Great Powers’ New Conflict in Afghanistan
Iran’s regional activities and two decades of geopolitical territorialization in its western flank are obvious, but with the Taliban’s accession, Saudi Arabia can engage Iran’s eastern borders as a response to Iran’s growing influence on Saudi Arabia’s borders.
The fate of Afghanistan, like many other political issues, is fundamentally rooted in history. In the case of Afghanistan, however, more attention to “history” and specifically to “colonialism” is vital, through which the country was born. It is difficult to call Afghanistan a “country,” at least in the modern sense of the term, for several reasons. Today, “countries” are composed of three vital elements: a distinct territory, a national identity, and a sovereign government. If even one of these three pieces is missing, the country in question is almost certain to be a “failed” or “weak” state.
While Afghanistan has well-established (albeit porous) borders, and the new Taliban government recently exerts de facto sovereignty within them, the historical “nation” has never been formed in Afghanistan. For this reason, the people living there have often not achieved the unity and coherence necessary to be under this basic concept in the critical historical periods of the last two centuries. The lack of this precedent has deprived Afghanistan of a coherent conception of nationality and the model for a representative government that could integrate the country’s disparate regions. But these events are themselves the result of other causes. Why Afghanistan? Why did such a fate befall this land? What factors have brought Afghanistan to where it is now?
These questions can be answered in two ways. A simple answer is “colonialism”; a more nuanced one is “geopolitics.” Afghanistan’s birth dates back to the British and Russian colonial competitions two centuries ago. When it made inroads into the Middle East in the 18th century, Britain tried to strengthen its position by weakening the vast countries it came up against. This strategy functioned effectively in Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and even India because the reduction of the territorial size of large and historical countries led to the creation of smaller, more incapable, and incoherent territories, which could then be forced to submit to colonial demands. Sure enough, the disintegration of Greater Iran, India, and the Ottoman Empire can be viewed as confirmation of this strategy.
After the birth of such a heterogeneous entity as Afghanistan, another issue arises; why does the country matter? What is its current importance for its neighbors and for regional and global powers? Geography is probably the most accurate answer to this question. Afghanistan is located in the heart of Central Asia; where, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became a center of conflict between the interests of East and West. The U.S. presence in the Middle East, which began after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, escalated with the events of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the United States inadvertently helped to form the core of the Taliban on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the early 1990s, the region became a hotbed of extremism and terrorism, leading to a large and lasting American presence in the region. At the same time, China and Russia, which were on the way to becoming stronger, pursued greater interests in Central Asia, and Iran sought to be the third side of the eastern triangle. With the rise of China, especially in the last decade, the United States has embarked on a “Pivot to Asia” strategy, attempting to implement a “containment” strategy against China as it successfully used against the Soviet Union.
After two decades of war in Afghanistan, the new administration of President Joe Biden decided to leave, throwing the region’s already fragile security situation into turmoil. Central Asia has long struggled with violent extremism, fueled by the region’s widespread poverty, illiteracy, and lack of political and commercial ties with the other parts of the world. The vacuum of power created by the U.S. withdrawal from the region has already led to the re-emergence of terrorist groups, as evidenced by the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan and the competing rise of IS-K.
The rise of the Taliban is a part of a greater change in international politics; recent developments cannot be analyzed without considering the new “cold war” between the United States and China (and, to a lesser extent, Russia). The role of the Taliban is, of course, a continuation or promotion of proxy wars in the region led by Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran’s regional activities and two decades of geopolitical territorialization in its western flank are obvious, but with the Taliban’s accession, Saudi Arabia can engage Iran’s eastern borders as a response to Iran’s growing influence on Saudi Arabia’s borders. According to British and U.S. officials, the Taliban received early, albeit indirect, support from both Saudi Arabia and the United States; the group was initially funded by Saudi donations, and Saudi Arabia recognized its 1990s rule and cultivated ties with its government, hoping to use it as a weapon against Iran. However, after 9/11, Saudi Arabia ended its recognition of the group (with a long lasting silence) and supported the United States in its war on terrorism. Once again, after the rise of ISIS and its widespread security challenge in West Asia, it is the turn of another player to target the security of Central Asia, the crossroads of China, Russia, and Iran.
Saudi Arabia’s position on the resurgence of the Taliban is also significant; the group has played a role in the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2017, as Riyadh accused Doha of supporting terror. The chargé d’affaires of Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Kabul, Mishari al-Harbi, said, “Riyadh now recognizes the Taliban as an anti-government terrorist group, and this is the official position of the Saudi government.” However, the comments of Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud after the Taliban took control of Kabul, implicitly associated with the engagement of the Taliban, indicate a shift in the Saudi position. According to the foreign minister, “The leadership in Afghanistan now, the Taliban, has a responsibility to exercise good judgment and good governance, to be inclusive, to bring in all people in Afghanistan, and to forge a path that can lead to stability, security, and prosperity.”
Despite the Taliban’s marginally more civilized approach to governance compared to the 1990s, the country continues to be plagued by security crises. In addition, the emergence of IS-K in Afghanistan, which has recently carried out terrorist attacks against Taliban members, is likely to increase the crisis and spur the activity of rival groups. ISIS’ “Amaq News Agency” said on its Telegram channel that six attacks killed or injured over 35 Taliban members. Consequently, the war between the Taliban and ISIS could lead to inescapable conflicts in the region.
In other words, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran can be understood as a small rivalry at the heart of a much larger one – a new “great game,” perhaps, between China and the United States. Unless Afghanistan is able to transform itself from a playground for regional and global powers into a relatively stable country, it will be easily manipulated by those larger powers, including regional ones. This would be a profoundly negative fate; whether between China, Britain, Russia, or the United States, the major powers’ political-economic interests are inexhaustible, and invariably lead to the exploitation of powerless and depressed countries in order to reshape the balance of power in the world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.