The Comrades and the Mullahs: China, Afghanistan and the New Asian

Book summary by Shweta Suryawanshi, Research Analyst, PIC.

The question that motivated journalists Ananth Krishnan and Stanly Johny to write this book is, “What will the 21st century rivalry between the US and China mean for Afghanistan?” The book opens with a description of a famous oil on canvas by Elizabeth Butler. It depicts an exhausted William Brydon, the lone survivor of the Anglo-Afghan war (1842) entering Kabul on horseback. In the 19th century, British and Russian forces sought control over Afghanistan. In the next century, Afghanistan was caught between the USA and the former Soviet Union. In 10 chapters, the authors endeavour to map out the past and explain how the geopolitical contest between USA and China has consequences in present-day Afghanistan.
Post-communist Afghanistan was deeply divided along ethnic lines. Mullah Omar who mobilised the Taliban under his command has been described as “…a simple, devout mullah who could be ruthless to his enemies”. As soon as the Taliban were in power, they started enforcing a strict Islamic code on Afghan society. The Taliban claimed that these measures were prerequisites to establish order in civil-war torn Afghanistan. In Bin Laden, Omar saw an ideological brother. However, this friendship led to the end of Omar’s regime. After 9/11, which Bin Laden planned on Afghan soil, the USA invaded the country. The ensuing GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) and the tragic sequence of events that led to the American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has been well explained in the book. While the Taliban came back to power, the authors question to what extent Beijing would step in to fill the void left by the American withdrawal.
The front cover of the book has a photograph of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political office and one of the group’s founders. To his right stood Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister. In the photo, “both Wang and Baradar have their arms outstretched, palms open and facing downward, as if to say, ‘How did we get here?’”. However, for China, the American withdrawal is one of many opportunities. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a key driver of China’s foreign policy. First, the Xinjiang region is critical to the success of BRI and Afghanistan is the corridor that connects Xinjiang to West and Central Asia. Secondly, Beijing has been leaning on Islamabad in its outreach to the Taliban. Next, the authors have explained how a “decade of horrors” was unleashed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which saw mosques burned in Xinjiang. However, in the present, China has ensured that its atrocities towards the Uighurs have not affected its relations with the Islamic world. Finally, in an effort to curb the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, China plans to deploy special forces in the Wakhan corridor and Badakhshan region. In sum, the authors post that a “ruthless pragmatism” explains Chinese actions in Afghanistan.
Krishan and Johny have well explained the Great Game that major powers engage in to describe the tragedy of Afghanistan which has long been a “graveyard of empires”. The authors explain that the most important consequence of an endless cycle of invasion and civil war, played out over centuries is the enormous cost borne by the people of Afghanistan. The US exit in 2021 and the first months of Taliban rule were marked by a humanitarian catastrophe. Amid the crisis, the Islamic State – Khorasan was rising rapidly, posing a serious security challenge to the Taliban. Furthermore, the authors argue that if the Taliban fails to curb mindless extremism, it is entirely possible that the country would fall into further chaos. The arguments presented in the book raise two questions in the mind of the reader. First, what is a rational path for the future of Afghanistan? Finally, how will these geopolitical events impact India? In the concluding chapter, the authors posit that regionalism, not rivalry, is key for Afghanistan. It is the only path towards breaking the cycle of geopolitical great games. The authors argue that India can play a role, working with regional powers, especially Iran, Russia, the Central Asian republics and, to a limited extent, even China despite its nexus with Pakistan, to forge a coordinated response. This would challenge India’s policy of reluctant engagement.
Through all the geopolitical churn, there has been only one constant which is the continued suffering of the Afghan people. According to the authors, that is the tragedy of Afghanistan. In sum, regardless of comrades or mullahs, the long-ignored Afghan people should be at the centre of any story about their country.