The US disaster in Afghanistan and the growing influence of Russia and ChinaAug 18, 2021
Afghanistan’s economic and social reconstruction could be swift, provided it is not handicapped by continuing Western interventions.
The fall of the Ashraf Ghani regime in Kabul came very suddenly but was entirely predictable. Neighbouring great powers China and Russia had been quietly preparing for this expected outcome for months. Russia has in practical ways been reaffirming its reliable security obligations to the ‘Stans’ on Afghanistan’s northern border and has doubtless engaged in informal diplomacy with Taliban contacts.
Those contacts can now be formalised, now that the Taliban is in effective control of all Afghanistan territory.China has offered substantial economic help through the Belt and Road Initiative to the Taliban, with the agreed quid pro quo that the Taliban will not support any Islamist insurgencies in the Xinjiang province of China. Relations between the Taliban government in Afghanistan and the Russian and Chinese governments will be based on mutual respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Afghanistan’s economic and social reconstruction could be swift, provided it is not handicapped by continuing Western interventions.
There are some angry and vengeful voices in the Five Eyes strategic community already calling for continuing American drone and bomber-launched missile attacks on Afghanistan cities from the air. No military purpose would be served now by such prolongation of hostilities and I hope that President Biden would firmly veto any such pointless aggression which could only be driven by spite and wounded pride.
What kind of rule will this second Taliban government offer? As the well-informed Pepe Escobar suggests, there are some grounds for hope that it will be somewhat more respectful of women’s rights and of social and ethnic diversity than the first Taliban regime which ended 20 years ago under overwhelming American military pressure, with Pakistan then a powerless and passive spectator. This time around, neighbours Iran and Pakistan, quietly backed by Russia and China, will help to back up Afghanistan’s sovereignty. The new government in Kabul, feeling under much less Western pressure than 20 years ago, will probably seek to moderate its religious and social policies, taking into account also of the way Afghan society has evolved over the past 20 years especially in respect of the role and rights of women. I expect that after some declaratory and symbolic politics, Afghanistan may well settle into a relatively moderate and modernising government where social issues are concerned, using as models its neighbours Iran and Pakistan. There will continue to be a revered religious leader backing up a team of more ‘secular’ Taliban leaders. As in Iran.
An urgent national priority should be to stamp out the very profitable opium trade and the corruption and abuse of power this trade fosters. The Taliban has said it is determined to do this. We shall see.
Obviously, the transition will be painful and frightening for many vulnerable Afghanis: I hope the Taliban can be believed when it says it will not pursue old scores against Afghans who worked with the Western military presence. This will become, one hopes, a time for national reconciliation.
For Australian official foreign and strategic policy, it is a bitter moment. There was full bipartisan domestic support for our involvement in the 20-year war. All sides of politics rightly grieved our war dead. All sides felt the shame of elements of our SAS going off the rails. There was general understanding , not said publicly, that Australia had to take part in this often unsavoury war to pay our dues as a junior alliance partner of the US. So mainstream Australia will now take part in the orgy of recrimination and finger-pointing that will inevitably follow this ignominious rout.
These two decades of war, saw Australian defence industries becoming fully integrated into the US military-industrial complex, whose economic interests as arms manufacturers and war planners nurtured the conflict. Both in the US and here in Australia, these drivers of US disasters will continue to thrive into the future … military, business, security agencies, think tanks and the media. There is little sign that these drivers will learn any lessons. Saigon and Kabul tell the same story. The ‘indispensable nation’ still believes in its exceptionalism, and Australia as a dependent and compliant ally remains caught in the American mire.