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Afghanistan: Regional countries seek stability post messy US exit

24th Sep 2021
Afghanistan: Regional countries seek stability post messy US exit

(Photo courtesy of Senator Mushahid Hussain)

Senator Mushahid Hussain, Senate of Pakistan, Islamabad & Chair, Senate Defence Committee


While the region is still reeling from the shock of events in Afghanistan a month ago, a blame game has begun in the US as to ‘who lost Afghanistan?’ 70 years ago, when the Communist Party of China under Chairman Mao defeated the American proxy, General Chiang Kai-shek, the ‘who lost China? debate coincided with an upsurge of a right-wing witch-hunt that transformed into McCarthyism that labelled any progressive as a Communist.

And 40 years ago, after the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the American favourite Shah of Iran, the ‘who lost Iran? debate promptly swept aside the Carter Presidency, ushering in the right-wing populism of President Ronald Reagan.

However, for the region around Afghanistan, there are more immediate short-term and long-term implications of the American exit from Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the US exit, making a virtue out of necessity, President Biden’s break from a tried, tested and failed strategy in Afghanistan conveniently transforms an ‘American problem’ into a ‘regional problem’.

Key countries like Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia are now left to clean the mess that the US has left behind after a post-9/11 exercise in futility. Writing in The New York Times on August 19, Tom Friedman mischievously hinted that with America “gone, Afghanistan then will be a huge problem for its neighbours, particularly Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran”, adding, somewhat meaningfully: “Maybe Biden had that in mind all along”. Interestingly, Biden too, in his press talk on September 7, spoke on similar lines: “China has a real problem with the Taliban, so they’re going to try to work out some arrangement with the Taliban; I’m sure – as does Pakistan, as does Russia, as does Iran. They’re all trying to figure out what they do now. So it will be interesting to see what happens.”

The adage ‘more things change, the more they remain the same’ applies to American policy. 50 years ago, it was another American President, facing a similar quagmire in a land war in Asia, who proclaimed, “Asian hands must shape the Asian future”.

The Nixon Doctrine, announced by President Nixon in Guam in July 1969, proved to be a precursor to what eventually turned out to be a messy exit from what was then the longest war in US history. The Nixonian vision may be closer today to translating into reality as regional countries engage with Afghanistan to foster stability.
On August 31, the day the US military left Afghanistan, President Biden echoed the Nixon Doctrine by insisting the exodus “ is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. Our strategy has to change.”

The ‘change’ in US strategy is apparent. For friends, the message is loud and clear, fend for yourselves. And for foes: the US will no longer invite failure by going after you with ‘boots on the ground’, rather, casualty-free, hi-tech, targeted drone strikes would be the preferred form of combat.

From the vantage point of the Muslim world, Biden’s blunt pronouncement is viewed as a tectonic shift in US policy. It also marks the US retreat from a region where representatives of the ‘sole superpower’ were sometimes viewed as modern-day Viceroys. As the centre of gravity of the Muslim world, the broader region, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, always took an American military role and presence as a given in all their geostrategic calculations, almost like a bank guarantee that could be cashed during crises. That no longer seems to be the case.

What could be the fallout of this US withdrawal and how is the region going to be responding to this strategic shift? Some straws in the wind are noteworthy, especially three humanitarian and political/diplomatic initiatives led by Pakistan.

First, now that Afghanistan is primarily a ‘regional problem’, countries like Pakistan and China, in a coordinated move, have been the first to ship humanitarian supplies, food and medicine to Taliban-governed Afghanistan.

Second, Pakistan’s version of the CIA, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), also hosted, on September 10-11, an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind ‘Intelligence Agencies Summit’ in the region’s history, with intelligence chiefs of neighbours of Afghanistan, plus Russia, present in Islamabad, to exchange intelligence and coordinate policy towards Afghanistan, particularly on counter-terrorism and violent extremism.

Third, two days before the spy chiefs met in Islamabad, on September 8, Pakistan also took the initiative to virtually host the Foreign Ministers of all of Afghanistan’s neighbours: China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, to focus on a regional response to the evolving situation in Afghanistan, with wide-ranging discussions ranging from recognition of the Taliban regime to promoting reconciliation to ideas on reconstruction.

These neighbours have agreed to coordinate their Afghan policy and, more importantly, institutionalise this Foreign Ministers Forum which will meet again next month, this time, convened by Iran.

Pakistan and Iran continue to host 5 million Afghan refugees on their soil, the largest concentration of refugees for the longest duration in contemporary history. And already fleeing Afghans entering Pakistan (they have a 2600 kilometre border), are finding a warm welcome like their other compatriots living in peace in Pakistan.

The long-term fallout of the retrenchment of American military power is coinciding with the rise of Chinese economic and political clout. Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has roped in all countries in the region, barring India, via a multifaceted, readily-available geo-economics’ regional connectivity option, in a welcome respite from the US military-centric geopolitics that the region faced in the aftermath of 9/11.

With the retrenchment of American military power, the region is seeing a two-fold historic transition, from military might to economic connectivity, and from US hegemony to a China-influenced region that is being knit together by the roads, railways, ports, pipelines, economy, and energy projects of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). It’s almost as if there’s a handover of the region from the Americans to the Chinese, as China can be the main beneficiary to fill the ‘power vacuum’.

In the last 100 years, two such historic ‘handovers’ of power are noteworthy: the breakup of the Turkish Ottoman Empire after World War I, resulted in the Sykes-Picot (foreign ministers of UK and France) Agreement for carving up of the Middle East, with new maps dotting states of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, with the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, calling for a ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine.

This led to the emergence of British-French colonial control in place of Turkey. And then post World War II, the ‘handing over’ of the Middle East and Muslim World by Britain to the US, which was then basking in the ‘American Century’.

Interestingly, the ‘American Century’ has effectively ended in the ‘graveyard of Empires’, Afghanistan, but this is the first such ‘handover’ in 100 years where the ‘transfer’ of power and influence is not remaining within the West but is shifting from a declining West to the rising East, to a non-Western conglomerate of countries belonging to the region. The shift in the global balance of economic and political power is now obvious.

Already a new ‘Crescent of Connectivity’ is in the making through Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan, supported by China and woven together through the BRI. The Afghan Taliban have already announced that “China is our main partner” to provide economic support, humanitarian assistance for the Coronavirus Pandemic, mining and other investment. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is also a success story, and the China-Iran 25-year strategic partnership agreement is already in place since March 2021.

The China factor also overwhelms Indian ambitions for regional hegemony, given the ‘shock therapy’ Indian troops received at the hands of China in June 2020, which have resulted in 250,000 Indian Army troops, including a Strike Corps, tied down on the border with China, providing a welcome breather for Pakistan.

The crucial question is whether this tectonic change delivers unity in Afghanistan and peace in the region. Or is it a prelude to a new Great Game? With President Biden announcing a China-focused military alliance with the UK and Australia, AUKUS, to be followed by the Quad Summit in Washington on September 24, the contours of a slow-motion march to a new Cold War are very evident. With an inward-looking America getting mired in what increasingly mirrors

Third World-style intense political polarisation at home, and developments at dizzying speed, regional countries seem willing, ready and able to try to fashion their future, rather than seeking cues from Washington.

One sign of the changing times: since the Taliban capture of Kabul on August 15, the CIA chief, William Burns, has made 3 visits to the region in three weeks: one to Kabul and two to Islamabad.

It is not just the neighbours next to Afghanistan who are adjusting to an America-free new reality in their region. Saudi Arabia, once the lynchpin of American strategy in the Muslim World, is already looking at alternatives.

The powerful Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman’s younger brother and confidante, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, who is deputy Defence Minister, turned up in Moscow a week after the Taliban conquest of Kabul, signing military deals with an eager Russia ready to move in to fill the ‘vacuum’.

And it’s not gone unnoticed in Riyadh that the US protective military umbrella over Saudi Arabia has quietly folded up, with the withdrawal or ‘redeployment’ of Patriot missile batteries, despite ongoing Houthi attacks on Saudi territory. To add insult to injury, puny Qatar seems to be replacing Saudi Arabia as the principal American partner in the Middle East.

While US Defence Secretary Austin’s Saudi visit was cancelled last month due to ‘rescheduling’ issues, he and Secretary of State Blinken found time to visit Qatar on September 7, where they also ‘affirmed the strength of the US-Qatar strategic partnership’ and thanked Qatar for efforts in the evacuation from Afghanistan, plus ‘Qatar’s hospitality in continuing to host US forces’.

The American Embassy in Kabul has now relocated to Doha. While ‘Asian hands’ may have started shaping Asia’s future, or parts of it, the US need not remain a distant bystander.

Even as Vice President, Biden had opposed the surge in Afghanistan. With this track record of strategic clarity, instead of abandoning the region, President Biden must proactively engage with the three countries pivotal to Afghanistan’s future and regional stability.

Reset ties with Pakistan, which led the evacuation of 10,000 foreigners from Afghanistan from over a dozen Western countries, including the US. Revive the Iran nuclear deal now that Iran has signed an agreement with the IAEA, which means that its nuclear program will be fully monitored. And reengage with China, building on his comprehensive telephonic conversation with Xi Jinping on September 10, their first contact in seven months.

There’s a glimmer of hope that, after 42 years of war and conflict, the US, working together with the regional countries, can avert the worst-case scenario in Afghanistan. That opportunity should be seized. Not just American credibility is at stake, but the future of a strife-torn region, which finally seems ready to embrace a healing touch.

One Response to “Afghanistan: Regional countries seek stability post messy US exit”

Farooq Abdulgafar BawaniOctober 7, 2021

Kind Attention Respected Mr. Ahmad J. Versi Saheb
Respected Sir,
I invite your kind attention to an article published under the heading “Afghanistan debacle marks shift in global power balance” by Senator Mr. Mushahid Hussain, Senate of Pakistan, Islamabad & Chair, Senate Defence Committee vide issue of Muslim News dated 27 August 2021.

The learned writer has quoted extensively from various sources. It is a well researched article. He has given full justice to the subject.

Congrats to the honorable Mr. M. Hussain Sir for enriching our knowledge.
Thanking you,
With regards.
Farooq Abdulgafar Bawani
Rajkot – Gujarat – India


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