Andrew North is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi. He has reported widely across the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia. He is a regular commentator on Asian affairs.
In rare good news from Afghanistan this month, a freight train from neighboring Iran crossed the border to mark the opening of the first-ever rail link between the two countries.
The Afghan and Iranian presidents gave speeches -- by COVID-safe video link of course. And an enthusiastic crowd was there to greet the train in Herat province when it stopped -- even if the 140 km of track laid so far is some distance away from the future vision the two leaders conjured up of a new branch of the Silk Road from Asia to Europe.
From almost any other angle though, Afghanistan's present and future look bleak. A nationwide Taliban surge continues, with tactics ranging from mass attacks on Afghan security forces in the provinces to targeted assassinations in the cities using magnetic bombs stuck onto vehicles.
Kabul's deputy governor was among the latest casualties -- blown up inside his armored car. Three months of peace talks between the two sides in Qatar recently broke up with no significant progress. Taliban negotiators have rejected cease-fire calls, ensuring their fighters keep momentum on the ground.
Some Taliban commanders -- many of whom helped defeat the Soviet Union as members of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen -- now talk openly about claiming another superpower scalp, as well as going on to retake Kabul. If they succeed, President Donald Trump may have a lot to do with it.
Driven by his obsession with claiming he wound up America's longest war, he has kept making life easier for the Taliban -- and harder for the Afghan government that the U.S. has spent the last two decades propping up.
Under a still largely-secret agreement signed this February, all U.S.-led coalition forces are due to leave Afghanistan by next May. In return, the Taliban stopped attacking coalition forces and supposedly committed to preventing global jihadi groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State from using Afghan territory to mount attacks abroad. When it came to targeting Afghan government forces, the terms seem to have been usefully vague for the Taliban, and they apparently agreed only to reduce attacks in major cities.
To be fair, America's envoy overseeing the deal has called for a cease-fire. And its warplanes continue to support Afghan government forces on the ground. But, ominously for a future without such backup, Afghan commanders have admitted that it is only U.S. airstrikes that have prevented the Taliban from overrunning several key provincial centers.
And Taliban leaders have learned they do not need to worry overmuch what U.S. diplomats or generals do -- because their boss has always undermined them, via his Twitter feed. The most recent example was Trump's surprise order to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal, with nothing asked of the Taliban in return.
Though U.S. commanders managed to resist a complete pullout, only around 2,500 troops are due to remain by the time Joe Biden takes office -- with little capability to do much more than defend themselves and U.S. diplomats, let alone the Afghan government. The art of this deal has been hard to decipher.
The Taliban also seem to be paying lip-service to promises to reign in al-Qaida, amid reports of continuing high-level contacts between them. When Afghan forces recently tracked down and killed the deputy leader of al-Qaida's South Asia branch, they found him in Taliban-held territory.
None of this is to argue that U.S. forces should stay. But the speed and manner of their departure, and what they leave behind is crucial -- for the wider Asian region too. And just as worrying as the way Trump has weakened the Afghan government's hand is the fact that the wider dynamics of Afghanistan's forever war remain essentially intact.
Most important is Pakistan's belief that it has to influence and ideally control the government in Kabul as a counter to its other neighbor India. That has been a constant thread, going back to the 1980s when the Pakistani military channeled U.S. aid to its own favorites among the mujahedeen, and then became the Taliban's main external sponsor.
It gets little mention these days, but without the umbilical cord of Pakistan's support and sanctuary, the Taliban's insurgency would never have lasted this long. Nor was there any chance of America defeating it. Instead, the U.S. ended up turning Pakistan into one of its own umbilical cords, as a key supply route for its forces. Now it is also the main exit for all its heavy equipment.
More fractured than ever along ethnic and communal lines, Afghanistan remains ripe for the kind of divide-and-rule tactics in which Pakistan has excelled -- bequeathed by British colonialists who drew the border between the two neighbors. Fears about the future come as older Afghans remember a past calamity at this time of year: it was on Christmas Day in 1979 that the Soviet invasion began.
The outlines of an alternative vision are there. Pakistan and India are cooperating in a project to pipe gas to their consumers all the way across Afghanistan from Turkmenistan. China supports plans for a cross-regional railway network, which would also help it develop a hitherto mothballed plan to mine a huge copper deposit near Kabul.
That network would include the newly built line to Iran, running onto its ports, in which India has also invested -- in the hope of one day exporting iron ore its companies have signed up to mine from central Afghanistan. On its current track, Afghanistan could become President Joe Biden's first major foreign policy crisis.