The Guardian • Issue #1979

Afghanistan: what’s next?

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1979

Taliban celebrate victory after US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

The commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York focused on the close to 3000 people who lost their lives. Little was said about the horrendous consequences of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the tens of thousands of Afghan lives that were lost, and the wreckage and chaos that was left behind following the hasty withdrawal by US and allied troops, including Australian forces, at the end of August.

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 claiming the aim was to fight a war on terrorism. It exited after twenty years, leaving the country facing economic collapse and a social crisis of potentially catastrophic proportions due to COVID-19, lack of food resulting from drought, and the return of the Taliban to power. The UN World Food Program has made an urgent appeal to raise US$200 million to fund its work there.

In a speech attempting to counter criticisms of the bungled military withdrawal 31st August, US President Joe Biden claimed, “The terror threat has metastasised across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from al-Shabaab in Somalia; al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia.” The US’s “war on terror” has spurred terrorism. The original “war on terrorism” against al-Qaeda saw the number of terrorist organisations surge from single digit to more than twenty.

“But I also know that the threat from terrorism continues in its pernicious and evil nature. But it’s changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change too,” Biden said.

“We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground – or very few, if needed.”

When George W Bush launched the war, he trumpeted that the Taliban would “pay a price” for harbouring al-Qaeda terrorists and promised that “the oppressed people of Afghanistan” under Taliban rule “will know the generosity of America and our allies.”

That “generosity” turned out to be twenty years of war; at least 47,000 civilians killed; with the fighting over but unexploded ordnance continuing to kill and maim civilians, in many cases children. An already poor country has been left even more destitute, lacking clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, and almost half the population facing starvation due to drought.

Almost six million Afghans have been displaced internally or have fled the country since the outbreak of the war.

Ding Long, writing in the Global Times aptly summed up the situation: “The US has been a destroyer instead of a builder. They occupied the country, not to rebuild it, but purely for hegemony and geopolitical ambitions. The US occupation did nothing to help Afghanistan with infrastructure, agriculture and industry, but increased its economic dependence, fostering a dysfunctional economy reliant on external aid and rife with clientelism, nepotism and corruption.”

LEGACY

The war has also come at a huge cost to the American people, as well as its allies. The number of US soldiers who lost their lives is 2,461. A further 20,589 among the more than 775,000 US troops deployed there were injured. Today thousands of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress, their lives destroyed, and on average eighteen veterans die by suicide every day in the US. In Australia veterans are also suiciding and having difficulties coping with civilian life.

In cold dollar terms the US administration has spent an estimated US$2.3 trillion (AU$3.13 trillion) – money that could have been better spent on healthcare, housing, education, and foreign aid.

The US’s parting gift to the Taliban, left behind as it made its hurried exit, was 75,000 vehicles, more than 200 airplanes and helicopters, 699,000 small arms and light weapons, as well as night vision goggles and body armour. The arsenal includes Black Hawks, ScanEagles, Humvees, and carbines. Value: an estimated US$85 billion (AU$116 billion). (Congressman Jim Banks R-Indiana). In other words, one of the legacies of the US is a well-equipped, Islamic fundamentalist military force with a history of terrorism as the new government, and a war-torn country in chaos on the verge of economic collapse and mass starvation.

WINNERS

But the Taliban weren’t the only victors. The military industrial complex in the US made a killing, both figuratively and literally.

The inflated profits of armament manufacturers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics saw the share prices of these companies increase by a factor of ten times or more during the war. And no doubt are set to soar even higher as the US continues its attempts to impose “human rights” and “democracy” in pursuit of global domination.

With the Taliban in possession of more materiel than many nations, the Pentagon will surely be looking to make more orders to replace what it has lost in the fighting and left to the Taliban.

The drug cartels also had a win. The UN estimated Afghanistan’s opium production at 6,300 tons in 2020, restoring its position as the world’s leading source of opium poppies. Prior to the US’ invasion, under Taliban rule, the crop had almost been wiped out. With the economy in such a parlous state, so many people living in poverty and struggling for survival, there is an incentive to continue the production of opium if international aid is not forthcoming.

THE NEW TALIBAN

The Taliban are known for their oppressive rule and violent methods. They ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 until the US occupation. Under Taliban rule, religious minorities and other Muslims who did not share their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam were not tolerated. The Taliban severely restricted the rights of women and girls, and punishment for such crimes as adultery or theft was brutal.

Following its takeover of the country culminating in the rapid seizure of Kabul last month, the Taliban declared that it had changed, that it would be more moderate and inclusive of different ethnic groups. That it would not harbour terrorists. That it would rebuild the country for the benefit of its people. At the same time, it made clear that its interpretation of Sunni Islam, based on the strict fundamentalist Deobandi school, would be enforced across the country. This is the same interpretation that it adhered to between 1996 and 2001.

It has already indicated that women and girls will not be allowed to play sport. While it says girls will be allowed to go to school and receive an education, just what this education will be has not been indicated. Segregation of girls and boys will remain. Likewise strict rules will remain for women outside and inside the home.

Just how moderate and inclusive it will be remains to be seen.

EMIRATE

The Taliban declared the country to be the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” The term “emirate” is highly significant. It means that a religious leader or an emir will be the top authority and governance will be based on the Taliban’s strict ideological interpretation of Islam – in this instance the Deobandi school. These teachings impact on almost everything in daily life from the home, how people should dress, to the segregation of men and women in public spaces, the treatment of women and girls, daily prayer requirements, and dietary laws.

The Taliban quickly set about appointing an interim government of thirty-three men, with all but three coming from one ethnic group – the Pashtuns. Two are Tajik, and one is Uzbek. There are no representatives of the Hazara community or any other ethnic groups, or women.

In line with its declaration of being an emirate, it anointed Mullah Hasan Akhund as acting Prime Minister. He presently remains on a UN sanctions list which may create problems when it comes to Afghanistan being recognised by the international community. Akhund is a longstanding head of the Taliban’s powerful decision-making body Rehbari Shura (Supreme Council). He previously served as Foreign Minister and then Deputy Prime Minister during the Taliban’s rule from 1996-2001 and was a leading commander.

Four of the acting leaders were held by the US in Guantánamo Bay until they were traded for captured US soldier Bowe Bergdahi in 2014 by the Obama administration: Abdul Haq Wasiq is acting director of intelligence; Mullah Noorullah Noori is acting minister of borders and tribal affairs; Mullah Mohammad Fazil is deputy defence minister; and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhah is acting minister of information and culture. They all participated in the talks with the US held in Doha last year.

According to the Guantánamo Files, published by WikiLeaks, Wasiq “arranged for Al-Qaeda personnel to train Taliban intelligence staff in intelligence methods.” He was also reported to be “an Al-Qaeda intelligence member.” WikiLeaks also revealed that Noori was wanted “for possible war crimes including the murder of thousands of Shiite Muslims.”

Acting Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani is wanted by the FBI, with a US$5 million bounty on this head. “We also are concerned by the affiliations and track records of some of the individuals,” a US State Department spokesperson said following the naming of the interim government. US imperialism does, as far as its strategic and economic interests are concerned have a lot to be worried about but not just the US.

The Taliban government needs international recognition and economic support to prevent a complete collapse of the economy. It may well adopt a moderate stance to gain that support and develop international relations with the West as well as its neighbours. As for the longer term, will it rule the country differently? That remains to be seen.

In an exclusive interview, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Global Times that there is no place for anyone to use Afghanistan against other countries, including its neighbouring countries.

REFUGEES

The UN has warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee by the end of the year. The number will in part depend on the Taliban and neighbouring countries being able to securely close borders.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already fled the country in search of safety, and many continue to do so. They include minority groups; interpreters and support personnel (collaborators) previously employed by the US and its allies; former government officials installed by the US; and many others who fear for their safety under the Taliban. There are also economic refugees, fleeing poverty.

This new flood of refugees creates problems for Afghanistan’s neighbours and beyond. Many of those fleeing are currently exiting via Pakistan with a view to venturing beyond. Turkey is one such destination. It already harbours close to five million refugees, including around 3.7 million Syrians. It was actively involved in the training and arming of Uygur and other mercenaries to fight in Syria against the government there. It does not want any more refugees. The EU is another destination. It is already attempting to deal with an influx of refugees.

US STRATEGIC INTERESTS

Pakistan has very close links with the Taliban, to the point where it could be said their victory is in part owed to Pakistan’s role in training and equipping the terrorist group’s forces. Pakistan has harboured Taliban members, it largely shares the same Islamic ideology, and reportedly still acts as a patron of the “new” Taliban. It has a long, relatively porous border with Afghanistan, considered to be dangerous with disputed demarcation lines between the two countries.

The border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan is tightly guarded by Uzbekistan whose government has installed fortifications along it. The Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is notorious for drug running.

Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and China are of strategic interest to US imperialism. The US sees Iran, Syria, Russia, and China as barriers to its global domination.

THREAT TO CHINA

The border with China runs alongside China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region which has a large Muslim population of ethnic Uygurs. China now keeps the border tightly closed. The US has made efforts to spread religious extremism among the Uyghur. A previous period of upheaval had been settled with huge investments in education and jobs to bring employment and stability to the region.

Officials from China’s foreign ministry told a press conference as recently as July that China still faces the threat of terrorism, especially from the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorist organisation. The ministry said that ETIM releases terrorist audios and videos online abroad, propagates terrorist ideology, teaches the use of weapons and explosives, and constantly sends its trainees into China to plan and carry out terrorist activities. The group has been responsible for hundreds of terrorist attacks since it was founded and still poses a threat to China.

The UN Security Council has listed ETIM as a terrorist organisation and imposed sanctions against it. But it is worrying that late last year the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the revocation of a previous decision by the US that designated ETIM as a terrorist organisation.

Wu Xin from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s counterterrorism bureau described ETIM as an international terrorist organisation with the capability of conducting transnational terrorist activities, which seriously threatens the security and stability of China and relevant countries and regions.

The Taliban has said there is no place for anyone to use Afghanistan against other counties, including its neighbouring countries.

RARE EARTHS

Apart from Afghanistan’s strategic location, the US has an interest in the country’s resources – copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum, marble, and most importantly lithium. It may have the largest ever discovered deposits of lithium. Its rare earth metals alone are estimated to be worth between one and three trillion US dollars.

Lithium is a key ingredient in the transition to renewable energy. It is used in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras, and electric vehicles, and in some non-rechargeable batteries for things like heart pacemakers, toys and clocks. It is integral to so many technologies, and thus in high demand but limited known reserves.

The US’s defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan has the potential to cost US corporations billions of dollars as they shut shop, no longer enjoying the protection of US military forces. The US now hungers after Afghanistan’s lithium, but it may have left its run too late.

China has had a memorandum of understanding with the Taliban on mining industry cooperation dating back to 2009. It has a number of current projects in mining and oil, and other investments in communications and road construction. It already has established trade relations and the capacity to assist with agriculture and infrastructure development. China’s non-interference in internal affairs in dealings with developing countries stands it in good stead for future participation in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Russia is also well placed to do business with the Taliban.

The US and its allies have a moral responsibility to make an urgent and major contribution to the rebuilding of Afghanistan and to do so in the interests of the Afghan people.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENT

Foreign ministers from the six countries bordering Afghanistan – Pakistan, China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – held an important meeting to discuss Afghanistan on 8th September at the initiative of Pakistan. They issued a joint statement noting that with the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan must determine their own future, which should be an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process for national peace and reconciliation.

They said that events had proven a military solution was not possible and emphasised the importance of an inclusive political structure in Afghanistan with the participation of all ethnic groups.

They called for the relevant members of the UN Security Council to take responsibility for peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan by supporting Afghanistan in developing its social and economic infrastructure and providing the people of Afghanistan with vital economic and humanitarian assistance. “The international community should not abandon the people of Afghanistan,” the statement said.

It also expressed support for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and non-interference in its internal affairs, and noted that the future of Afghanistan should be determined by its people, in accordance with the provisions of the UN Charter.

The meeting stressed the necessity of forming an open, inclusive governmental structure; which practices moderate and sound internal and external policies; adopts friendly policies towards neighbours of Afghanistan; achieves the shared goals of durable peace, security, safety, and long-term prosperity; and respects the fundamental human rights including those of ethnic groups, women, and children.

On the question of terrorist organisations, it said that they should not be allowed to maintain a foothold on Afghanistan’s territory.

They made a commitment to provide medical supplies as well as technical and other assistance to the people of Afghanistan’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

Importantly they stressed the need to stop narcotic drugs production in Afghanistan which had increased over the past twenty years causing serious harm to the people of Afghanistan and the international community.

The question of economic integration into the world economy and socio-economic development was also discussed along with the necessity of international organisations to provide the necessary support for their practical implementation.

AFTERMATH

The US has not only caused death, devastation, and destruction on a massive scale but experienced humiliating defeat in the eyes of the international community. It has not given up on Afghanistan which remains of strategic and economic interest. It is now looking at other means of achieving its goals.

As Biden said following the US’s official departure from Afghanistan, the “war on terror” will continue in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but by other means. It should also be noted that the US has not completely withdrawn all its operatives.

Afghanistan remains of particular interest with its border with Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region of China. In line with former President Obama’s pivot to Asia, the US is also focused on the South China Sea and Taiwan as another point of attack.

The stability of Afghanistan and the willingness and ability of the Taliban to remove all terrorist groups from its territory will be critical to the future stability of the region and of great importance to China in particular.

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