Once again, history is repeating itself. This time in Kabul.
All this is a harsh reminder of uneasy events - from the abysmal imperial fiasco marking the first Anglo-Afghan War, to the 1998 negotiations with the Taliban, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the Doha agreement in 2020.
President Joe Biden had the courage to defy the Washington DC military advisors and pulled the military plugs on Kabul, which received applause from his electorates. This strikingly resembles the Geneva Accord allowing the Soviets to return home after a nine-year-long occupation.
Mikhail Gorbachev had no option but to pull out after the loss of 14,453 Soviet soldiers' lives. Later, neither the Mujahedeens, nor Muhammad Najibullah, established absolute legitimacy. The Pakistan-USA-China-UK power fulcrum could not save the Afghans from falling into the hands of chronic civil war. Soon, it descended into complete anarchy, and the Cold War spun around it.
Compared to Gorbachev, Biden's timing is not any better. This was a welcome decision for most Americans who now see the Afghan occupation as a potentially bottomless campaign, leading to nothing for the average American life. Americans lost 2,312 military personnel, 20,066 were wounded, and they had to pay a staggering $824bn in bills for military operations in Afghanistan. But that's the optics. The devil is in the details.
The troops will leave, allies will continue to maintain low visibility in Afghanistan, and a recalibrated power-game will emerge. And of course, don't forget "hybrid" civilian contractors backed by state-supported intelligence, and drone technologies, which will play a unique role on the ground. The world is going to watch a new model of rules of engagement in the Afghan theatre. A great military laboratory is in the making.
This time, Russia is back in the game once again and so are its friends - China, Iran, and Pakistan. The South Asians, mostly India and Bangladesh, will be in the power orbit too. Tajiks are preparing for War, Central Asians are cautious, and forget not, Persia will be settling an old score. What does it all mean?
Most certainly, the US presence actually acted as a status quo, unsustainably though, with evolved efforts to build an Afghan defence and security system. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, boldly enough, mentioned, "The withdrawal also represents an opportunity for the Afghan people to achieve real sovereignty."
While the Afghan warlords or the political tycoons cannot always get away with a counter-excuse for everything that blames "the West", the Afghan political and the ethnic leaderships now have to show enough political maturity to cope with the world that no longer belongs to the US-Soviet era. After all, Afghanistan is already an Islamic Republic with well-articulated principles of national theological interests.
That means the rise of the Taliban has less to do with Biden's decision and more to do with Afghanistan's domestic-regional political ecosystem that has been unravelling since the fall of ISIS. The Taliban are confident that domestic politics can be tackled by an all-Afghan Taliban force composed of more ethnic Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, Shi'ite Commanders, dispensing with the peremptory exclusivity of Sunni Pushtun ethnicity. It's the Taliban 2.0 with tactical and strategic minds.
Taliban triumphalism has three critical dimensions. First, it may sound like a Taliban realist pitch, but they are likely to stay here for long. The US has difficulties accepting Pakistan's perception of India, and Baloch and Pashtun's ethnic nationalism as existential threats, making Pakistan prefer Pashtun Islamists over Afghan nationalists.
Hence, Islamabad will continue to engage with the Taliban and keep Western alliances out of its neighbourhood. The Russian-Pakistan multi-billion dollar gas-pipeline deals will keep Moscow mostly at par with Pakistan in the Afghan case. At the same time, the China-Pakistan bonding will be the defining factor in Islamabad's strategic balancing of Kabul.
But for the US, China is an existential threat, which also suits Delhi's narratives. India has leverage over the Taliban-Ghani equation; admittedly, it has opened up talks with factions of the Taliban, which can be put to good use for sure.
Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has recently visited Delhi to reassure the Modi government about its efforts to deal with post-US Afghanistan and tighten security ties to thwart existential threats from the Mandarin Dragon against the region! High-level visits from the power centres in the neighbourhood will continue over the next few months, keeping the diplomatic communities quite busy.
The second dimension would be the rise of regional responsibility to tackle the Afghan crisis as the Taliban-Afghan negotiating teams may continue to meet in Doha in hopes of charting an agenda for a common strategic goal, but the possibility of any serious outcome is bleak.
This will force the Afghan neighbours - China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and India - to find solutions, something they may like or not, today or tomorrow. This time, the existential crisis is real.
The third one, playing on the quantum of violent extremism in Afghanistan, or for that matter, the political economy of extremism across the region, is that external actors will find Afghan ethnic fault lines as their strategic anchor. This will only add to the existing wave of political need for extremism discourse - the political parties to securitise the states, the Taliban to tighten the grip in return.
A dangerous sectarian political rendezvous is already in existence. Who would not recall Shakespeare for a while then - hell is empty, and all the devils are here! So, that's an incubator for the next generation of counter-terrorism paradigm.
That means the days of talking shop are long gone. Instead, the regional countries should acquire the political skill to embrace the fact that the US withdrawal is not an act of abandonment, rather an act to make Afghan stakeholders assume their own responsibilities.
Let the American help remain engaged with the Afghan social development as a country's job is not to stay at war forever at the end of the day.
Unfortunately, it is also a fact that public statements from the regional power centres such as Islamabad and Delhi will continue to preach sermons of peace, but that will end too. That too means, unless the Afghan population is genuinely committed to peace, Afghanistan will continue to slip. This will have a spillover effect on the region. Regrettably, that will not be comforting for India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, or even Myanmar, by any means.
Moreover, the prime victims in this whole cycle of crisis will continue to be Afghani women, children, youth, and ethnic minorities. The lives of those Afghans who worked for the foreign forces and foreigners are already at risk. The bigger question looming now: what will be the future course for the Afghani youth, these families, and who will they put their faith in, in the future? These questions await answers.
The sooner the Afghan politicians and civil society come up with the answers, the better it would be for the region. What intrigues the world is the strong appetite of the Afghan population to thrive amid all the historical baggage. I have heard Afghan friends saying all the time - Dunya ba omid zinda ast [The world lives in hope].
Shahab Enam Khan is a Professor of International Relations, Jahangirnagar University.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.