Ukraine War: A Game Changer for the Afghan Political Crisis?

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Bernard Baruch was correct to say, “Although the shooting war is over, we are in the midst of a cold war which is getting warmer.” After seven decades, this quote continues to explain the political outlook of countries in the context of contemporary international politics. The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 affected the course of political developments across the globe. There have been almost enough discussions on the adverse effects of the Ukraine War on international relations, but surprisingly it might have a desirable outcome for many actors. Like many other actors, the Afghan Taliban would not be an exception. The Ukraine War occurs amidst the US reluctant moves of approachment to the Taliban government in Afghanistan. These developments also coincided with the resurgence season of violence in the country led by an armed resistance front against the Taliban led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the then anti-Taliban legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Following the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021, the National Resistance Front (NRF), as the leading armed resistance group against the Taliban, opposed the new government and launched the so-called “resistance for freedom against occupiers.” However, the resistance made up of the members of the former Northern Alliance and veterans of the toppled regime were not strong enough to undermine the Taliban footholds across the country. Lack of cohesion among the group’s leaders and the Taliban’s disproportionate crackdown restricted them from grappling with the Taliban. On the other hand, undesirable weather conditions for armed operations and the indifferent stance of great powers and neighboring countries further undermined the resistance.

In the last twenty years, the war between the former government and the Taliban typically escalated during the spring and summer months. In spring 2022, the violence seems to resume in Afghanistan between the Taliban and armed opposition fighters. According to the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan spokesperson, Sibghatullah Ahmadi, the group’s guerillas launched countrywide offensives against the Taliban in the last eleven days. He also claimed that the group’s infiltrators also inflicted massive casualties on the Taliban in a series of insider attacks. On the other hand, the Taliban government, for the first time, resorted to airstrikes against NRF in some districts of northern Panjshir province. Additionally, the Taliban fearing the resurgence of the northern armed resistance in the coming spring, launched a house-to-house sweep across the country with a focus on the north of the capital Kabul and other northern provinces where the sympathizers of the leader of the armed opposition reside. These internal developments coincide with the US Secretary of Treasury’s issuing a General License to lift sanctions on Afghan financial sectors facilitating international transactions with Afghan public and private banks.

On the other hand, Russian aggression on Ukraine further complicates the Afghan crisis. It is seemingly held that the Ukraine War has less to do with the Afghan political crisis, but in the backdrop of the developments mentioned earlier, the Ukraine War will inevitably have a spill-over effect on Afghanistan. The Russian invasion of Ukraine indicates how the US and the West are on the wane and that their hegemony is at stake. As the principal military alliance for securing the US and the West’s interests, NATO could not stop the Russian aggression. Instead, key NATO European members resorted to self-help for their survival and jumped into the war without any support from NATO. The rift inside NATO further expanded after Turkey criticized NATO’s indifferent stance towards Russian aggression. This situation exacerbated the complexity of international order and signaled if the Russians had brought the US and the west to their knee.

It is evident that the Russian attack on Ukraine happened at a time when Moscow was ensured from Afghanistan. The Ukraine crisis was the most protracted crisis of its kind, with scaremongering of the US and the West. The initial explicit sparks of the crisis in Ukraine root back to 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. At that time, Russia refrained from launching a full-fledged offensive against Ukraine due to, among other things, the presence of NATO in its southern orbit, Afghanistan. Perhaps the US is leery of developments around the Russian geopolitical sphere of influence and seems to wait to stab Russia from behind.

In light of the new cold war between east and west, the Ukraine War is expected to be a catalyst between the US and the Taliban. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) foresees that Afghanistan will be among ten countries at high risk of violence in 2022. The leaders and high-ranking commanders of the armed resistance against the Taliban government were given asylum in the traditional clients of Russia, i.e., Tajikistan and Iran. The Taliban Acting Minister of Interior Affairs, Sirajuddin Haqqani, also claimed that recognition was progressing through confidential channels. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the long twenty years of war halted for a few months, but this situation again paves the way for great powers game in the country with the US-Taliban axes and Russia-Resistance allies. Thus, in the short run, the Afghan Taliban seems to be advantageous of the Ukraine War, but in the long-term, Afghanistan would become an arena of the US-Russian new cold war, blurring the subsequent political landscape in the country.

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