The imperfections of the Afghan Taliban-US peace deal portends severe geopolitical, geo-economic and geostrategic ramifications not only for Afghanistan, the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR) but for the US too. In its present and known shape this deal does not inspire any confidence for a nonviolent transition to a universally accepted Afghan political dispensation. Rather, it foretells of a dangerously destabilised Afghanistan and SCAR as well.

It has probably been ordained (by the US) that the battle for Afghanistan will be fought ceaselessly, at both the domestic and the regional levels.

The manner of US’ exit raises many questions; is it willingly ceding Afghanistan and thus SCAR to the currently underway Sino-Russo “einmarsch” into mainland Asia? Is it ignoring the Chinese economic juggernaut that is rampaging through it and the Eurasian heartland and threatening to move into the Greater Middle East Region (GMER), Africa and even Europe? Or will the inbuilt inadequacies of the Taliban-US peace deal ensure a destabilised, disunited, leaderless and ungovernable Afghanistan, an unconquered ‘Terrorism Central’ (Al Qaeda, ISIS, ETIM, IMU, TTP, JuA etc), a restive Pak-Afghan border and an imbalanced, polarised SCAR? Will the US willingly accept a balkanised Afghanistan in pursuit of its strategic objectives? Where do US real interests lie in all this?

Regional and extra regional countries have genuine interests in Afghanistan’s pacification and stability or otherwise. China would want to incorporate Afghanistan into the BRI-CPEC, exploit its enormous mineral resources and thus develop an economic stake for Afghanistan in its successful completion. Russia would like to take Afghanistan as an extension of the CARs and as a conduit to Pakistan and especially to Gwadar/Makran Coast. Pakistan and Iran would like to see a pacified and stable Afghanistan that partners them in economic and trade development and also ensures the return of millions of Afghan refugees from their soils. Pakistan in particular will want a peaceful western border as well. The CARs would like to see Afghanistan as the crossroads for the East-West and North-South trade corridors linking them to Gwadar/Makran Coast, the Arabian Sea-Indian Ocean region, India and even western China.

India, the peripheral power’s interests lie in an active and agitated Pak-Afghan border that keeps the Pakistan military engaged on its western borders and thus away from the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir and its eastern borders with it. It would want to continue exploiting Afghanistan’s and Iran’s territories to subvert Pakistan’s internal front through terrorist attacks by its proxies. Furthermore, a disrupted CPEC will delay Pakistan’s economic recovery and Iran’s co-option with the BRI-CPEC as well. An Afghan Taliban-led government in Kabul might not allow India the freedom of action that the Karzai, Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah regimes provided it. So, a destabilised Afghanistan that does not allow a Taliban-led government to come into power suits India. It will continue acting the spoiler in the deal and in Pak-Afghan ties as well. The US will never cede SCAR to China and/or Russia or by implication to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). That would leave it confined to the extremes of Asia – to the Arabian Peninsula in the west and the Pacific Ocean region in the east and with no worthwhile footprint on mainland Asia at all! A perpetually destabilised SCAR and Afghanistan however, will deny China and Russia a stable foothold in the region; it may even embroil them inextricably in the Afghan quagmire, if they are not careful!

Is there then a confluence of interests between the US and India on the one hand and China-Russia-Iran-Pakistan (CRIP) on the other? Are the contours of a new power matrix crystallising in the region?

At the domestic Afghanistan level too, the implementation of the deal has run into serious trouble. Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have claimed the Presidency of Afghanistan. The Afghans first need to overcome the power struggle between the “two Presidents”. Thereafter, they need to overcome the Inter-Afghan (ethnic, sectarian,) rivalries to be able to start an Intra-Afghan dialogue in real earnest. Without a powerful chaperon to conduct the talks, this is an almost undoable job – or was this then the intention right from the outset? Furthermore, President Ashraf Ghani, whose government was not party to the deal, has refused to abide by the conditions agreed to by the US and the Taliban. The first confidence-building measure of releasing held prisoners has gone awry. Things have been further complicated by the “sudden” emergence of the coronavirus in Afghanistan – what timing! It is clearly beyond the capacity of Afghanistan to deal with it. ‘Terrorism Central’ continues to wait and see before it puts its macabre plans into action. There is no ceasefire worth its name in Afghanistan as the Afghan Taliban and the National Unity Government and Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) continue to fight one another. The US however, has started its “conditions based” withdrawal of troops. Were these then the desired conditions for the US to initiate its exit – sans governance, sans dialogue, sans War on Terror, sans ceasefire?

In the worst-case scenario, Afghanistan might get sucked into a power struggle within its borders. Frustrated by the lack of any progress in the Intra-Afghan Dialogue the Afghan Taliban is likely to make a bid for total power, sooner than later, triggering a civil war. The smaller and weaker ethnic groups will join the more powerful ones for survival and to secure their interests. ‘Terrorism Central’, the many war lords and mafias will hedge their bets and pledge their support to the side that suits their interests the most. This will lead to severe polarisation within the Afghan nation and may divide it on ethnic lines. These ethnic groups are likely to seek and get support from various regional/extra regional countries which will eventually precipitate the balkanisation of Afghanistan and the utter destabilisation of the SCAR! Is this then the desired end state of the deal?

It will require a major regional effort to preserve Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and stability. The CRIP must hold a regional summit to find ways and means to ensure both. Pakistan must play a proactive role in shaping the evolving strategic environment in the region.