For the last twenty years, the US has been the dominant world power. Its military muscle, economic largesse, and strategic clout held the fragile Afghan government and promoted in it a false sense of confidence. Perhaps, it was wishful thinking on part of US decision-makers that Western democracy could be imposed from above. Around this façade, a whole edifice was created in Afghanistan that had to disintegrate once the US pulled out. The withdrawal of US forces and the subsequent events that unfolded were not surprising except for the speed with which the Taliban established their writ practically on most of the country less Panjshir where Ahmad Shah Masood seemed to be well-entrenched and putting up a tough fight. Of course, sooner or later his resistance had to be overcome but ill will would persist.
It is not surprising that President Biden is being criticised by his opponents. However, the criticism is not on his decision to withdraw but for the gross mismanagement in its execution the ill effects of which will continue to reverberate for years. The defeat of the US in Afghanistan has serious consequences for it will certainly affect its ability to shape and influence global and regional events. Even countries of the European Union would perhaps rely less on the US for their defence.
Clearly, the focus of the US has now shifted to thwart China’s rising economic power and global influence. There is a general perception among the present US leadership that making China a major trading partner has benefited it to the extent that it is now challenging the US itself. Already President Biden has taken several punitive financial, legislative and administrative measures against Chinese firms and institutions based on their perceived wrongdoings that are badly hurting the US economy. China was anticipating this reaction and apart from taking countermeasures, it is likely to step up the Belt and Road Initiative to increase economic and political influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Besides, the vacuum created by the US in Afghanistan allows China and the neighbouring countries to fill the void. Beijing will surely be the lead country in assisting Afghanistan economically. It has considerable interest in exploiting the mining sector of Afghanistan that is known for being rich in mineral resources especially the 1.4 metric tons of rare earth elements (REEs). According to US agencies that have mapped Afghanistan “using broad-scale hyper-spectral data peering deep paint a picture of its vast hidden wealth”. Afghanistan also holds copper, cobalt, zinc, niobium, and several other minerals if properly exploited could be a major source of wealth. Dividends of peace can be enormous in several fields of activity if only the Afghan leaders of opposing factions realise and work towards it.
Afghanistan’s neighbours must take a long-term perspective in formulating policies and dealing with Afghanistan. The peace and stability of Afghanistan are key to the region’s prosperity as Pakistani leaders and intelligentsia have repeatedly emphasised. In good faith, frequently, sane voices in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries insist that Afghanistan be left to itself so that it could steer its destiny without interference. But how can neighbours not react if the spillover effect of disturbed conditions is as severe as was in the past, or it is anticipated that peace and stability will remain precarious?
The departure of the US from Afghanistan and its lack of interest in the region have facilitated China filling the vacuum as a major player. India has faced a serious setback for having fully backed the Ghani government that collapsed unceremoniously and apart from once never showed any seriousness in developing relations or even contact with Taliban leadership. It is not surprising that it finds itself pushed in the background, at least as of now.
The primary US interest is that no threat should emanate from Afghanistan as occurred on 9/11. It maintains that it could ensure that by close surveillance and monitoring through satellites and other means. For the neighbouring countries like China, Russia, Iran, Central Asian Republics and Pakistan, peace and stability of Afghanistan is vital. The recent civil war in Afghanistan had a serious spillover effect on neighbouring countries creating multiple problems. The most damaging was that it provided dissident forces sanctuaries to operate freely like the TTP and others in Afghanistan. It is expected that the Taliban leadership would be sensitive to the concerns of Pakistan and its neighbours.
The growing influence of China in the region would allow it greater access to the mineral wealth and other resources of Afghanistan and significantly facilitate CPEC and BRI programmes. There is a downside to these developments as well. Beijing is wary of the negative impact that Taliban victory could energise the discontent among Muslim minorities in Xinxiang. The approach taken by the Chinese government to appease the Uyghurs has been primarily through economic development. Their aspirations demand greater political freedom and genuine autonomy, which Chinese authorities feel could lead to separation. Greater political freedom and economic autonomy should work provided Beijing allows it.
The competition between the US and China has primarily centred around the economy, whereas the political and cultural aspects have been given less attention. Western democracies allow for greater freedom of speech and greater individual liberty. China with all its achievements aside is a semi-authoritarian state. This model works well if the economy is delivering, and people are content. If there is an economic downturn and financial crunch, then how the Chinese model would fare has yet to be tested. A more central question is: will weak democracies be tempted to move toward authoritarianism on the pretext of achieving faster economic progress?
The polarised global scenario demands deft handling of relations with competing global powers. Pakistan has faced similar situations in the past and should be able to maintain close strategic ties with China while also retaining good relations with the US. As recent events in Afghanistan and the region have demonstrated, the US and Pakistan can cooperate closely where interests converge.