4 min read.Updated: 16 Aug 2021, 12:45 PM ISTNitin Pai
Instead of begrudging Beijing’s involvement, New Delhi must encourage China to commit itself to pacifying Afghanistan.
Going by international media reports on recent developments in Afghanistan, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is all about the United States. Sure, the spectacular collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government and the US-nurtured republican regime over the past few days certainly demonstrates the failure of Washington's two-decade-long policy to build a modern state in the country. The ignominious exit of the last of its officials and troops shames the Joe Biden administration. The popular view is that a declining superpower has taken a beating. The truth is that it is nothing of that sort.
The United States pulled out because there is bipartisan political consensus in Washington that further presence does not serve its interests. Osama bin Laden is long dead and Pakistan dare not conspire in international terrorist plots. Washington has sophisticated air power to destroy militant infrastructure anywhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan should it be necessary. Failure of its expensive state-building side-project in Afghanistan apart, the United States has acted to avoid the sunk cost fallacy.
Blaming America has long been fashionable in intellectual circles around the world. Attributing the humbling exit to the Biden administration's misjudgement energises the domestic political debate in the United States. As much as all this makes for excited debates about the future of US power and its unreliability as an ally, it does nothing whatsoever for the people of Afghanistan who happen to be what this matter is really about. Afghans are not extras in this film, and blaming the United States is not going to help them. So what will?
In the short-term, the Afghan people—especially women—must be spared violence and brutality arising from the Taliban regime's assumption of power. Over the longer term, they must be allowed to live under the broad norms of the 21st century, assured of their safety, dignity and liberty. Previous international efforts to bring this about revolved around shaping the power structure in Afghanistan so that the ultra-Islamist Taliban could be balanced by less extremist leaders. That project is finished for the time being. The Taliban has won and most others have bandwagoned onto their winning platform.
The international community's challenge therefore has to be reframed: what can we now do to influence Taliban behaviour?
There is only a tiny bit of room to engage the Taliban regime directly. They are unlikely to be moved by negotiations over diplomatic recognition or financial assistance. The best that can be expected from direct engagement is that they will impose order within Afghanistan and—this is a bit of a stretch—prevent their soil from being used for attacks against other countries. The gap between their worldview and the 21st century is too wide for anything more.
That does not mean that the international community has no other options. For the foreseeable future, the most effective way to influence the Taliban is to negotiate with its sponsors. This means Pakistan, Russia, Turkey and above all, China. Pakistan may position itself as an intermediary, but given its current situation, it is heavily dependent on Beijing's financial and political support. Russia has made inroads into the Afghan power structure—enough to be assured of the safety of its embassy in Kabul—but is likely to take its broader cues from China. Dealing with the Taliban's sponsors and their sponsor's sponsors means dealing with a complex set of principal-agent problems, but to the extent that the principals have influence over their agents, this approach will be more effective than the direct one.
It is in India's interests to prefer a Pax Sinica over Afghanistan. Beijing has skilfully avoided commitment—and been let off the hook—for too long. Its culpability has been ignored: By supporting the Taliban, it has thrown the Afghan people to the wolves. Making Beijing's hand explicit is the first step in ensuring that the emerging world power takes ownership of a challenge in its immediate neighbourhood; and steps up to the responsibility that Imperial Russia, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States have shouldered over the past 200 years.
When the United Nations Security Council meets to discuss the situation in Afghanistan, the international community, including India, must make China, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey accountable for the outcomes in Afghanistan. For this, we must swallow the false pride of having any influence over Kabul and insist that those who do are the ones that will be held responsible.
A photograph of a US military helicopter over an embassy rooftop in Kabul is being used to make the parallel with the 1975 Fall of Saigon that marked the US withdrawal from Vietnam. Shameful as this was for Washington, it allowed the United States to focus its energies taking on the Soviet Union and everyone knows what happened next. Leaving Afghanistan today allows the United States to employ its resources in the strategic contest against China. This is very much in India's interests.
Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy