Who will get the last laugh in Afghanistan?

The U.S.’s so-called Afghan mission ended in a complete fiasco. The U.S. proved that it is both militarily and politically bankrupt when the Taliban captured Afghanistan for the second time. The world’s largest armed force, America, failed to defeat the Taliban. The Afghanistan fiasco proved that there are limits to “American power.” The Taliban’s one and only strategic advantage was managing to maintain its puny existence until the U.S. was forced to withdraw. The U.S., for its part, fell victim to the hands of time, whereas the Taliban, which patiently bided its time, finally got its heart’s desire.

The U.S. hope is that, as it withdraws from Afghanistan, the Taliban will be someone else’s problem. China and Russia, on the other hand, probably calculated that Afghanistan under Taliban rule will spell a quagmire for them. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was a primary foreign policy agenda during both the Trump and Obama presidencies. However, it was Biden who made the fat lady sing. Beijing and Moscow have decided to pursue a positive rapport with the Taliban’s political leadership to ward off any danger the group may pose. To be completely frank, the Taliban political leadership may have accurately interpreted both the more specific concerns of China and Russia, and the dynamics of the geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between these two powers and the United States. After all, the world has substantially changed in the last 20 years.

Twenty years ago, the Taliban regime collapsed within two months following a U.S. and U.K. military intervention. Russia and China had at least consented to the U.S.’s operation in Afghanistan back then. In 2012, however, Xi Jinping came to power at China’s helm. Xinping declared the “One Belt One Road” project, which spans from China to Europe, as the country’s global economic-political vision. Afghanistan is geographically located in a position that can stand as both an obstacle and a facilitator in this project. In the Trump era, the power struggle between China and the U.S. was only exacerbated by trade wars. Biden, too, is pursuing a policy that prioritizes the great power struggle against China. Thus, Afghanistan remains a bone of contention for God’s own country. 

Hence, it is only natural that the U.S. wants the Taliban to be a pain in the neck for China and Russia. On the other hand, China and India are regional rivals. India has a special place in the U.S.’s policy plan to contain China. A 'fear of China' has only brought the U.S. and India closer together. China’s and India’s expectations from the “new Afghanistan” are as different as chalk and cheese. On the other hand, whatever Pakistan expects from the “new Afghanistan,” India wants quite the opposite. One’s loss is the other’s gain. The contradictions are stark. Ever since the beginning, Pakistan has been the biggest power supporting the Taliban. India, which has strategic investments in Afghanistan, for its part, is watching the developments on tenterhooks. All these contradictions only serve to afford the Taliban more room for maneuver. 

The past 20 years may have been extremely instructive for the Taliban’s political leadership. However, it remains a mystery whether there is complete harmony between the Taliban’s political and military leaderships. For the Taliban’s mainstream political leadership, everything is limited within the borders of Afghanistan.  Some military wing leaderships labeled as the "neo-Taliban" may want to project their influence beyond Afghanistan's borders. The biggest obstacle standing in the Taliban’s way, is Taliban itself. China, Russia, the U.S., U.K., India, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even Pakistan will have to develop new policies in this stalemate. The war may be over, but the competition remains.

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