Afghanistan fallout: some thoughts

Aditya Gaonkar
9 min readAug 17, 2021
Harold Finch in S2, Ep 16 “Relevance” of Person of Interest, speaking with Sameen Shaw.

As I was reading the news and seeing video clips about the sheer mess in Afghanistan, I was reminded of the quote above. American actions in Afghanistan over the last two decades somewhat mirror this quote. I don’t think this quote is a call for inaction per se, but to be cognizant of what unintended side effects actions you mean well could have. It will be clear if one watches this amazing show (here I go, plugging Person of Interest again!). The Americans had shown some hope for the women and the teeny tiny religious minorities in Afghanistan and with their withdrawal from there, that hope is gone. In my opinion, this is worse than just being born into and living in oppression.

This scenario is very depressing, but what next? I pen my thoughts about this for the various players in this mess.

Afghanistan

I don’t think we can speak about Afghanistan having much hope, considering the previous time Taliban ruled there. Taliban might do some savvy PR to show that “Hey, we aren’t that bad now” and some idiots in the Western media could eat it up and tom tom it. I think Taliban will run riot there when it comes to ruling the populace there and the world will ignore this beyond token statements and gestures as long as it doesn’t spill over outside.

The bigger worry/curiosity for the international community would be - will Taliban give a safe haven to terrorist organizations again? Given that harbouring Osama bin Laden led to their downfall in 2001, I will be curious to see how Taliban balances this history with their larger religious fanatical overlaps when it comes to harbouring Islamist terror groups.

Overall, maybe only god can help the Afghan people. Their future now looks extremely bleak, to put it mildly.

India

Given that the Pakistan backed Taliban has been antagonistic to India’s overall interests, this mess is bad news for India. But I don’t think India needs to panic here.

Yes, Kashmir in the past had seen militancy issues increase influenced by the Taliban Pakistan nexus in the 1990s. We will not forget the 1999 hijacking incident as well, where Taliban had an active role. But that was in the past, when India was weaker both economically and diplomatically and suffered from political instability for much of that decade.

Now India has political stability (until the 2024 elections, minimum), has robust economic strength and is also well connected diplomatically. Plus we have plenty of experience in dealing with insurgencies, thanks to Kashmir and the Naxalite-Maoist movement. India should be wary, but not worry is what I think about the Taliban takeover.

Now interestingly, a spokesperson for Taliban had stated in 2020 that Taliban isn’t interested in the internal affairs of other countries. It could be that Taliban is looking to keep some channel of communication open with countries it might not have been on friendlier terms with in the past. Indian diplomats hopefully seize this chance to keep a line with them open, no matter how unsavoury it is. We have to live with this hand we’ve been dealt with is my take.

One thing of note here would be, what will India do about the Chabahar port in Iran, which was supposed to be India’s bypass of Pakistan to Afghanistan? This investment looks as good as dead now. Maybe it will serve as a lesson to Indian policymakers.

Russia and Iran

These two will surely be delighted with the mess the American withdrawal has created, exploiting it to poke their most hated rival in the eye. Russia has stated that it will keep lines open with the Taliban and it will surely seek a more active role in Afghanistan now. And to be honest, I’m not knowledgeable enough to think of how Iran will approach this. Given that the Taliban are a Sunni group and Iran is a Shia majority country, maybe there will be some friction. Or given that Taliban will be quite closely aligned with Russia and China for the foreseeable future and Iran’s closeness to those two, there might not be many tensions between the two. This is my best guess.

China

Another country delighted with the US withdrawal, given that they’ve held talks with Taliban and have stated their intentions to keep a friendly line open. China will surely be interested in the vast amounts of mineral reserves said to be present in Afghanistan. China could also want to bring it’s Belt and Road Initiative to Afghanistan. A twist to this seemingly friendly equation would be the fact that China’s Xinjiang province has a tiny border with Afghanistan and the presence of a Muslim populace in Xinjiang, which is not going through great times (or the other way round, if Beijing is to be believed with their sketchy record of truth telling). Xi Jinping will definitely want to take a massive role in Afghanistan, hoping to show to the world how the Americans missed an opportunity there. Will this be China’s superpower moment, or will it damage them just the way it doomed the Soviets and dealt a blow to the Americans? Only time will tell. The Soviets were already on a path of decline when things went rotten for them in Afghanistan and that debacle hastened the demise of their union. While the Americans will be around as a superpower despite this mess, their image has taken a beating. Xi’s foray into Afghanistan could end up making or breaking his legacy.

Pakistan

Near the peak of the American war in Afghanistan, a former chief of neighboring Pakistan’s military intelligence — an institution allied both to the U.S. military and to its Taliban adversaries — appeared on a talk show called “Joke Night” in 2014. He put a bold prediction on the record. “When history is written,” declared Gen. Hamid Gul, who led the feared spy service known as the I.S.I. during the last stretch of the Cold War in the 1980s, “it will be stated that the I.S.I. defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America.” “Then there will be another sentence,” General Gul added after a brief pause, delivering his punchline to loud applause. “The I.S.I., with the help of America, defeated America.” — New York Times, April 18 2021.

For long, I’ve wondered how the Americans were stupid enough to trust the Pakistani establishment as a key ally in their “Global war against terror”. Considering the fact that Osama bin Laden was basically holed up in a garrison town of Pakistan, that a thing called the Quetta Shura existed after the fall of Taliban in 2001 and claims that Pakistan airlifted out commanders of Taliban from Kunduz in Afghanistan in late 2001. Heck, Barack Obama explicitly stated in a CBS 60 minutes interview after bin Laden’s killing that he didn’t have an iota of trust in Pakistan when asked about why they weren’t involved in that operation. In a nutshell, Pakistan had been playing both sides for it’s own benefit and for whatever reason, the Americans played along with it for quite some time (maybe the compulsion of having supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan played a major role here).

Recently however, American ties with Pakistan have been, testy. Donald Trump started downgrading ties with Pakistan and Joe Biden has accelerated that. It’s by now well known that Biden hasn’t even had a phone call with Pakistani PM Imran Khan, even when the Americans were doing something as big as withdrawing from Afghanistan. I admit that I have been surprised at this drastic a move by the Americans. Combined with the fact that Pakistan at this point is fast turning into a colony of China, which has a testy equation with US, the Americans have possibly decided to keep ties with Pakistan to a minimum as they increasingly cozy up to India.

Pakistan will definitely be smug about the American withdrawal. However, in this process they’ve lost an ally which wasn’t exactly going to colonize them and grown closer to a country looking to make them into their colony in some sense. At the same time, Pakistan might have to contend with Pashtun nationalism and the messy legacy of the Durand line as Afghanistan settles down into some semblance of stability, whatever that is after a prolonged foreign occupation and a civil war. Added to this is the possible resurgence of the TTP, which has had a bloody conflict with Pakistan in the Pashtun dominated Khyber Pakhthunkwa. The current scenario is a long desired strategic victory for Pakistan, especially as they’ve managed to deny their bete noire India a firm foothold in Afghanistan. However what next? That remains to be seen.

USA

Lastly, we come to the biggest player in this saga till date, which now might end up becoming a side player.

I’m not very interested in analyzing what went wrong for the Americans here. POTUS Biden basically told that they didn’t want to help who couldn’t help themselves:

Personally, I agree with Biden’s sentiment here. There was no more strategic benefit for the Americans by prolonging their stay in Afghanistan and pouring more money into it. I know that many folks will bring in the moral imperatives etc that the Americans had w.r.t Afghanistan, but the real world works in a different way. The Americans have bigger geopolitical priorities now. Heck, Biden has even announced that the Americans will end their combat ops in Iraq by the end of this year. It simply made no more sense to stay in a country out of some sense of moral duty and waste money, time and precious lives.

That being said, Biden and the team deserve severe criticism for this messy withdrawal. It simply is unfathomable that they didn’t expect Taliban to make this speedy a progress or that the Afghan government and armed forces would give up this easily. And the fact that they couldn’t get out all Afghan nationals who helped them there, leaving them to the mercy of Taliban is a big stain on the credibility of US. The comparisons with the Saigon 1975 events definitely look apt. However maybe as long as there is no hostage crisis out of this, Biden could salvage some political mileage form this. Ask Jimmy Carter how something like that would kill one’s presidency.

What does this do to serve the perception of US as a reliable ally for entities like NATO and countries like Japan and India? I’m not sure. On one hand, the way the Americans abandoned bases like Bagram in the middle of the night and not even involving the Afghan government strongly during the 2020 negotiations with Taliban would serve to be a cautionary tale for those allied with the US. You can make a counter argument that Afghanistan was a special case which isn’t the story with the other alliances US has. What might be the most probable scenario could be that allies of US will still remain allies, but will develop a degree of wariness about the Americans being able to help them and will go the extra mile to become stronger themselves. This has deep ramifications for Japan and Taiwan, and I wonder what’s going through the minds of their leaders right now.

One observation I will make here is that Biden’s and co are repeatedly getting caught flat footed when it comes to the Middle East. They were slow in responding to the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas. The Afghanistan withdrawal, while not an overall botch up has been messy. The supposed revival of the nuclear deal with Iran, seems to be stillborn — definitely not helped by a hardline conservative becoming the new Iranian president. While Lebanon is going through a crippling economic crisis and whose potential collapse could have massive ramifications for the Middle East, I haven’t seen US showing much involvement there. There seems to be a pattern to this mess and in my opinion, it’s this — Biden isn’t interested in getting deeply involved in Middle East and he might be heralding a new era of American disengagement there, one of little involvement beyond maintaining some military bases. It could be that US becoming self sufficient in oil, wanting to move away from oil in the future, the sheer mess that is the M.E., decades of exhaustion with being involved there (Biden had the front seat for it), a thawing of relations between Israel and big players in the Arab world might have contributed to Biden’s apparent disinterest there, contributing to these repeated fluffs.

This disengamenet could help the Americans to focus on where they see the real threat to their hegemony — China and the larger Indo-Pacific, areas where the Biden admin is showing some serious involvement in and have essentially continued the Trump admin policy in this area of geopolitics.

Conclusion

All in all, this event means we are entering a new era in geopolitics and we will be treading uncharted waters. How things shape up from here will define this century. The events in Afghanistan and the new era of darkness there is a depressing notion, but it does serve to indicate that the world is still a bitter, unforgiving place for many of us even when we’ve made tremendous progress towards peace and prosperity post WW2.

PS:

  1. Usual disclaimer — this article is purely my opinion in my personal capacity.
  2. I would like to thank my friends Adithya V S, Aditya Kulkarni and Dheeraj M N for the many discussions we have about stuff like these, which was immensely helpful in writing this article.

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Aditya Gaonkar

IC Design Engineer. Retired FC Barcelona fan. Interested in physics, mathematics, philosophy, memes, epic fantasy. IIT Madras and Columbia University alum.