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America leaves Afghanistan, and the regional geopolitics take over

There will likely be a return to a much more historically normal state of global affairs in which multiple players are engaged.

The final end of the government in Kabul is at hand as the inexorable logic of regime collapse gains momentum. It seems more of a surprise to current policymakers than to those many observers with a long-time familiarity with the country’s dynamics. It will not be pleasant to watch, but it has long been inevitable given the utterly unrealistic ambitions and poor policy execution that Washington has maintained in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, those darker, but more insightful views on the entire enterprise have long been largely stifled by our media.

The neo-imperialist neoconservatives all argue that the American departure and the subsequent collapse of the Kabul government are deeply destructive to American “credibility” as a superpower in the world. The underlying ideology of this view is of course the cherished concept that the United States must serve as global policeman everywhere and that a failure to do so is a sign of weakness and decline. 

This line of thinking is precisely backwards: it is the overall decline of America domestically and geopolitically that is the telltale sign of its deeper weakness; there is an increasing international belief that the United States is living inside a fantasy bubble of denial about maintaining its global hegemony. If the 20-year U.S. military presence in Afghanistan had actually ever shown any serious concrete advancement towards concrete goals, that would be one thing. But the neocons are ever content to throw good money after bad in the blind pursuit of hegemony — even in the very heart of “the graveyard of empires.”

On a human level, of course, it indeed matters what fate the Afghans will meet under a new Taliban government. The Afghan people have been suffering under repeated and constant warfare and military intervention since 1978, starting with a domestic coup by Afghan communists, followed by the Soviet invasion, the subsequent years of fighting to expel the Soviets by U.S.-supported mujahedin groups, the subsequent civil war among the mujahideen that followed and to which the Taliban finally put an end by restoring national order and discipline — with a rough and ready kind of justice. 

But Washington’s focus on Afghanistan in reality has had very little to do with establishing a better and more equitable society for the Afghans.  The ostensible impulse for the American invasion was nominally to destroy the presence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But the deeper and more profound reason for the American invasion and lengthy occupation was more pointedly to establish a military and geopolitical foothold in Central Asia on the very borders of Russia and China. That ambition was never nakedly articulated but was clearly understood by all regional forces. The “nation-building and humanitarian” aspects of the American occupation were largely window dressing to cover Washington’s geopolitical ambitions. Those ambitions still have not fully died among American neocons and liberal interventionists.

Like it or not, a key feature of the new “post-American geopolitics” will be a return to a much more historically normal state of global affairs in which multiple players are engaged. And in this case, multiple players will also have the greatest influence over Afghanistan’s future — probably for the better. The reality is that all three countries which the United States perceives as enemies – Iran, Russia, and China — actually all share with Washington the same major goals for Afghanistan’s future: stability and an end to bloodshed and jihadism. But all three of these countries also unite in vigorous opposition to American intervention and dominance in Afghanistan and Central Asia. 

While in another era, the Taliban might have cared little about the views of these neighboring countries, today Central Asia is a different place. Afghanistan is in tatters, and no matter what the social policies of the Taliban are, they also need to restore the country to a minimal degree of prosperity and peace. China, in particular, has the greatest political and economic leverage to assist in Afghanistan’s future. Afghanistan figures in China’s ambitious and visionary plan of the Belt and Road Initiative across Central Asia in a re-creation of an economically linked Central Asian that has not been so linked since the days of Genghis Khan. China will make great efforts to try to ensure that the Taliban maintain stability and avoid any support to radical movements which not only hugely affect China in Xinjiang, but also affect Russia in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and the security of Shi’ite Iran — a regular target of Sunni jihadi ideology.

None of these states — Iran, China, or Russia — wishes to see the United States establish itself militarily in the heart of Central Asia and are thus happy to see Washington floundering in that occupation. Once U.S. military influence is removed from the heart of Central Asia, a prosperous and stable Afghanistan is in the interest of all.

Pakistan remains something of a wild card, but Pakistan’s dominant interest is to ensure that its eastern border with Afghanistan remains safe and friendly. Especially since Pakistan’s western neighbor — India — poses the greatest strategic threat to Islamabad. Pakistan cannot tolerate unfriendly powers on both borders. It will do whatever it takes to maintain decent working relations with Kabul. And, of course, China has Pakistan’s back as a key link in the Eurasian Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan must also be attentive to the Pashtun character of the Taliban movement; after all, there are more Pashtuns in eastern Pakistan than there are in Afghanistan itself. And resurgent Pashtun nationalism poses a constant concern to Islamabad as well.

Washington will have to lick its wounds in departing Afghanistan in defeat after 20 feckless years of occupation but cannot persist in a costly and losing policy. And only a fool would try to ward off the geopolitical power of Russia and China, and even Iran, across the vast stretches of Eurasia. Furthermore, while Washington has essentially employed military instruments to attempt to impose its hegemony around the world, Moscow and Beijing are working the diplomatic route — with far greater success.

What might be the nature of a Taliban-dominated government in Afghanistan? Hard to say, but this is a new generation of Taliban leaders who have traveled, seen the world, and dealt with many other governments. One would hope they have learned something in the course of their exile; they have little other option than to recognize the reality of now living in an international environment of mainly of non-Muslim powers. And if Taliban social policies are distasteful to Americans, they might wish to reflect upon Saudi Arabia in the same context. Of course, Riyadh and Saudi money still seem to enjoy vast influence in Washington that the Taliban cannot exert.

President Biden deserves at least some measure of credit in finally closing the spigots on U.S. blood and treasure in Afghanistan after 20 years. Hopefully it is the beginning of a sign of greater realism on the part of Washington’s geopolitical thinkers about the new limits of American power. And the need for a far more modest vision of what truly comprises American interests.

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