As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan nears completion, the race for influence is underway. From China to Turkey, each country has specific interests that influence its engagement in Afghanistan’s future, and the relations of regional powers demonstrate the realpolitik at play at a time when the security situation in Afghanistan is fluid and generally deteriorating.
- In politics, a “political vacuum” is described as the political void left by a disengaged power that has not been filled.
- From China to Turkey, the race for influence in Afghanistan is underway.
- Indians and Indian assets in Afghanistan are already under attack. Any takeover in Kabul by the Taliban will deprive India of diplomatic influence in the region.
- Each country in the region has specific interests that influence its engagement in Afghanistan’s future, and the relations of regional powers demonstrate the realpolitik at play.
The political vacuum created by the withdrawal of NATO and US forces from Afghanistan has led other powers to attempt to fill the void for reasons of regional stability and/or create and extend their spheres of influence. Afghanistan is a country historically known for being at the centre of the “Great Game” and now for the emerging Asian power rivalry in the aftermath of Washington’s decision to withdraw from it by 11 September 2021. As one commentator remarks, ‘The political future of Afghanistan will be of considerable significance to several nations with competing sets of interests, as well as to pan-Asian relations as a whole.’
The Power Vacuum in Afghanistan and the Race to Fill the Void
Afghanistan today is a muddle of overlapping security interests for regional and international powers. One analyst notes that ‘As US and coalition forces carry out their withdrawal from Afghanistan, regional powers are jockeying to carve out influence in the country, setting the stage for new geopolitical tussles even as the Taliban and Afghan government forces fight for control of the country’. From China to Turkey, the race for influence in Afghanistan is underway. As another commentator observes, ‘[The] Taliban’s ascendancy in Afghan civil war is sure to send refugees flooding across the border between the nations, along with a rise in drug and human trafficking and terrorist activity’.
Turkey, although it does not share a border with Afghanistan, and despite stern warnings from the Taliban, has decided to protect the international airport in Kabul, even at the cost of risking the safety its own security personnel. There is a less-than-altruistic reason for that decision. As another analyst states, ‘Turkey stands to benefit from the protection of the airport and the overall stability in Afghanistan. But perhaps it is the importance of the geostrategic webs criss-crossing Afghanistan that has led Turkey to remain involved, while seeking to exploit any potential opportunities to engage with regional stakeholders such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China.’
For Pakistan, its involvement in Afghanistan is a consequence of its security concerns especially those that relate to terrorism and the instability that could emanate from there. Furthermore, many aspects of Pakistan’s Afghan policy are driven by its relations with India. As one source puts it, ‘Islamabad seeks a weak Kabul government dominated by a pliant, supportive Taliban so that Pakistan can maintain “strategic depth” against an Indian invasion, guarantee safe haven for Islamist proxies that it supports, prevent Delhi from projecting power in South Asia, and obstruct India’s ability to support separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan’.
China’s ambitious One Road One Belt (OBOR) is routed through Central Asia and depends on sustained stability in Afghanistan and, as Patel notes, ‘is eager to protect its investment in the region, especially in terms of the China-Pakistan economic corridor’. China has increased its footprint in Afghanistan in recent years. As Griffiths observes, ‘Some OBOR projects have involved Chinese military deployments to ensure security, though Beijing has denied [that claim], along with shoring up relations with Pakistan.’ Another concern for China ‘post-US withdrawal, is Taliban-led Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uyghur separatists and the East Turkestan Movement (ETM). These groups desperately seek to undermine China’s territorial integrity in the region of Xinjiang.’
Russia has long considered Afghanistan as falling within its sphere of influence in Central Asia. Russia’s goals in Afghanistan have largely aligned it with China and Pakistan. ‘The Russo-Chinese understanding over the BRI and South Asia of which Pakistan appears to be an important partner excludes the Indian role.’
India: Bracing for Impact
India, as one source reports, ‘has already invested close to USD three billion in aid and reconstruction activities in the country’. It was in India’s interest to see the US remain longer in the country. With the US military and NATO in the final stages of bringing home the remaining troops by 11 September, however, India needs to prepare for tumultuous times.
Indians and Indian assets in Afghanistan are already under attack. The Indian Embassy in Afghanistan released a security advisory in light of the growing violent attacks by terror groups, informing Indian nationals to ‘stay vigilant amid a serious threat of kidnapping’. The Salma Dam (Afghan-India Friendship dam) in western Afghanistan on the Hari River of Herat Province was struck earlier this month. An Indian photo-journalist was killed in Kandahar while covering the escalating conflict. Another source reported that ‘In the wake of an intense gunfight between the Afghan forces and Taliban fighters, the Indian government has evacuated about 50 diplomats and security personnel from its consulate in Kandahar.’
Pakistan could use the situation in Afghanistan to alleviate domestic pressure to retaliate over Kashmir through proxy operations in Afghanistan. As an analysis of the situation observes,
Terror groups inimical to India are likely to be bolstered with victory over another superpower at the hands of Islamic fighters. Groups like Laskhar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohamed will surely use this opportunity to push for heightened levels of insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir with the help of ISI and Pakistan Army who can now focus on the East. With better coordination they may attempt penetration in other parts in India.
‘The pro-Taliban sentiment in Pakistan is growing stronger. Terrorists from at least six Pakistani groups have joined the Taliban’s war in Afghanistan.’ Recently, in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, two suspected terrorists, allegedly linked to Al-Qaeda, with their handlers located in Pakistan and Afghanistan, were arrested. The drone attack on the Indian Airforce Base in Jammu and various sightings of drones over Indian critical assets adds credence to the analysis. The national capital, New Delhi, has been put on high alert over a possible terror attack in the days leading up to the seventy-fifth Independence Day of the country.
Furthermore, the US’s deteriorating relations with Iran are a threat to South Asia’s overall stability, particularly India’s. The dynamics of India-US-Iran relations will have critical implications for Afghanistan after the US troop withdrawal. As one analyst notes, for instance, ‘Chabahar Port, located off the Gulf of Oman in Iran’s south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, is the lifeline Afghanistan needs to reinvigorate its trade potential.’ India, too, needs Chabahar for its access to Central Asia because, as it stands, Pakistan does not allow India overland transit access, a major obstacle for critical trade between Afghanistan and India.
That situation leads one observer to report that, ‘A China-Pakistan-Taliban alliance might become an insurmountable national security challenge. At the same time, if China is able to integrate Afghanistan into BRI and CPEC and fully exploit its natural resources (estimated to be worth US$1 trillion), India’s leverage in the region will worsen.’
Dozens of districts have fallen to the Taliban since 1 May, when US and NATO troops began their final departure from Afghanistan. As Mor observes, ‘Any take-over in Kabul by Taliban will leave India out of its diplomatic influence in the region. As it is, India has never really on the main table in the negotiations, while many others have been able to have some influence which can be used in case Taliban does succeed to overthrow the present government in Kabul.’
It stands to reason, given the above, that, as one commentator states, ‘there can be no sustained solution to the Afghan war without a national consensus on a political roadmap for the country. Still, regional efforts are a crucial phase of the political peace process because the conflict in Afghanistan is multidimensional. Each country in the region has specific interests that influence its engagement in Afghanistan’s future, and the relations of regional powers demonstrate the realpolitik at play.’
It is time for India, therefore, to take tough pre-emptive measures to curtail the terrorist attacks against it. New Delhi needs to enact a unified approach – military, political and economic – to ensure its own peace and to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan. The security situation in Afghanistan is fluid and generally deteriorating. Any takeover in Kabul by the Taliban will reduce India’s diplomatic influence in the region. As one report sums it up, ‘Regional consensus and support for an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process are important for an enduring peace’.