Geopolitics: Crumbling Afghanistan Poses Regional Conundrum

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• Chaos is engulfing Afghanistan as the Taliban recapture more territory in the lead-up to the withdrawal of US troops. • A risk is that instability could spread into Central Asia and threaten energy supplies across the region. • Russia, China and Iran are also set to play more central roles, fearing the impact a Taliban takeover could have on their own security. The Issue The decision of US President Joe Biden to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31 has created a vacuum that the Taliban is preparing to fill, as anxious neighbors look on. The Sunni Muslim insurgent movement is bearing down on key cities such as Kandahar and Herat, and there is little the US-backed government in Kabul can do to stop the incursions. Both regional stability and trade are at stake, especially to the north in Central Asia, which has had its own battles in the past with homegrown jihadists. Regional Spillover At this stage, the best scenario is that the two sides will agree to share power. But fears are growing that the Taliban will end up as de facto controllers of the country (EC Mar.19'21). Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA who was in charge of US forces in Afghanistan until 2011, described the outlook as “very, very grim indeed” and said the security situation was “increasingly dire.”All the surrounding countries are nervous about Afghanistan’s future, and are having to beef up their borders as more territory around them falls to the Taliban (EC Dec.18'20). One of the most fretful of neighbors is Turkmenistan, which has been pursuing closer trade ties with Afghanistan for years, with energy taking center stage. To help monetize the country’s giant onshore gas reserves, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov has been promoting the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (Tapi) pipeline that would run 1,600 kilometers southward, with a capacity of up to 33 billion cubic meters per year, to the Pakistan-India border. But despite support from the Asia Development Bank and assurances from the Taliban that it will not interfere in the transit of Turkmen gas across Afghanistan, there has been little progress on the $7 billion project and little chance that it will ever go ahead. “I don’t think there’s anyone besides the Turkmen president who believes it will ever get built,” a source who worked for years on the project says. Turkmenistan will be hoping the blowback from the Afghan crisis does not affect flows of pipeline gas to China, which is its largest market by far. There are three parallel pipelines -- A, B and C, which together have a capacity of 45 Bcm/yr -- that carry Turkmen gas across Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to western China, along with on-off plans to build a fourth line, D, that would follow a different route, via Tajikistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan. China and Russia to the Fore Although it has by far the shortest border with Afghanistan of all the neighbors, China is worried -- with good reason -- that the “hasty” withdrawal of US troops will destabilize the entire region. So far, Beijing has held firm to its policy of non-interference in Afghan affairs, while putting the emphasis on boosting trade ties. But the imminent US exit gives China the opportunity to play the role of peace-broker, particularly amid Beijing's fears that Afghanistan could be used as a staging ground for Uighur separatists. After the recent visit of a Taliban delegation to Beijing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China’s involvement as mediator would be a “positive thing,” stressing that it is nobody’s interest to see an “Islamic Emirate” emerge in Afghanistan. Russia, which still bears the scars of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, is also concerned about the potential spillover effect and has flexed its muscles by conducting military exercises in Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. But Moscow’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also said the Taliban’s territorial gains could be a positive development, as they could help blunt the influence of extremist groups that are using Afghanistan as a base from which to destabilize Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. Iran in the Mix Like China and Russia, Iran has the potential to play a constructive role in Afghanistan’s future and earlier this month hosted delegations both from the government and Taliban. As a Shiite country, Iran perhaps has most to fear from the Taliban and does not want a rerun of 1999, when it massed some 300,000 troops along the border to keep the Taliban at bay (related). Iran may also see an opportunity to work with the US on resolving the Afghan imbroglio, and helping reduce the enmity between the two countries. But, such is the lack of trust between Washington and Tehran that this is unlikely to happen to any meaningful degree. No Easy Choices for Pakistan Of all the regional players, Pakistan has by the most complex relationship with Afghanistan. Its army and intelligence services helped nurture the Taliban after it emerged in the mid-1990s, with strong financial support from the Saudis. Islamabad also sees Afghanistan as a strategic buffer against India, even though the Indians have only a small presence in the country. And much of Afghanistan’s fuel and other supplies go along Pakistan's Khyber Pass. Mitigating against this is Pakistan’s fear of being swamped with Afghan refugees, which is already happening, and seeing an upsurge in violence in the border areas. Pakistan has also lost the trust of the US, which continues to see it as a destabilizing force in Afghanistan and a key supporter of the Taliban. Underlining this is the fact that Biden has still to pick up the phone to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Paul Sampson, London

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