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18 August 2021updated 24 Oct 2022 4:10pm

Afghanistan’s plight and its contested future are a reassertion of the brutal realities of geography

The Taliban takeover could spark a contest for influence between regional powers such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan

By Jeremy Cliffe

Two decades on, the 9/11 attacks can be seen as the first in a series of what one might call “post-geographic” crises. That is, their reach has little or nothing to do with the physical proximity between the places involved. Jihadists in Afghanistan wrought carnage on the streets of Manhattan. Several years later, mortgage defaults in places such as Nevada sparked a financial and economic crisis that helped to plunge Greece into penury. In the climate emergency, the locations of emissions (such as a coal power station in Germany) have no bearing on the locations of their most severe human impact (such as flooding in Bangladesh). Covid-19 is a quintessential post-geographic crisis: not rippling out from Wuhan in concentric circles but hopping around the world, primarily on airliners.

Yet the shockingly fast Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is a reminder that geography and physical distance can still matter very much. The events of recent days and the prospects of what might come next form a story about who borders whom, what lies beyond the next range of mountains, where a road leads and where it does not.

[See also: Afghanistan Diary: The fall of Kabul was predictable – if you were there]

The US did not have to leave Afghanistan. Its defence budget is $740bn, more than the next 11 highest defence spenders put together; it could easily have afforded to stay. Fundamentally, it quit because Afghanistan is too far from the US for voters to continue to support the mission to keep the Taliban at bay. In a poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in July, 70 per cent of Americans favoured withdrawal. This basic reality drove the Trump administration’s peace talks with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s decision to leave.

As the superpower on the other side of the world pulls out, powers in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood spy opportunities under the Taliban restoration. Each has its own interests and goals.

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On 16 August, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, hailed the end of the “shackles of slavery”. His country sees the takeover as a win for its influence and a blow for India, its arch-rival. That Pakistani leaders never entirely stopped working with the Taliban, argues the former Economist editor Bill Emmott, highlights the key to understanding the West’s debacle: “The failure to secure real, long-term support from the front-line states surrounding Afghanistan.”

China wants to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral resources and include the country in its Belt and Road network of trade and infrastructure investment – itself a stark illustration of the enduring relevance of geography – while avoiding any military entanglements. The principle that China should have particular sway in its own near abroad goes back not years but centuries, to the old imperial tributary system and beyond.

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Russia’s relationship with the Taliban, informed by the institutional memory of Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, is complex: Moscow labels the group a terrorist entity yet has such cordial relations that Taliban fighters put the Russian embassy under protection upon entering Kabul. It seeks the new regime’s cooperation on security in central Asia and on the drugs trade. Shiite Iran, too, has cultivated counterintuitive ties with the Sunni Taliban in recent years – welcoming a delegation in Tehran last month – and might attempt to gain sway by styling itself as a broker. Also agitating for such a role is Turkey: to Russian and Chinese unease, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to expand his influence in the region.

[See also: Why Joe Biden is wrong to say that Afghans did not fight for themselves]

The same geographic proximity that prompts regional powers to eye a new Great Game in Afghanistan exposes them to any new violence and instability there. Islamabad knows how easily militancy can seep across the porous Pakistani-Afghan border in the Hindu Kush; Beijing frets about order in neighbouring Xinjiang, the site of its paranoid persecution of the Uyghurs; Moscow fears jihadism spreading into neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; Tehran cannot afford refugee crises or anti-Shiite militancy in its own eastern Sunni regions; Ankara is building a 295km border wall on the Turkish-Iranian border to keep refugees out.

And Europe? Similar to the Sahel or the Gulf, Afghanistan is visible on Europe’s geopolitical horizon in a way that it is not on America’s. And while talk of a possible repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis is overblown, with transit opportunities through countries such as Turkey now much more restricted, Europeans should be under no illusions about how the chaos spiralling out from Afghanistan could add to the arc of instability – from Belarus in the north-east to Mali in the south-west – in their immediate neighbourhood. The time to start re-examining their own responsibilities and vulnerabilities is now.

The return of geography epitomised by events in Afghanistan also tells a broader story. As horrifyingly and humiliatingly iconic as the scenes from Kabul are – Afghans rushing across the airport tarmac amid gunfire in the desperate hope of getting out – they are symbols not of anything as simplistic as a “post American world”, but of a shift to a multipolar world with no single hegemon and a kaleidoscope of competing and overlapping spheres of influence. A pessimistic sketch of Afghanistan’s future – a quasi-failed state and arena for influence-peddling by an array of regional powers – can be glimpsed by looking at Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Yemen today.

Geography is not destiny, and post-geographic crises such as pandemics and climate disaster will continue to roil the world. But its importance persists. Now it may well be the dismal lot of Afghanistan – the historical crossroads of Russia, China, Persia, Turkic central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the mountainous graveyard of empires, the heartland of the Eurasian landmass – to demonstrate that enduring truth. 

[See also: The fall of Afghanistan: all the New Statesman’s coverage]

This article appears in the 18 August 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal