The issue is not Afghanistan. Afghanistan is neither Russia, nor China, nor a European giant. It is not a state that sleeps on a nuclear arsenal, nor is it armed with a regionally or globally influential economy. Like most states, Afghanistan is a regular state. The world could easily forget the type of its regime, the identity of its ruler, or the nature of its citizen-state relations.
Perhaps Afghanistan’s location on the world map warranted the many invasions the country has seen throughout its history; but thanks to its geography and its people’s pertinacity, most of these invasions went home defeated. Although it falls at an international crossroads and on the Silk Road, the world can easily forget about Afghanistan, unless it becomes a reactor that sends concerning radiations to nearby and faraway countries. Afghanistan first came under the international spotlight when Leonid Brezhnev committed the sin of interfering in this thorny country. Afghanistan was suddenly on every news broadcast across the world, which sparked the US interest in turning the country to a deadly trap for the Soviet empire, whose economy could not keep pace with its expansion. Ever since, Afghanistan found itself in the throes of a game that may be happening on its territory but is much bigger than it.
Two decades ago, 9/11 joined the list of dates that went down in the world’s history; a list that includes major turns of events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union, different as these events may be. In a few days, 9/11 will dawn on a different Afghanistan and a different (or nearly different) world. When it arrives this year, 9/11 will be greeted by the Taliban ruling Kabul. It will not find any trace of the US Army in Afghanistan other than the blood left on its rocks and the billions spent on the failed attempt to guarantee that the Taliban do not return.
Washington has clearly turned the page of the disciplining campaign it launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. It abandoned the illusion of planting the seeds of democracy using military interventions, and left Afghanistan like it had left Iraq earlier. In parallel, the US waged a relentless military-financial war that broke the back of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and similar organizations. The US may have committed deadly sins in Iraq and grave mistakes in Afghanistan, but can we imagine a world in which the US had bowed down to al-Qaeda? Despite all these sins and mistakes, the US, armed with its gigantic capacities, played a significant role in confronting terrorism; a role that Russia or China would not have undertaken, as they prioritize the battle of exhausting the US over the battle against terrorism.
This 9/11, a series of questions about the post-US withdrawal Afghanistan imposes itself on Afghans, neighboring states, and the world; and to claim to have answers to these questions would be a lie. The first of these questions is: has the leadership of the Taliban drawn the right lessons from the past two decades? Is it ready to co-exist with the international system, assuming participation therein is premature? Does it believe it has a duty to improve the living conditions of Afghani citizens instead of backing infiltrators who carry the banner of suicidal projects and explosive belts? The Taliban claims Afghanistan will not be a springboard of international threats, but only time shall tell.
Questions of win and loss also abound. How true are some observers’ conclusions that Pakistan has achieved a great victory by definitively annexing Afghanistan as a strategic depth? Does the world once again need Pakistan to mediate talks with the Taliban and train the movement on the rules of dancing with the international community? Does Pakistan not have to worry whether the Pakistani Taliban will misinterpret the victory of the Afghan Taliban? What about India, which not only invested billions in Afghanistan, but also battles with its two permanent concerns about Pakistan and China?
As for Russia, it is hard to imagine that the world’s largest country will be the big winner on the new Afghan scene. There are no indicators that Russia is willing to pay the high price of joining the game in Afghanistan by striking alliances with militias or playing on racial sensitivities. Additionally, one cannot overlook the heaviness of Soviet memories in Afghanistan. Most likely, the new status quo in Afghanistan will spike the concerns of pro-Russia neighboring states, where Russia is reinforcing its military bases. Still, Russia cannot measure up to Iran, which enjoys not only a special bond with Afghanistan’s Shia population, but also good relations with some Taliban leaders who were welcomed in Tehran along with their families and some al-Qaeda leaders to whom it provided shelter. If Iran managed to establish an Afghan militia to fight in Syria, it can establish an Afghan militia to fight in Afghanistan.
The final question is also the most important one: what about China? Beijing has taken care to portray the sad US departure as proof that the US approach is full of gaps. The Chinese message in this regard not only targets Taiwan and Hong Kong, but is also an indicator of the full-fledged attack China is waging at the global level. What happened in Afghanistan gives China the chance to advance via Pakistan and cement Afghanistan’s position on the Silk Road.
The Chinese question is the big question, and the sounds of the big Asian roar originate from China. It is hard to predict how Russia really feels towards this roar, or how thrilled it will make Iran on the long term. It also warrants a question about the US strategic response and the positions of India and Japan in this response. Afghanistan may be sleeping on a bed of minerals, but this 9/11, the issue is much bigger and farther than Afghanistan.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.