VIVEK Y. KELKAR, MUMBAI
Afghanistan’s past remains its present and its future. Beyond the obvious humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, Afghanistan’s collapse is a geopolitical disaster in progress, threatening not only its neighbors but every major global power.
The year was 1842. Britain ruled the waves and the land, an imperial power at its zenith. It sought to control Afghanistan as a buffer against Czarist Russia’s threat to its Indian colonies. On January 6, Major-General Sir William Elphinstone began his retreat from Kabul, with 18,500 men, after a tenuous negotiation with Wazir Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammed, whom the British had ousted from power just three years before.
On January 13, 1842, one man straggled back into the safety of British-controlled Jalalabad, en route to India—William Brydon, the assistant surgeon of Shah Shuja’s Contingent, a British-commanded infantry force recruited in India to provide protection for the East India Company’s puppet ruler in Kabul. When asked where the army was, he famously replied, “I am the army.” The British had been annihilated, by treachery and the local opposition, all along the route back to India. The British returned to Kabul in the fall to avenge their forces’ destruction, but from then on, their control of Afghanistan was precarious. The First Anglo-Afghan War is known to the British as the Disaster in Afghanistan.
On May 6, 1919, the Afghan king Amanullah Khan invaded India, and the Third Anglo-Afghan War began. It ended with an armistice in August 1919. Soon after, a Britain exhausted by the First World War—and in no mood to fight in the plains and mountains of Asia—granted Afghanistan complete independence.
This story bears retelling. The lesson requires reiteration.
THE PAST AS FUTURE
For most of the 20th century, at least until 1978, Afghan religious and tribal rivalries caused, at best, small ripples on global power politics. It wasn’t just the Soviet invasion that transformed Afghanistan into a boiling cauldron that threatened mighty powers across the globe. Just as critical was the US strategy of countering the Soviet Union with jihad, a strategy designed to arouse Afghan resistance and nationalism. This set up the dominos that led, first, to the rise of the Taliban, then to a war that that spanned the first two decades of the 21st Century.
The net results? Two decades after the United States went into the country to avenge a dastardly terrorist attack by al Qaeda, sheltering in Afghanistan under the aegis of the Taliban, US forces are leaving. The Taliban is undefeated. America’s revenge remains unfinished. Eight years after the attack, a Navy SEAL team found and killed Osama bin Laden—in Pakistan. Not Afghanistan.
Many would argue, perhaps correctly, that the United States’ goals in Afghanistan were poorly defined in the first place. But none of that matters now. The Taliban is back, the fall of Kabul is months away if not much sooner. The US and the multinational forces that united after September 11, 2001, will be gone by August 31, leaving behind turmoil that’s not apt to be confined to the borders of Afghanistan. It threatens every major player in the region: Pakistan, China, India, Iran, Russia, and beyond, to the Central Asian border states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD
Since the middle of the 18th century, the territory today defined as Afghanistan has been ruled from Kabul, and for the largest part of this period, it has been politically dominated by its Pashtun majority tribes. Beyond Kabul, not much has changed, socially, over the centuries. Affinities remain tribal. Constitutional law, in the Western sense, remains little understood, or desired. Historically, the Pashtuns have dominated the south and the east of the country, the areas contiguous with Pakistan and China’s Xinjiang province. The Tajiks, the Hazaras and the Uzbeks have been powerful in the northern and north-central areas that share a border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. The Hazaras and many Tajiks are Shia; the Pashtuns, Sunni.
“The nation of Afghanistan,” according to its 2004 constitution, which was promulgated with international support following the Taliban’s retreat from Kabul, “shall be comprised of Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pachaie, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, Brahwui and other tribes.” But in the Afghan context, the word “nation” has always been a misnomer.
It’s not that previous rulers of Afghanistan never tried it. Way back in 1923, King Amanullah Khan endeavored to impose upon the land a Western-inspired constitution. Subsequent rulers—all the way to President Daud Khan, who seized power in 1973 from his cousin King Zahir Khan—have tried to bring the tribes firmly under the rule of Kabul by force, under a unified law. With Soviet support, Daud Khan built a large standing army, complete with tanks and jets, in an effort to bring the tribes under central control. But the government in Kabul remained unable to exercise a firm grip; even the majority Pashtun tribes, from which the Afghan rulers hailed, contested it constantly. Local traditions stubbornly prevailed. Secular schools, modern tax codes, modern legal institutions, social freedoms, and unveiled women stayed confined to Kabul and its environs; the era was marked by sporadic—and bloody—resistance to Daud Khan’s modernizing efforts.
The US and the multinational forces that united after September 11, 2001, will be gone by August 31, leaving behind turmoil that’s not apt to be confined to the borders of Afghanistan. It threatens every major player in the region.
The Soviets, predictably, fared no better. Between 1978 and 1989, its puppet regimes likewise sought to interfere with tribal customs and religious practices to establish central control. The resistance only grew stronger. The US took advantage, capitalizing upon these tribal differences to oust the Soviets. In the process, they created strong, well-armed warlords. They paid them in cash to build nuclei of resistance. Jihad was central to the United States’ strategy. The fundamental premise was that tribal beliefs, loyalties, and behaviors would coalesce, and differences would be set aside—at least, momentarily—under the flag of Islam, through jihad. The strategy worked. The Soviets retreated, and two years later the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Unsurprisingly, the period between the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the Taliban’s final ascendance in Kabul in 1996 saw a bloody internecine war. The US-led resistance to the Soviet Union wasn’t intended, originally, to be a Wahhabi-style jihad. But as events unfolded in Pakistan under the Zia-ul Haq regime, the Taliban was born in the madrassas of Pakistan. Firmly in the Wahhabi tradition, it soon sought power. Initially, many Afghans welcomed the Taliban for the stability they imagined it might bring. But over the years the Talibs, with their dogged adherence to Wahhabi customs, alienated those who remained loyal to local traditions and clans. Clashes intensified.
When the US and the multinational forces went in, after 9/11, the situation was no different. To counter the Taliban, the US and multinational forces wooed the local warlords from the Northern Alliance who had successfully resisted the Taliban. The US brought back the same old tactics: cash payments and arms to warlords. It worked, for a while.
The past remains the present and the future in Afghanistan. Again, a government dominated by Pashtuns and charged with corruption, seeking to rule Afghanistan from Kabul by means of a constitution, could not hold. The US and multinational forces could not stay forever. President Obama’s drawdown of troops from 2011 saw the Taliban make rapid military gains, once again operating from their bases in Pakistan.
THE FUTURE: TENSE
By Monday, August 9, the Taliban had swept across northern Afghanistan, capturing five northern provincial capitals, including the strategic prize of Kunduz, gateway to the country’s mineral-rich northern provinces and to Central Asia. This was the stronghold of the Northern Alliance that had so ably resisted the Taliban in the late 1990s, under the command of the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. In a show of strength, the Taliban promptly published videos of the loot they had stolen from Dostum’s home in the newly-recaptured Jawzjan province. Tactically, the Taliban has chosen first to conquer the regions that most resisted it during its previous rule—and it has made sure its successes are well-publicized.
Elsewhere, the Taliban has taken major cities like Ghazni and promptly instituted its harsh version of the Sharia. Of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, nearly half have fallen to the Taliban. All the others are under siege. In most cases, the central government’s troops have either run away or joined the Taliban.
The United States, which planned to leave just 650 troops to guard its embassy in Kabul when it departed on August 31, is back to bombing Taliban targets with B-52 bombers and Specter gunships, flying in from an airbase in Qatar. The Taliban has laid siege to Kandahar and Herat, Afghanistan’s second and third largest cities, and sent bombs and rockets hurtling toward Kabul. Coordinating with the Afghan air force, such as it is, the United States is trying to push the Taliban back from these cities via air power. There have been predictable reports of civilian casualties.
In Badakhshan, Takhar, and Ghazni, the Taliban have issued fatwas banning the movement of women without a burqa, diktats to the effect that girls above the age of 12 and widows may be taken by Taliban fighters. A fresh influx of foreign soldiers with allegiance to banned organizations such as al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have begun operating under the Taliban umbrella. The ETIM and IMU have been critical to the Taliban’s strategy of capturing territories once under the control of the Northern Alliance. Shia Hazaras from north-central Afghanistan have begun fleeing the Sunni Taliban’s persecution. Thousands of refugees have already arrived as far away as Greece.
Yet the Taliban may not find it so easy to move forward, despite their relatively quick gains against central government forces. A relatively new Shia organization, sponsored by Iran, has its own proxy militia in Afghanistan. The Fatemiyoun Brigade is largely composed of Iranian veterans from the conflict in Syria, Afghan Shias who sought refuge in Iran, and other Shia tribes such as the Hazaras. In 2019, the United States designated the Syrian Fatemiyoun a terrorist organization. This estimated 30,000-strong brigade is now actively resisting Taliban forces in areas adjacent to Iran.
Older warlords, including the septuagenarian veteran of the anti-Soviet resistance Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former Balkh Province Governor Mohammed Atta Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Ismail Khan, and others have begun seeking arms and funds to resist the Taliban advance. Though momentarily beaten, men like Dostum, Noor and Ismail Khan are known survivors. They may retreat, but they are apt to live to fight another day. Within Afghanistan, the specter of another long and bloody civil war looms again. Its spillover threatens many in the region.
The immediate neighbors—Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia— would seem to have placed their bets on the Taliban. But the Taliban can scarcely be assured of real support from any of these countries, given their ability to destabilize all of these regimes using hardcore religion as propaganda.
If Pakistan’s dilemmas are complex, none of Afghanistan’s neighbours—nor anyone in the region—can reasonably expect to go unscathed if the country implodes. China is well aware of this.
On July 28, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, met the head of the Taliban Political Commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. After the pro forma criticism of American policy, Wang Yi took pains to point out that over the years, China had always refrained from meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The withdrawal of US and NATO troops, he proposed, meant “the Afghan people now have an important opportunity to achieve national stability and development.”
Baradar, in turn, praised the Chinese as friends of the Afghan people. The Taliban, he promised, “will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China.”
China’s wooing of the Taliban is not new. In 2015, Beijing organized secret talks between the Taliban and the Afghan central government in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. It has since maintained dialogue with several Taliban leaders. On July 13, the Global Times—the CCP mouthpiece—asked rhetorically, “How big a security threat does China face as Taliban draws closer to border with Xinjiang?”
None, apparently, because “the Taliban is quietly transforming itself to improve its international image, easing the concerns of and befriending neighboring countries.” The article is clearly meant to suggest China’s friendly disposition toward the Taliban:
Chinese observers noted that China and Russia, as the major responsible powers in the region, will cooperate more with all parties in peacefully solving the Afghanistan issue and its reconstruction work, and that Afghanistan will not become a “graveyard of empires” for China and Russia, since both countries uphold the principle of non-interference.
Many have seen, in this pretense of bonhomie, an effort by China to step into the vacuum left by the US. But all rhetoric aside, China is the regional power most threatened by this development. Xinjiang, its vulnerable underbelly, is right next door to Afghanistan’s Sunni Pashtun regions. The Wakhan corridor, a narrow 90-km stretch of land linking Afghanistan, Pakistan and Xinjiang, is a potential hotspot. In recent years, China has built military installations in the southwest and north of the corridor, but it remains a point of vulnerability. China’s BRI interests in Pakistan and Central Asia are particularly vulnerable. Instability consequent to the region’s radicalization could mean severe economic setbacks.
Yi underlined the problem starkly when he noted that China had experience of such radical groups as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which have attracted dissident Uighurs. The UN has designated ETIM a terrorist organisation. Yi sought reassurance. “We hope,” he said at the meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin,
The Afghan Taliban will make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region.
But that is unlikely. ETIM’s fighters are already embedded within the Taliban, along with several other banned and militant fundamentalist groups. Even if we assume Baradar is absolutely serious about not engaging “in acts detrimental to China,” should the Taliban consolidate its power in Afghanistan, its fighters would find it hard to resist calls to help their oppressed Islamic brethren gain autonomy from unbelievers.
Terror and Xinjiang apart, in recent years China has placed some big bets in Asia that make Afghan stability critical to their plans. Afghanistan and the links it provides to Central Asia are critical to China’s Belt-and-Road economic diplomacy and the access it seeks to ports in Pakistan. Beijing has long eyed Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, too, and made key bets in its mining, oil, and gas industries—though not all its bets have been successful.
In 2020, according to Chinese Ministry of Commerce data, China invested about US$4.4 billion in Afghanistan, much of it in mining. Both the Amu Darya oil basin project and the Avnak copper mine have faced considerable resistance from locals and major security threats from militants, leading to delays and cost overruns.
Ironically, it was the US security umbrella that kept these projects from being abandoned completely in the face of resistance. China’s tightrope walk in Afghanistan will get even more precarious without a security blanket; it can scarcely expect one from the Taliban.
The Taliban’s gains are equally worrying for Moscow. It can scarcely afford its sphere of influence in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan to be destabilized by religious fundamentalism, especially because Russia is home to nearly twelve million Muslims. Dagestan and Chechnya, though geographically far from Afghanistan, remain highly vulnerable to the import of the Taliban’s radical ideologies and to fundamentalist organizations that sympathize with it. On August 11, Russia initiated a meeting in Doha with the US, Pakistan, and China to discuss the Afghan dilemma.
Russia has clashed repeatedly with ISIS-linked forces in the Northern Caucasus. The Taliban’s recent victories in Badakhshan and Takhar, provinces right next door to Tajikistan, have caused considerable alarm in Moscow. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahman has expressed severe disquiet to both Moscow and China about the proliferation of fundamentalist groups in the region; he specifically noted that militia closely affiliated with the Taliban have tried repeatedly to enter Tajikistan.
But the region’s unease is also an opportunity for Moscow to raise its global diplomatic profile—an opportunity it won’t miss. The instability presents Moscow with a chance to expand its role as a major power broker in conflicts from Syria and Lebanon to the Caucasus and Central Asia. It will allow Moscow to expand its economic influence through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a body that until now, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have resisted joining.
On August 5, Russia carried out military drills in both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as a show of force for the region. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu recently announced that Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were “combat ready.” Russia’s S-300 missile systems in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, are being upgraded in accordance with Russia’s goal of expanding its regional military bases.
Russia will play the long game—but much will depend how the Taliban plays its own cards in the chaos to come in Afghanistan.
A TRAGIC ECONOMY
An early 2020 World Bank report put it plainly: “Afghanistan’s biggest economic challenge is finding sustainable sources of growth.” This is profoundly ironic, given Afghanistan is sitting on some of the world’s richest mineral reserves, valued by various estimates between one and three trillion dollars.
The same report noted that nearly 44 percent of the country’s labor force works in agriculture. Some 60 percent of its households derive income from agriculture. “Private sector development and diversification,” the report noted,
is constrained by insecurity, political instability, weak institutions, inadequate infrastructure, widespread corruption, and a difficult business environment Grants continue to finance around 75 percent of public spending. Security expenditures (national security and police) are high at around 28 percent of GDP in 2019, compared to the low-income country average of around three percent of GDP, driving total public spending of around 57 percent of GDP.
The Afghan economy grew an average 9.4 percent per annum between 2003 and 2012. But since 2015, growth has slowed to an average 2.5 percent. The World Bank’s data makes it plain how much the country depended on US and multinational forces for stability and the economic growth it permitted.
The report warned that since 2015, several development indicators have been slowing—or more worryingly, reversing. As the report candidly noted,
Aid flows decreased from around 100 percent of GDP in 2009 to 42.9 percent of GDP in 2020 (with the number of international troops declining from more than 130,000 in 2011, to around 15,000 by end-2014, to around 10,000 today). Declining grants led to a protracted contraction of the services sector, with an associated deterioration in employment and incomes. The security situation deteriorated, with the Taliban insurgency gaining control over increased territory and intensifying attacks on military and civilian targets, with civilian casualties totaling more than 10,000 per year between 2014 and 2019.
What the report did not say was that unemployment and low income, coupled with the lure of radical ideology, multiplies the risk of a spillover of instability across the region. During the few years it was in power in the 1990s, the Taliban did little to grow the Afghan economy. It has never offered a clear blueprint for growth.
Beyond the obvious humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes, Afghanistan is a disaster in progress for itself and the region.
And even that is an understatement!
Vivek Y. Kelkar is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.
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