No longer a US problem
Undoubtedly the region’s powers see opportunities with the Americans gone, but mostly they see dangers. Yassamine Mather looks at the prospects now that the Taliban are back in Kabul
After the humiliating exodus of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan, the media is virtually unanimous: the tragedy is that ‘western values’ - those of ‘human rights’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ - did not and will not prevail.
The reality is rather different. First of all, the US did not invade and occupy Afghanistan for ‘nation building’ (whatever that means), for women’s or human rights. The Revolutionary Afghan Women Association sums this up accurately:
It is a joke to say values like ‘women’s rights’, ‘democracy’, ‘nation-building’ were part of the US/Nato aims in Afghanistan! US was in Afghanistan to turn [the] region into instability and terrorism to [encircle] the rival powers, especially China and Russia.1
The invasion and subsequent occupation were part of an attempt to demonstrate US imperial power and determination to impose its will following the terrorist attack on US soil on September 11 2001. But even by imperialism’s own standards that response was misplaced, because even then it was well known that the perpetrators of 9/11 and their sponsors were not based in Afghanistan, but in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, who went to Afghanistan with US approval as part of the cold war strategy to defeat the USSR intervention there. Hillary Clinton admitted as much in testimony to the US senate.2
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, and it is alleged that almost 2,000 pages containing references to the Saudi role were removed from the official US report on the attack. This infuriated the victim’s relatives, who are demanding that Joe Biden should not attend the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary unless the pages are reinstated.
So what is the situation 20 years after the start of the ‘war on terror’ initiated by those two imperialist warmongers, George Bush and Tony Blair? With America completing its withdrawal, the incompetent, corrupt warlords of the Northern Alliance, who were installed into power by the US in 2002, did not defend any of the major cities. And now, rather than a Taliban military victory, what we have witnessed has been a total collapse of the US-backed regime and its regular army, allowing the Taliban to take over virtually unopposed. Despite all those academic conferences on ‘nation building’, ‘civil society’ and ‘women’s empowerment’, the government of Ashraf Ghani disintegrated within days.
However, the Taliban are now unwilling hosts not just to al Qa’eda, but at least half a dozen jihadist groups - up to 8,000 fighters of Islamic State and other such groups are said to have arrived in Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq in the past few months. According to the Pentagon, there are an estimated 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, over 2,000 of whom are members of the IS-K (Islamic State in Khorasan province).
By all accounts the Taliban have learnt from their previous defeat. They are, according to Alastair Crooke,
a far more complex, multi-ethnic and sophisticated coalition, which is why they have been able, at such breathtaking speed, to topple the western-installed Afghanistan government. They talk about Afghan political inclusion - and look to Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan for mediation, and to facilitate their place in the ‘Great Game’.
They aspire to play a regional role as a pluralist Sunni Islamist government. This is why they have given explicit assurances to these key external partners that their rise to power will bring neither a bloodbath of score-settling nor civil war.3
As a result, the media is portraying what has happened as a victory for Russia, China and Iran. But this is very far from the truth. Russia and Iran are very concerned about the proximity of various IS splits and China is hardly happy about the jihadists’ presence at the border of its Uyghur populated Xiajiang province. IS-K is also bad news for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and, despite Taliban reassurances, last week’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport demonstrated the vulnerability of the new Afghan government.
In addition there are allegations that IS-K has allies in the Taliban ‘Peshawar council’. According to Al-Monitor,
... over the past years the Taliban have actively been in contact with the core of al Qa’eda as well as its rather autonomous branch, al Qa’eda on the Indian Subcontinent ... members of al Qa’eda and al Qa’eda in the Indian Subcontinent are present in 13 provinces of Afghanistan ... and more generally on the Afghan-Pakistani border, where al Qa’eda operates in close cooperation with ... the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba.4
True, the Taliban do have a few allies - first and foremost Pakistan, whose security forces were instrumental in the creation of the group (originating from religious seminaries), providing funds, training and weapons.
Soon after the Taliban took over in Kabul, Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, declared that the Taliban were “breaking the chains of slavery”. However, the Taliban might decide to pursue its own version of Pashtun nationalism (about 50% of the Afghan population speak Pushto and 18% in Pakistan), if it can establish a stable government; or the various jihadi groups might gain territory within the current Afghan borders, which would present a serious threat to Pakistan.
Another ally is Qatar. There seems to be a consensus amongst news agencies that the country played an important role in US efforts to evacuate tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan - 40% of evacuees were moved out via Qatar, whose representatives took part in a virtual meeting on August 30 with US secretary of state Antony Blinken, along with representatives of major western states, to discuss a coordinated approach for the days ahead.
Qatar’s foreign ministry has confirmed that it has been taking part in negotiations about the operation of Kabul airport with Afghan and international parties, mainly the United States and Turkey. Meanwhile, international agencies are also asking Qatar for help in delivering aid to Afghanistan. However, Qatar is facing competition from another US ally and Nato member, Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has confirmed that Turkey has held talks with the Taliban in Kabul, adding that Ankara was still assessing the group’s offer to assist operating the international airport. According to Al Jazeera, Erdoğan has said Turkey had no intention of standing idly by: “You cannot know what their expectations are or what our expectations are without talking. What’s diplomacy, my friend? This is diplomacy.”5
As far Iran is concerned, although relations have improved in the last few months, the Taliban are unlikely to forget Tehran’s support for the US invasion in 2001. Iran provided Washington with intelligence about Taliban forces - and boasted about it. Meanwhile, IS-K has claims on Iranian Khorasan and, if reports about thousands of its fighters relocating in Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria are correct, Iran’ s Islamic Republic will face serious threats on its eastern border.
In addition the country hosts around three million Afghan refugees and there will no doubt be a new surge. Also Afghan production of opium has been a major problem for Iran: it is smuggled in large quantities across the long border between the two countries and it is unlikely the issue will be resolved any time soon. And 78% of Afghans speak Dari, the Afghan version of the Persian/Farsi language. It serves as the lingua franca and was therefore the preferred language of the previous government. No doubt the Taliban will contemplate replacing Dari with Pashtun wherever possible - another snub to Iran.
If anyone was in any doubt that the current US policy in the region is a ‘scorched earth’ one, the manner of this withdrawal must leave no doubt. It is very likely that we are witnessing another disaster zone - a ‘failed state’ and a bankrupt economy. According to the New Humanitarian,
Most of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, which total at least $9 billion, are locked away in countries unlikely to send assets to the sanctioned Taliban. Ajmal Ahmady, the now-former central bank governor, estimated that the Taliban might be able to access “perhaps 0.1 to 0.2 percent” of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. The “Taliban won militarily, but now have to govern. It is not easy”.6
When it comes to China, I do not believe that US withdrawal is part of an elaborate plan to create problems for Beijing. However, as I have noted, the Chinese will be concerned about potential Taliban interference in Xinjiang - and possible intervention in support of Uyghur Muslims. But in economic terms Afghanistan is an insignificant market for China.
Turning back to other states, about which it is claimed there are gains to be made from the US withdrawal, it is fashionable, especially for bourgeois liberal Afghans and media pundits, to suggest that Russia and Iran will now send aid to Afghanistan in support of the Taliban. However, even the BBC disputes this claim: “... private citizens from Pakistan and several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, are considered to be the largest individual contributors”.7
Although impossible to measure exactly, overseas sources of funding are thought to have provided a significant proportion of the Taliban’s revenue. Some say it could be as much as $500 million a year. A classified US intelligence report estimated that in 2008 the Taliban received $106 million from foreign sources, in particular the Gulf states. And, of course, no-one has any doubts that Afghanistan is one of the most important producers of opium, with an estimated annual export value of between $1.5 and $3 billion. Nevertheless, we should certainly not believe everything we read about who will now seek to gain by supporting the Taliban.
By all accounts the current economic situation is dire. Many salaries have not been paid, banks remain shut and for those that are open the Taliban have limited withdrawals to $200 a week. Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have withdrawn funding to a country that has relied so much on foreign aid.
To conclude, the situation in Afghanistan is appalling. No-one expects that the Taliban takeover will mean an end to military conflict in the country or the entire region, but, of course, as Joe Biden keeps saying, it is ‘no longer a US problem’.