Alarmed policymakers across world capitals, including New Delhi, are mulling over the implications of the Taliban’s stunning advance across Afghanistan as the two-decade-long NATO mission in the country draws to a close.
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan – Taliban forces have met little resistance in their bid for territorial control and now have the capital Kabul in their sights – is raising concerns about the long-term future of the region.
A meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Tajikistan on Wednesday was dominated by the worrying developments in the neighbouring country, with India calling on SCO members to act against terrorism and terror financing.
Hundreds of Afghan security personnel recently chose to flee across the border into Tajikistan, which hosts a Russian base, rather than attempt to halt the Taliban’s advance in northern Afghanistan.
On Wednesday Taliban fighters were reported to have taken control of one of the main border crossings with Pakistan.
Last week the Taliban claimed that they control 85 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory. According to an AP report, that announcement came at a press conference at the end of a visit by a Taliban delegation to Moscow — a trip meant to offer assurances that the movement does not pose a threat to Russia or its Central Asian allies.
The future of Afghanistan cannot be its past and the world is against seizure of power by violence and force, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said at the meeting in Dushanbe, which included officials from China, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan
Representatives from countries with observer status with SCO, including Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar, were also present at the meeting.
The stakes for India are high. Since the US invaded the country in October 2001, India has invested around $3 billion in that country. It has consulates in at least three cities, including Kabul. Though the number of Indian workers on project sites is estimated at just around 3,000, India’s footprint is much larger.
Then there is Jammu and Kashmir. In his address, Jaishankar alluded to India’s challenges in J&K, and emphasised the need for ensuring that Kabul’s neighbours are not “threatened by terrorism, separatism and extremism”.
The world, the region and most of all the Afghan people all want an “independent, neutral, unified, peaceful, democratic and prosperous nation”, Jaishankar said.
“Peace negotiations in earnest is the only answer. An acceptable compromise that reflects the Doha process, Moscow format and Istanbul process is essential,” the minister later tweeted. “A whole new generation has different expectations. We should not let them down.”
The Doha process, Moscow format and Istanbul process are separate frameworks for dialogue to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan.
In Washington President Joe Biden has publicly expressed confidence that his decision to pull out US troops from Afghanistan by August 31 does not make a “Taliban takeover of Afghanistan inevitable?”
“No, it is not,” he said at a press conference earlier this week. “Because you have the Afghan troops… have 300,000 well-equipped – well-equipped as any army in the world – and an air force against something like 75,000 Taliban. It is not ‘inevitable’,” the president said.
The president is technically correct – a takeover may not be “inevitable” – but as Vox Media said, numbers alone don’t tell the whole story.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and an expert on the region, told Vox: “I think the most likely outcome is fighting that will soon move to Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a full Taliban takeover is imminent. It could happen down the road, but not without some significant fighting.”
Whatever happens, nervous policymakers in the region will be watching closely.