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The Story Is Not about Afghanistan

The Story Is Not about Afghanistan

Monday, 6 September, 2021 - 10:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The story is not about Afghanistan. We are not talking here about Russia, China or a major European state. That is, we are not talking about a country that sleeps on a nuclear arsenal or an economy that influences its surroundings or the world. Afghanistan is a normal country. The world can forget about the nature of its regime, the name of those who govern it, and the relationship of its government with its citizens.

Perhaps its geographical location has exposed it to many invasions, which ultimately failed due to the difficulty of the terrain and the stubbornness of its guards. Although it is at a crossroads and located on the Silk Road, the world can forget Afghanistan unless it becomes a reactor that spreads emissions near and far.

This is what happened. Afghanistan attracted the world’s attention when Leonid Brezhnev committed the sin of interfering in this thorny country. Its presence on the world’s screens reinforced the United States’ interest in turning Afghanistan into a deadly trap for the Soviet empire, whose expansion exceeded the capacity of its economy. That’s how Afghanistan became the center of a bigger game, even if it is played on its own land.

Two decades ago, the developments on 9/11 shocked the world and became etched in its memory. It joined the list of other major turning points in history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, while taking into consideration the differences between the events.

This year’s commemoration of the 9/11 attacks is taking place with a different Afghanistan and an almost entirely different world. When 9/11 is remembered in a few days, it will find that the Taliban have come back to power in Kabul. The repeated history will not find any trace of the US army in Afghanistan, despite the blood it left on its soil and the billions of dollars that were spent trying to devise a formula that ensures that the Taliban will not return.

It is clear that the United States has turned the page on the disciplinary campaign it launched in wake of the New York and Washington attacks, and has resigned from the illusion of cultivating democracy through military operations. The Afghan trip ended after the US had concluded the Iraqi trip. Coinciding with the two journeys, America had launched a relentless military and financial war that crippled al-Qaeda, ISIS and organizations that revolve in this orbit.

The United States committed disastrous mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, can we imagine the world if the US had bowed to al-Qaeda? Despite the mistakes and sins, America, with its enormous capabilities, played a major role in confronting terrorism, a role that Russia or China would not have played. In fact, the two countries prioritize wearing down the US over confronting terrorism.

On the new 9/11, the question revolves around what will follow the “American Afghanistan”. A set of questions concerns the Afghans, neighboring countries, and the world. Questions that nobody can claim to have quick answers to.

Did the Taliban leadership draw a lesson from the past two decades? Is it ready to coexist with the international system even if it is not yet ready to engage in it? Is it aware that its duty is to improve the conditions of those who live inside the map, instead of backing those who penetrate other maps with suicide plots and explosive belts?

The Taliban say that Afghan soil will not be a platform for any threat to other countries. Experience alone will provide the definitive answer.

Many questions are raised over the winners and the losers. Is it true that Pakistan achieved a great victory and secured a strategic depth more than ever before? Some have asked whether the world now needs the Pakistani crossing to hold dialogue with the Taliban and train it on engaging the international community. Or should Islamabad be worried if the “Pakistan Taliban” misinterpreted the victory of the “Afghan Taliban”? What about India, which has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan and is constantly plagued by two worrying obsessions: Pakistan and China?

It is hard to believe that Russia will be the big winner from the new Afghan scene. Nothing suggests that it is willing to pay the price for holding actual cards on the Afghan stage, by allying with militias or playing on ethnic sensitivities. One should not forget the weight of Soviet memories in the Afghan file.

The new Afghan scene will awaken the fears of Afghanistan’s neighbors and Russia’s allies, which have started to strengthen their military bases there. Russia does not have cards in Afghanistan, unlike Iran, which has ties with the Shiite minority and some of the Taliban leaders.

If Tehran succeeded in installing an Afghan militia to fight in Syria, it is able to create an Afghan militia to fight inside Afghanistan.

The Chinese question remains the most important. Beijing has been keen to portray the miserable US departure as evidence that the American umbrella had many holes. The Chinese message was not only targeting Taiwan and Hong Kong. China is leading an all-out offensive across the global village. What happened in Afghanistan gives it the opportunity to advance through Pakistan to add Afghanistan on the Silk Road.

China is the big question. The Asian roar is really a Chinese roar. But it’s hard to predict Russia’s true feelings about it, as well as Iran’s long-term rejoicing.

The Chinese roar also raises the question of the US strategic response and the position of India and Japan. It is true that Afghanistan sleeps on a wealth of minerals, but on the new 9/11, the story seems to lie beyond its territories.

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