Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

Column

Afghanistan: The great Asian sink hole

Now that the Taliban have retaken Kabul, we can try to imagine the region's future.

Most likely, it will misleadingly shift from panic to short-term stability and back into long-term struggle.

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  • While the rest of the world will slowly turn away and the images of desperate Afghans clinging to an aircraft’s wheels’ fade, a new tragedy will start.

Taking Kabul was the easy part for the Taliban; building a unified emirate will prove as difficult as building a diverse democracy.

Poverty, population growth, climate change, and bad governance can transform Afghanistan and its surroundings into a new sink hole.

The Taliban has earned around $3bn (€2.6bn) dollars from the opium trade and other illicit activities. To run the state, it will need at least $5bn.

In the last decades, three quarters of that budget was provided by foreign donors. In other words, the Taliban cannot consolidate its power without foreign support.

That requires compromises. It must abjure relations with foreign terrorists and refrain from the brutalities that were rife before its expulsion in 2001.

What also makes an instant return to the 90s unlikely, is that today some of the regional powers are far more influential.

Russia and China both have the resolve and resources not to allow the Taliban to create a new sanctuary for terrorists, refugees, and smugglers - at least not if they aim in their direction.

That is why, in the next months and years we will most likely see a slightly more moderate Taliban.

But while the rest of the world will slowly turn away and the images of desperate Afghans clinging to an aircraft's wheels fade, a new tragedy might well unfold.

Interest in Afghanistan will dissipate, aid diminish, and fighting inside the ranks of the Taliban start.

That is how it often goes after a rebel group takes over. Everyone will want a part of the spoils.

China's interest in Afghanistan

Indeed, Afghanistan is rich in minerals, such as lithium, that can serve the battery industry in China.

It will take huge investment though and massive infrastructure works for China to exploit them. The mountain passes through the Wakhan Corridor or Tajikistan are arduous.

The first Chinese city, Kashgar, is only 850 kilometres away from potential mines in Ghazni. But it is a small city and the whole west of China is thinly populated.

From Kashgar, it takes 4,000 more kilometres to the bustling coastal provinces. Iron ore, the main find, comes in huge volumes and requires railways to be modernised. Silicon, another promising mineral is abundantly found in China.

China will make eyes at Afghanistan's natural riches. Now that it sees America threatening its maritime front; supplies from the continental rear are becoming important.

Yet, it will take many years for the resources to be developed. Even then, revenues for the Afghan Emirate will first run in the hundreds of dollars and be spent on Chinese contractors.

The Taliban's struggle for survival

But while the mining boom remains uncertain, some more startling evolutions are more obvious.

The educated Afghan elite will try to leave the country. Brain-drain will be even more massive. At the same time, population in poor rural hamlets will grow by about 1 million a year.

By 2040, the total population will exceed 50 million and still largely depend on agriculture. It will remain one of the poorest in the world.

At the same time, this destitute rural population will be scourged by climate change. Rapid melting of winter snow will cause flash floods in the valleys, while droughts will be rampant in summer. Even opium poppies will struggle to grow.

The struggle for the survival of the Taliban starts today.

It also needs to be put in a broader regional perspective. Pakistan too will lose some of its strategic importance and, hence, international aid, now that the West winds down its presence.

Since 2001, Islamabad was able to play both Washington and Beijing. Now it has only Beijing left.

Inside Pakistan, fears emerge about the consequences of the Taliban's victory, its effect for the delicate ethnic balance between Punjabi and Pashtun, its possible emancipating effect on Pashtun, peaceful ones like Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, and terrorists like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The survival of multi-ethnic states ran by impoverished governments is not a given.

In a context of great power politics, we can look at the "Stans" of south-central Asia as a strategic Eurasian heartland.

They do offer opportunities for Russia, China, and India to radiate their influence.

But they are also a potential sink hole of instability. And we know what sinkholes do: they usually drag a much wider region down.

Therefore, they could remain a graveyard for empires to come.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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