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The Great Game 2.0 in Asia: Afghanistan. A Pyrrhic Victory

A longstanding antipathy towards "forever wars" has led the U.S. President Joe Biden to announce on April 13 the withdrawal of U.S. troop from Afghanistan by September 11 this year, – a symbolic date that matches the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon 20 years ago. "The war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking," the American leader said.

There are about 2,500 American soldiers and about 7,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan, who will also leave the country by the deadline.

Conservative estimates suggest that more than $750 billion could have been spent on the military campaign alone (some sources cite the sum of $975 billion, excluding reconstruction programs). Over 19 years, the World Bank made available about $6 billion in loans, and donations to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) were about $13 billion more. At the same time, the country's GDP now accounts for $19.2 billion.

The number of Afghan refugees today is almost 3 million people (out of 30 million population). Another 3 million fall in the category of temporarily displaced persons.

Therefore, it is possible, albeit indirectly, to note the lack of a coherent U.S. long-term strategy in Afghanistan.

Opinions Are Divided

The decision of the American leader caused discontent in U.S. military and political circles.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell posted on his Twitter account: "Foreign terrorists will not leave the U.S. alone simply because our politicians have grown tired of taking the fight to them. The President needs to explain to the American people why he thinks abandoning our partners and retreating in the face of the Taliban will make America safer". The US media cite military commanders who recommend retaining the current troop level while intensifying diplomatic efforts. There are increasing doubts regarding Taliban's credibility and fears over its future plans after U.S. troop pullout.

Responding to the situation, the Pentagon announced its intention to increase the troop presence in Afghanistan to ensure safe withdrawal of its forces from the country. The U.S. President's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan supported the retention of part of the U.S. group to ensure safety of the American embassy in the Afghan capital.

The Taliban Escalates Pressure

At the same time, in late March, after Biden had called for prolongation of the military presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban announced its intention to forcefully evict foreign troop if the United States violate the pullout deadline. Later, the Taliban accused Washington of violating the Doha Peace Agreement and threatened with a "counteraction" holding the American side responsible for the consequences. The group leaders also rejected to show up at the UN peace conference on Afghanistan which was to be held in Istanbul from April 24 to May 4, 2021.

The Istanbul conference was regarded as an apogee of all of Washington's initiatives on Afghanistan. Its goal was to bring together the efforts of regional states and to progress the intra-Afghan peace settlement before the Americans themselves left Afghanistan. After the Taliban had rejected participation in the conference, Turkey said the forum would be postponed until end of Ramadan, which questioned its relevance.

According to the Taliban, the reasons for the talks postponement were their demand that the United States release its prisoners and lift UN sanctions against the movement leaders. The Taliban and the U.S. are reported to negotiate a complete U.S. troop pullout by July. According to the sources, the Taliban is ready to return to peace talks only once an agreement on this issue has been reached.

Pakistan has already joined the negotiation process and is making attempts to convince the Taliban to take part in the Istanbul conference.

The "New Old" Chapter of Relations

To date, there are two possible scenarios for the situation development. The first is establishing an interim power-sharing government that might adapt to the Taliban, as mentioned in the well-known U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken's letter to Ashraf Ghani. However, this idea is strongly opposed by the Afghan president himself who insists on the constitutional transfer of power through elections.

Another scenario involves the Kabul and the Taliban's inability to reach a sustainable political settlement before September 11, which could lead to a new confrontation and possibly even civil war.

The reality of the second scenario is fully accepted by Blinken himself, though with the reservation that neither side is interested in such an outcome, and especially the Afghan people. By his words, the security in the region today will depend on the degree of involvement of Afghanistan's immediate neighbors, – given their interest in stability of the republic, they should use their influence to avoid new escalation.

Even more symptomatic is Blinken's statement that "US has been engaged in Afghanistan for so many years, and sometimes forgets why it went there in the first place", stressing that the US has to be prepared for every scenario during pullout. While allowing for the possibility of returning to Afghanistan in case of seizing power by the Taliban.

Against this background, attention is drawn to the State Department's order of U.S. Embassy Kabul departure and the unclear parameters of the future diplomatic mission presence. In addition, Washington recommended that citizens of their country who plan to leave Afghanistan do so as soon as possible.

A piquancy to the situation is added by the reasoning of the US chargé d'affaires in Kabul Ross Wilson, noting that a possible civil war would be a "dead end", and both the Afghans and the international community "have similar concerns about the U.S. troop pullout".

The U.S. does not also intend to provide air support to the Afghan security forces after american troops are gone. According to Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby, the Afghan army must be ready to provide security for citizens and protect the country's integrity on its own.

The media reported recently that the United States has increased the air force in Afghanistan to protect its units during pullout. The Pentagon noted that some of the military equipment will later be transferred to Kabul.

At the same time, the Pentagon is questioning the ability of the Afghan security forces to independently counter the Taliban without being supported by an international coalition. For instance, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said that in the worst-case scenario, Afghans would face an uncertain future.

Amid the beginning of American and allied troop pullout, the American generals promised to move to a "new chapter" in relations with Afghanistan and continue financial and technical support to its armed forces after this process is completed. National Security Adviser of Afghanistan, Hamdullah Mohib, has no doubt about this prospect.

At the same time, Afghanistan's First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said it was the United States that "legitimized" the Taliban, therefore they must "remain engaged" in the processes on the country's territory, albeit in a different ways than before, and support the peace process diplomatically, economically, strategically.

Focusing Central Asia

Given that troop pullout will hamper the U.S. ability to influence country's events, the future operations in Afghanistan may rely on military bases near its borders. General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Commander, U.S. Central Command, said without giving any details that the Pentagon had already been working on a plan to station troops and aviation equipment in nearby countries.

According to The Wall Street Journal citing the U.S. military officials, such facilities would deploy in Central Asian countries, in particular Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which border Afghanistan.

It should be noted that earlier U.S. military bases were already located in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Uzbekistan has already officially stated the impossibility of deploying foreign military bases in the republic, citing the country's military doctrine and laws.

Washington itself, amid reports on the possible relocation of its troops and equipment from Afghanistan to one of the Central Asian republics, said the U.S. is in direct contact with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan leaders and are ready to assist them in resolving the border conflict.

Afghans' Pessimistic Optimism

Meanwhile, Haibatullah Alizai, the commander of Afghanistan's Special Operations Corps, declares his readiness to completely suppress any hostile actions by the Taliban after the U.S. and NATO forces are gone.

Media report the formation of new militia units in the country, which will support the Afghan army in the combatting the Taliban militants after the U.S. and NATO armed forces pullout.

However, such rhetoric is in sharp contrast to statistics. For example, according to MIA of Afghanistan, 24 provinces were exposed to the Taliban attacks since April 15 following the Washington's announcement of the U.S. troop withdrawal. 69 civilians and 157 security force members were killed. At the same time, official statements on the militants losses are refuted by both local residents and independent sources.

Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, urged all politicians to come together for the success of peace talks to avoid an increased fighting with the Taliban after the U.S. and NATO troop pullout, while expressing uncertainty as to their desire for peace.

The Taliban Raises the Stakes

In turn, the Taliban threatens Afghan journalists, accusing them of one-sided publications and collusion with the government. Similar threats were made by the Taliban in June 2019, after which this category was attacked and became victims of violence.

The Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has also announced plans to establish sharia law in Afghanistan, calling on Afghans to stop trying to continue the war and unite "according to the precepts of Islam".

In this context, the news that the delegation led by the Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar left for the Hague for talks with the International Criminal Court Prosecutor to discuss crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in past years of the war in the republic, is very interesting.

Al-Qaeda said it is planning a comeback in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws, and vowed to “wage war on all fronts” against the U.S. The group has significantly surpassed the Islamic State in recent years regarding the brutality of its attacks and media presence. Not superfluous will remind inside pullout, the United States agreed with the Taliban to break their ties with Al-Qaeda.

Following the growing threat from the Taliban and other groups amid foreign troop pullout, refugee rights activists are calling on Western countries to protect Afghans who collaborated with NATO during the military operation. For instance, Australian public figures requested their government to take steps to increase humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. They also speak about the need to facilitate the relocation to the West of the citizens of the country who assisted the Western alliance forces.

Pandemic as a Limiting Factor for the Peace Process

Afghanistan is undergoing its third wave of coronavirus. To combat the pandemic, the authorities have expanded the list of people to be vaccinated. Now, all citizens who are 18 years of age will be eligible to get vaccinated. Prior to this, only at-risk groups had been vaccinated. Afghan Ministry of Public Health announced that 60 percent of the country's population are planned to be vaccinated against coronavirus in the near future.

The World Bank has pledged a total of $113 million to Kabul to fight the coronavirus. The Asian Development Bank will provide the country with another $50 million grant.

In turn, China pledged 400000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to the Afghans. China had already handed over a batch of emergency assistance, including food and medicine, to Afghanistan. In the near future, the Chinese government intends to send several more batches of coronavirus vaccine there. Earlier, Afghanistan received a large amount of anti-epidemic supplies from China.

China has provided more than 13,000 tons of food aid to Afghanistan in recent years. Beijing and Kabul are continuing to strengthen their relations amidst the implementation of the "One Belt and One Road" strategy.

International Efforts

A crucial role in determining the future of Afghanistan and the region as a whole is played by neighboring Pakistan, which is generally considered to have effective leverage over the Taliban. In April, a Pakistani delegation led by Islamabad's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Mohammad Sadiq, visited Kabul to discuss bilateral relations and security issues in the region.

The visit was preceded by a trilateral meeting on the Afghan peace settlement with the participation of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Ministers once again underlined their support for the peace process in the republic and stated the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire to provide a conducive atmosphere for peace talks.

Based on the preliminary outcomes of the recent Pakistani military and political leadership visit to Saudi Arabia, Islamabad can be expected to increase its role in de-escalating the situation in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop pullout in return for financial assistance and investment. Security can sell well.

A very symptomatic is the recent meeting in Kabul between Pakistan Army chief General Bajwa, Afghanistan's President Ghani, and the Chief of the General Staff of the British Army Nicholas Patrick Carter, which, according to media reports, decided Afghanistan's future after U.S. withdrawal.

Meanwhile, Pakistan closed its land borders with Afghanistan and Iran at least until May 20, which is officially motivated by fighting against COVID-19 outbreak, although this step is more like countering terrorism and militants migration, since the new policy is applied to pedestrians crossing the border with no effect on existing transit trade. Experts note at the same time that this decision coincided with the Prime Minister Imran Khan's visit to Riyadh.

The foreign troop pullout from the country has been the focal point of the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who recently discussed the issue with members of the country's High Council for National Reconciliation.

Assurances of continued support for Kabul in various fields, including military, were also made by German Prime Minister Heiko Maas, who recently paid an official visit to Kabul and during a meeting with the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, discussed the Afghan peace process and its support from the German government.

Realistic Scenario

Despite multilateral international efforts, regardless of the format and the time period of the Taliban returning to power in Kabul, it is likely that Afghanistan will not be fortunate to escape the tragic outgrowth of the internecine civil conflict lasting for more than 40 years with varying intensity. The conflict in which there are no real winners, only losers. And first of all, it is the long-suffering Afghan people.

As estimated by Nikolay Patrushev, the Russian Security Council Secretary, the situation in Afghanistan during the Americans stay in that country has changed only for the worse. The war is continuing and, strictly speaking, has never ended.

As per some Afghan estimates, the Taliban has been fully or partially controlling up to 70% of the country over the past few years with many provinces having parallel managerial and administrative structures.

The national electricity utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) is reported to have engaged the Taliban to collect electricity fees in a number of provinces (based on an agreement between the energy facility and the Taliban). The income collected by the Taliban in the territories under their control is 15-20% of the total DABS revenu.

It is alleged that the Afghan company has employed the Taliban because it fails to collect money from the residents of the provinces controlled by the militants due to being unable to ensure security.

Contacts of a number of Afghan government officials with the Taliban militants were declared by Ahmad Zia Saraj, head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS).

The task to train and educate the local military has also not been implemented – the Afghan National Security Forces remain understaffed.

The existing situation in and around Afghanistan leaves no doubt that the Afghan case will continue to be an issue in the active agenda for Russia and the CSTO as a whole in the foreseeable future. This is indirectly confirmed by the recent signing of a new treaty on military cooperation with Kazakhstan, the new program of strategic partnership between Russia and Uzbekistan in the military field for 2021-2025, and creating a joint air defense system with Tajikistan.

Russia, within its real capabilities, will have to fill the external power vacuum formed after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, trying to take the initiative in this way. As a result, the shapes of a new security architecture with a more emphatic participation of Uzbekistan as a regional leader and an external player represented by the Russian Federation, are starting to emerge in the region. All others will integrate into this architecture in proportion to their capacity and interests, with the effect of creating a new palette of regional balance.

Uzbekistan basically proceeds from the idea that Afghanistan is an integral part of Central Asia. The Action Strategy on five priority development areas 2017-2021 provides for "creating a belt of security, stability and good-neighborliness around Uzbekistan".

Following the U.S. pullout, the new elements of the operational situation in the region significantly increase the status of the Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan, making them the core of the collective security throughout the CSTO space (regardless of membership in the organization itself). In the face of emerging real and potential threats coming from the territory of Afghanistan, it will not be possible to resist alone.

Given the experts' forecasts about the growing Islamic extremism in Xinjiang after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, China is also reinforcing its coordination with the Central Asia countries: on May 12, in Xi'an, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted the second "China+Central Asia" Foreign Ministers' meeting.

Therefore, the Afghanistan factor continues to involve the Great Game 2.0 in Asia into a vortex of geopolitical risks and uncertainty and significantly hampers much needed regional development and progress…