The Great Asian Sink Hole
BRUSSELS – Now that the Taliban have retaken Kabul, we 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. 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 earned around three billion dollars from opium trade and other illicit activities. To run the state, it will need at least five. In the last decades, three quarters of that budget was provided by foreign donor. In other words, the Taliban cannot consolidate its power without foreign support. That requires compromise. 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 nineties unlikely, is that some of the regional powers are far more influential today. 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. So, in the next months and years we will thus 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 will start. 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.
Indeed, Afghanistan is rich in minerals, like lithium, that can serve the battery industry in China. It will take huge investments 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. Silicium, another promising mineral is also abundantly found in China.
Still, China will make eyes at Afghanistan’s natural riches. Now that it sees America threatening its maritime front; supplies from the continental rear become important. Yet, it will take many years for the resources to be developed. Even then, revenues for the Emirate will first run only in the hundreds of millions of dollars and be spent on Chinese contractors.
And while the mining boom remains uncertain, some more startling evolutions are more certain. The educated Afghan elite will leave the country. Brain drain will be massive. At the same time, population in poor rural hamlets will grow by about one million a year.
By 2040, the total population will exceed 50 million and still depend a lot 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 Taliban’s quest for survival starts today.
It 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 on the delicate ethnic balance between Punjabi and Pashtuns. There are about 110 million Pubjabi in Pakistan and 70 million Pahstuns in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite mutual aversion to the West, distrust between both runs deep.
The rise of the mainly Pashto Taliban in Afghanistan will embolden the Pashtun in Pakistan: 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 certain.
In a context of great power politics, we can look at the “stans” of South-Central Asia as a strategic Eurasian heartland. They are, in a way, and 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.
Even fearful of repeating the Soviet and American mistake, future instability might force China to intervene. Russia will certainly want to check Chinese advances and so does India. If the Taliban have suggested not to allow Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for terrorist activities against the West, Russia and China, India remains hugely vulnerable and its relations with the Emirate will be tense.
So, in terms of the regional balance of power, it is India that must worry most about the reconquest of Kabul. Tensions between Delhi and its Western neighbours will inevitably grow and when they do, China and Russia need to respond too. Afghanistan could thus remain a grave yard for the great powers to come.