Afghanistan: Will The Forever War Come to an End?

The origins of the conflict in Afghanistan stem from a local vendetta between three major ethnic groups which precede the regional and international dimensions involving Pakistan, India, America, Russia, and China. Much of the tension between the Hazara community and the Pashtun population are rooted in the decades-long rule of Emir Abdul Rahman Khan, who was known as the “Iron Emir” in the late 19th century. The “Iron Emir” was known for brutally crushing dissent from minority communities in Afghanistan. His grandson, King Amanullah Ghazi, took a different approach and is recognized by most Afghans as a benevolent leader. But Amanullah’s anti-colonial stance against the British in the early 20th century would lead to his downfall, and in his absence, there was a power vacuum which led to the vendetta between the Tajik and Pashtun communities that is perpetuating the conflict in Afghanistan.

Although the regional and international dimensions of the Afghan conflict continue to flare up the local dimension of the Afghan conflict, it is clear that the origins of the Afghan conflict are local when one takes a long-view of modern Afghan history. But the local dimension of the Afghan conflict took on an international dimension during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the demise of the Soviet Union, regional actors such as Pakistan and India filled the void left behind by the major Cold War powers. But with the rise of China and the competition which has emerged between the United States and China, the regional dimension of the Afghan conflict which involves Pakistan and India is now confounded by a renewed international dimension.

 The international dimension in the Afghan conflict is common throughout the Muslim World. Much of the politics and culture of the Muslim World is shaped by the world’s major powers. This was the case during the age of colonialism, the Cold War, and during America’s unipolar moment after the Cold War. Pakistan is also caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between the United States and China. But the American unipolar moment is winding down due to the rapid rise of China, and it is quite possible that America’s presence in Afghanistan and the Middle East – which grew after the Cold War – will diminish greatly in a matter of years. Regional actors such as Pakistan, China, India, and Russia will assume a greater role in Afghan affairs in the coming years. The question is whether regional actors can stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. What is clear, however, is that American involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East was a destabilizing factor. For one, America’s involvement in Afghanistan led to the renewal of the Afghan drug trade.

Also, Afghanistan was a testing ground for novel American weapons and technology. American involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East opened a new market for drugs and weapons. Over 36 percent of American exports are weapons. India and Saudi Arabia buy more arms from the United States than all other countries, and this situation is sparking an arms race in the Middle East and South Asia which in turn is destabilizing these two regions. Many Americans are opposed to their government’s involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the American government is under immense public pressure to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. As a result, the previous American administration led by Donald Trump signed a peace agreement with the Taliban which obliges America to withdraw its remaining 2,500 troops from Afghanistan by May of this year. But after the recent NATO Defense Ministers Summit, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that there is “no decision” on Afghanistan as of yet.

Whether the Biden Administration can withstand public pressure to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East is unclear. Much of the public’s attention in the United States is on economic recovery amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But if the American government caves into public pressure and withdraws from Afghanistan and the Middle East, China will take on a greater role in these places. Whether China will play a more constructive role in the affairs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East compared to the United States is unclear. Nevertheless, countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia will remain confounded by the international competition between the United States and China. The two opposing groups in Afghanistan, namely, the Afghan government and the Taliban, will continue to be pulled away from one another due to the international dimension of this conflict involving the United States and China. Pakistan is also caught in the middle of the power struggle between the United States and China. So is India.

Thus, as long as the competition between the United States and China intensifies, finding a solution to the Afghan conflict will perhaps become all the more difficult. There is also the question of how long America and NATO can sustain its presence in Afghanistan. Geography is a determining factor in American and NATO operations in Afghanistan, and the costs of overcoming the geographical factor are immense. However, much of America’s budget for its Afghan operations stem from the Afghan drug trade, which is presented to Congress as a “supplementary budget,” the source of which is undisclosed to the American public. Moreover, the Afghan drug trade is the most lucrative business in the world, and as long as the Afghan drug trade is up and running, America can fund its Afghanistan budget to a certain degree. America’s military is also resourced through voluntary subscription, which means Americans are not forced to operate in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East, and as a result public pressure to leave Afghanistan and the Middle East will perhaps diminish.

The question now is whether America will fulfill its contractual obligations to the Taliban in the month of May. America agreed to withdraw all of its remaining troops from Afghanistan in the month of May as long as the Taliban remained engaged with the Afghan government through peace talks. On the surface, the Taliban are engaged with the Afghan government in Doha. Thus, the onus is on America to fulfill its end of the agreement. But if one were to bet on the situation, it is likely that America will argue that the Taliban have not dissolved their ties with Al-Qaeda, and as a result America will argue that the Taliban is in violation of its contractual obligations, thus rendering a prolonged American presence in Afghanistan. This means there will be continued pushback from China, Pakistan, and the Taliban against the Afghan government and its American and NATO supporters, and as a result the conflict in Afghanistan will continue.

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