Afghanistan: a possible component of counter-quad or a quintet

Serious domestic consequences likely for Afghanistan once the American troops exit from the country


Shahid Javed Burki July 12, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

There are likely to be serious domestic consequences for Afghanistan once the American troops exit from the country. One result is that the American departure will be accompanied by the exit of a class of Afghan people the country would need for advancing national integration, developing its economy and modernising its society. There are reports that a thousand members of the country’s security forces have left their stations in the north and escaped into neighbouring Tajikistan. But as I will suggest later, American departure could create some interesting and welcome opportunities for Kabul in the international field. The country could become an important participant in what I would like to call the “counter quad”. I would get to an explanation of that proposition a little later.

Several senior American military and political leaders are of the view that the current government in Kabul would not survive for long under the pressure the resurgent Taliban are already exerting on it. The group has been emboldened by the hasty American withdrawal. If the Taliban do take control of Kabul, they may not be able to establish a strong presence in the country’s capital. Their rise will be challenged by several ethnic militias who have been called into service by the government headed by President Ashraf Ghani. It is a move prompted by desperation. However, if a relatively strong authority emerges in the Afghan capital, it should be able to create a productive space for itself in the rapidly evolving global order. At the heart of this developing order is the growing rivalry between the United States and China.

The Americans have established an association which Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan, first suggested and named it the “Quad”. This represented an understanding among four nations about military and economic underpinnings. In addition to Japan, the Quad includes Australia, India, and the US. Its main objective is the containment of the growing influence and reach of China. Countering China’s rise is one issue about which there is agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the American political system. Even though former President Donald Trump had entertained Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart at Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Florida, and called him his friend, he used several public policy instruments to push China into a corner. By calling the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic, the “Chinese or Wuhan” virus, he unleashed a dangerous anti-Asian-American sentiment in the US that hurt several people of that origin. However, it should have been expected that the Chinese would react to these verbal and policy assaults and this they have begun to do.

Cold wars have been around for as long as nations have been in existence. The most important of these was the one that was fought by the US and the Soviet Union for almost half a century — from 1945 when the Second World War ended to 1991 when the USSR collapsed and broke up into a dozen or so independent states. Another is now shaping up with the US and rising China. China is now the second largest economy in the world and is likely to overtake the US in a couple of decades. Even then, its income per capita would remain only a fraction that of the US.

The moves towards creating another cold war situation have been initially made by the leadership in the US. Although several centuries ago, Thucydides, the Greek sage, suggested that when a rising power threatens the one that has been in the lead for a long time, open conflict is almost always the result. He based his conclusion after studying the conflict between Sparta and Athens which led to a war between the two Greek states. That conflict became the subject of a long account by Homer and was central to the thesis developed in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The war ended with the defeat of Athens at Syracuse and the rise of Sparta as the dominant Greek state. Thucydides is generally regarded as one of the first true historians.

In addition to imposing severe tariffs on Chinese imports and restricting the access of several Chinese firms to American technologies, the Americans also took note of the policies the Xi government was pursuing in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang.

The Chinese responded to these pressures in several ways. At the ceremony where the country’s political elite celebrated the 100th birthday of the Communist Party, President Xi issued a clear warning to his country’s detractors. Standing in front of the portrait of Mao Zedong that overlooks the Tiananmen Square, he told the world that China’s rise was unstoppable. The country, he said, would not be lectured. And those who tried to block its ascent will hit a “Great wall of steel”. Several western news correspondents listened to the words of the Chinese leader. “The speech was laden with symbols intended to show that China and its ruling party would not tolerate foreign obstruction on the country’s path to becoming a superpower,” wrote Chris Buckley and Keith Bradsher for The New York Times. “Mr Xi has been building on a rise of public confidence since China suppressed the coronavirus relatively quickly last year while the United States, Britain and other democracies suffered waves of death. But the country must tackle challenges, such as an aging population that could slow growth. Mr Xi suggested that the solution to any problem demanded staying with the party.” Party loyalty would help China overcome all the obstacles that would be placed in its way as it marched towards what was its destiny — a major world power.

The Chinese leadership is fighting the West led by the US with more than words. This brings me back to a discussion of the role Afghanistan could play in world affairs. It could align itself with Beijing and other regional powers to break the monopoly of the West in the global system. China is already moving in that direction. It is investing trillions of dollars in building a complex system of roads, railways, pipelines, and fiber optic cables to improve its connectivity with the world outside its western borders. CPEC is a part of what President Xi has called his country’s Belt and Road Initiative, BRI. There is expectation that with the Americans gone from Afghanistan, the country would find it attractive to join the BRI as a partner and embrace the aims of the initiative. Also, once Kabul is fully in command of its own affairs, it may become a partner in a “quad” arrangement that would include along with itself China, Iran and Pakistan. The US has distanced itself from these countries, preferring to go along with those in Shinzo Abe’s Quad. Such an arrangement would provide a counterpoint to the US-led association of countries in the Pacific. The US Quad was designed to constrain and bind China; the Chinese-led quad could release China’s energies to the world to its West. Including Turkey in the configuration would result in the proposed counter-quad to become a “quintet”.

 

 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2021.

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