October 22, 2021

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Afghanistan is now part of the post-American world

Afghanistan updates

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban — 20 years after it was driven out — will end American influence in Afghanistan, probably for decades. In that sense, it is comparable to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, the fall of Saigon in 1975 or the Cuban revolution of 1959.

With the US out of the way, the Taliban will seek to build relations with an array of other actors, including China, Pakistan and the Gulf states. Afghanistan’s new rulers seem eager for international recognition, and the trade and aid that would flow from that. That desire might yet persuade the Taliban to moderate its more fanatical impulses.

The treatment of Afghan women and of the Taliban’s defeated enemies will be watched particularly closely outside the country. Some of the organisation’s spokesmen have suggested that, unlike in its first period in power, the Taliban will allow women to work and to get an education. But many Afghan women, currently involved in politics and civil society, are deeply sceptical.

Foreign governments are not the only international audience that might interest the Taliban. The fact that a violent Islamist movement has succeeded in defeating the US will be a boost to jihadis around the world — who may now look to Taliban-led Afghanistan for guidance and inspiration.

John Allen, a former commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, now anticipates al-Qaeda “operating openly from the Hindu Kush with US forces gone”. The Biden administration has said it will hit back if that happens. But Gen Allen pointed out that counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan were a “very challenging undertaking without credible ground controllers”.

Afghanistan also borders China, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia, and is a near neighbour of India. All of these countries will be concerned that Taliban-inspired violence could spill over.

India will be braced for more trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority province. China has reason to worry that Uyghurs, fighting Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang, may find a base in Afghanistan. Iran will be delighted to see America defeated, but will worry about the fate of the Hazaras, a Shia minority group, who have been viciously persecuted by the Taliban. All of Afghanistan’s neighbours and the EU will be braced for an influx of refugees.

The neighbouring country in the most ambiguous and perilous situation is Pakistan. For decades, the government in Islamabad — and particularly the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI — has allowed safe havens for the Taliban. This policy was half-denied and half-justified on the grounds that Pakistan needed “strategic depth” — which meant preventing Afghanistan falling under the sway of India. The influence of hardline Islamists within Pakistan itself also helped to create a permissive environment for the Taliban.

Islamabad’s tacit support for violent Islamism in Afghanistan even survived outrages committed on Pakistani soil — such as the massacre at a school in Peshawar in 2014, in which the Pakistani Taliban killed about 150 people, including 132 children.

The government of Pakistan continues to claim that it used “maximum leverage” to try and force the Taliban to negotiate. But it is widely disbelieved. One senior Afghan official complained to me recently — “I’ve never have a bad meeting with the Pakistanis. They just never keep their promises.”

Yet the Taliban takeover of neighbouring Afghanistan is also dangerous for Pakistan. Jihadis inside the country will be emboldened by the victory. The 1,600 mile border between the two countries is traditionally porous. The Pakistani Taliban already seems to be resurgent — and last month claimed responsibility for 26 terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including a suicide bombing that killed nine Chinese workers among others. Secular Pakistani officials could also become targets.

All of the countries bordering Afghanistan will be fervently hoping that the Taliban have learned some lessons from their last period in power from 1996-2001 and will not allow their country to once again become a base for international jihadis.

If the Taliban do not attempt to export violent Islamist fundamentalism, then its assumption of power in Kabul is likely to be a welcome development for China. The Chinese government’s foreign policy doctrine is based on the principle of “non-interference” — which essentially means that Beijing will take no position on the political system or human rights inside Afghanistan provided that the Taliban respects China’s “core interests”.

China has already signalled its willingness to work with the Taliban through a recent high profile meeting between Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar of the Taliban. The significance of this meeting was not just that it took place, but that Beijing saw fit to publicise it.

If China can establish a working relationship with a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan it would provide Beijing with economic benefits — such as the possibility of a transit corridor, across the country, to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

In strategic terms, China would also welcome the opportunity to increase pressure on India, ramping up Delhi’s fears of encirclement. Above all, Beijing will welcome further evidence that the post-American world is upon us.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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