Geopolitical interventions imposed on domestic ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan have created the tragedy unfolding in this region. It is critical to see Afghanistan holistically and not just as a geostrategic game for world powers. If a people-centred and holistic approach is not now taken by the international community, the blowback and spillover of conflicts will have deeper and far reaching consequences.

The human and material consequences of this intervention are still being calculated. But figures from sources indicate: that the US spent a trillion dollars on this war, with less than 2% going to the Afghan people while 98% was for the military. The casualties exceed 72,000 civilians. There is an army of the wounded, 2.7 million refugees, 4 million internally displaced.

Add to this the indignity, impoverishment, disemployment, rape, trauma, corruption. Besides, the $88 billion spent on training the 300,000 Afghan soldiers who melted away, and the huge amount of military equipment left behind. Poppy cultivation and the illegal production of opium is calculated at 90,000 tonnes. This list can go on.

The international focus is primarily on geostrategic consequences, as states recalibrate their responses to the Taliban as state power. To understand this geopolitics and its impacts it is important to see that there is a constant and repeated pattern.

This pattern comes from a combination of (1) imperial projects and militarist interventions. (2) These interventions are backed by imperial and militarist knowledge constructions, and (3) both material and ideology are superimposed upon local power and ethnic conflicts, and combine to oppress the Afghan people, promote xenophobic nationalisms and global Islamophobia, and heighten human insecurity within and outside Afghanistan.

Imperialism and interventions

British colonialism used Afghanistan as a buffer between the Russian southward advance and British colonial possession of India in the 19th century as documented in the three Anglo-Afghan Wars and the British-Russian Boundary Commission of 1885.

Second, the Russians used intervention in Afghanistan to fortify their security positions during the Cold War, and to uphold a failing and faction-ridden ‘pro-Soviet Afghan regime’.

The perceived oppression of Islam by the government of Daud and their Communist backers led to the rise of political Islamic nationalism, the creation of the Taliban and Mujahideen backed by the US and Pakistan, the massive inflow of arms and mercenaries, and a rise in poppy cultivation and illegal opium trade controlled largely by the Taliban.

The Russian withdrawal in 1989 was seen as a geostrategic victory for the United States, its allies and Pakistan.

Third, the US quest for ‘revenge’ for the September 11 terror attacks and thereby its direct intervention into Afghan civil strife to ‘annihilate’ Al Qaeda did hit some of the bases of this terror group. But it was also advantageous to the US’s geostrategic desire to reconstruct west Asia as shown by the simultaneous US war in Iraq.

Afghanistan provided the US with military bases for the various interventions in west Asia and to project US power to threaten Iran. The US withdrawal is now seen as a victory by Russia, China, Pakistan and forces of religious fundamentalisms.

Fourth, regional powers and their conflicts and militarisms have come into constant play in Afghanistan. If Pakistan was key to the nurturing of the Taliban, India supported the Northern Alliance. As for the US versus Iran and Iraq, here Iran’s long border with Afghanistan was a region for tensions. Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s search for regional influence led to their links with both the US and the various Taliban groups, and the central Asian states all played a role.

For example, Kyrgyzstan provided a military air base to both Russia and the US in the early 2000. Uzbekistan has been wary of the Taliban providing support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the main underground opposition to this autocratic regime.

Russia mans the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan with its 201st Motorised Division. China has an interest in advancing its investments in Afghanistan and linking it with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. India needs to safeguard its security and investments. So all have had a role in militarising the internal divisions in the Afghan civil war for their own ends.

It is evident that there is a repeat pattern where big powers from the US to Russia down to middle and regional powers have constantly used Afghanistan for their own interests. The countries may change, but the nature of intervention remains constant.

Knowledge constructions to support violent interventions

Knowledge construction is important for building hegemony and legitimacy for intervention. This too has had a repeat pattern for Afghanistan.

1) Imperial knowledge construction has constantly presented Afghan society and state as ‘tribalist’, violent, backward, without capacity for a modern state and therefore open for intervention.

Joe Biden used the old British analogy that Afghanistan is known in history as ‘the graveyard of empires’. This is ahistorical – the British won one of the three Anglo-Afghan wars, it presents the past as present and unchanging, and it is racialised, showing Afghans as the keepers of graveyards. Wars produce graveyards everywhere and Afghanistan is no exception.

2) The securitised narrative of ‘victory vs defeat’. When the Russians left it was victory for the US and Pakistan. When the US withdraws it is seen as a victory for Russia, Iran, Pakistan and others. This narrative of victory versus defeat prepares for more wars.

When there has been no occupier, Afghanistan has been presented as a ‘power vacuum’.

All regional countries selectively protect only their own borders often at the cost of others. Each of these countries sees ‘manoeuvres’ in the colonial paradigm of the ‘Great Game’, or now as the ‘New Great Game’. Economic assistance to Afghanistan has been framed as the revival of the ‘Silk Routes’, especially as precedent for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

The current post-withdrawal already sees new types of interventions.

The US has carried out several bombings claimed against the Islamic State in Khorasan. Others from the Pakistan Army present themselves as ‘advisors’ and well-wishers of the Taliban. Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran see an opportunity from the US defeat. Turkey, Iran, Israel, the Saudis want to use it to project their own power in the troubled west Asian region.

3) A threat perception approach from India and the EU sees Afghanistan as a threat and source of fear: of terror attacks, new refugee influx, and trafficking.

These tropes promote Islamophobia and approach Afghanistan through domestic agendas that have little to do with either the Afghan people and their problems. They ignore the severe issues of political economy, impoverishment, displacement, reversal for women, issues of education and health. These are real issues and ignoring them can turn Afghanistan into a ‘failed state’ with terrible consequences for the entire region of Asia, Europe and beyond.

Local politics

In this geopolitics, the local Afghan regimes and power holders cannot be cast as progressive national liberation movements or anti-imperialists. The Taliban use religious extremist nationalism, violence, fear and threat to gain control. They supported external interventions when it suited them and turned against them too. More importantly:

1) Politics and governance is ethnic and majoritarian, with the political exclusion of different ethnic groups from political participation, power and government.

2) Afghan rulers have not developed agency for political expression and communications, like institutions, political parties etc. True, this is difficult in conditions of civil war, but even during comparative stability institutions remained weak.

3) Narrow elite economic control and benefits led to poppy cultivation and drug and other trafficking. A well run shadow economy prevails.

4) The Taliban will remain a ruthless, misogynist, anti-democratic, fundamentalist and cruel force that will use their own interpretation of Sharia law to oppress women and public culture.

These are the current continuities and specificities in the geopolitical patterns after the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover:

1) The US is looking for new military bases and quads: if Pakistan does not oblige they can look at India. Settling new waves of displaced, squeezing the Taliban economically, continuing policies of intervention in west Asia and the Indo-Pacific – the US policies of curbing Russian and Chinese influence continue as its main aim in the region.

2) Russia is concerned with security and the influx of political Islam in central Asia. All these countries, from Russia and China to India will recognise and give foreign aid to the Taliban to transact security for their own countries.

3) Pakistan sees this as the victory of ‘strategic depth’ and a victory against India, as new leverage with the USA and it will coordinate with the Saudis and the OIC on this.

4) India sees this as a victory of terrorism, and worries about Kashmir.

5) China wants to develop the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for trade routes into Afghanistan and Central Asia.

For civil society and a humane approach

It is important to have collective security in this region and to:

1) Oppose a geostrategic approach where the Afghan people are barely mentioned. Afghanistan cannot be made a pawn into any more geostrategic adventures. No more interventions.

2) Ask all nations to support and give dignity to Afghan refugees.

3) Support humanitarian aid to Afghan people and the internally displaced.

4) Oppose unilateral sanctions as these impact people and not ruling regimes.

5) Support the gains made by Afghan women and look for ways to maintain freedoms for women in education, health, workplace, public spaces and for choice.

6) Oppose Islamophobia.

7) NGOs have been part of peace building, keeping and maintaining exercises in Afghanistan since the 1980s. These efforts have come from around the world, regardless of political differences. They need to be activated once more with security guarantees from the Afghan government.

8) Development assistance has been poured into Afghanistan. This should be conditional on the rights of people.

9) Institutional and operational analysis of various NGOs involved in peace building (including Norwegian Church Aid) shows that their strength lay in institutional commitment, developing local capacities, using local languages, and consideration of political, cultural sensitivities. This approach should be used in development assistance.