As the last American troops begin to leave Afghanistan and the US turns away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, there is a scramble to redo the foreign policy maths in the region.
Since it replaced Britain as the major external power in Greater Middle East half a century ago, America has been the pivot around which the regional politics has played out.
The old colonial powers of Europe deferred to American leadership in the region.
Russia and China, in contrast, sought to chip away at US dominance. Many regional actors sought alliances with America to secure themselves against ambitious or troublesome neighbours. Others sought to balance against America.
After the costly and prolonged military interventions in the Middle East, USA has begun to see that it can’t fix centuries-old conflicts in the region.
Even more important, the USA now has other urgent priorities such as the challenge from an assertive China.
Biden will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021:
President Biden will withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan over the coming months, U.S. officials said, completing the military exit by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that drew the United States into its longest war.
While the Taliban has promised to renew attacks on U.S. and NATO personnel if foreign troops are not out by the deadline and said in a statement it would not continue to participate in “any conference” about Afghanistan’s future until all “foreign forces” have departed.
The Taliban has conducted sputtering talks with the Afghan government, begun under the Trump deal, since last fall.
It was also invited to an additional high-level inter-Afghan discussion in Turkey later this month.
How outside powers will respond to events inside Afghanistan:
- Following U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan’s neighbours are likely to coalesce around similar strategies to deal with the aftermath.
- Their preferred outcomes are peace through unification or a power-sharing arrangement.
- A Taliban amenable to negotiation would also be an outcome that regional powers could adapt to and contain.
- The least desirable path for the region is the total collapse of centralized authority in the country or a Taliban unwilling to pursue normal relations and returning to its pre-9/11 international stance.
- As previously noted, this final outcome is unlikely because the Taliban would not want to invite additional intervention by either the U.S. or other great powers.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan poses major challenges to the Subcontinent:
- India and Pakistan, for very different reasons, would have liked to see the US forces stay forever in Afghanistan.
- For India, American military presence would have kept a check on extremist forces and created conducive conditions for an Indian role in Afghanistan.
- For Pakistan, American military presence in Afghanistan keeps the US utterly dependent on Pakistan for geographic access and operational support. And that dependence in turn could be mobilised against India.
- But America is leaving Afghanistan. India and Pakistan will have to live with the consequences that include the triumphal return of the Taliban to power in Kabul and a boost to violent religious extremism across the region.
India’s needs to be play smart statecraft with the regional actors politics:
- India’s emphasis on good relations with all the regional actors without a reference to their conflicts has been vindicated by the turn of events.
- Barring Turkey, which turned hostile to India under Erdogan, India has managed to expand its ties with most regional actors.
- Hopefully, the new regional churn will encourage Turkey to take a fresh look at its relations with India.
- If India has been pragmatic, Pakistan has struggled to recalibrate its policies towards the Middle East.
- It is unable to overcome the domestic ideological opposition to establishing diplomatic ties with Israel despite the recognition that a normal relationship with the Jewish state serves Pakistan’s interests.
- Pakistan also fell between the stools in coping with regional rivalries in the Middle East.
- America’s exit from Afghanistan will trigger a geopolitical flux in the region.
- As these factors will increasingly push India into a geopolitical tough spot in the region, smart statecraft, therefore, is required to deal with changing dynamics in Afghanistan.
Learning to live with neighbours has then become an urgent priority:
- As America steps back from the Middle East, most regional actors either need alternate patrons or reduced tensions with their neighbours.
- Although China and Russia have regional ambitions, neither of them bring the kind of strategic heft America brought to bear on the Middle East all these decades.
- Turkey has figured that its troubled economy can’t sustain the ambitious regional policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
- After years of challenging Saudi leadership of the Islamic world, Erdogan is offering an olive branch to Riyadh.
- After years of intense mutual hostility, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now exploring means to reduce bilateral tensions and moderate their proxy wars in the region.
- Saudi Arabia is also trying to heal the rift within the Gulf by ending the earlier effort to isolate Qatar.
- These changes come in the wake of the big moves last year by some Arab states the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan to normalise ties with Israel.
Need to maintain the peace and stability in the region:
- The end of direct U.S. involvement in Afghanistan does not guarantee a long-term decline in regional stability.
- It does, however, guarantee a shift in U.S. attention away from unwinnable conflicts and increased efforts by local powers to stabilize Afghanistan.
- Most regional powers must in some way deal with the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal, whether through diplomacy, military containment, or some combination.
- The U.S. presence in Afghanistan distorts regional dynamics between Afghanistan and its neighbours.
- Though short-term instability will likely rise after withdrawal, the interests of neighbouring states, some of them U.S. strategic competitors, ensure they will work to restore some sort of balance to Afghanistan’s affairs.
- The region may end up looking similar to its geopolitical equilibrium prior to the U.S. invasion but with regional states having increased interests to deal with terrorist organizations.
- This also means that the nearby countries are not likely to object to the U.S. retaining some ability to strike at non-state actors through indirect methods and proxies in the region should the need arise.
The prospect of trans-border links between the Taliban and other extremist forces in the region is a challenge that South Asian states will have to confront sooner than later.
Soaring levels of violence in Afghanistan and recent attack on Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of Maldives, underlines South Asia’s enduring challenges with terrorism.
Unless the South Asian states collaborate on countering extremism and terrorism, every one of them will be weakened.
Finally, the current turmoil in the Greater Middle East underlines the dangers of the Subcontinent forgetting that nationalist interest of the state must prevail over all other considerations, including religious ones.
In Pakistan, the religious forces empowered over the last many decades have tied Pakistan’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, South Asia and Europe into knots.
A state that cedes power to extremism of any kind courts the danger of being consumed by it.