Event ReportsPublished on Jul 26, 2021
2021: Afghanistan’s year of reckoning
As the US forces continue their withdrawal from Afghanistan ahead of the September 11 deadline, the Taliban have made rapid advances through the country, leading to concerns about future security and stability. This formed the backdrop of the webinar between ORF, Washington-based Wilson Centre, and the Moscow-based IMEMO. The interaction, moderated by Amb. Amar Sinha, carried forward the discussion from the joint report on Afghanistan that was released in April 2021, providing a unique India–US–Russia perspective on the ongoing developments. The speakers (see Annexure I) discussed the emerging situation in Afghanistan and analysed the role of different stakeholders to gauge what the future holds for the war-torn nation. Dr Alexey Davydov argued that the intensification of the unrest can be traced to the American announcement of a specific withdrawal date and expressed concern that Taliban’s gains might become an example for other radical movements. Dr Alexey Kupriyanov also noted the impact of the Kabul government not being able to consolidate itself without American support, leading to the creation of a power vacuum that will be filled by the Taliban. Here, Mr. Michael Kugelman noted that the US had declared that its decision to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan would not be dictated by the insurgency. While Davydov noted that the withdrawal decision was not made under serious pressure, and that there was no huge anti-war movement in the US, Kugelman pointed out that the war remains extremely unpopular amongst the American public. And despite the bad optics of the rapid Taliban advance, the US is unlikely to change the policy already underway and will not go back to Afghanistan. These developments, the speakers noted, were a sign of the fragility of the Kabul government. Amb. Rakesh Sood noted that while the strength of the Afghan army was more than enough to ensure security of large parts of the country, the weakness of the central government has led to a rapid breakdown of systems. Dr Jennifer Murtazshvili too noted that the legitimacy of the central government was in doubt, and all signs pointed to a governance problem in the country, with the Ghani government not being able to co-opt other internal regional players and strengthen its position. Discussing what comes next, Kupriyanov spelt out two scenarios, one where Taliban takes major cities and the other where it does not. The former would lead to a humanitarian crisis with waves of refugees moving into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while the latter would lead to a continuation of the war. He noted that the Afghanistan situation will remain unstable until the transition from tribal rule to modern society takes place. Kugelman believes the possibility of a civil war as being higher than that of Taliban taking over the country by force in the short term. Others too expressed pessimism about the unfolding scenario, with both Amb. Sood and Mr Sushant Sareen noting that the Taliban has not changed its ideology. Sood also said that the unconditional withdrawal backed by a timeline was the ‘Plan A’ of Taliban or ISI, which had been achieved. Sareen said he expected a rise in threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. He predicted that the peace process did not have any hope of succeeding. The speakers pointed out that the pace of Taliban advance has prompted concern amongst regional stakeholders and raised questions of how to deal with the emerging situation. The US continues to see the country through counterterrorism lens and would like to prevent a ground situation that facilitates growth of external terror actors like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, Russia has allied obligations towards Central Asian states that border Afghanistan, and much will depend on Taliban’s actions in determining whether these obligations would be invoked. Murtazshvili noted that the Taliban do not have an incentive to upset their neighbours in Central Asia, given the leverage the latter still have on Afghanistan through contacts with opposition leaders. But as Davydov noted, if the great powers continue to classify Taliban as a terrorist organisation and isolate it, then they will resort to terrorising the neighbours, even if now they want to project an image of effectiveness. Also, threats to Central Asia emanating from its citizens joining splinter groups in Afghanistan were also highlighted. Here, it remains to be seen whether the regional states will arrive at a modus vivendi with the Taliban for developmental or humanitarian purposes; and whether it will be at odds with larger security goals. Meanwhile, China might try to informally engage with the Taliban to try to come to an agreement that will allow it to start infrastructure projects in Afghanistan. Till now, Beijing has been a cautious player, and this is likely to continue, as it tries to engage economically in the war-torn country. Amidst this, Ms Kriti Shah suggested that India will need to change its attitude towards Taliban and develop contacts in its hierarchy to be a credible player. This would be necessary to decide the threshold at which New Delhi will continue to operate in Afghanistan. Apart from this, it would also need to work with Russia and Iran, where there is some scope for convergence of interests.

Annexure I: List of Speakers

  • Rakesh Sood, Distinguished Fellow, ORF, a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Nepal, and France.
  • Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director, Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia, Wilson Center
  • Dr Alexey Davydov, Research Fellow, Regional Relations Study Group, IMEMO, RAS
  • Dr Alexey Kupriyanov, Head of the Group on South Asia and Indian Ocean of the Centre for Asia Pacific Studies, IMEMO, RAS
  • Kriti Shah, Associate Fellow, ORF
  • Dr Jennifer Murtazshvili, Associate Professor, University of Pittsburgh
  • Sushant Sareen, Senior Fellow, ORF
  • Amar Sinha, Distinguished Fellow, RIS, a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan.

This report was written by Nivesdita Kapoor
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