- by Matthew Hole
- The Guardian
- Issue #1977
Celebratory gunfire echoed across Kabul on Tuesday morning, 31st August, as the last US flight took off from Kabul airport, ending twenty years of American occupation in the country. Whilst the future for Afghanis remains uncertain in the wake of the US-NATO exit, what is clear to many is that any prospects for peace and development could not begin in earnest whilst the landlocked country was occupied by foreign forces. The Taliban have swiftly taken control of most of the country in a matter of a few short weeks, and the process to hopefully build a more inclusive government is underway.
Much of the reporting in Western media – a media that supported the war throughout these last two decades – has focused primarily on the tenuous withdrawal of the invading forces and to a lesser extent the Afghanis who assisted them. A more complete picture can be harnessed when viewing the situation through the lens of the neighbouring countries that have a much larger stake in the ongoing stability of the region: China, Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian countries* (‘Stans), as well as Russia and Qatar – the latter of which has been closely working with the Taliban over a number of years.
Twenty years, over two trillion US dollars, and over two hundred thousand lives lost, just to have the Taliban replaced with…the Taliban. United States’ imperial hubris has rarely been so stark for the whole world to see.
GHANI FLEES FROM KABUL
With the Taliban at the gates and attempting to negotiate a transfer of power from the US-installed government, then President Ashraf Ghani fled the capital with four cars full of cash to the quantum of US$169 million. The Taliban were happy – and have subsequently been – to work with any figure in the existing government except for Ghani, given his alleged full support for US interests. A power sharing agreement between both sides was refused by Ghani, prior to his escape with state funds. He was refused entry into both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, before landing in Oman and finishing in the United Arab Emirates.
Ghani’s government had long been accused of widespread corruption, and his popular support from citizens and even those within his own government had reduced to very low levels. Having been employed previously by the World Bank, it’s hard to find friends locally when you are running a neo-colony for the US empire – a situation all too familiar for many citizens of the global south.
ISIS-K: “a Tool of the US”
Fears of a terrorist attack by ISIS – recently described as a “tool of the US” by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai – at Kabul Airport put the military on high alert in the lead-up to the 31st August deadline. Fears became a reality on 26th August, when a suicide bomber launched an attack that killed at least 182 people, mainly Afghan citizens. The US responded with airstrikes against suspected organisers, however, there have been claims that more civilians were killed in the retaliatory strikes.
The Taliban’s ability to improve the security situation on the ground will be crucial if they are to avoid the worst-case scenario of the descent into yet another civil war.
THE EMPIRE BLEEDS THE REPUBLIC
Many commentators have been asking if the United States has anything to show for the enormous resources spent in their two-decade occupation, with estimates as high as two trillion US dollars being spent over this period. Afghanistan’s economy totals just US$20 million; meaning 100 times the value of the entire Afghan economy has been spent in maintaining the occupation. So where has this money gone? A cursory glance at the value of US weapons manufacturers’ shares tells an illuminating story. Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman share prices went up almost 1000 per cent over this period.
The US had a wide array of self-interested reasons to invade Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. The Taliban at the time – with only partial recognition internationally from Pakistan and the Saudis – were far friendlier with the likes of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations than they are today. The US’s stated aim for invasion was to remove the safe haven that Afghanistan provided to these organisations, notwithstanding the Taliban’s offer at the time to hand over Bin Laden to a Muslim country for proper trial, should the US provide evidence of his responsibility for the attack on the World Trade Centre. The US were also seeking to disrupt China’s western and Russia’s southern economic expansions respectively, which if successful would go a long way to maintaining their unipolar hegemony by preventing the rise of a Eurasian competitor. Improving the human rights situation for women and other oppressed groups was a smokescreen in an attempt to gain legitimacy for the ongoing occupation.
Fast forward to today, and the US’s failed imperial actions in Afghanistan mean there has been only one winner over this timeframe – the Military Industrial Complex.
SHANGHAI COOPERATION ORGANISATION AND REGIONAL SECURITY
The Taliban continue to be labelled as a terrorist organisation by many members of the international community – not just the Anglo-led West, but other independent countries such as Russia, whilst Iran has had a difficult history with the organisation themselves. But their relationship with the Taliban today is far more advanced than it was in the ’90s. Iran, for one, has been coordinating with the Taliban over the last decade in what they see as their responsibility to protect the Shia population of Afghanistan from the terrorist activities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Open lines of communication between Russia and the Taliban have now been ongoing for seven years.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – a Eurasian security cooperation dialogue currently made up of China, Russia, India, Pakistan and four of the Central Asian ’Stans* – is set to meet in September. There are talks that at this summit, Iran will enhance their observer status to full membership, and there is little doubt that the situation in Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda. The Taliban’s ability to stabilise the security environment of their country will be crucial in ensuring regional security for their neighbours.
The Taliban also need partners if they are going to avoid a complete economic breakdown, which would make internal security impossible, and especially in the wake of the US freezing the $US9.5 billion Afghanistan had in foreign reserves. These partnerships, primarily with the economic powerhouse of China, will only be possible if the Taliban are able to form an inclusive government that can represent the diverse set of interests within the country.
TALIBAN 2.0 AND THE PROMISE OF AN INCLUSIVE GOVERNMENT
In a press conference held shortly after the fall of the Ghani regime, the Taliban made a range of promises for the creation of an inclusive government. Former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, an Afghan politician who led the High Council for National Reconciliation, are in the process of conducting negotiations on the makeup of this government, neither being members of the Taliban. Afghanis are made up of a wide range of ethnic groups: the Pashtuns who make up the majority of Taliban members, are the largest group but are not an overall majority at just forty-two per cent of the population. Then there are Tajiks (twenty-seven per cent), Hazaras (nine per cent) – a Shia population that was previously oppressed under the earlier Taliban administration, Uzbeks (nine per cent), Aimaks (four per cent), Turkmen (three per cent), Balochs (two per cent), and many others. Women will also need to be included within the government if the Taliban are able to achieve much sought-after recognition and the international partnerships that may follow.
Whilst uncertainty remains, a number of positive statements and actions have taken place suggesting the Taliban have moderated considerably since the ’90s. Major differences from this time include women being able to work and go to school, only a Hijab being required as opposed to a Burqa (this is in line with Qatar and Iran), and all previous citizens that assisted the US-NATO occupation forces have been offered amnesty. Pictures have also emerged of Taliban officials attending a Shia Mosque and taking part in their religious ceremony, in what appears to be a sign of increased religious tolerance. It remains to be seen if the Taliban honour their commitments following international recognition.
RECONSTRUCTION AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES
Like all organisations, the Taliban is not monolithic – it is made up of individuals and groups who will not always see eye to eye. That being said, it’s clearly within their interest as a whole to form an inclusive government, that could lead to international recognition, which could then lead to international partners that would enable them to develop their economy, achieve internal stability and put an end to over four decades of warfare.
Afghanistan is home to some of the largest deposits of rare earth minerals – of note being their stores of lithium being the highest quantity in the world, a key mineral that will help drive the fourth industrial revolution. China has been in talks with the Taliban for a significant period now and is the prime country that they would want to partner with given the size of their economy, and their track record in promoting win-win cooperation with many countries across the global south. China is equally interested in a stable and secure Afghanistan, given the small border shared between their Northwest Xinjiang province, which up until four years ago had been a hotbed of terrorist activity.
It is within most people’s interests within the region for the security situation to stabilise, an inclusive government to form, human rights to be protected for all minorities, recognition and partnerships formed with anti-imperialist countries, and for the reconstruction of Afghanistan to begin in earnest. Only time will tell if this comes to pass, but the ending of US occupation of Afghanistan must be seen as a preliminary step towards peace.