The new cold war is different from the one that was fought for almost half a century after the end of the Second World War. That long and bloody conflict did not settle one major issue that was at the centre of the war. What would be the ideology that would be followed to define the system of governance once radical nationalism as promoted by Germany, Italy and Japan had been defeated? What survived were two competing systems: governance built on individual rights or governance in which almost total power was assigned to the state. The United States was the champion and promoter of the first; the Soviet Union of the second.
This battle of ideas was fought in new geographic space created by the demise of European colonialism. Several states in the continent of Europe had ruled over vast tracts of land for more than a hundred years. When they were forced to leave by the aggressive development of nationalism in Asia and Africa, a number of independent nations emerged. Independence came but the question of the style of governance was not settled. That was the ground on which the two large powers that came out victorious fought in what came to be called the “Cold War”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s India and some of the African leaders who had led the struggle for independence from colonial rule were attracted to the Soviet system. They believed that Lenin and Stalin had found a way for quickening the pace of economic development and social transformation. The US, using a series of defense pacts, pushed for the adoption of its system.
It would have been hard to imagine that Afghanistan in the 1980s would demonstrate in a vivid way the shortcomings in the Soviet system of governance. Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and after suffering unimaginable losses of blood and treasure pulled out its last soldier in 1989. Two years later the USSR collapsed. The world is now heading towards another cold war but this one is being fought principally by the US aiming at China as its adversary. However, other states have also gotten involved. Afghanistan is still in play but has been joined by Hong Kong.
There is a consensus among those who watch Afghanistan and speculate about its future that it is a hard country to understand and also hard to predict the direction in which it is moving. What is contributing to the present situation is the involvement once again of Russia in the country. The Russians, humiliated in the 1980s by a rag tag army of Afghan fighters who refused to tolerate the presence of Moscow’s forces in their country, are trying again. This time it is playing a different game: not occupation but influence. John W Nicholson who commanded the US and NATO-led international forces in Afghanistan from March 2016 to September 2018, was the longest serving commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. He was the first to sound the alarm that the Russians were cultivating the Taliban.
“In late 2017 when I was commander of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan an Afghan governor whom I knew well and trusted came to my headquarters in Kabul,” wrote the retired general in an article published by The Washington Post in its issue of July 14, 2020. “He brought a small cache of weapons that he said had been provided to the Taliban by the Russian operatives coming across the northern border from Tajikistan.” This time around they have conditioned the help to the Taliban on their killing of American troops. Cash would be provided if the Taliban could prove that they had caused American deaths.
What should the US do as the story of the provision of arms to the Taliban became public? The general summed up his advice in the heading he gave to the above referenced article: The article came with the title: “We must respond forcefully to Russia and the Taliban.” The change in the Russian strategy that was brought to the attention of the general during his tenure in the field was significant. Before this switch, Moscow had facilitated US logistics through Central Asia, providing an alternative route for the supply of men and equipment to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Russians were now providing money to the Taliban to kill the Americans who, despite the thinning in their ranks, were still present in large enough numbers to provide easy targets for the Taliban.
What kind of response was the general advocating? He wanted senior American leaders in Washington to give a clear signal to the Russians that this behaviour would not be tolerated. He would like to see a pause in the withdrawal of American troops until the time it becomes clear that the Russians were out of the Afghan game. “Our long war in Afghanistan will have an enduring end only if agreement is reached at the peace table. The current peace process rests on a foundation of hard-fought gains by Afghan security forces, with the support of the US and our coalition partners. In recent months each time when progress is made at the table, it is met with increased violence on the ground by the Taliban, who are supported by Russia.”
The US is now embarked in the process of disengaging itself from Afghanistan. The troop pullout is a part of the agreement Washington reached with the Taliban on February 29, 2020, when the two sides signed a deal in Doha. The US departure has begun without the various ethnic, religious, and political groups having arrived at any kind agreement on how to manage the country. Not only is there a lack of agreement among the many players within the country, those outside the country’s borders have not defined their interest in Afghanistan. Once we factor in foreign interests the situation is considerably more complicated than was the case during the post-World War II Cold War. Then basically two world powers competed for influence in the country. Now there are several nations that would like to influence developments in Afghanistan. China, India, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are keen to promote their strategic interests in the geographic space of which Afghanistan is an important part.
This time around it is not one cold war that was being fought. There are many in which different parties are engaged. Hong Kong is another area of growing conflict. I will conclude with a quote from a newspaper analysis of how Hong Kong is splitting the world. “At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, 53 nations — from Belarus to Zimbabwe — signed a statement supporting China’s new security law for Hong Kong. Only 27 nations on the council criticised it, most of them European democracies, along with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Such blocs would not have been unfamiliar at the height of the Cold War.” How this particular crisis will develop will be the subject of an article in the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2020.