Now that the Taliban have taken over Afghanistan, 20 years after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. military campaign that had removed them from power, the balance of power has shifted in favor of Pakistan, China, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and their proxies and allies. Perhaps the most jarring image that has circulated in recent weeks was one in which the Taliban and Chinese delegates stood shoulder-to-shoulder, posing for the cameras.
Quoting an Aug. 14 NPR report, “China Embraces Taliban, Eyeing Own Interests,” Jackie Northam says, “It was quite the photo op. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, wearing a gray suit and stern face posing with nearly a dozen senior members of the Taliban, including its chief negotiator and top political leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.” Since 1996, when the Taliban first took power in Kabul, the Afghan Taliban leadership has transformed into slightly more sophisticated negotiators with Western powers and China. However, never assume that the Taliban has actually changed the essence of their warped ideology and agendas for forcefully implementing their version of Islamic law in the country.
These developments are a win for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and the Taliban. They are a significant strategic loss for India, Iran and U.S. interests. The Taliban are the tip of the spear, strategically speaking, for Pakistan, and by nature of their being Sunni extremists, the Talibanization of Afghanistan provides geopolitical leverage for the powerful Sunni hardliners in South Asia and the Middle East. As creators of the Taliban, surely many in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are celebrating.
Afghanistan’s minority sectarian and religious groups, such as Sikhs, Hindus, Shiites and non-Pashtun ethnic identities, are in grave danger. But the circumstances for Afghan girls and women are extremely dire. What the Taliban imposed on the female Afghan population during its reign from 1996 to 2001 was nothing less than barbaric misogyny. Who is foolish enough to believe the Taliban’s current promises to treat the female population more fairly?
Regarding the United States, it begs the question: What has been accomplished? The primary mission after the 9/11 attacks was accomplished: removing the Taliban from power, tracking down al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden — despite the latter’s temporary escape — and denying terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan. However, once the United States achieved these objectives, the rest of the mission sets in Afghanistan lacked clarity. A default military response to a problem such as the Taliban will only prolong the problem rather than resolve it. Afghanistan needs socioeconomic development simultaneously in all sectors, and a rooting out of corruption. Without these fundamental steps for progress, a military solution will never work long term.
Moreover, the Iranian regime, which is a Shiite theocracy, is certainly unnerved with the new configuration of Sunni encirclement, and given that the Taliban harbors deep hatred for Shiites, this new balance of power may pose an existential threat to Iran. If the Islamic State continues to proliferate in South Asia, this threat will even worsen for Iran.
The Pakistani Taliban reportedly have been celebrating their Afghan counterparts’ re-empowerment. Pakistan, China and the Afghan Taliban are thrilled to achieve this geostrategic cornering of their archenemy, India. However, as a right-wing nationalist Hindu party, the BJP, currently rules India, this might be a formula for major ideological clashes in the region. We have to hope that this does not translate into actual violent conflicts, potentially involving three nuclear powers: India, Pakistan and China. Analysts also have expressed concern about the Afghan Taliban’s empowerment triggering the Pakistani Taliban to become emboldened enough to rise against their own government. If that happens, they would have access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Within Afghanistan, the most profound negative impact of these developments is undoubtedly on Afghanistan’s female population. Many media reports indicate that Afghan girls and women are cringing with fear and anxiety about what is about to happen in terms of their education, employment, freedoms and rights at the hands of the Taliban. History repeating itself in this case could not be more disastrous.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She specializes in international relations, political economy and comparative politics with regional expertise in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. The opinions expressed here are solely her own. Follow her on Twitter @HayatAlvi.