A Taliban patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: EPA
Gyorgy Busztin
Gyorgy Busztin

In Afghanistan, China has need for caution, Indonesia for worry

  • Afghanistan, like Iraq before it, shows that when foreign interventions prop up corrupt regimes without a care for their people, disaster ripples throughout the world
  • China is the most important player in Afghanistan now, but it will be keen not to get carried away. In Indonesia, jihadism has been brought under control, but to what extent?
The scenes unfolding in Afghanistan bear some striking similarities with events seven years ago, when the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria stunned the world and led to a three-year massive armed intervention led by the United States.
The extremist group, also known as Isis, posed an unprecedented challenge – the emergence of a statelet dedicated exclusively to spreading its brand of aggressive Islam – and became the major global front in the war on terror, as it attracted to Iraq and Syria extremists from around the world, including Asia.

Isis was eventually eliminated as a territorial entity (it called itself a “caliphate”), but not as a movement – it is now more often known simply as Islamic State, due to its expansion beyond Iraq and Syria.

Its activists still roam free over large areas of both countries, but it has offshoots well beyond, very likely as far as Afghanistan. Meanwhile, extremists inspired by its ideology have carried out attacks in Asia, North America, Europe, Africa, and even Australia.
In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, concerns have been raised about whether Isis will mount a resurgence in the country, and possibly carry out, or inspire, new attacks worldwide. However, it is too early to judge. Instead, it would be more useful to consider the reasons behind the collapses in Iraq and Afghanistan and conclude why they happened to avert future disasters in failing states, where bad governance can result in extremist takeovers.


Clock ticking for US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by August 31 deadline

Clock ticking for US to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by August 31 deadline

Both countries are multi-ethnic and multi-confessional societies with a majority ethno-sectarian group holding a disproportionately large share of political and economic power (Shiite Arabs in Iraq and Pashtuns in Afghanistan). They are also tribal societies heavily reliant on networks of patronage and traditional mechanisms of powerbroking in the absence of functioning state institutions.

Institutional weakness and the absence of a political culture supportive of win-win compromise solutions perpetuate conflicts in society. Ethno-sectarian groups dissatisfied with skewed power-sharing struggle for equal opportunities and representation in both countries (the Sunnis in Iraq, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara in Afghanistan). Absent adequate political conduits, this pressure feeds into tribalism and compartmentalisation, deepening social divisions.

Iraq and Afghanistan were also subject to prolonged foreign occupation. In the former, waves of violence followed – a bloody sectarian conflict, necessitating a surge in US forces, before the appearance of Isis.

Iraq is relatively quiet now, but far from a fully functioning state. Afghanistan’s emergence from American occupation has been marked by a violent overthrow of the US-installed government, a chaotic rush to the exit by occupiers and citizens alike, and that story is just beginning.

A US Marine walks with Afghan children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo: Reuters

At the root of the two countries’ predicament were corrupt governments which served only group, family, and tribal interests with scant, if any, interest in the plight of their citizens. The sum total of proceeds from corruption in Iraq between 2003 and 2021 is estimated at US$1 trillion. US assistance to Afghanistan during its 20-year presence there amounts to a similar sum, and much of that has likely been lost to graft as well. These astronomical sums have made little difference in terms of material or human development in either country.

China a ‘welcome friend’ for reconstruction in Afghanistan: Taliban

Although the US introduced plural politics in both countries, the initial enthusiasm among Iraqis and Afghans soon faded, and participation in elections has fallen rapidly. Poll after poll put corrupt and discredited politicians in power in Iraq, and corrupt and discredited warlords at the helm in Afghanistan. Neither government supported the functioning of independent institutions that could have served as checks and balances over executive power, or created transparency. Both countries’ justice systems were infamously corrupt and opaque.

This gave rise to armed insurgencies, and it is little wonder that poorly motivated and led government forces in both countries did not just melt away without a fight, but abandoned advanced military equipment paid for by their erstwhile overlords in the process.

British and US troops at Kabul Airport as Western forces prepare to leave. Photo: AFP
While Afghanistan looks ahead to an uncertain future as a Sunni theocracy, Iraq is at a crossroads between secular democracy and an Iran-sponsored Shiite re-traditionalisation. The Afghan meltdown may adversely affect Iraq’s secular trajectory, especially with the US slated to leave Iraq definitively, possibly providing extremism with new life. The Taliban takeover should serve as a stark warning for Iraq: unaddressed economic and social problems may reignite ethno-sectarian strife and rekindle jihadist terrorism.
In Afghanistan, the consolidation of central authority will probably happen along the lines of a medieval theocracy. The fighting may stop if the Taliban can establish its grip over the entire country, but that remains to be seen. An entire generation grew up in Afghanistan not knowing the Taliban. For them to go back to compulsory burkas for women, beards for men, and the banning of music, singing and dancing, will be odious and unlikely without some form of resistance. That public security will improve as the Taliban imposes floggings and amputations is certain. What kind of a country all this will produce is another matter. As to how the Taliban would run Afghanistan in the absence of any viable income beyond extortion and the opium trade remains to be seen ( China may provide a lifeline by tapping into its mineral wealth, but that is far in the future).


Taliban blocks Afghans’ access to airport as thousands try to flee Afghanistan

Taliban blocks Afghans’ access to airport as thousands try to flee Afghanistan
Meanwhile, the impact on Asia will be significant. Afghanistan is crucial for China in two ways: As a land bridge to Iran and to Pakistan, its ally against India. For now, it appears China is the most important player, but it will remain careful not to get carried away, and will not move out of its comfort zone. Beijing’s proposal to the Talibs might be something along these lines: “Do what you like at home, as long as you make sure to not mess up with us in any way, or else we will make life difficult for you. A deal to expand our mining activities is possible so long as you provide the security. We will watch your progress and make our decisions accordingly.”
Further south, there is also concern. The Talibs’ world view is too radical even for Malaysia, instead, the biggest cause for worry is Indonesia. Jihadism there has been brought under control, but to what extent nobody knows. The pesantrens are churning out generation after generation of santris, many ready to be radicalised in no time. The real danger comes when local grievances seek expression via Islamic movements, as happened in Aceh. Fortunately, Islam abangan, the syncretic brand of the religion practised by many in Indonesia, has much support to draw upon. Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, two moderate organisations, both have huge followings, and both renounce extremism. Still, much depends on the economy, as social dissatisfaction is always a fertile breeding ground for extremism. In this respect, its neighbours have a role to play, by increasing cooperation across trade, security and even cultural facets.

To understand China’s plans for Afghanistan, take a look at Somalia

The lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq are nonetheless clear: foreign interventions invite trouble. But when such moves prop up corrupt regimes with nary a care for their people, disaster results, affecting not just the countries involved, but rippling throughout the world.

Dr Gyorgy Busztin is a Visiting Research Professor at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. A career diplomat, he served as Hungary’s Ambassador to Indonesia and Iran, among other postings