The news about a new round of official peace talks between Taliban, the Afghan national government and US envoys are opening the door for some serious considerations about the future in one of the most troubled areas of the world. The Trump administration wants to get out of the country, without the American presence all the allies will withdraw as well, leaving the Afghan government on its own. By all means, Afghan armed forces aren’t ready to stand against the Taliban, nor they could be able to take back control from the warlords in the north.
A few days ago I was thinking about the worst case situation; a full reverse to 2001, with Taliban in control of most part of the country, with ISIS ready to set up shop in Kabul and Pakistan in the role of the unofficial nuclear-powered protector. By all means, it will be a nightmare. Then I made up my mind, realizing that a significant number of changes had occurred in the last 18 years.
For starters, Pakistan is undergoing some serious changes. The internal struggle between the government and some Islamic-inspired parties is becoming an all-out attack on the national institutions, the economy is falling apart, and the control of Balochistan is tenuous at best. Add to the mix the growing Chinese influence and all the matters related with the BRI programs. The final result is an unstable country, suspended between the temptation of a coup-d’état and the risks of civil unrest. It’s not so likely that Pakistan will have resources to use in Afghanistan.
The once powerful coalition of the North in Afghanistan does not exist anymore. From Badghis to Badakshan, the clans and their warlords are firmly set on the development of the drugs trade. The Taliban presence is minimal, the central government absent and the Western forces scarce. No matter what could happen in Kabul or elsewhere, there is no regional leader since the death of Massoud in 2002. In the south, the Iranian influence is well established, and the local clans are not ready to share the profits of all kind of smuggling they’re doing with the Taliban. Iran pumped some serious batch of weapons and a score of operatives in the area.
A strong factor in the central part of Afghanistan is given by the growing presence of contractors. In the last ten years, the PMCs changed a lot their approach in this country, beefing up their operative capacities to the max. Now they have a full range of aerial transportation, CAS capability, artillery, and C4I integration. Plus, their customers changed. Private investors come in, attracted by a lot of different opportunities (mining, infrastructures, services). The last pull for change comes in from China, namely from Hong Kong, with a vast amount of fresh cash to take over PMCs. Like it or not, they will stay in the country for a long time.
Last but not least, the Taliban themselves. The older generation of leaders has been consumed or replaced by a score of younger guns. Basically, they learned not to trust anybody and to take advantage of everybody with enough money. It looks like that they shifted religious matters to the backseat and learned a lot from the experiences made against their opponents. The al-Qaeda’s influence has become weaker, and the newcomers who labeled themselves as ISIS aren’t able to overcome the tribal loyalties that are the vital connection of the whole country.
The future is uncertain, and many things may happen, but I think that Afghanistan could find a balance between the Chinese influence and a new Taliban leadership in the central part of the country. Waziristan and Balochistan will remain the most unstable regions, with a focus for the places where the BRI infrastructures will rise. Pakistan has to find a balance as well, its role as a regional nuclear power is too important to be discarded. Islamabad is looking for a third way between the Chinese and the USA, it may be too late for that.
As a footnote, I will underline as Europe is the great absent from these scenarios. We paid a huge price in blood and get the worst from Afghanistan (i.e., drug trafficking), a lot of our soldiers left service to join PMCs, and it’s likely that our enterprises will be excluded in a matter of years from the country. Once again, we have been a pawn in someone else game.