Will Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal trigger a violent new Great Game?

After 20 years in Afghanistan, America’s longest war is drawing to a close. But for the Afghan people, now facing a resurgent Taliban, the prospect of peace seems a very long way off. (AFP/File Photos)
After 20 years in Afghanistan, America’s longest war is drawing to a close. But for the Afghan people, now facing a resurgent Taliban, the prospect of peace seems a very long way off. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 17 July 2021

Will Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal trigger a violent new Great Game?

After 20 years in Afghanistan, America’s longest war is drawing to a close. But for the Afghan people, now facing a resurgent Taliban, the prospect of peace seems a very long way off. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Security vacuum being formed by the exit of US and NATO forces creates opportunities for regional powers
  • Russia, Central Asian countries, Iran, China and India have a stake in what comes next in Afghanistan

BERN, Switzerland: Afghanistan is no stranger to foreign interference. In the 19th century, Britain and Russia sparred for control over the ancient terrain in a shadow match popularly known as the Great Game.

Today, the game continues, only now it has many more players, and the stakes are arguably far higher.

After 20 years in Afghanistan, America’s longest war is finally drawing to a close. But for the Afghan people, whose war began decades before US boots even touched the ground, the prospect of peace seems a very long way off as their sense of certainty and security once again unravels.

As US and NATO forces pull out, people within and outside Afghanistan alike have voiced concern about the cohesion of the country in the wake of soaring ethnic and tribal tensions, waves of troop surrenders and a weakened central government. 

Nick Carter, Britain’s chief of the defense staff, has been quoted as saying it is “plausible” that the Afghan state would collapse without international forces there.

Unlike the Iraq invasion of 2003, Afghanistan was often viewed as “the good war” — emancipating the Afghan people, particularly women, from the cruelties of Taliban misrule. And yet, with every passing day, a resurgent Taliban is seizing control over ever more territory.

Furthermore, the economic gains of the past 20 years have been modest at best. The World Bank put the country’s nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 at $19.8 billion — just slightly ahead of Mali, Gabon, and Burkina Faso. Per capita GDP was $507, near the bottom of global rankings.

The Afghan economy remains largely dependent on overseas aid. Some 44 percent of the population works in agriculture, while 60 percent derive at least part of their income from farming. Private-sector development has been hampered by Afghanistan’s chronic security deficiencies.




US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division and Afghan National Army soldiers race to get out of the way of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter landing in hostile territory during the launch of Operation Radu Bark VI in the Spira mountains in Khost province, five kms from the Afghan-Pakistan Border. (AFP/File Photo)

To trace the genesis of the current conflict, it is necessary to rewind to the events of 1979, when Soviet tanks rumbled across the Oxus River to help shore up a fractious communist regime in Kabul. When a decade-long mujahideen rebellion, backed by the US and its allies, finally sent the Russians packing in 1989, a bloody civil war ensued, culminating in the rise of the Taliban.

The Taliban regime lasted five brutal years, sending the country back to the dark ages. It was from his hideout in Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. When the regime in Kabul refused to hand him over, the US quickly invaded and removed the Taliban from power.

Fast forward to 2021, and NATO forces are themselves withdrawing in a manner similar to their erstwhile Soviet opponents before them. US President Joe Biden has assured the American people their troops will be home by Aug. 31.

The political upheavals since 1979 have led to flights of Afghans to neighboring countries in search of safety and economic security. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 3.5 million Afghan refugees — 90 percent of them hosted by Pakistan and Iran and 65 percent of them children, creating what many are calling a lost generation.




Farzana, who fled her village in Helmand province when it was taken over by the Taliban earlier this year, waits to see a doctor at a mobile clinic for women and children set up at the residence of a local elder in Yarmuhamad village, near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. (AFP/File Photo)

The UNHCR has given warning of a fresh wave of displacement if the security situation deteriorates any further in the wake of the NATO withdrawal. The agency counted 1.44 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan as of July this year. Since January alone, 224,000 more have crossed the Pakistani frontier. Islamabad has said it simply cannot take any more.

Refugees place a significant strain on host countries — and few more than Pakistan, where per capita GDP in 2020 stood at around $1,170 and fiscal deficit was 8.1 percent. This has no doubt grown worse under the pressures of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan has been exploited by Taliban fighters, Al-Qaeda operatives, and all manner of smugglers and bandits. The resulting violence and lawlessness have taken their toll on the economy and local people. In Balochistan and Sindh, a flood of drugs and arms has had a disintegrating effect on vulnerable sections of society.

As a strategic ally in America’s war on terror, Pakistan has often been lavished with Western aid, but has also been penalized for hosting Islamic militants of every stripe within its borders.




An Afghan National Army (ANA) helicopter takes off inside the Bagram US air base after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 Kms north of Kabul on July 5, 2021. (AFP)

From a Pakistani perspective, which way this pendulum swings appears to depend on Washington’s relations with India, which took a keen interest in the reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan to counter Pakistani influence.

Iran, for its part, hosts roughly 980,000 documented Afghan refugees. When the undocumented are included, the number swells to 1.5 million. For sanctions-crippled Tehran, this is a huge economic burden.

Per capita GDP in Iran fell from $6,950 to $5,940 between 2017 and 2020, according to Trading Economics. But unlike Pakistan, the government at the very least has the means to regulate its borders.

The regime is also known to have used young Shiite Afghans to fight its battles in Syria under the banner of the Fatemiyoun division. It also holds a significant stake in the local economy of Afghanistan’s western province of Herat.

Given its interest in Afghanistan’s fortunes, Iran is now reportedly in negotiations with both the Taliban and the government in Kabul.




An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier stands guard at a gate of a hospital inside the Bagram US air base after all US and NATO troops left, some 70 Km north of Kabul on July 5, 2021. (AFP)

Afghanistan’s northern neighbors Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, meanwhile, are also concerned about a potential wave of refugees. Their economies would have a hard time absorbing such an influx given their structural difficulties and relatively low median per capita GDP in 2019 of $2,465, $3,580, and $8,005, respectively.

All three countries have held consultations with the local power broker, Russia, on the economic and security ramifications of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.

Zamir Kabulov, the Russian deputy foreign minister and special envoy for Afghanistan, last week met with Taliban leaders, who assured him they would respect the territorial integrity of the former Soviet republics should they retake power.

Then there is China — a nation with major investments, and ambitions, in the region.

Beijing believes the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan is premature — unsurprising, given it is overseeing investments worth more than $60 billion in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which links the Middle Kingdom to the Baloch deep-sea port of Gwadar.




Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) and other members of the Taliban delegation arrive to attend an international conference on Afghanistan over the peaceful solution to the conflict in Moscow on March 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

China also has sizable investments in the Central Asian republics, which supply it with gas and minerals, and which are also part of its Belt and Road Initiative, as is Iran. Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, is currently visiting Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to take the regional pulse.

In Afghanistan itself, China had signed a $2.8 billion deal to exploit a copper deposit in Mes Aynak, southeast of Kabul, and in 2019 imported Afghan pine nuts worth $40 million. But, overall, China’s involvement in reconstruction projects has been modest and it has thrown little money into the Afghan economy.

The Taliban has assured China its investments in the country are more than welcome. Habitually cautious Beijing is nevertheless concerned about the rapidly changing facts on the ground.

With so many regional players having a stake in what comes next for Afghanistan, there is more than a mere whiff of the Great Game about the period ahead. Indeed, the withdrawal of NATO troops will leave a geopolitical vacuum that many players are now eager to fill.

In a commentary on Thursday, Indian strategic expert and syndicated columnist, Brahma Chellaney, drew an analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam. He said: “Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: In 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 90,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War.”

If the Taliban retakes power or engages the Afghan government in a prolonged and savage conflict, there will be serious political, economic and humanitarian ramifications for Afghanistan’s neighbors, especially those with ethnic ties to the rainbow of cultures that make up Afghan society.

But there is far more at stake for the Afghan people than the interests and investments of foreign states. The last 20 years have seen the creation of an active civil society in Afghanistan, including a vibrant free press and active women’s representation.

On the possibility of those gains evaporating soon, former US President George W. Bush, who deployed American forces to the Middle East in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, said: “I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm.”

Every kilometer the Taliban advances toward Kabul, the faster the worst-case scenario unfolds for the region.

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* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources

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Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID

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Updated 05 August 2021

Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID

Greece slaps restrictions on two tourist islands to curb COVID
  • The Mediterranean country is also battling a wave of wildfires during a protracted heatwave
  • Restrictions will come into effect from Friday and run until Aug. 13

ATHENS: Greece imposed a night time curfew and banned music on two popular tourist islands on Thursday to contain the spread of COVID-19, its civil protection deputy minister said.
The Mediterranean country, which is trying to rebuild a tourist sector hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, is also battling a wave of wildfires during a protracted heatwave.
Restrictions will come into effect from Friday and run until Aug. 13 after a recommendation by the committee of infectious disease experts advising the Greek government.
The areas affected are the island of Zakynthos in western Greece, where the epidemiological load worsened by 69% from a week earlier, and the city of Chania in Crete where it rose 54%.
The restrictions include a night time curfew and a complete 24-hour ban on music at all entertainment venues.
"We call on the residents and visitors in these areas to fully comply with the measures to limit the spread of the virus," the Civil Protection agency said.
Greece reported 2,856 COVID-19 infections on Wednesday and 16 related deaths, bringing the total since the first case was detected in February 2020 to 503,885 and 13,013 respectively.
Last month, Greece's south Aegean islands were marked dark red on the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control's COVID-19 map after a rise in infections, meaning all but essential travel was discouraged.


Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border
Updated 05 August 2021

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

Russia-led drills begin on Afghanistan border

DUSHANBE: Russia on Thursday kicked off military drills near the border with Afghanistan, as Kabul struggles to peg back a Taliban offensive after the withdrawal of US-led troops.
Moscow has positioned itself as bulwark against potential spillover from Afghanistan into Central Asia, where three former Soviet republics share borders with the conflict-wracked country.
The joint exercises at the Kharb-Maidon training ground just 20 kilometers from the Tajik border with Afghanistan involve 2,500 troops from Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Russia’s Central Military District said in a statement.
The drills that will continue until August 10 are being held in parallel to joint Russian-Uzbek maneuvers featuring 1,500 troops in Uzbekistan’s Termez near the border with Afghanistan.
Russia maintains military bases in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia’s two poorest countries.


India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash
Updated 05 August 2021

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash

India to deploy ‘neutral force’ after deadly internal border clash
  • Six police officers dead and dozens injured in July 26 border clash
  • The two states have been wrangling over their border for decades

NEW DELHI: India will deploy a “neutral force” at the frontier of two states in its north-east, after their long-running border dispute escalated into a deadly showdown, officials said Thursday.

The July 26 clash on the border between Assam and Mizoram left six police officers dead and dozens injured, in a major embarrassment to the central government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In a joint statement released Thursday, the governments of both states said a “neutral force” would be deployed by the Indian government in disputed areas.

“For this purpose, both the states shall not send their respective forest and police forces for patrolling, domination, enforcement or for fresh deployment to any of the areas where confrontation and conflict has taken place,” the statement read.

Mizoram was part of Assam until 1972 and became a state in its own right in 1987.

The two states have been wrangling over their border for decades, but such deadly escalations are rare.

The government of Mizoram Thursday also expressed regret — for the first time since the clashes — over the death of the six police from Assam.

Last week, the chief ministers of both states tweeted that they would seek an amicable approach to the dispute.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma belongs to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party while Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga heads the Mizo National Front — an ally of the ruling BJP alliance.

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UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families
Updated 05 August 2021

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families

UK govt aims to relocate 2,500 Afghan translators and families
  • Regular reprisals against Afghan interpreters and their families have escalated as the Taliban have seized vast swathes of the countryside

LONDON: The UK government said on Wednesday it aimed to resettle hundreds more Afghan translators and their families, after criticism from former military top brass it was not doing enough.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel said they were committed to relocating the families of 500 staff who supported British troops in Afghanistan “as soon as possible” — some 2,500 individuals in total.

The pledge came after published criticism from senior defense figures, urging a review of the relocation scheme in the face of escalating violence in Afghanistan and threats to former local staff.

“There has been considerable misreporting of the scheme in the media, feeding the impression the Government is not supporting our former and current Afghan staff,” Wallace and Patel wrote.

“This could not be further from the truth and since the US announced its withdrawal we have been at the forefront of nations relocating people,” they added.

In response to pressure following the announcement of a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the UK accelerated its relocation scheme for Afghan local staff in May.

Since the expansion was announced, 1,400 Afghan staff and their families had been relocated, equalling the total number resettled in Britain since 2014.

Six former heads of the UK armed forces and other senior military figures voiced concern in a letter to The Times last week that Afghan staff had been rejected for relocation because of security concerns.

Often these individuals were deemed ineligible because they were dismissed from service.

The ministers asserted they needed to ensure a “balance between generosity and security” and would now offer relocation to 264 members of Afghan staff who were dismissed for a “relatively minor administrative offense.”

Of these, they said, 121 individuals in that category have already been offered relocation.

The Taliban on Wednesday claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s deadly bomb and gun attack on the capital, Kabul, amid a wider assault by the Islamist group on a string of provincial capitals.

Regular reprisals against Afghan interpreters and their families have escalated as the Taliban have seized vast swathes of the countryside in the weeks following the withdrawal announcement.

As humanitarian displacement from the conflict increases, the UK also said it would make further changes to its rules to allow former Afghan staff and their families to make applications for relocation outside Afghanistan.


Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics
Updated 05 August 2021

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics

Tokyo logs record 5,042 cases as infections surge amid Olympics
  • Nationwide, Japan reported more than 14,000 cases for a total of 970,000
  • Some experts have called for a current state of emergency in Tokyo and five other areas to be expanded nationwide
TOKYO: Tokyo reported 5,042 new daily coronavirus cases on Thursday, hitting a record since the pandemic began as the infections surge in the Japanese capital hosting the Olympics.
The additional cases brought the total for Tokyo to 236,138. Nationwide, Japan reported more than 14,000 cases on Wednesday for a total of 970,000.
Tokyo has been under a state of emergency since mid-July, and four other areas have since been added and extended until Aug. 31. But the measures, basically a ban on alcohol in restaurants and bars and their shorter hours, are increasingly ignored by the public, which has become tired of restrictions.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has denied that the July 23-Aug. 8 Olympics have caused a rise in infections.
Alarmed by the pace of the spread, some experts have called for a current state of emergency in Tokyo and five other areas to be expanded nationwide.
Instead, Suga on Thursday announced a milder version of the emergency measures in eight prefectures, including Fukushima in the east and Kumamoto in the south, expanding the areas to 13 prefectures.
Experts at a Tokyo metropolitan government panel cautioned that infections propelled by the more contagious delta variant have become “explosive” and could exceed 10,000 cases a day in two weeks.