Submitted by George Callaghan…
The Afghan Conflict is drawing to a close. The US is reducing its troop numbers. The Taliban has been openly negotiating with the Afghan Government for years. The United States under Trump has given its blessing to this parley. That is quite a contrast to the Bush Administration. George W Bush set his face like flint against talking to the Taliban. The United Kingdom and other NATO allies have negligible numbers of soldiers in Afghanistan. They maintain token forces there simple to shore up their shaky alliance with the United States. Donald Trump has openly mused about ending the Atlantic Alliance. The liar in chief is right about one thing. European NATO countries do not pull their weight militarily. Generous welfare programmes and free of charge higher education is affordable only because European NATO countries are niggardly with their militaries.
There have been a number of international conferences on Afghanistan between different interested parties. Russia hosted one in 2018. The Afghan Government and the Taliban were there. Neighbouring lands also attended such as Pakistan, Iran and China.
The relationship between the Taliban and the government might almost be called good. It makes them ask: what the hell are we fighting for? Why do they have all these foreigners fighting in Afghanistan? Do some outside parties want a conflict in Afghanistan?
The trouble is that different countries want different things for Afghanistan. What would Pakistan like to see pertain in their neighbor to the west? They would like to see it as a Pakistani satrapy. For several years before 2001 the Pakistanis more or less had their way. The Taliban ruled the roost in 90% of the land. The Taliban is a reactionary Sunni Islamist movement. It draws its support from the Pathan people whose homeland sits astride the Durand Line. Islamabad threw its weight behind the Taliban in the mid 1990s for several reasons. There was ethnic fraternity. There was also ideological sympathy. There was also a sense of – if you can’t beat ‘em : join ‘em. As the Taliban were going subjugate Afghanistan anyway it made sense for Pakistan to embrace the Taliban. Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is Pakistan’s answer to the CIA. The ISI is Pakistan’s deep state and kingmaker in its election. The ISI was intimately involved in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s foe in the mid 1990s was the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was as its name suggests a coalition of disparate ethno-linguistic and religious denominations. It was shaky not only because of the breadth of its coalition but because it was composed of former deadly foes. Some had been pro-Soviet in the 1980s and others had been in the mujahideen fighting against the Soviets. General Rashid Dostum was one of the pro-Soviets in the 1980s. He committed large scale massacres.
The Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen minorities mostly put their faith in the Northern Alliance. The Hazara people (who are Shia) also backed the Northern Alliance. The few Hindus and Sikhs in the country supported the Northern Alliance. It was the only thing standing between them and genocide. The Dari speaking people were split between those who supported the Northern Alliance and those who supported the Taliban. Whereas the Pashto speaking people (Pathans) almost entirely backed the Taliban.
Iran also supported the Northern Alliance. The Iranians wished to save their Shia co-religionists in Afghanistan.
The Northern Alliance held the United Nations seat for Afghanistan. It was therefore the internationally recognized government of the country. The United States and other countries wanted the Northern Alliance to win and therefore assisted it. People say that the Northern Alliance was liberal. In Afghanistan this is a highly relative term. It is true that they did not subject people to oppression as insupportable as that of the Taliban. However, they still had the death penalty for those who apostate from the Taliban.
Let us give the Northern Alliance its proper name: the United Islamic Front. Many in the United States are allergic to anything with the word ‘Islamic’ in it. It is instructive to know that the US Government armed and funded the United Islamic Front.
The United States provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan in the years of America’s Afghan adventure. As Washington was well aware the Pakistanis were actively assisting the Taliban. The ISI furnished the Taliban with funds and arms as well as intelligence.
The Taliban has never been a monolith. In a country as large and as lawless as Afghanistan it was impossible for the Taliban to be very united or disciplined. The central leadership of the Taliban had only limited control over Talibs in different regions of the country. Local and familial loyalties were much more important than allegiance to the Taliban as such. The situation was and is immensely complex.
After 9/11 the Pakistanis grudgingly assisted NATO. They did as little as they could. For much of this time Pakistan was ruled by General Pervaiz Musharaff. Musharaff co-operated with the United States because he was warned by Colin Powell ‘if you do not you will be bombed back to the stone age.’ After 9/11 America was enraged and lusting for vengeance. Uncle Sam was in no mood to be reasoned with.
Pakistan helped NATO as little as they could get away with. Pakistan occasionally arrested a Talib and handed him over to the tender mercies of the CIA. It would always be an Afghan Talib and not a Pakistani Talib who was sent to be a guest of America in Guantanamo Bay. The Pakistanis were playing a double game.
Since the 1980s the Pakistani elite has co-opted religious fundamentalists in the country. Saudi Arabian money promoted a Wahabi agenda. This is the most regressive and obscurantist form of Islam. A kill joy school of thought replaced a more openminded form of Islam. The Pakistani oligarchy was eager to kill off socialism. In doing so it also killed off secularism. Islamabad helped the mujahideen against the Soviets in the 1980s. This then led to Pakistan arming, training and bankrolling such headbangers in attacking India from 1989 onwards. But he who rides the tiger ends up inside. Having created this monster of reactionary maniacs the Pakistani elite cannot stop it. If they try to they will be overthrown. Therefore, successive Pakistani governments could only go so far in helping NATO against the Taliban. If the government went any further they would be overthrown. A big chief in the ISIS Hamid Gul publicly said that the Taliban were ‘the brothers of the ISI.’
Pakistan occasionally deconflicted some border areas to allow US drone strikes on Taliban targets. Why would Pakistan do this if are pro-Taliban? The Taliban is a patchwork of clans and ideological tendencies. Islamabad is sometimes content for a certain faction or clan to be decimated.
The Pakistani Taliban committed countless crimes in Pakistan. Perhaps the most shocking atrocity was massacring over 100 schoolchildren. The Pakistani Army has sometimes fought against Taliban factions. The ISI even now sometimes co-operates with the Taliban. In Pakistan the army and the ISI do not always get along.
India has developed an amicable relationship with Afghanistan. This takes us back to the 1980s. That was the last time that India got along well with Kabul. Back then the Republic of India recognised the Afghan Government where as Pakistan did not. There are some Afghan expatriates in India and vice versa. Indian businesses have been establishedin Afghanistan. Pakistan takes all this very badly. They perceive Afghanistan as their turf. They do not like to see Bharat muscling in. It could get a lot worse from Islamabad’s perspective. Supposing Afghanistan forms a military alliance with India and invites India to station her troops there? Then Pakistan would face Indian soldiers to her west as well as to her east. Why might the Afghans want the presence of the Indian Army? Afghanistan has needed security assistance against the scourge that is the Taliban for decades. Moreover, the Afghans require help against Pakistani interference.
India would like to see a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan that is favourably disposed towards India. Pakistan wants to the opposite. They would much prefer an Afghanistan that is little more than an adjunct of Pakistan. Afghanistan has two obvious models to choose from. It could be a secular democracy like India. Or it could be a dysfunctional Islamist military dictatorship like Pakistan. The choice is not binary. The country might end up somewhere between the two options. There is no question as to who wins the beauty contest between India and Pakistan. Literally! India has supermodels. In Pakistan there are areas where it is not worth a woman’s life to show her face. It is small wonder that many secular Afghans regard India as their potential saviour. Kabul seeks succour from India. Yet they cannot overtly favour Delhi lest they hack off the Pakistanis overmuch.
Where are we know 18 years on from NATO’s intervention? Tens of thousands of people have been killed. Afghanistan has a democracy of sorts. Men and women can vote. The integrity of these elections is questionable. One of the war aims was the interdiction of heroin. For centuries Afghanistan has been the primary supplier of heroin to the world. Tony Blair in particular got on his hobby horse about heroin. This key goal of the liberation of Afghanistan – the prevention of heroin cultivation – has been an ignominious failure. NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan has boomeranged massively. The Taliban forbade the production of heroin. They mercilessly enforced this edict. Heroin exportation under them fell precipitously. Under NATO’s pet government in Kabul the production and exportation of heroin has increased exponentially. Why is this not talked about more? The Taliban have taken to taxing heroin production in districts under their control.
In the areas under government control there has been much progress. Literacy has increased dramatically particularly for females. There is a free media. People have freedom in their personal lives. However, since the Taliban have retaken districts under the Trump presidency the gains made by Afghanistan have been rolled back in many areas.
In recent months NATO has killed more civilians than the Taliban has. This is one of the crucial stories which seldom appears in the mainstream Western media. If it is found at all it is in the inside pages as it were.
Trump has one eye on his re-election campaign. In 2016 he vowed to immediately pull out of Afghanistan if he was elected president. He has no fulfilled that pledge. Trump is mindful that that broken promise might hurt him in November 2020. This is one of the reasons why he is inclined to withdraw all US forces before that date. Some floating voters may say ‘better late than never’ and forgive him for not withdrawing those troops sooner.
After 9/11 the United States invoked the article of the NATO Charter which called on all NATO members to assist a member state under attack. All NATO countries dutifully sent troops to help the United States in Afghanistan. That remains the only time a NATO country has called upon its NATO confreres to render such aid. 18 years on where are we? Several thousand NATO troops have been killed – most of them Americans. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and Taliban militants have been killed. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent. For what? To hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban? Kind of.
Make no mistake – progress has been made in Afghanistan. The Taliban was the most oppressive regime of all time. It was the only system ever to outlaw music. Can you imagine that? Even Hitler did not forbid all music. The Taliban were very iffy about sports. Whatever was not compulsory was prohibited. Men were obliged to wear beards. A woman’s face was not to be seen in public. The Taliban’s misogynistic dictum was – a woman’s place is in her family home or in the graveyard.
In 2001 Afghanistan was liberated by NATO fighting in close concert with the Northern Alliance. Since them radio and television restarted. Women regained equality before law. Woman can appear unveiled and without hijabs if they like. Women read the news on television. Sports started up again. Afghanistan rediscovered tolerance, pluralism and some joie de vivre.
The President of Afghanistan for the first few NATO years was Hamid Karzai. It was an inconvenient truth seldom acknowledged that in the early 1990s he had been involved in the Taliban. But by 2001 he suddenly became Washington’s poster boy. There was a small problem. His brother was one of the biggest heroin dealers in the country. In Afghanistan family is everything. Everything! The idea that Hamid Karzai did not know what his brother was up to is beyond risible.
Afghan drug lords flew to Dubai to deposit their ill-gotten gains in banks there. The United Arab Emirates has the death penalty for drug dealing. But the UAE asks no pesky questions about such lucre. There is no anti-money laundering procedure. Afghanistan has only one export. It is not beer.
If drugs were legalized the Taliban would lose 90% of their funding. That would go a long way towards defeating them.
The Holy Koran forbids alcohol. Some say it prohibits all intoxicants. There are a few Muslims who say that as drugs are not specifically forbidden in their holy book them it is permissible to cultivate and sell drugs. There are others who say that they only sell drugs to infidels since infidels are mere canaille. Others see it as a form of warfare – economic and otherwise. In 1980s Bond film The Living Daylights a mujahid played by Art Malik says ‘I don’t care if they die from our dope or our bullets.’ Selling drugs to unbelievers is another way of killing the enemy.
A compromise will probably be reached by the Afghan Government and the Taliban. There might be a faction of the Taliban that regards this as a sell-out and continues the conflict. Those Talibs who compromise will presumably enter the democratic process. Islamists accept elections when they win them. When they do not they will claim the whole thing is a sham. This is like the IRA’s policy in Ireland. They exploit the decency and fairness of democracy whilst striving to destroy the same.
Look forward to a Taliban tinged government. They Talibs will try to roll back some of the human rights advances. The Taliban might try to assist kindred movements in neighboring countries. The Pakistani Taliban will take heart from the victory of their Afghan brothers in arms. These people are sometimes cousins. But even when not they are spiritual confreres. The tribal areas of Pakistan are adjacent to Afghanistan. The Pakistani Government does not even pretend to hold sway in the tribal areas. With the Taliban ensconced in office in Kabul this means that Islamabad’s hold over the tribal areas might be even weaker. Islamabad’s response will probably be to come full circle. They will recognize the new semi-Taliban Government and try to build an amicable relationship with it. The rise of such pro-Taliban sentiment is partly responsible for the recrudescence of conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.
Islamabad would like Afghanistan to be an adjunct of Pakistan. They might not achieve that but they want to get as close to that as possible.
The outlook for women and for liberals in Afghanistan is grim. The Taliban would like to deprive women of equality. Even the right to show one’s face in public is under threat. Freedom of expression is anathema to the Taliban. But the Taliban has evolved and at the moment is not as regressive as it used to be.
TAPI is being built. That is the Turkmenistan Afghan Pakistan India Pipeline. This is a bright spot. It is in everyone’s interests that TAPI is completed. Cheaper energy will benefit all. All four countries along its route will gain financially. The Taliban have allowed it to be built across their turf. They are being paid for this. People have invested in TAPI because they believe that peace is probable.
Nearby lands want to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan. As NATO disengages other countries are stepping in but not militarily. China and Russia in particular would like to see a prosperous Afghanistan that is well-disposed towards them.
After 18 years it is as though things have come full circle. We are back where we started. Little headway has been made. The few gains are now mostly jeopardised by the probability that the Taliban will have a seat in government. After all these tens of thousands of deaths was it worth it?