In continuation of my article on the major developments taking place in Afghanistan, today, I will move on to the bigger picture.
Afghanistan is one piece of the perplexing global puzzle, which can only be understood when seen as a whole. However, this does not mean we should interpret every event as being an international activity, or the result of major conflicts. At the end of the day, the Taliban is a local, tribal, religious component that belongs to the Pashto majority, and its arrival to power should be considered in the context of the dynamics of the Afghan conflict.
So, what is this bigger picture, and what position does Afghanistan hold in the game of international conflicts today?
When the USSR invaded the country in late 1979, in the midst of the Cold War, the US considered the invasion to be an attack on its areas of influence, aimed at oil wells, and Iran, where the Shah had just been ousted. To this day, Afghanistan is still a component of the general notions of regional security and international competition; but times have changed. In the past, the US depended on the Middle East’s oil. Today, it imports very little of it. As such, the need to protect energy sources, which was the cornerstone of US strategy in the region, has ceased to exist, except in the context of confronting China.
In this bigger picture, China is the key player. Suffice it to calculate how much oil China imports: nearly half of its oil comes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Oman, the UAE, and Kuwait. Iran will also play a key role in the oil sale race. Without oil, China cannot maintain its position as a global economic power; and oil requires it to be a military and political giant in order to be able to protect its land and sea borders. These were the same motives that the US and the UK had in the 1930’s. Add to it that Afghanistan is a land of rare minerals, which China could use for its advanced technologies.
So, why did the US leave, and what will China do? In my opinion, we are witnessing a reconfiguration of international axes. Today, China is more important to Pakistan, which was the only US ally until not long ago. Since the 1950’s and throughout the Cold War, the US and the West sided with Pakistan after its independence and against India, which relied on Moscow’s weapons and political alliances. After the USSR’s collapse and the end of the Cold War, the international relations map shifted, and India knocked Pakistan out of its position as Washington’s favorite. The equation: Delhi allied with the US and Islamabad, while the Taliban in Afghanistan shift closer to Beijing. We shall see more of these divisions in the future.
So, is US withdrawal synonymous with defeat? Generally speaking, inability to stay is defeat; but the issue is not as simple as that. Though it might be true that the US has lost 2,443 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001, most of these lives were lost in the first few years. After 2014, the total death toll of US soldiers is a mere 92. In the clashes that took place in the last four years, only one soldier was killed. These are not the losses of a defeated power. By the end of Donald Trump’s time in office, the number of troops was down to 8,000. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the reason for the withdrawal, simply put, is that staying in Afghanistan is no longer in the US national interest.
I don’t understand the surprise and indignation of many observers by recent developments in Afghanistan. Two decades is not a short period to rule a country, and departure is a natural eventuality. What is indeed surprising, is that Washington took this long to leave, as it achieved its main objectives of expelling al-Qaeda and disciplining the Taliban in less than four weeks. By November 2001, it had taken over Kabul, prompting both al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders to flee toward Pakistan and Iran, and depriving the group of two long decades in power.
We may be surprised by what the near future holds -- perhaps friendship between old rivals, reminiscent of Vietnam and the US after years of enmity and bloody wars.
After all, states are pragmatic. They must reposition and adapt, for there’s no place for pride in the world of politics.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.