Today marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on US, that together had formed a watershed event in the modern history of International Relations. The importance of what happened on this particular day two decades back, and then what followed afterwards, can be estimated from the fact that scholars refer to the time period of international politics following it as “Post 9/11 Era”. Today in 2021 however, another major event is taking place at Kabul and that is, Taliban government taking oath with official declaration of reversion of the Afghan state to “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, like it was at the time of 9/11 attacks. Is the History repeating itself? If yes, to what extent and how much of the geopolitical context has changed today? What are Taliban 2.0 and What is the possible US role in the light of these significant developments in the buffer of South and Central Asian region?
Does history repeat itself? Of course it does repeat itself at times but not entirely. Its not a discussion in the domain of physics but just for the context, it is known that two events are separate because they cannot have same time and space. No two different events will ever occur in same time and space. When it is said that the history is repeating itself, it is not meant literally and exactly. It only implies that the artist have painted the same picture, albeit differently this time.
Back in 2001 when the Taliban were in control of most of Afghanistan including Kabul, they were battle hardened but not adept at diplomacy, public relations, nor were their representatives media savvy. They cared little for the public opinion or international community’s response to their actions and were less meticulous towards their approach in dealing with the opponents inside Afghanistan. Today, They were almost completely presenting Pashtuns, with few exceptions of course. Today, things have changed in their camp after 20 years.
Today, Taliban have come to power, not just to come to power in Afghanistan but to seek legitimacy of their rule by attracting international recognition. For this reason, they are carefully treading en-route to their rule, trying to avoid previous mistakes and blunders. After a twenty-year war with a super-power that still remains a super-power despite withdrawal, Taliban understand that the international structure that is shaping the behaviour of states, is a formidable reality which no state alone can simply overthrow. Those who attempt to change the international system alone while not having the credentials of a superpower or at least projected super-power, get vanished gradually and fail at survival. Taliban 2.0 got this lesson the hard way and is probably the reason the group is now approaching international affairs with caution.
Unlike 1996-2001, the Taliban control and govern entire Afghanistan. The Panjshir province, a valley famous for resistance to Soviet Union and the Taliban in the 80s and 90s has fallen to the Taliban this time. The Taliban have come up with a decade long strategy to conquer North and that is, recruitment of local fighters who are not Pashtun. The offensive in the North was led by Qari Fasih-ud-Din Badakhshani who himself is a Tajik. Unlike their previous rule, Taliban are now ethnically not very homogenous. They have been recruiting non-Pashtun fighters for a reason, i.e. to be able to govern entire Afghanistan including all its ethnicities without much resistance.
Taliban 2.0 are very confident because of their victories. In their previous government, though they had defeated one super power that eventually disintegrated, they had not yet faced United States. The US on the other hand was confident that it could meddle and change things to its own liking whenever it wanted and hence paid less attention to the region until 9/11 occurred. This time it is different. The US, the superpower has withdrawn after a defeat and the Taliban have no state that can challenge them or attempt regime change this time. They have got hold of at least 83$ billion worth of US military equipment that the US had granted to the Afghan military forces and police under previous Afghan government.
Non-State Actors in Afghanistan
Back in the days when 9/11 occurred, Afghanistan was home to many foreign fighters from Yemen, Saudi Arabia and other states who had come to resist Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and had not gone back to their respective countries. These fighters mostly were a part of Al-Qaeda, a militant group formed by Osama Bin Laden in 1988 during Soviet-Afghan War. Today, most of the foreign militants have dispersed and are no longer in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda in shambles. The residue of Al-Qaeda has now become a part of what is known as ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province), a chapter of Daesh for Afghanistan. The ISKP also has a lot of Pakistani Taliban fighters who were flushed to Afghanistan as Pakistani forces conducted Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Despite Taliban’s control over Afghanistan, the threat of ISKP looms, as it is friend to none and has its own ideology under the banner of Daesh. Afghanistan’s new government swearing in today has a challenge to deal with in the form of ISKP. Failure to deal with ISKP can be devastating for the Taliban on diplomatic and strategic fronts.
TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) is also present in Afghanistan, the Pakistani militant group responsible for conducting terrorism in Pakistan including the tragic Army Public School attack in Peshawar. Pakistan is cooperating with the Taliban leadership because of assurance provided by them, i.e. Afghanistan would not allow its soil to be used against Pakistan and other neighbours. The Taliban have made similar commitments to China, Russia and Central Asian Republics. They are banking on the Chinese led geo-economic game and are not willing to risk the opportunities for Afghanistan including reconstruction of infrastructure lost during America’s GWOT ‘Global War on Terror‘ in Afghanistan.
The case of TTP is strange. It is an outfit that believes in war with the state of Pakistan and is continuing attacks against Pakistani troops in KPK, mostly near the areas bordering Afghanistan. The TTP has contacts with the Afghan Taliban and even congratulated the latter on their victory after fall of Kabul. The two groups have been collaborating against USA in Afghanistan at times but the biggest distinction between the two is that the Afghan Taliban never waged war with Pakistan and have always considered Pakistan a friendly neighbour, whereas the Pakistan based TTP, which is now in fact Afghanistan based, has always been waging war against Pakistani state. Pakistan’s relationship with the new Afghan government solely depends on the implementation of the assurances provided. Failure to comply with the Pakistani and Chinese demands, is something the new Afghan government under Taliban will not be willing to afford. Hence, the TTP will not be allowed to operate from Afghan soil. Its members will either be forced to leave Afghanistan or some sort of an action will have to be taken against them.
Geopolitical Context Reshaped
Twenty years ago, the geopolitical context of the region was very much different. The United States had not cared for the region after the defeat of USSR. Since its only objective was to defeat the Soviets and turn the world multi-polar, it cared less for what happened afterwards and probably miscalculated the region’s geostrategic value on the global political chessboard. The US behaviour was partly due to its confidence in its unipolarity and credentials as the sole superpower of the world, as no other power was projected to catch up in any way, especially Afghanistan was not the centre of attention for any major power as it was a mess with sporadic clashes continuing and certain areas still not under Taliban control, whose government was recognised by only four states.
Today, as US turned back with its own forces withdrawing in a rush and in somewhat humiliating manner, not only is its confidence as the superpower has shattered but also Afghanistan has become much more important geo-economically. The world is moving towards multipolarity with China quickly catching up United States in military and economic figures. China is pursuing a grand geo-economic strategy known as Belt and Road Initiative whose flagship project CPEC depends on Pakistan’s deep sea-port Gwadar. Chinese great economic initiative has managed to remain invincible despite US attempts to compete through B3W strategy. China and Pakistan want Afghanistan to join their economic strategy, making them access Central Asian Republics, acting as a gateway.
This is where Russian role becomes important. Russia and China have embraced each other in the great economic game and are partnering on so many economic and strategic fronts, including BRI and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Russia wants to maintain its influence in the former Soviet sphere which now hosts independent Central Asian States. It understands China’s influence and has decided to band-wagon instead of balancing with Chinese economic initiatives as long as they remain economic with a positive-sum game. In this scenario, Afghanistan being a part of great Chinese game will only benefit Russia, provided its strategic stability takes no toll.
In the light of the above mentioned geopolitical developments, United States cannot adopt the policies it did back in 1996-2001. It cannot ignore Afghanistan, whose strategic value is now even more significant and geo-economic value is rising which was virtually absent two decades back. The rising multipolarity will force USA to embrace active role in Afghanistan despite withdrawal, in order to protect its waning influence in the region and to protect its strategic objectives. Back in 1996-2001, USA had not witnessed any attack from Afghan soil but today, White House and Pentagon have a sheer responsibility in the form of preventing another 9/11. The equation is very difficult for United States this time, with Pakistan not hosting US bases and relationship with the Islamic Republic in shambles while a Cold war ensues with Russia and China. The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also put India under duress and added to its insecurity, damaging the Indo-US relationship to a great extent.
From 9/11/2001 to 9/11/2021, a lot of things have changed including the Taliban themselves, the geopolitical context and the behaviour of Untied States. But despite all the changes, the history is repeating itself as the Taliban, who governed Afghanistan on that fateful day in 2001 which resulted in American casualties and later hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Pakistani casualties, are back in power in Afghanistan. As you read these sentences, the new Taliban government is either taking oath or will have taken oath to officially proclaim Afghanistan an Islamic emirate once again. The non-state actors in Afghanistan will affect everyone including Pakistan and Chinese. The presence of ISKP and TTP in Afghanistan are Pakistan’s key concern and how the new government deals with these elements shall define the trajectory of Kabul’s relations with Islamabad.
About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale-47. He studied International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of South Asia and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.