As Afghanistan writhes in agony, the geopolitical 'great game' continues

As Afghanistan writhes in agony, the geopolitical 'great game' continues
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As U.S. forces pull out of Afghanistan, the Taliban are making dramatic territorial gains in a new, tragic phase of the war. The Taliban’s rapid offensive is not merely a function of dwindling U.S. combat and logistical support, but a concerted push by their patron Pakistan to establish a foothold in the war-torn country. Afghanistan has been at its ‘forever war’ since the Soviet invasion in December 1979. It may stay in that state for years to come. The discord between the great powers: U.S., China, Russia, India, and others doesn’t help.

Many recognized that a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan would result in a power vacuum bringing regional players to fill the void, but few could have predicted the rapid pace of the country’s military collapse. The optics are horrible for U.S. credibility, from Tallinn to Taiwan. Friends and foes alike are taking note: the Poles and the Gulf Arabs, with horror; the Russians and the Chinese, with glee. Not since the fall of Saigon in 1975, has the U.S. got a bloody nose of such proportions.

The Taliban offensive is coming on hard. In the last week, Taliban forces — apparently aided by Pakistani supply chains — captured the capital of eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces along with a number of other strategic centers. The most recent to fall was Faizabad. Before that, Kunduz — the largest city in northeastern Afghanistan. Just one day earlier the Taliban overran Jowzjan’s provincial capital Sheberghan, home to ardent anti-Taliban ethnic Uzbeks. Fighting continues on the outskirts of vital urban centers Kandahar and Herat.

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Herat province, which shares its own a border with Iran, has benefitted from the leadership of Amir Ismail Khan, a 75-year-old former anti-Soviet commander who has inspired young Afghans to join the fight and defend their homes, but unless Iran intervenes, it is only a matter of time until this ancient city falls as well.

American combat forces have all but completely withdrawn, with U.S. air support scheduled to cease on Aug. 31 per President BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE’s orders. The contractors responsible for maintaining Afghanistan’s national air force and other high-tech combat equipment are already gone, undermining the government’s largest strategic advantage: its air power. Due to Taliban control of key roads and highways, remote outposts and villages that rely on air support are now cut off.

In Helmand, only three structures remain under government control: the governor’s main office building, the police headquarters, and the prison. Commandos arriving from Kabul have been faced with an opponent which does not hesitate to quarter its troops in the homes of civilians or use them as human shields. Airstrikes in Helmand over the weekend are reported to have killed 112 Taliban, 30 of whom were reportedly Pakistani citizens.

Taliban goes for the jugular, and their atrocities are many. Noteworthy assassinations in recent days have included the head of Afghanistan’s government media Dawa Khan Minapal, renowned historian Abdullah Atefi, and comedian Nazar Mohammad Khasha. These murders deliver a huge blow to Afghanistan’s morale.

Taliban have also claimed responsibility for an attack on the acting Defense Minister last Wednesday. A recent United Nations report shows that civilian casualties reached new heights in May of this year, and as they grasp for power, that number will only rise. Civilians have launched protests against the Taliban’s distorted, radical version of Islam, with people in all 34 provinces chanting the “Allahu Akbar” in defiance to Taliban takeovers.

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Anti-Pakistani rhetoric has surged, with politicians and diplomats such as former ambassador Chris Alexander of Canada labeling the country as a Taliban sponsor. Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of Afghanistan’s Intelligence Agency NDS, recently tweeted that an attempted siege of Kabul is coming with direct support by the Pakistani political and religious establishment.

Nabil predicts this assault will almost certainly come from the Logar district’s Azra region, a critical strategic center that shares a border with Pakistan. Azra was once the vital crossing used to supply Afghan fighters with materiel against the Soviets, and now — with its capture — is used for the same function against American and Afghan government forces. The region is a crossroads that provides access into Kabul and numerous other provinces.

According to Nabil, the Taliban and their Pakistani auxiliaries have deployed bulldozers and other equipment which they are using to repair the damaged roads linking Azra to the Ghazgi area of Kabul’s Khak-e-Jabbar. From there, Taliban assets could be positioned to launch rockets over Kabul, including the airport. The strategy mirrors the Mujahedeen strategic doctrine against Soviets, as they similarly positioned themselves to besiege Kabul’s airport and disconnect the country from international assistance.

With the American withdrawal underway and with Pakistani military support, Taliban commanders are increasingly confident in their ability to win the war and enforce their will on the people of Afghanistan. However, the anti-Taliban Afghans tell me that defiance shown by the Afghan people in the face of threatened violence demonstrates that they will never accept these ignorant fanatics and thugs as their leaders.

If the Soviet — and U.S. — experience in the “empires’ cemetery” is a telltale, we are witnessing the earliest stages of years — if not decades — more strife for Afghanistan. The power vacuum left by the United States will be filled, both by civil war fighters and competing state actors.

China, through its ally Pakistan, will likely use Afghanistan’s real estate and brutal Taliban fighters to gain influence, if not hegemony, in the heart of Eurasia. India and the United States would try to keep Beijing in check, while Iran, Russia, and the Arab world will all play the bloody game of geopolitics — with the people of Afghanistan continuing to pay the ultimate price.

Mosab Anwari, research assistant at ITIC, contributed to the production of this article.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.