Oct 2021

The budding power of cohesion

As Afghanistan stumbles into Taliban rule, Western democracies have been gripped by recrimination, blame and hindsight.

Two decades of American-led intervention have come to nothing. The Taliban is proving to be far less united in peace than war and may well evolve into little more than a coalition of factions. Promises made in five-star hotels in Doha are not translating into respect for human rights and security in dusty far-flung villages on the ground.

There is an opportunity here for those nations calling for reform or replacement of what the US and its allies promote as the ‘rules-based international order’.

Afghanistan sits in the geographical arc of America’s rivals, namely China, Iran and Russia. None wished for the uncertainty that comes with the Taliban victory. But, if they want to create an alternative world order, now is their chance to show their colours on how they would make it work.

The destabilising dangers of 20 years ago – refugees, narcotics and terrorism – have returned in ways that could impact far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. There is no defined arc of influence, no guiding mentor and no more armies to move in if things go wrong. Withdrawal has left a void.

It is this precarious situation that sets Afghanistan apart from other victories affecting the global balance of power.  South Vietnam was taken by the communist North, embedded with Marxist-Leninist institution and bankrolled by Moscow.  The Korean war ended in stalemate and remained divided, with authoritarian communist shadows over the north and free-market capitalist ones over the south. The Second World War was a clear victory for the United States. Germany and Japan experienced their victor’s guns and boots while new constitutions were written reflecting the values of Western democracy.

This is far from the situation in today’s Afghanistan.  The 2001 ousting of the Taliban and the entry of Western guns, boots and constitutions did not do the business.  Routing a home-grown insurgency is very different from defeating an enemy with functioning and recognisable institutions. 

What, then, is the best way to fill this void, particularly when the big powers are likely to keep Afghanistan at arms’ length?  Russia and America are already bruised. China is too cautious to follow in their bloodied footsteps.

Bereft of political leverage, Western lectures about human rights abuse will mostly be ignored while more stories emerge of how the previous system brought little stability and much violence, as shown by the killing of a civilian family in an American drone attack in the last days of the evacuation.

September’s Democracy Forum debate on this issue found that the task of helping Afghanistan through this next stage would fall as much to regional as global players. It also raised the question as to whether they had enough cohesion to achieve this.

‘This is an opportunity for the region to come together,’ argued Dr Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh of the Paris Institute of Political Studies. ‘But with two serious challenges. Can the Taliban answer the region’s security concerns and will the countries of the region actually cooperate with each other?’

Two regional institutions could take the lead. One is the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO),which comprises India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and, now, Iran, whose full membership was approved last month. Afghanistan has observer status.

Significantly, the SCO was conceived in the late 1990s to create a regional coalition to combat terrorism and drug trafficking emanating from Afghanistan’s previous civil war. President Xi Jinping has already called for SCO states to help drive the country’s present transition.

Xi is also a strong advocate for the SCO’s increased cooperation with the second relevant institution, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union,set up in 2014.Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members.Closer alignment of these and other organisations with a shared purpose of curbing terror and narcotics and of increasing trade and securing supply chains would have inevitable sway over Afghanistan.

Unlike with the US attempt, much influence would be exerted at a distance. The country will not be flooded with money, weapons, doctrines and a foreign group acting as the country’s policeman, as NATO did.

Essentially, it will be up to Afghanistan to make it work, while the region will need to ensure that individual governments do not stir up trouble there for short term gain. Pakistan is the obvious one to watch.

The Afghan government, in whatever form, would have to show it is cohesive and strong enough to keep trade routes secure, infrastructure investments safe and it should not govern in a discriminatory way that gives rise to insurgency.

Meanwhile, the West should give the experiment time and avoid the temptation to interfere, lecture and make its aid over-conditional on values that fit its cultural vision of good governance.  If it does, Afghanistan runs the risk, yet again, of becoming a proxy torn between global powers.

The West should, of course, use its technology and intelligence reach to maintain the closest vigil on any export of terror from Afghanistan. It should work with outside governments, particularly Russia and China, to make clear to the Taliban that, if there are external terror attacks originating from Afghanistan, its days would, again, be numbered.

Should the region succeed in overseeing a stable, gradually developing nation, it would prove that there are institutions that can do a job at which Western-based ones failed.

As those institutions strengthen, the rules-based international order could, accordingly, reform and adapt, thus crushing ambitions to replace or revolutionise it through high risk Cold War-style great power rivalry.