Will Asia Pick up the Pieces in Afghanistan?

By James Durso

The U.S. and NATO  hastily evacuated Afghanistan on 15 August 2021, ending the two-decade, $2 trillion-dollar effort to turn Afghanistan into Denmark with mountains or, more truthfully, to reform Pashtun culture to Western standards.

The “mission transition” AKA “retreat” left Afghanistan without the hardware mod cons that, with the software – an enlightened Afghans populace – would ensure the country would no longer be a terrorist safe haven, and would become a well-governed, capitalist democracy, a demonstration to the world of America’s hard and soft power.

Since the retreat, the U.S. froze $9.5 billion in Afghanistan’s central bank reserves, sanctioned the Taliban government for its treatment of women and girls, and imposed visa restrictions on individual Taliban leaders. All well and good, but Washington’s actions aren’t doing anything to ameliorate the regional dislocation caused by the failed military campaign and nation-building project.

On 7 March,  Russia and six Asian nations bordering Afghanistan (China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) met in Tashkent, Uzbekistan to plan what would be required to bring peace to the war-torn nation, and called for the lifting of the freeze on Afghan central bank assets. On the same day, France hosted a meeting of Western  countries on the Taliban and the Afghanistan situation; curiously, none of Afghanistan’s neighbors were  invited.

August 2021 was the third time U.S. hightailed it out of Afghanistan. The first time was in 1991 when it cut off aid to the Mujahideen as the Cold War ended. Then, in 2003 Washington turned its focus to Baghdad and lost momentum in Afghanistan as it redeployed troops to invade Iraq.  The pivot to Iraq prefigured Afghanistan’s fate and set the stage for the 2021 retreat, which just made it official.

Washington still wants to influence events inside Afghanistan and eventually oust the Taliban government, but it can only apply force selectively (via drone strikes) and must fall back on its all-purpose tool, economic sanctions, hoping to force policy changes by the Taliban leaders, men who believe constancy of purpose defeated NATO and who  aren’t inclined to flex, no matter how many Afghans suffer. The Taliban also know that Washington’s bandwidth is limited as it fights a war with Russia in Ukraine, prepares to fight a war with China in the Taiwan Strait, deals with a weak economy, and ponders what to do about Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities.

Influencing Afghanistan is a U.S. preference, but a local necessity because the seven conferees that met in Tashkent know they are “neighbors forever” and must move into the vacuum created by the U.S. departure to ensure the region makes economic and social progress. And they need to move quickly to address the deteriorating security situation in Northern Afghanistan because, as Bruce Pannier points out, “The Taliban are losing control in northern Afghanistan to the Islamic State” which, in the last week, claimed responsibility for bombing a cultural center run by the minority Shia Hazaras, and for killing the Taliban governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh province, which borders Uzbekistan.

The Taliban assured the Central Asian countries Afghan territory would not be used to stage attacks against them but, in April 2022, IS claimed to have launched a rocket attack on an air base in Uzbekistan, though it was dismissed by Uzbek authorities as “untrue.” Regardless, the neighbors feel they need to act now to stabilize the region, but their options are limited to political recognition, and economic and development efforts as they won’t deploy police or troops outside their borders.

The U.S. Institute of Peace reports the Taliban’s diplomats have been undermined by hardliners close to the leader, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, and that “the crisis of diplomacy in the Taliban is born of the leadership’s loss of confidence in formal dialogue as an effective political tool following the failure of the intra-Afghan negotiations and key dialogue channels post-takeover in August 2021.”

Engaging with the Taliban to stabilize the area will require trust-building best pursued by neighbors as the U.S. and Europe won’t engage in diplomacy until they successfully conclude the NATO-Russia war in Ukraine and feel they have the wind at their backs, and the leaders in Kabul change their policies as the price of entering a diplomatic dialogue with the West.

There are advantages of having the neighbors take up the initial steps of pursing peace in the region.

First, unlike the U.S. and NATO, they have to live with the consequences of their actions. Next, they can deliver messages the U.S. can’t because the Taliban will be thinking “We won” while a U.S. envoy is demanding they do this or that, which will blind Taliban to occasions for  negotiation. Likewise, U.S. shame and anger over its defeat may blind it to opportunities for deal making. Both sides are “too close to the problem” so a clear-eyed third party is needed to help guide Afghanistan to success. Last, the lack of supersized resources (like that $2 Trillion) will force a focus on the practical rather than the fantastical.

There is a  role for the U.S. in this project, and it can help by waiving sanctions when appropriate, and by not blocking funding by the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). If the U.S. is uncooperative, Afghanistan’s neighbors may have to sidestep it by seeking funds from the Gulf Cooperation Council members, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). In fact, the IDB may be the best vehicle to engage the Taliban on the status of women and girls as its policy is to “help achieve gender parity in accordance with the tenants of Islam” and it has more standing than the U.S., NATO, or the European Union. (Also, the Asians may be able to  discreetly promote “moderate” Taliban; the U.S. can’t as it will put a target (literally) on a candidate’s back.)

The Asians can also recruit  experts  from Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, India, and Pakistan to help execute projects in Afghanistan. However, if India has a role, the group will have to work to keep Islamabad from hijacking the forum to use against India, and  Pakistan may insist it address problems caused by the Pakistani Taliban as the country faces “a perfect storm” of troubles, according to its foreign minister

The group’s future tasks are: 1. Organizing the appropriate forum and considering additional members, if appropriate.; 2. Setting expectations. This will be important as the “big brothers”: China, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey may have outsized expectations of their role and influence.; 3. Executing tasks. Who will monitor tasks and ensure completion? An existing body, such as the ADB or a new, ad-hoc group?

No progress on the Afghanistan file may suit U.S. and European leaders  as they are preoccupied in Ukraine, and believe “The worse, the better” will suit their interests in Afghanistan. But “time is money” and Asia loses out the longer Afghanistan is offline as it doesn’t have the luxury of waiting out the Taliban, though Washington and Brussels may dream that can happen.

If the U.S. is sincere in its support for regional connectivity and all that “women and girls” stuff isn’t just talk to browbeat the Taliban, it should publicly back the Asian initiative and declare it will be a positive force for regional connectivity via Afghanistan, but the question is: Will the Americans be magnanimous in defeat?

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Ottawa, Canada. August 14th, 2021. End War in Afghanistan protest from local diaspora. Save Afghanistan sign. Credit: Shutterstock