the few years it was in power in the 1990s, the Taliban did little to grow the Afghan economy. It has never offered a clear blueprint for growth.

Beyond the obvious humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, Afghanistan is a disaster in progress for itself and the region. And even that is an understatement!