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On 24 November 2021, Japanese Ambassador Takashi Okada met Taliban Deputy Prime Ministers Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Kabir and expressed his country’s willingness to open an embassy in Kabul. The Japanese Government clarified that they are coordinating with other countries about the timing of the resumption of the embassy in Kabul. Japan is one of the many countries that have been making a beeline to the Afghan capital to see the possibility of opening an embassy without recognizing the Taliban government.
Afghanistan is a peculiar place where an interim government is ruling the country virtually bereft of everything including money to run the government, food to feed its population, a standing army to defend the country, a trained police system to manage order and international recognition to mention a few.
Unlike the previous Taliban regime, although Pakistan is running the Taliban government behind the curtain, it is still to recognize its protege. China and Russia, both present in Kabul, have been following a similar policy. The US refused to recognize it so far and also refused to unfreeze the Afghan central bank’s assets amounting to $9.5 billion. Qatar and Turkey, which together run the Kabul Airport, have been doing so without any formal understanding with the Taliban. The United Arab Emirates, which seeks to snatch control of Kabul Airport operation from Qatar is also non-committal on recognition. Germany and the Netherlands had recently sent their envoys to Kabul to test the ground situation in Afghanistan.
The ongoing flurry of visits by foreign diplomats, talks and promises to reopen embassies in Kabul without recognizing the country is reminiscent of the erstwhile mad race to win the illusory Great Game, of which Afghanistan has been a theatre for nearly 200 years.
If Japan decides to reopen its embassy it will be the first ‘neutral’ country to do so. In fact, Japan hasn’t been completely neutral but was seen as such by the Taliban because during the NATO war against the Taliban Tokyo didn’t send Japanese self-defence forces to Afghan soil although the Japanese self-defence force aided the US military in the Indian ocean by supplying them with oil.
Japanese diplomats feel that opening an embassy has many benefits like ‘firstly, if not, the Taliban regime will be enclosed by China and Russia, secondly such an opening would ensure desperately needed humanitarian aid to the needy under the Taliban regime, and thirdly the Japanese diplomatic presence will pave the way to open for the US and others to restore formal relations.’
But the hundred years of history of Afghanistan tells a different story. Firstly, Afghanistan is wrongly considered as the crossroad of trade and commerce, which became one of the reasons for the Great Game. The other reason was the control of key routes to India. The idea of reaching Central Asia and the Middle East through Afghanistan is faulty. Take the case of Pakistan and Iran in the post-1947 era. Both the Islamic countries, one Sunni and the other Shi’ite have not been able to take advantage of their geographic location to become trade hubs for goods to move from one part of the world to another. The region is beset with too many problems and it can never be a viable trade route. In addition to that, none of the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan is industrial power, with the exception of Iran.
Secondly, the issue of the sphere of influence, which propelled the Great Games in the 19th century is now proven useless. Several powers thought that Afghanistan was the gate to India and a strategic place to dominate the region. It was true to some extent until the end of the colonial era. But after 1947, Afghanistan’s utility has diminished significantly as it now borders Pakistan, another troubled Islamic country and not India. Therefore, while India is now better protected from the profiteering motives of predatory foreign powers which sought access via Afghanistan, some countries still harbour the notion that Afghanistan is useful to extend their influence in Iran, India, Central Asia, China and of course in Pakistan. This struggle for influence has been continuing intermittently since the 1950s and fiercely since 1979.
Ever since the dethroning of King Zahir Shah by his cousin Daoud Khan in 1973 and the subsequent killing of Daoud Khan in 1978, Afghanistan as a country is fraught in terms of governance and development. Since 1978, its successive rulers have held limited power primarily because they cannot garner enough resources within the country to sustain its population and run the government. Only 10 per cent of Afghanistan is cultivable. There is no industry and no oil or gas in Afghanistan. During the medieval period, Afghans used to make forays into India to sustain themselves. Before that, they were part of rich and resourceful Persian, Indian or Central Asian Indian empires.
Therefore, it is foolish to think of asserting a lasting outside influence in poverty-stricken and resource deficient Afghanistan. Take the example of Pakistan. During the previous Taliban rule from September 1996 until September 2001, Pakistan held sway. Suddenly after October 2001, it lost everything. Even during the Taliban rule, Pakistanis could not get the Durand Line recognized by The Taliban government of Mullah Omar which refused to play ball with Islamabad on the Durand line.
The same happened with the US and partly with India. Both the countries have been claiming to have the most influence in Afghanistan for 20 years starting October 2001. Both the countries had invested heavily (US spent USD 955 billion & India invested USD 3 billion) in Afghanistan. Yet in a matter of weeks, all of their investments were reduced to dust and their power vanished.
Before that, the USSR tried to control Afghanistan starting in 1979 until 1992. Then suddenly Russia had to withdraw from the Afghan chessboard.
The loss of influence occurs because power in Afghanistan is not about governance or government but about persons and ideologies. So the thesis of checkmating other powers in Afghanistan and spreading influence is highly misleading. In contemporary times, neither Japan nor any other country can checkmate Russia or China or Pakistan. Because Afghanistan does not lend itself to such a checkmate.
The Afghans have taken aid and grants from foreigners to enjoy the day and not to change the situation at home. Outsiders cannot help them infinitely. They enjoy the day because they know there is division among the rulers and ruled. The clans (Durranis, Ghilzais, Qazilbash etc.) and ethnic groups (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) of the country always feel threatened among themselves. The ruling elite fears that they may be dislodged by their rivals at the slightest opportunity.
The humanitarian crisis is a very troubling issue for the whole world but the Afghans have created this situation for themselves. For example, India has sent a request to Pakistan through the Taliban to transport food grains for the hungry Afghans via Pakistan. Despite being the prime backer of the Taliban regime, Pakistan never granted permission even 10 weeks after the written request. The Taliban also pressed their Pakistani backers but nothing happened so far. In fact, Pakistan decides who can send and who receive aid in Afghanistan. In any case, it is not possible to offer humanitarian help when an oppressive regime is in place and there is no guarantee that the aid will reach the appropriate recipients.
Many of the NATO countries have sent their envoys to test the ground and restart relations with the Taliban. India is also contemplating that. Soon, there will be another mad race for influence in Afghanistan and again the ruling class (the major tribal leaders) of the country will be cash-fed by their respective backers.
Yet the country will remain the same. India lost 3 billion USD during the past 20 years. It will lose another 3 billion in the coming years. This cycle will continue in the hope of gaining illusory influence in Afghanistan.
Japan is probably taking the first step to try another failed experiment. Then what is the solution?
Afghanistan is ruled by clans and segments of the population. They do not care about institution building and a structure for governance. For example, which rule is now being followed in Afghanistan is not known to anyone. Wherever in the world, the ruling mechanism is tempered or destroyed it takes years to return to a written rule again. Afghanistan is again reduced to oral law and tribal rule. It may take years again to establish the rule of law (although that was not clear during the NATO occupation either).
So, the world does not have an answer to the question on how to behave with Afghanistan. Every country will apply its own formula to maintain its relations with the highly volatile ruling Taliban groups. That much foreigners can do. But how much influence can be bought by the foreigners within the Taliban rank and file and within the country will remain highly uncertain.