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Afghanistan, but without the Americans
In April, President Biden announced his decision to leave Afghanistan. He was ending America’s “forever wars” in order to focus on what the Department of Defense calls a “near-peer adversary,” by which it means China. So no more counterinsurgency. No more street battles, no more winning “hearts and minds.”
Now comes the question: What does Afghanistan become without the Americans? Whose turn is it now? I think that American withdrawal has turned Afghanistan into a regional problem. We are likely at the beginning of the new era of Chinese-American “managed” competition over the territory.
In late July, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met the political chief of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. Foreign minister Wang said that “China’s number one priority is for the fighting to stop, as chaos breeds religious extremism and terrorism.” That is a good start.
Political instability in Afghanistan can easily destabilize the wider region. Turkey is not alone in looking for a durable solution to the Afghan political transition. If the country becomes a breeding ground for pesky extremist groups, it will become a headache for Ankara and Beijing before Washington has to even worry about it.
Let me start with the Turkish situation. The view from Ankara is very frustrating. We are already hosting at least 4 million Syrian refugees, and with the Afghans and others, that number will easily pass 5 million. Now, with the American withdrawal, an Afghan exodus has already started. From March 17, 2021 to August 12, 2021, the number of Afghan refugees to Turkey has risen from around 7,798 to 35,510 people, an increase of 355 percent. And those are only the official numbers.
This is not good for social cohesion in a country already reeling from economic pain. Pandemic-related unemployment coupled with refugee ghettos in the inner cities is a call for domestic trouble. Tension has already become visible in Ankara’s Altındağ district in Önder Mahallesi last week, where a mob attacked a Syrian neighborhood over the killing of a Turkish boy. Very nasty stereotypes are already settled into the national consciousness. Turkey is becoming an “Einwanderungsland,” and we are ironically uncomfortable with the change. Wildfires and flashfloods aren’t helping either.
There will be knock-on effects on other neighbors as well. A big victory for the Afghan Taliban is bad for Pakistan as well, as this will strengthen the Pakistani Taliban, create additional difficulties in the governance of tribal areas by the border and hence put negative pressure on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Up until now, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been rolled out with ease under the security guarantees of the United States. But CPEC is a very important component of the BRI. Without the Americans, the Chinese are going to have to make an arrangement of their own. Turkey must look like an attractive partner in that regard. Iran, meanwhile, has already had around a million Afghan refugees. More refugees in this fragile economic environment would cause public outcry there as well.
This set of countries is also facing economic pressure coming from the Green New Deal in the US and EU. Many large businesses in our region still haven’t figured out how to adjust to the rules the Carbon Club is setting. The “Fit for 55” program of the European Commission was announced this July, and who is going to be the most exposed? Russia, China and Turkey says the UNCTAD report. And this is only the beginning, mind you. All oil producing countries are to lose their business models eventually.
Every transition is messy. We all need to be ready for mishaps. And we should all be ready to see new forms of cooperation. There is great excitement and trepidation in Ankara on this issue, and I’m sure the same mix stretches across the other capitols.