In fact, the hope for lasting peace evaporated not long after the agreement, as the Taliban stepped up violence in the last quarter of 2020 for a better bargain during negotiations with the Ashraf Ghani government. But at the same time, it ensured that no harm came to foreign forces so that there was no excuse for the US to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement.
But this is what the US and its allies seem to be planning. Before doing so, the US needed to consult North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries, who also have a significant presence there. It was then logical that the US secretary of defence Lloyd J Austin made his first call on assuming office to the NATO general secretary, Jens Stoltenberg. Later, briefing the media on February 19, a day after the first virtual conference of NATO defence ministers, Austin echoed the sentiments of his president that the organisation faces “challenges, including a resurgent Russia’s disruptive technologies, climate change, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the persistent threat of terrorism, and an increasingly aggressive China”. On Afghanistan, Austin clarified that no decision about the future force posture had been made.
Earlier, on January 28, US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke to Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and hinted that the US was reviewing the February 2020 agreement to determine whether the Taliban were living up to their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence and to engage meaningfully with the Afghan government. The same message was repeated a day later by the White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan to his counterpart in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in anticipation of the US withdrawal, China had synchronised its position with that of Pakistan on Afghanistan. In the joint statement issued after the meeting between the foreign ministers of China and Pakistan on August 22, 2020, China appreciated Pakistan’s contribution to the Afghan peace process. Returning the favour, Pakistan supported “China’s core interests and issues of major concern, such as those related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong”.
Using Pakistan’s influence, China is keen to access the mineral wealth of Afghanistan by integrating it into the Belt and Road Initiative and also protect its own soft underbelly in Xinjiang province. The proposed change in the US policy is a shot in the arm of Ashraf Ghani and a setback to the ambitions of the Taliban.
A day before the NATO meeting, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, deputy leader of the Taliban, in an open letter, called upon the US to honour the Doha agreement. He warned that the Taliban would not allow anyone to interfere in their internal affairs and would defend the land of Afghanistan and its people. Unfortunately, no one seems to be interested in the plight of the people of Afghanistan, who, for decades, continue to suffer due to economic, political and strategic ambitions of world powers and neighbours like Pakistan. Mineral wealth of the country is the new attraction.
According to a New York Times report titled ‘US Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan — published on June 10, 2010 — the US had estimated the untapped mineral wealth to be in the range of nearly $1 trillion. Besides other metals, Afghanistan is also believed to have large deposits of lithium, which is essential for making batteries used for mobile phones, laptops and electric cars. Therefore, the US and Chinese corporates are competing to access vast reserves of lithium.
In anticipation, the value of the US electric car manufacturer Tesla shot up to $516 billion early this year, making Elon Musk, its chief executive, the richest person in the world. Similarly, if China has to remain the largest manufacturer of mobile phones, it would need lithium in abundance. The new great game in Afghanistan is not only for fulfilling strategic ambitions of imperial powers but also to facilitate loot for their respective corporates. The mineral wealth belongs to the people of Afghanistan and none of the foreign entities and even the Taliban have any claim over it. It also applies to Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank employee. It can only be utilised to rebuild the nation after true democracy takes root.
(The writer is a former Intelligence Bureau officer, who served in Pakistan)