Afghanistan has been aptly called the graveyard of empires. It is the theatre where the British Empire and the Czarist Russia played the great game! Czarist Russia pined for a warm water port in the Indian ocean. Control of Afghanistan was the primary means of getting that access to a warm water port in the Indian ocean. After the British and the Soviets, it is the turn of the US to realize that aphorism by learning a practical lesson. After a 20 years’ long occupation of Afghanistan in the name of eliminating terrorism, nation building and promoting democracy, the current US administration belatedly realized that US military engagement in Afghanistan was counterproductive. Having lost at least 2443 US soldiers, 21000 seriously war wounded, and an undeclared number (3800) of civilian-military-security contractors, having spent almost $ 2.3 trillion of money in the black hole of Afghanistan, war has been costly to the US.
The allied NATO forces lost 1144 soldiers in this war. Afghanistan government may have lost 70,000 soldiers over the last two decades. By a conservative estimate by the Brown University, 48,000 Afghan civilians may have died due to the war. All this while, the Wiley neighbor and the fountain head of terrorism, Pakistan was milking the US as a cash cow. The US Congress sanctioned $18 billion of US monies between 2001 and 2011 for Pakistan. The funds trickled down slowly afterwards as the Americans realized that they were being taken for a ride. The war forced 2.7 million Afghans to flee abroad; another 4 million were internally displaced people. We do not know the exact casualty figures for the Taliban. Having said that, the distinction between the Afghan civilians and Taliban fighters is very thin.
While the Woke of the World will blame the US for this carnage, equal responsibility lies on other states (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) and non-state actors like Taliban and Al Qaeda. While the terror groups were sponsored and given safe haven sanctuaries by Pakistan; a major chunk of funding for these terror groups came from Saudi Arabia and UAE initially along with other petrodollar rich Gulf countries. Incidentally, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkmenistan were the only four countries that had recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan headed by Mullah Omar in the late 1990s. Granted that the US was successful in crushing the Al Qaeda during the last two decades, Pakistan’s duplicity and the US stupidity has resulted in the renewed resurgence of the Taliban. We are witnessing the prospect of the current Afghan government being routed in next few months as the Taliban consolidate their grip over the entire Afghanistan.
Geopolitics abhors vacuum and that will be true of Afghanistan despite its hostile reputation and tough terrain. The US and the NATO countries have no direct interest in Afghanistan at this juncture having tasted defeat. However, others do. And that includes neighboring countries like Pakistan and China. Pakistan has always lusted for strategic depth by swallowing the Islamic neighbor Afghanistan from the time of the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. In Pakistan’s congenital hostility towards India, the ISI and the GHQ have yearned for strategic depth to balance India after having lost their Eastern wing in 1971 war with India leading to emergence of the independent Bangladesh.
An expansionist China is gradually expanding its land borders after having swallowed Tibet and East Turkistan. In the recent years China has been lusting after the minerals and rare earths deposits of Afghanistan. It is true that China is wary of the Islamic terror threat from Afghanistan into its own Uighur population in Xinjiang region (former East Turkistan); however, there seems to be a lovefest going on between China and Taliban. Taliban leadership is assuring China that they will never be a party to spreading terrorism in any country especially China. The neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran is interested in its religious and cultural affinity with the mainly Shia population in Northern Afghanistan. Although Iran may have provided sanctuary to some of the Taliban leaders during the last two decades, its theocratic leadership is not in love with Saudi and Pak-sponsored Sunni fundamentalist terrorist group like Taliban. Iran’s tolerance for the Taliban in the last two decades was secondary to the Iran’s hostility towards the US rather than any genuine love for the Taliban.
That brings the issue of Russian interest in Afghanistan. One might think that Russia, once bitten by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, would be twice shy. Why is the current Russian government so favorably inclined towards the Taliban and the prospect of Taliban governed Afghanistan? The answer may be schadenfreude at the US plight and now its flight! However, the Russian leadership under Putin has become very pragmatic. They want to keep their enemies closer to their heart. Russia knows that an unrestrained Taliban pose a danger to Russian southern borders and would radicalize the Russian Islamic terrorist groups in Chechnya. In order to control the Taliban, Russia has no options but to engage the Taliban and try to moderate them in their outreach in Central Asia. Russia just signed a Karachi to Lahore pipeline deal with Pakistan. Despite India’s displeasure, Russia has started selling arms to Pakistan. Russia is reaching out to Pakistan as a counter-reaction to India’s burgeoning strategic relationship with the US. Russia should be wary of China’s demographic invasion of Russia’s north-east Siberian region. Ongoing Sinicization of Russian Siberia will eventually lead to China claiming sovereignty and annexing that region. Russia should understand its long-term strategic interests. Russia should refuse to sell S-500 ballistic missile defense system to China. Russia should not be satisfied with being a junior strategic partner to China.
It is, indeed, very likely that an Afghanistan over-run by the Taliban in the next few months may end up having four wives: mainly Pakistan, Russia, Iran and China. We have called this gang of four anti-Quad countries earlier by the acronym PRIC analogous to the acronym BRIC. It is an alternative quadrilateral group (anti-Quad quad) that is likely be sponsored by China to counterbalance the real Quad! Although, the motivations of the individual countries are uniquely selfish to each of them in engaging with Afghanistan, they might collectively fill the geo-political vacuum in Afghanistan left by the US withdrawal. The balance of power issues in Afghanistan, which is the gateway of the Central Asia, will entice China to assume a leadership role in forging the unholy alliance of the PRIC. China does have the option of using the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) mechanism in Afghanistan but for hard realpolitik, China will refrain from using the SCO as the primary tool of influence in Afghanistan. China’s strategic purpose in Afghanistan will be to keep India out, China in and Russia down. In order to achieve that geo-political goal, China will undercut its own SCO mechanism because it includes both Russia and India. Russia may favor involvement of the SCO in Afghanistan to counterbalance China. Keeping the SCO out of Afghanistan will definitely suit China’s ironclad friend Pakistan also. Along with China, Pakistan does not countenance a role for India in the Talibanized again Afghanistan! Pakistan might tolerate Iran’s involvement in a Talibanized Afghanistan as compared to India.
History teaches us that there cannot be geo-political vacuum. US and the NATO have lost any appetite for engagement in Afghanistan. China, aiming to be the sole superpower, will try to take the final step to humiliate America and contain India by fostering the cooperation and birthing of the PRIC group. Eight years ago, China had proposed a G-2 condominium to the US which US flatly rejected. Now, China is dreaming under Paramount Leader Xi Jinping to be the all-pervasive hegemon of the world relegating the US to number two position. Just like China worked from the theoretical economic construct of the BRIC, to launch the organization BRIC and later enlarge it into BRICS as means to exert geo-political influence, China will surely launch the PRIC quad in a major way.
The theater of a Talibanized Afghanistan gives the Communist China a readymade geopolitical opportunity to the launch the PRIC as a quadrilateral cooperation mechanism to balance the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue mechanism! It will depend upon the wisdom and sagacity of the Putin-led Russia and the foresight and astuteness of Indian diplomacy to prevent such an unholy alliance mechanism of the PRIC from taking birth! US can also contribute to the same goal by lifting sanctions on India for trading with Iran, even if the US is not on friendly terms with Iran. Let India engage Iran so as to prevent Iran from getting deeper into the Dragon’s embrace. Iran is a civilizational nation analogous to India and China which the US is not. US State department mandarins do not understand the importance of the concept of civilizational nations and history. Let India take the leadership in aborting the birth of the PRIC while the US provides support to India from behind.