Regional consequences of Biden’s Afghan debacle

Afghanistan represents more of an American political capitulation to a terrorist organization (the Taliban) than a U.S. military defeat. By overruling his military generals, who forewarned that a precipitous American withdrawal would facilitate Taliban’s conquest, U.S. President Joe Biden has sent Afghanistan back in time, to the “dark age” of terrorist rule.

The greatest costs of Biden’s blunder are being counted in Afghans tortured and killed, girls sexually enslaved through forced “marriages” to Taliban fighters, and women and girls losing their rights to education and equality. The damage to America’s international credibility and standing pales in comparison to the costs ordinary Afghans are paying for the biggest U.S. foreign-policy disaster in decades.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is the greatest jihadist victory in modern times. It is an unprecedented boost for jihadists everywhere, from Europe to Africa and Asia. It will inspire other terrorist groups, thus promising the rebirth of global terror.

The regional impact is already apparent. For example, there has been a spurt of terrorism in the Indian-administered part of disputed and divided Kashmir and increasing seizures of Afghan-origin heroin in India, which is located between the world’s two main opium-producing centers — the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran “Golden Crescent” and the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos “Golden Triangle.”

Pakistan has effectively gained proxy control of Afghanistan by masterminding the Taliban’s conquest of that country. The Taliban, along with their special forces, the Haqqani Network, are a wing of the Pakistani “deep state.” The Haqqani Network chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who now serves as Afghanistan’s interior minister, is a deputy leader of the Taliban. Even before the Taliban formed their government, the head of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency reached Kabul, as if to advertise that the real boss had stepped in.

Pakistan’s celebrations, however, are unlikely to last long. An unstable, economically bankrupt and terrorist-ruled Afghanistan will likely exacerbate violent jihadism in Pakistan, whose ethnic and sectarian fault lines have already made its future uncertain.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, has expanded its role from strategic matters to economic management, with its commercial empire valued at more than $100 billion. Its domineering role ensures a weak civilian government. As former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said, the military has progressed from being a “state within a state” to becoming a “state above the state.”

It is Pakistan’s military that has long reared terrorist groups because it employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy against neighboring countries. Ironically, the U.S. has long served as Pakistan’s top aid donor. General Hamid Gul, a former chief of Pakistan’s military spy agency, once boasted that, when history is written, it will be recorded that, “The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.” That boast came true when Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15.

Given Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia, it is no surprise that the greatest geopolitical fallout from Afghanistan’s security and humanitarian catastrophe is being felt in the region extending from Russia and China to the Middle East. The void opened by America’s humiliating retreat has given greater strategic space for an assertive China in particular to expand its strategic footprint.

China, with its long-standing ties to the Taliban, including supplying weapons via Pakistan, has taken the lead in portraying the U.S. as a declining power whose ditching of the Afghan government demonstrates that it is an unreliable partner for any country. After Kabul’s fall, China’s victory lap included a state-media warning to Taiwan that the U.S. would abandon it too in the face of a Chinese invasion.

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the U.S. defeat paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and location between Iran and the Pakistan-India belt. China has sought to achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. Beijing has been demanding that Washington unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets.

One definite loser from America’s Afghanistan debacle is India, whose security risks coming under siege from the Pakistan-China-Taliban coalition. India, one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan, had a big presence in that country, but its diplomats and civilians were among the first to flee.

Since last year, India has been locked in military standoffs with China along their long Himalayan border following furtive China incursions across the frontier. But if India now faces a greater terrorist threat from across its western borders, it will have less capacity to counter an expansionist China.

When the Taliban was previously in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power thus opens a new front for terrorism against India, which may be forced to shift its focus from the intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas. Simply put, Afghanistan’s fall is likely to strengthen the anti-India axis between the Taliban’s sponsor, Pakistan, and Pakistan’s main patron, China.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Taliban’s defeat of the world’s leading power, radical Islam is again on the march, a development that carries security implications even for Western countries. The Taliban, for its part, is turning Afghanistan into a narco-terrorist state. According to a recent UN Security Council report, the production and trafficking of poppy-based and synthetic drugs remain “the Taliban’s largest single source of income,” contributing “significantly to the narcotics challenges facing the wider international community.” The criminal profits from this trade lubricate the Taliban’s terror machine.

The Taliban’s “Islamic emirate” is likely to serve as a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world. The Taliban regime’s cabinet includes a who’s who of international terrorism, including some of the world’s most-notorious narcotics kingpins. The U.S.-led global war on terror, which was already faltering before Biden took office, may not recover.

Brahma Chellaney, author of nine books, is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.