The US and its allies will never lose sight of Afghanistan's strategic importance in a vital region, writes Saed Mansoor Sadat for South Asia Monitor
Afghanistan collapsed after 20 years of presence of the US and its NATO allies. Millions are still starving for primary needs. Inflation has shot up and the overall employment level is predicted to drop by 14 percent in the middle of 2022. The fall in female employment rate is expected to be 21 percent as women are banned from going to work. People are trying to flee the country through both legal and illegal ways. The country is living in chaos with an unpredictable future ahead.
0n the other hand, the flow of humanitarian aid has increased in the last few months. This has helped the poor somehow to survive. There has been a focus on issues such as human rights violations faced under the Taliban regime. Now, with the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, many feel that Afghanistan will get less attention as the world may turn its focus on Ukraine.
Additionally, they are afraid of the experience of the 2011 Arab Spring which turned the West’s attention to Syria and other countries. Furthermore, the 2014 troop withdrawal played a vital role in the Taliban seizing more than 16 percent of the country and making the country a byword for corruption and insecurity.
West won’t abandon Kabul
From a strategic perspective and with the conflict changing gears in Ukraine, the attention on Afghanistan will never reduce. For a short period, humanitarian aid will decrease to some extent but the country will not be sidelined. In the long run, the US and its allies will never lose sight of Afghanistan's strategic importance in a vital region.
The European Union’s Ambassador to Afghanistan said that besides Putin’s war, they are watching Afghanistan too. This illustrates that the West will be pushed into further deals and ties with the Taliban. The aim will be to not let Russia and China get supreme control over Afghanistan's geography. The Kremlin has been accused of supplying weapons to the Taliban in order to get the US out of the region.
The de facto authorities of Afghanistan, to seek recognition of their government, may enter into a deal with the West at any cost. Most recently, a Taliban official, Anas Haqqani, expressed his hope for a recognition of the Taliban government which, according to him, is silently underway.
Likewise, in the middle of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the US has eased sanctions on banks in Afghanistan which allow banks and people to engage in transactions in international markets, which is a green light for the Taliban’s recognition.
The Afghan chessboard
Russia, China and Iran share the same objective which is ending "American hegemony". Russia winning in Ukraine will provide extraordinary morale to China and Iran over the US and NATO. Iran may get an opportunity by dragging out negotiations and developing its nuclear programme further which will threaten Israel more than ever.
Iran will try for an escalation of a proxy war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia to boost its oil trade that can help in rebuilding the Iranian economy hit by sanctions. Additionally, China may stiffen its control on the South China Sea to get closer to Taiwan and build artificial Islands. It might opt for drilling of oil and gas in that region.
More importantly, Russia aims to influence the regional countries and pledge their presence in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Egypt to achieve its target of pushing the US out of the Middle East. Considering all these factors, it will be difficult for the US and its allies to not mark their presence forcefully in a strategic location like Afghanistan.
They may, in course of time, try to strengthen their relations with the Taliban and ease many sanctions imposed on the government. Additionally, the flow of aid will continue and international organizations and NGOs will probably reopen in the country to help those in need.
For competing regional players, the US may not stick to Pakistan as the latter’s prestige is no more the same for Washington. They will not count on them as an effective tool to control the Taliban. India may be a better alternative for the US, but this will be a more challenging decision to be taken.
the US has no option but to keep Afghanistan as a priority to compete with regional powers and prevent the rise of terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K. These groups directly threaten the security of the US and its allies. The West’s presence might not be a military one on Afghan soil in the future. But their aim would be to build a strong political base by strengthening ties with the ruling authorities of Afghanistan.
The Taliban, which announced a neutral stance over the Ukraine-Russia conflict in order to get their government recognized by the West, will aim to practice 'off-screen' diplomacy with the US.
Regional powers such as Russia and China, who have proved to be more beneficial in terms of reconstruction, economic escalation and trade establishment in Afghanistan, may have the US and its allies to work harder to build working relations with the Taliban.
(The author is an Afghanistan-based independent researcher, political and economic analyst with a focus on South Asia region. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)