Assessing fallout of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan: Possible scenarios and their odds

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The curtain has fallen in Afghanistan: the show will go on. Even though some details of Islamic Emirate’s new order remain undecided—it isn’t clear, for example, exactly who will rule Afghanistan or on what terms—there’s no doubt the Taliban have won the long war that began on 9/11. In weeks to come, major powers will have to decide whether to establish formal diplomatic relations with the new order. Even countries which have built a good relationship with the Taliban, like Russia and China; are so far watchful; the odds are, though, as time passes, recognition will follow.

As the Taliban regime consolidates itself and becomes a regional player, the big question is what implications this will have for India, the region and the wider world.

1. Will the United States be able to reestablish strategic credibility in Asia? The odds: 2/5

The argument that America cannot—and ought not—take on the burden for policing failed States across the world is a sensible one. The resources pumped into Afghanistan are not matched by its actual strategic value to the United States or any other major power. Yet, many United States allies and partners will be asking: if America wasn’t willing to sustain even a limited military engagement in a country it had invested in over two decades, will it really shed the blood of its soldiers to protect them?

For many countries, that question isn’t an abstract one. Taiwan, for example, has predicated its military strategy on resisting the overwhelmingly superior People’s Liberation Army for just long enough for the United States to come to its aid. Now, some there will worry that—should push ever come to shove—the United States might not decide that the strategic benefits of confronting China are outweighed by the costs.

Former president Donald Trump had unsettled many United States partners, from South Korea to Germany and Saudi Arabia—by threatening military alliances that dated back to the end of the Second World War. President Joe Biden may be more sophisticated, but the Afghan withdrawal shows he isn’t changing course. Economic problems unleashed a decade ago have shaped the attitudes of younger Americans, who form the first generational cohort since the Great Depression who will be poorer and more indebted than their parents. There are few things less popular in American politics today than expensive overseas military commitments.

Like it or not, a century of American imperial assertion, which began after the end of World War I, is behind us. There’s no doubt the United States is still the world’s preeminent military power, and will likely remain so for some decades.

The United States will continue to put its weight behind institutions like the Quad, seeking to build multilateral partnerships to contain China. Even the sharpest fangs and claws, though, are useless without a backbone.

2. Will China and Russia now become the dominant powers in India’s immediate neighbourhood? Odds: 3/5

For all the mental space Afghanistan occupies in India’s imagination, the country’s ability to influence events there was always limited. New Delhi just didn’t have the money to significantly prop up the Afghan army, nor the military resources to operate there. India operated through networks of alliances: along with Iran and Russia after the Taliban took power, and then with the United States after 9/11.

Now, New Delhi’s found itself friendless to its west. Russia, China and Iran have all built relationships with the Taliban. The three countries all have an interest, moreover, in working with Pakistan, to secure their own counter-terrorism interests in Afghanistan. The Taliban, moreover, knows New Delhi has relatively little to bring to the table; it gains nothing by alienating Pakistan by growing its relationship with New Delhi.

Add to this the sheer financial muscle China brings to the table, and it’s no wonder countries across the region are leaning towards Beijing. That isn’t true just in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Even though many countries in eastern Asia are worried about Chinese intentions, they’re not willing to risk confronting Beijing.

That isn’t quite the end of the story, though. Many regional states know Chinese aid comes with terms and conditions that don’t necessarily serve the interests of their political élites. They will continue to see India as a hedge against Chinese domination, and a tool to secure some strategic autonomy. For its part, Russia is battling internal economic problems; it’s in no position to underwrite regional economies.

For now, though, New Delhi will just have to sit out the match, and wait to see how things go.

3. Will Islamist terrorism will get a boost, in India and across the world? Odds 4/5

Terrorists across theatres of conflict have celebrated the Taliban’s win. In the Syrian town of Idlib, terrorists even handed out sweets on Tuesday. The lesson jihadists have taken from events in Afghanistan is obvious one: Hold out long enough, be willing to sacrifice personnel, and even the greatest powers will, sooner or later, get tired and go away. An earlier generation of terrorists was inspired by the defeat of the Soviet Union.

New Delhi knows the fallout will be a real concern. Indians tried by Islamic State factions in Afghanistan, with close links to the Pakistani intelligence services, have participated in suicide attacks; some key figure like ethnic Kashmiri jihad commander Aijaz Ahanger have now been freed from Afghan prisons by the Taliban. The Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad fought alongside the Taliban; they may expand their safe havens and training facilities in Afghanistan now.

It’s possible, this may not amount to as much as some fear. India’s Line of Control, for example, is too heavily guarded to allow for large-scale infiltration; big units of jihadists attempting to make the crossing would hemorrhage personnel for very little gain. Though there may be a marginal uptick in violence in Kashmir, or some renewed terrorist attacks elsewhere in India. This won’t, however, change the big picture.

Long term, this issue might just bring down the alliance that let the Taliban come to power. Russia could face threats in central Asia from the Tajik and Uzbek jihadists the Taliban have sent to its northern borders. China could face challenges from ethnic-Uighur jihadists in Xinjiang. Pakistan itself will have to brace from the threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban, who have already escalated attacks in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

For now, though, New Delhi will have to face the fallout alone. The key challenge will be developing genuine intelligence capabilities, particularly in Afghanistan, where the United State and India’s Afghan allies will no longer be on hand to assist.

4. Will Pakistan continue with its peace process with India? Odds: 3/5

Following the India-Pakistan crisis that took place after the terrorist attack in Pulwama, the two countries have engaged in secret contacts in an effort to mitigate the risk of war. Even though Pakistan was bitterly critical of India’s decision to end Kashmir’s constitutional special status, it, notably, refrained from stepping up support for jihadist groups operating across the Line of Control. For India, that’s led to big gains: there’s been little violence in Kashmir, and the new order has been stable.

The question is: Having helped its proxies win power in Kabul, will Pakistan now seek to step up the heat in Kashmir? A ceasefire the two countries agreed on this year holds—but for how long?

In Islamabad’s strategic community, some believe that’s exactly what the government should do. Enhancing support to jihadists, the argument goes, will force India to make concessions on Kashmir. That would yield a big political dividend for Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Pakistan Army.

This strategy comes with risks, though. Ever since the India-Pakistan crisis of 2001-2002, Pakistan scaled back its support for jihadist groups, realising war would cripple its own economy. The Pakistani economy remains in shambles; fixing it necessary to ensuring the legitimacy of the country’s military-led political establishment.

As such, the Pakistan Army just can’t afford to lurch into a major crisis, by escalating jihadist operations in Kashmir or ending the Line of Control ceasefire. That said, the risks of a crisis erupting through missteps and miscalculation by Islamabad remains high.

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