Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 15, 2021
Afghanistan: The endgame and the new great game This article is part of ORF's Research and Analyses on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan since August 15, 2021.

The writing on the wall is clear. Afghanistan has been abandoned not only by the world powers that promised never to do it again, but also by the Afghan National Army that has simply disintegrated without even putting up a real fight. In time honoured fashion, leaders in provinces cut their side deals, bought their insurance policies, got bribed or convinced, and opened the gates of the cities and garrisons for the Pakistan-backed Taliban militia to takeover. It is now a matter of days before Kabul falls to the Taliban.

The way things are heading, one of two outcomes is likely: First, the buzz is that the Americans are leaning upon President Ashraf Ghani to resign and leave. An interim government, probably led by the Taliban, will take over and throw some crumbs at people associated with the ancient regime to keep the fiction of power sharing alive. Perhaps there will be some agreement on giving safe passage to some of the current incumbents and to ensure that there is no large-scale massacre of either soldiers or civilians. Because the Taliban would not have captured Kabul by force but through a ‘negotiated settlement’, it will open doors for international recognition. The Chinese will probably be the first to recognise the Taliban regime, followed by the Pakistanis. The Russians, Central Asians, and perhaps Iran will follow suit. No eyebrows will be raised if the Western countries also come back to Kabul. But even if they don’t, no one will be too bothered about it. The West will turn its back on Afghanistan, occasionally tut-tutting about the human rights situation, treatment of women and religious minorities, and curbs on personal freedoms. But otherwise, Afghanistan will be forgotten like a bad dream.

The Chinese will probably be the first to recognise the Taliban regime, followed by the Pakistanis. The Russians, Central Asians, and perhaps Iran will follow suit.

The second outcome is that some people in Kabul decide to make a final stand and not go down without a fight. They would, of course, be fighting a losing war and only prolonging the inevitable because there will be no worthwhile assistance coming their way. In the end, within a few days, or at best, a week or two, Kabul will fall. But the resistance will result in destruction in the city and of course a massacre. The West might have abandoned Afghanistan but cannot afford the optics of widespread death and destruction, a televised man-made calamity for which it is responsible. The political fallout of such an event will be disastrous and will define the remainder of Biden’s term as well as the legacy of his presidency. Therefore, the US administration would be very keen to prevent this outcome. That is probably why it is leaning on Ghani to go for the first option. Ghani seems to be conflicted. Reports are that there is pressure on him to hold firm. But the statement he has released suggest that there will be some negotiations to give a modicum of face saving and then Ghani will quit, not just the office but also Afghanistan.

The bottom-line is that the world is reconciling itself to a Talibanised Afghanistan. The charade of Doha dialogue has run its course. Its sole purpose of giving some international visibility and legitimacy to the Taliban has been served. At the same time, it was useful in lulling the Americans and the Afghans and stringing them along in a completely fruitless dialogue. With the final denouement days away, the US pressure on Ghani to quit on August 14 was probably America’s independence day gift to Pakistan which suffused with triumphalism cannot stop gloating. Of course, the Pakistanis are also speaking with a forked tongue. Domestically, they are celebrating the Taliban victory. But externally, they are pretending to be extremely worried about the Talibanisation of Afghanistan. The more people predict that the fallout of a Talibanised Afghanistan will be serious for Pakistan, the better it is for Pakistan because it helps them deflect all the anger and accusations of having backed the Taliban for the last two decades and absolves them of any blame that comes their way.

The Pakistani factor

The reality however is that both the Pakistanis and the Taliban were pushing hard to end the war as soon as possible by capturing the entire country. A prolonged conflict suited neither of them because it would put paid to all the grand plans and schemes they had, including extending CPEC to Central Asia and bringing to fruition the connectivity and geo-economic dreams of Pakistan. That is why Pakistan doubled down on the Taliban offensive. While maintaining plausible deniability, the generals have put all their weight behind the military solution that the Taliban had always wanted to impose. The way the generals in Rawalpindi see it, the doomsday scenarios being painted by some analysts of the Taliban stratagem backfiring are far-fetched. There could be some trouble, but nothing the Pakistan Army cannot handle. The generals are also not overly concerned over any kind of international isolation or even sanctions being imposed on Pakistan. At worst, there could be some tension in relations with the West. Pakistanis calculate that they will be able to ride these out partly with the support of other countries—China, Russia, etc. But also because the Pakistanis believe the US cannot push things over the edge as it will continue to need Pakistani airspace for its ‘over-the-horizon’, and will want to have eyes and ears on ground in Pakistan to monitor what’s happening in Afghanistan.

The more people predict that the fallout of a Talibanised Afghanistan will be serious for Pakistan, the better it is for Pakistan because it helps them deflect all the anger and accusations of having backed the Taliban for the last two decades and absolves them of any blame that comes their way.

In the Pakistani calculus, a quick capture of Kabul and Afghanistan would confront the world with a fait accompli. Even if some countries led by the US shunned the Taliban, there were others that would eagerly and gladly accept the new reality and establish relations with the Taliban regime. The Chinese are already reported to be all primed up to accord recognition to the Taliban. Once they take the lead, the Pakistanis will follow. The Russians, Central Asian states and Iran would also do the same. This will be seen in Pakistan as another grand diplomatic and strategic achievement – the PRICs alliance comprising Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and Central Asian states built around Afghanistan, an alliance that would obviate the need to seek Western recognition. And if things work out according to plan, even some of the Western countries might fall in line. Already there are some indications that the US is holding out the carrot of recognition, or at least acceptance of Taliban capturing Kabul, provided they allow the evacuation of people and diplomats to take place unhindered.

With the deed of allowing the Taliban to capture Afghanistan having been all but done, all eyes will be on what happens next in Afghanistan and its repercussions on the region and beyond. All the grand plans of Pakistan and some other countries will hinge on how the Taliban behave and run Afghanistan. If the Taliban remain unreconstructed and indulge in the atrocities for which they are infamous, then unless one is being overly presumptuous, they will remain a pariah regime, at least for the West. Equally critical will be their relationship with other international jihadist terror groups. The apprehension is that Afghanistan will once again become terror central—a safe haven for all sorts of Islamist terror groups from all over the region and rest of the world. In a recent interview, the Taliban spokesman took a very ambiguous stand on Taliban relationship with these groups. The fact that over the last 20 years, the Taliban and these jihadist groups have fought together and become brothers-in-arms means that they share bonds that will not be broken just because the Taliban have captured power in Kabul. But going forward, will the Taliban restrain these groups from pursuing their own agendas? The answer to that question will determine the relationship of a Talibanised Afghanistan with rest of the world, and especially with regional players.

If the Taliban prove they are not medieval monsters but only deeply conservative, India could open up to them. Or they will make an outreach to India to balance Pakistan.

For now, the Taliban aren’t really going to clampdown on these groups which have been part of their war effort. They will be required as Taliban consolidates its control and mops up any pocket of resistance. But once this phase is over, Taliban will have to take a call on these groups, many of which will want that the Taliban now support their agenda just like they supported the Taliban agenda. If Taliban restrict these groups, there could be a falling out and conflict; if they give them space to do what they want to do, it will create problems with neighbours. The thing is that even the neighbours who are ready to deal with the Taliban are apprehensive about them. They will, therefore, want to keep some leverages over the Taliban. This could mean giving refuge to some anti-Taliban forces. For their part, the Taliban too will want to keep the Tajik, Uzbek, Pakistani, Chinese, Chechen, Arab, and some Iranian terrorists on their side as a counter leverage in case some of these countries start getting any ideas about interfering in Afghanistan. The internal dynamics within the Taliban will also be a determining factor on how these foreign jihadists are treated. The political side of Taliban have been giving all types of assurances, but it is the military commanders on ground who have been working with many of these foreign jihadists. Who will call the shots remains to be seen.

Finally, there is the Pakistani factor. The Pakistanis have supported the Taliban, given them sanctuary and bases, helped rebuild their military power, given them access to weapons and money, even directed and planned their operations and strategy, and done things (including assassinations) to keep the Taliban movement from splitting. Understandably, the Pakistanis feel they have a major claim to what happens in Afghanistan. But as some analysts have pointed out, many Taliban harbour deep resentment over how they have been treated and bullied by the Pakistanis. For their part, the Pakistanis are wary of Taliban recalcitrance, defiance, and support for the Pakistani Taliban. These factors might not come into play surface immediately but will eventually. The thing is that the Pakistanis desperately need to get Afghanistan right this time. They cannot afford isolation, even less in the region. They have enormous stakes riding on Afghanistan, all of which now depend on how Taliban run their affairs. Naturally, the Pakistanis will want to have a say in this, and as is their wont, they will be overbearing, interfering and demanding, something that could lead to a pushback from the Taliban, and perhaps create an opening for India.

Space for India

Let us be clear. There is no end-game in Afghanistan. A new ‘Great Game’ is just starting. India needs to show strategic patience. It is a matter of time before things open up for India once again. Perhaps if the Taliban prove they are not medieval monsters but only deeply conservative, India could open up to them. Or they will make an outreach to India to balance Pakistan. Alternatively, there could be resistance to Taliban from around the region, which again will open up new options for India. For now, however, India must prepare for the long game. This includes helping India’s friends in Afghanistan by giving them refuge. They will be our strongest allies whenever things take a turn in Afghanistan. Helping Afghan friends isn’t just an emotional or sentimental response, it is also a strategic response. The Afghans India helped in the really tough times in the 1990s became our strongest allies for the last 20 years. That India lost opportunity after opportunity in Afghanistan over these two decades isn’t on the Afghans, but on Indian policymakers who focused more on soft power and not enough on developing hard power options in a hard country like Afghanistan. Let us not make the same mistake twice.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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