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How and Why the Taliban Won

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The prominent philosopher Slavoj Zizek stated the question well at RT, on August 17th: The Taliban’s 80,000 troops have retaken Afghanistan with cities falling like dominos while the 300,000-strong government forces, better equipped and trained, mostly melted and surrendered with no will to fight. Why did it happen?

The Western media tell us there can be several explanations for that. …

However, all these explanations seem to avoid a basic fact that is traumatic for the liberal Western view. That is the Taliban’s disregard for survival and the readiness of its fighters to assume “martyrdom,” to die not just in a battle but even in suicidal acts.

He compared this to the Marxists who were willing to risk their lives in order to conquer the ruling aristocratic regime in Russia a hundred years ago and succeeded against enormous odds. But, then, Zizek said “it is doubtful that traditional Marxism can provide a convincing account of the success of Taliban.” Philosophers (including not only the anti-Marxist philosopher Zizek but Marx himself) always have been and are accustomed to contradicting themselves like that, without even noticing that they are. Even self-contradiction is accepted by them, because — as a profession — they have no consistent epistemological standard that they’re required to meet. Instead, Zizek blithely assumed that Russia’s Revolutionists hadn’t won for the very same reason the Taliban did — they were willing to die for their cause, while the opposing soldiers were not. He simply assumed that because the Taliban fought for a different god, they didn’t win for the same reason that those Marxist ‘atheists’ did.

However, the question still remains open, and must be addressed, in the most general sense:

Why did the Taliban win against the Americans in Afghanistan?

Why did the communists win against the Americans in Vietnam?

Why did the communists win against the capitalists in the Russian Revolution?

Why did the American Revolutionists win against the British Empire?

I shall here propose an answer to all of them, because that answer applies to all such cases, as I shall explain:

When an imperialistic society is as corrupt as Britain has been since the creation of the British East India Company in the year 1600, and as America has been since the end of World War II in 1945, with its takeover and control by the MIC (military-industrial complex), which has inevitably produced the cancerous growth of America’s permanent-warfare state, what, then, is a reason to continue living by remaining merely as a colonist or vassal-regime (or even as the imperialist regime itself), which means — when the imposed regime is so profoundly corrupt as any imperialist power necessarily is — to accept such corruption, as this? There’s something that is worse than dying, and it is to continue living under a regime that one utterly despises. That’s a dragged-out death, instead of a quick death. A regime which is as corrupt as any imperialistic regime inevitably is, will be intolerable for a significant number of the residents in any one of its vassal-nations or “colonies.” Death, for them, isn’t such a bad choice, if it means that they will go down fighting to overthrow it. They are driven by the motivation, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” This is a motivation that few, if any, of the imperialistic regime’s hired soldiers (regardless of whether conscripted or not) can match. And when they are foreigners who are fighting on a foreign soil (instead of locals who are defending their land’s own locally determined rulers), they especially and certainly cannot match such motivation, because only the locals can be fighting with a patriotic spirit. This is an intrinsic weakness in any  empire. And imperialist leaders tend to ignore it, because they don’t want to understand how repulsive they are to virtually anyone but their own boot-lickers.

Ultimately, the demoralization of a hired soldier’s continuing to place his very existence in jeopardy so as to continue the war to enslave and control the resisting local subject-population will mount high enough to produce self-contempt, desertion, and sometimes even suicide, in the oppressing power’s forces, especially if that’s a foreign power. No longer will the rationalizations (that “We are protecting the residents here”) be able to continue fooling the invading-force’s soldier, and the imposed stooge-regime’s soldier. They both (the foreign regime, and its imposed local stooge-government or colony) are there really in order to control the local subject-population; and, ultimately, enough of the oppressor’s forces will know this so as to cause the imposed stooge-government to become conquered by the indigenous residents there — people who will be remembered as heroes by the other residents there. This is an advantage which any revolutionists have, against the imposed regime.

This is the real  meaning of “martyrs,” in the deeper sense than merely of a religious type — it is instead of the patriotic type; it concerns the land, and not necessarily any religion, such as Christianity, Islam, or Marxism. Their loyalty is to Afghanistan; or it is to Vietnam; or it is to Russia; or it is to China; or (before America became imperialistic) it was to America. And so forth. It is to the local land, not to any dictators. It is to the country that the foreign invader’s forces are occupying. The invader’s forces and their imposed stooge-regimes can’t match this motivation.

Similarly, when the American invaders were conquered by the residents of Vietnam, the winners were the Vietnamese, not really the communists; and, in fact, the Marxist philosophy (or ‘religion’) subsequently has waned there. America, in Vietnam, as in Afghanistan, was the invader, in a land which had not invaded their own. That similar situation exists in Afghanistan. The Sauds had invaded America on 9/11, with the assistance of G.W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and perhaps others in the Administration. And so, the U.S.-imposed soldiers in Afghanistan couldn’t even possibly have been fighting against Afghanistan for any authentically patriotic real (factually true) reason, at all. Therefore, lies were constantly needed by the U.S. regime — not only against Iraq, but even against Afghanistan. (Furthermore, if Bush’s objective had really been to identify whom and how was actually behind the 9/11 attacks, then he would have pursued that at the U.N. Security Council and would have gotten unanimous backing for it, which would quickly have isolated and led to the destruction of Al Qaeda. It could all have been done without any war between nations, and also fully in accord with international law. To the extent that 9/11 was state-sponsored terrorism, it was actually being sponsored by the Governments of U.S. and Saudi Arabia. George W. Bush, who was buddy-close with the Sauds, used 9/11 as an excuse to trash both the U.S. Constitution and international law so as to hoist yet higher his own tyranny, his own power — not only internationally but also within his own nation. An imperialist would, of course, like to trash both, and to hoist his personal power as high as possible. And GWB had the boldness to do it, and — because America has been imperialistic ever since 1945 (i.e., international aggressions have been America’s culture since 1945) — he has been able to enjoy the success of getting away with doing it. However, everyone else, and especially outside America’s MIC, suffers from it.

What have the mere soldiers of invading and occupying imperialist powers actually earned by having placed their own lives at risk? Maybe a tombstone back home, in the country that had invaded and occupied that colony.

By contrast, even if a defending soldier has died as a hero among the locals in a failed revolution against the imperialist power, any tombstone will be unnecessary to be that person’s memorial, because the true memorial is in the heart, and in the mind, of the locals there, not in anything that is in the land of the invading foreign power.

And, so, I propose that the answer, to the question here, is that, whereas America’s Founders were waging war as heroes (because their war was just), today’s Americans are waging war as villains (because our wars are unjust — imperialistic aggressions, instead of heroic defenses against an aggressor). Between America’s founding and the present time, America has switched from doing war against military occupiers, to doing war as military occupiers.

And this, I maintain, is the reason why: “The Taliban’s 80,000 troops have retaken Afghanistan with cities falling like dominos while the 300,000-strong government forces, better equipped and trained, mostly melted and surrendered with no will to fight.”

What today’s Taliban are to today’s Afghanistan is therefore what the 1776 American Revolutionists were to the America of that era. It’s not the ideology; it is the love of that land there, which has motivated the residents’ forces to victory, against the forces of the invading-and-occupying foreign power. This can happen in any land, at any time.

America went into Vietnam focused on the “body counts.” That’s how stupid America’s imperialistic leaders were, back then. The only motivation they really understood was fear: “body counts.” They’ve evidently learned nothing since. That is how corrupt America is. 

Right now in America, the ‘debate’ about Afghanistan is about Joe Biden, who is basically irrelevant. He wanted to end America’s military occupation there, just as Trump did, and just as Obama did. He acted on it, whereas they did not — they didn’t want to be accused by their political opponents of having ‘lost Afghanistan on their watch’, but Biden was evidently willing to risk it. His only failure in the matter is that he kept lying to the American people (and probably also to himself) about how chaotic the evacuation would inevitably be, and about how collapsed Afghanistan is and has been ever since the Soviets invaded there in 1979. Throughout America’s imperialistic era, the U.S. Government has routinely been lying to the American people. Imperialism isn’t as bad for the imperialistic nation’s public as it is for the conquered land’s people, but it is very bad, even for them. The only people who benefit from it are the billionaires, who control companies such as Lockheed Martin, and ExxonMobil, and Amazon. Those are the people (the owners) who hire the leading politicians, including the members of Congress, and the Presidents, to spread their empire, and their control. They also hire the ‘journalists’ who shape their nation’s public to support these invasions and military occupations. The Government officials of an imperialistic regime represent not the nation’s public, but its aristocracy, who hire and appoint millions of the rest, the many agents (employees, etc.) of the few billionaires. The billionaires really control their country. After all: America is a thoroughly corrupt country, just as any imperialistic country is. (All imperialistic countries are controlled by their aristocracy. And every aristocracy is corrupt.) The public in Afghanistan have long known this fact about America — that it is corrupt. And this is the main reason why the Taliban now rule that country. They represent that land. Not this land. It’s a different culture, and a different place. To most Afghans, America represents only corruption. There is nothing unique about what is now happening in Afghanistan. It has been happening for thousands of years, and it’s just replaying an ancient script, but in that particular location.

However, instead, the U.S.-and-allied media are focusing on Biden’s bit part (which was always in a supporting role) in America’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. So, probably nothing will be learned from America’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, just as nothing was learned from America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and from America’s invasion and occupation of Vietnam, and from the many other such post-WW-II American foreign disasters. For America’s billionaires, these have all been great successes (very profitable); and, so, probably nothing that’s useful to the American people will be learned from history; and, instead, the myths will continue that have caused “The Military” to be either the highest-respected or the second-highest-respected of all of the 19 named institutions in America — the world’s permanent-warfare state. The American military wastes the most money and the most blood of any institution in America, but Americans nonetheless respect it enormously. That, too, is a mark of an imperialistic country. The way to control a public is to sustain the myths. U.S.-and-allied billionaires make sure that it is done — however much it costs.

As regards the future of Afghanistan itself: On August 19th, the most reliable geostrategic reporter and analyst, Alexander Mercouris, headlined at The Duran, “US Freezes Afghanistan Reserves, Threatens Economic Crisis. Russia Works to Establish New Government”, and he explained why the Taliban will either cooperate with Russia, China, and Iran, or else will degenerate yet further into a failed state, especially because the U.S. and its allies will do everything possible to strangle the fully looted Government of Afghanistan — the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. So: even after the U.S. and its allies have all left that land, the war against the people there will continue, in full force, from the same people, though with different methods.

PS: The philosopher Zizek headlined at RT on August 20th, “The true enemy for Islamists is not the West’s neocolonialism or military aggression, but our ‘immoral’ culture”, and he said “it was not neocons who boosted Islamic fundamentalism, this fundamentalism grew up in a reaction to the influence of Western liberal secularism and individualism.” He did not understand that though religious fundamentalists (including the Taliban) focus especially on sexual and gender issues, a person didn’t have to be at all religious in order to consider the financial and economic corruption of the imperialists and of their stooges to be disgusting. Americans didn’t invade and occupy Afghanistan in order to spread “liberal secularism and individualism,” but in order for U.S.-and-allied billionaires to expand their wealth, their empire, and their global control. Even if the Taliban and other religious persons might object only (or even just mainly) to the sexual and gender issues, a broader segment of the Afghan population were repelled by the rampant financial and economic corruption of the imperialists, and of their stooge-rulers. This was not a defeat for “secularism and individualism.” It was a rejection of imperialism — a rejection of it even by people who don’t understand what “imperialism” means.

Author’s note: first posted at Strategic Culture

Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010

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Afghanistan: Hazaras in danger of extinction

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As reported on August 30, 2021, Taliban shot dead 14 people belonging to the Hazara community in Khadir District of Afghanistan’s Daykundi Province. Among those killed are 12 soldiers, who reportedly surrendered, and two civilians.

Earlier in between July 4-5, Taliban tortured and killed nine men of the Hazara community and looted their homes in Mundarakht village of Malistan District in Ghazni province. Reportedly, six Hazara men were shot while three of them were tortured to death. The entire episode was part of a ‘door-to-door’ killing operation as orchestrated by Taliban.

On May 8, 2021, explosions outside Syed Al-Shahda school for girls in Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul, killed at least 68 people and wounded over 165. The majority of victims are girls attending school. The attack targeted Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazaras who live in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood.

The Taliban are yet to spell out finer details of how they will impose the Sharia law in Afghanistan. Interestingly, on August 17, Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid said that Afghanistan’s new government would be “inclusive.” On the same day, Taliban officials visited a Hazara neighborhood and attended a Shiite mourning ceremony for the death of Hussein ibn Ali, the third imam of Shiites and the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. But, on August 18, 2021, sadly, after ‘coming to power’, the Taliban forces destroyed the statue of prominent Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Bamiyan. Mazari was tortured and killed by the previous Taliban regime in 1995.

Comprising roughly 10-20 percent of Afghanistan’s 38 million population, Hazaras speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi dialect) called Hazaragi and the vast majority follow the Shia sect (Twelver Imami) of Islam. A significant number are also followers of the Ismaili sect. Hazaras have long been persecuted for their largely Shia faith in a country racked by deep ethnic divisions. Their distinct features make them easy prey for Sunni hardliners, both Taliban and the Islamic State, (IS) that consider them “infidels”. The Hazaras are also accused of being too closely allied to Shia Iran, and tens of thousands have moved over the years as economic migrants to work mostly menial jobs.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: UNAMA’s “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Midyear Update: 1 January to 30 June 2021”, suggests that in total, 20 incidents targeting Shia/Hazara, resulted in 500 civilian casualties (143 killed and 357 injured). The report also states:

…a resurgence of deliberate sectarian motivated attacks against the Shi’a Muslim religious minority, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic minority, nearly all claimed by ISIL-KP. These included a string of non-suicide IED attacks and shootings, including at least eight IEDs in May-June alone that targeted buses or similar vehicles carrying members of the Hazara community…

Reportedly, a large number of Hazaras live in Hazarajat (or Hazarestan),’ land of the Hazara’, which is situated in the rugged central mountainous core of Afghanistan, in the Bamiyan province and in cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. With others living in the Badakhshan province. Many Hazaras settled in western Turkestan, in Jowzjan and Badghis provinces. Ismaili Hazaras, a smaller religiously differentiated group of Hazaras, live in the Hindu Kush Mountain region.

Hazaras in Afghanistan have faced decades of abuse and state-sponsored discrimination, most recently under the Taliban regime between 1996-2001. Hazaras have been singled out for killings, beheadings, suicide bomb attacks, and kidnappings. They have been targeted at weddings, schools, mosques, sports clubs, and even at births.

As reported on September 1, the killing of Hazaras, are a tiny fraction of the total death toll inflicted by the Taliban to date, as the group had cut mobile phone service in many of the recently captured areas, efficiently controlling which photographs and videos are then shared from these regions. Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara political leader, told she had proof of more atrocities but could not share the details, as it might endanger surviving eyewitnesses. Sarabi was the first female Governor of Afghanistan (in Bamiyan Province) and one of four women representing Afghanistan in the negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar. Unfortunately, soon after the interview, Sarabi sent a link to a short, grainy video, which showed two Taliban militants. Speaking into the camera, one of them said they are waiting for permission from their leaders to “eliminate” all Hazaras living in Afghanistan.

More worryingly, over a period of time, out of the dire necessity of self defence and mistrust over government and administration, many Hazaras have either formed or joined armed militias to counter radical forces operating within Afghanistan. One of the examples is that of Zulfiqar Omid, a former lawmaker turned resistance leader. He has reportedly established an armed Hazara resistance in Central Afghanistan, comprising some 800 regular fighters and 5,000 volunteers. Abdul Khani Alipur, is another such militia leader from Maidan Wardak province. As reported on July 13, 2021, his militia boasted of patrolling roads and launching brazen raids on Taliban areas to abduct the relatives of militants, later used as bargaining chips to release Hazara hostages. Such developments would only bring more bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Further, the Hazaras have also taken refuge in Pakistan since many decades, due to violence meted against them. As reported on September 1, 2021, up to 6,000 refugees, among them many Hazaras, have already made their way to Quetta, Balochistan in Pakistan, a city with a sizeable Hazara community. But unfortunately, Pakistan also has a history of frequent attacks on the minority Hazara community, due to the exact same reasons of their different religious and ethnic identities, as in the case of Afghanistan. According to the 2019 report of Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, about 509 Hazaras were killed since the year 2013. Moreover, according to partial data collated by South Asia Terrorism Portal, since 2001, 386 Hazaras have been killed, 480 injured in 80 incidents in Pakistan. Therefore, the danger of death and persecution doesn’t end when these people take refuge in Pakistan.

The Hazaras are victim of a double-edged sword of religious and ethnic differences, causing their death in Afghanistan. The Taliban ‘takeover’ of the political structure of the country can only ensure one thing vis-à-vis the Hazara population- their absolute annihilation. They will either die or flee the country in whatsoever means. The practice of ‘othering’, as preached by the militant Islamist groups, be it a religious minority, or a woman, or non-Pashtun person, would cause harm to the Hazara community. Along with the Taliban, other terror groups of IS, Al Qaeda and their various affiliates are definitely going to have their own game plan for Afghanistan, of which ‘persecution of Hazaras’ be an important constituent.

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Why the Taliban Had to Change

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The fall of Kabul to the Taliban, pre-negotiated with the US in Doha, Qatar, has launched yet another fruitless enterprise, as fruitless as the US effort to keep Afghanistan under its own control: all sorts of IR scholars, pundits, and journalists, in all sorts of specialized and unspecialized publications in the US and Europe, are trying to prove that the 2021 version of the Taliban has not changed in comparison to the version of the Taliban which seized control of Afghanistan in 1996 and that they will again make Afghanistan a cradle for all kinds of terrorists. If they use facts rather than hollow phrases, they commonly seek a confirmation of this thesis in the names of the 2021 Taliban leaders appointed to the interim government, the names which are not particularly different from those of the Taliban who governed the country from 1996.

Yet, all these would-be experts have somehow failed to notice that the times have changed, and so has the geopolitical environment in which the whole overturn took place. Indeed, how can the Taliban remain the same, if the entire world has changed so profoundly, comparing the year of 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown by the US forces, with the year of 2021, when the US forces withdrew before the Taliban’s advance?  No matter how rigid they are in their faith as a religious movement, the Taliban as a political organization had no choice but to adapt to the tide of change, if they wanted to seize and exercise power in a changed geopolitical context.

There are many symbolic signs of this new context which are directly linked to the second arrival of the Taliban. First, both the Taliban and the US sat down to negotiate the withdrawal of the US forces and transfer of power to the Taliban, which signals that the US is no longer the same hegemonic power that refuse to ‘negotiate with the terrorists’, as the Taliban were characterized by the US diplomacy for so many years. Second, the Taliban have adopted a different political philosophy, which gives precedence to diplomatic – rather than military – means, whenever the former proves more efficient. Third, the negotiations took place in Qatar, a country that used to be the most isolated among the Arab countries due to its alliance with Iran, which shows that the Americans have accepted not only Qataris, but also Iranians, as mediators and potential partners. Fourth, despite their ambiguous relations and deep ideological differences, Iranians have also accepted the Taliban as a potential partner, which is also mirrored in the fact that their only Arab ally, Qatar, played the role of the mediator and host to the US-Taliban negotiations. Fifth, China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan did not close their diplomatic missions in Kabul after its takeover by the Taliban, which demonstrates that two global and two regional powers intend to cooperate with the Taliban-led government; moreover, that these four powers asses that they can benefit from such cooperation and accept the Taliban as a relevant regional partner of potential strategic significance. Therefore, at the very least, the Taliban are not going to be so isolated as they were during their first incarnation, which will certainly open them up, for the first time, to various foreign policy options.

However, there is one important question that is rarely posed by those who pretend to write and speak about the Taliban. This question is the most basic one: who are, in fact, the Taliban and who actually created them? In a recent interview, the former National Security Advisor to the US President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, proudly admitted that the US intelligence agencies inserted a number of Islamist fighters’ cells into Afghanistan by the end of the 1970s, with the task to penetrate the territory of the then Soviet Union and perform military actions, so as to provoke the Soviet regime to invade Afghanistan. The idea was to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam-like catastrophe and thus bring the communist empire to a collapse. As we all know, the Soviets had fallen into that trap and the rest is history: they were eventually defeated and expelled by the well-organized Islamist fighters, better prepared for a guerrilla war than the Soviet army. However, no matter how Brzezinski now prides himself for this idea, it is well-known that its execution and implementation were in more than 90% left to a non-American agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, the country that was the most faithful British and American ally at the time. In an exceptional analysis Forever Friends? Pakistan and the Taliban Still Need Each Other, written by Zahid Shahab Ahmed and published in the National Interest, we can see it clearly:

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Washington approached Islamabad to become its frontline ally in a proxy war against the Soviets. During the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989), thousands of mujahideen were recruited from around the world and trained in Pakistan, and then deployed into Afghanistan. In addition to receiving billions in economic and military assistance from the United States, Pakistan expanded its influence in Afghanistan through close relations with the Afghan mujahideen as they later united into the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1994, Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the Taliban with fifty students in Kandahar. By 1995, the group’s control increased to twelve provinces and its size to 25,000 fighters. Due to its quick territorial gains, the Taliban managed to seize control of most of the country and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996. To date, their first takeover of Kabul is attributed to Pakistan’s strong backing.

Therefore, the Taliban’s recruitment from among the Afghani and Pakistani Pashtuns and their military training for guerrilla warfare and religious indoctrination with the mixture of Pakistani Deobandi and Saudi Wahhabi Islam are to be treated as a special intelligence operation conducted by the ISI, and the same may be applied to their military victory. Of course, this operation would not have been viable without adequate coverage by the American CIA and British MI6, and assistance by Saudi Arabia’s GID (General Intelligence Directorate). Thus the Taliban and their hybrid ideology were created for a particular purpose and their heavy-handed policies upon the seizure of power also served a particular geopolitical agenda. It would go beyond the scope of this article to analyse in detail what this agenda was or might have been. Let us only notice that the Taliban in those times prepared the ground, both ideologically and literally, to legitimize the future American ‘War on Terror’, which has brought 20 years of continuous instability to the central part of Eurasia. In other words, there is no reason to look at the Taliban as a genuine occurrence – they had been created as a proxy and were left with no option but to remain a proxy. Whose proxy, that is the only question.

There is no doubt that the second arrival of the Taliban has been prepared and backed, again, by the ISI and Pakistan. On the operative level, the Taliban have clearly remained Pakistan’s proxy. However, in the meantime, Pakistan has totally changed its geopolitical orientation and switched loyalties. Initially created by the British Empire through religious partition of the post-colonial India to enable continuous Anglo-American control of the heart of Eurasia, Pakistan found itself abandoned and cornered by its former sponsors and allies, when they invested their capital and geopolitical weight in the strengthening and rise of its archenemy, Hindu-controlled India. Of course, this was not the first time that the British-American axis supported India against Pakistan, just as they were supporting Pakistan against India. However, this time it happened in the context of the rise of the most extreme form of religious nationalism promoted by the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, designed to eliminate Muslims as a constituent part of the Indian nation for good, which would force Pakistan to enter yet another conflict with India over a definite line of Muslim-Hindu separation. Ostensibly, it was a rational calculation by the British and Americans, to support instant economic rise of India and foster a redesign of Indian policy towards extreme, religiously based nationalism, so as to make India capable and willing to confront China, as India’s old and their new geopolitical adversary. However, such a tricky game has only pushed Pakistan to turn towards China as a potential ally and geopolitical patron. Thus the British and Americans have eventually pushed Pakistan away and lost their most faithful ally, and China has been delivered an entirely new leverage to fundamentally change the geopolitical balance in Eurasia.      

With Pakistan under the US-UK patronage and Afghanistan under American control, China had a huge problem to secure its most important strategic project, the Belt and Road Initiative, in particular its China/Pakistan and China/Central Asia/West Asia Corridors. Also, the direct access of the Anglo-American intelligence agencies to the very borderland of China, through their stronghold in Afghanistan and the porous borders of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics, made it possible to instigate China’s own ‘Muslim problem’ in the form of the Islamist radicalization of Uighurs in Xinjiang. This, predictably, provoked the Chinese regime to respond in an extremely oppressive manner, which almost put in question its relations with the entire Islamic world, especially the countries of Central Asia, thereby undermining the prospects for their participation in the Belt and Road Initiative. As this problem proved to be too difficult to solve on the internal level, China’s imperative was to take Afghanistan out of the American control and reverse this trend that gravely threatened Chinese strategic interests. In these circumstances, Pakistan’s well-known proxy, the Taliban, appeared on the horizon as the best suited instrument for that purpose. In this context, it is not difficult to imagine why the Taliban were so quickly and efficiently restored by the ISI and why they suddenly became so politically pragmatic and militarily strong.

So, the Taliban’s 2021 takeover was also decisively supported by Pakistan, as it had been the one in 1996. However, this time it has all happened in a totally different geopolitical environment, with Pakistan under China’s geopolitical umbrella, which implies a totally different geopolitical orientation on Pakistan’s, as well as the Taliban’s, part. Instead of serving the goals of Halford Mackinder’s doctrine of permanent destabilization of Eurasia, so as to secure British-American control over the world’s sea-trade routes, now Pakistan and its proxies have become open to promoting the opposite geopolitical agenda, the Chinese doctrine of building Eurasian land-trade infrastructure as an alternative to the Anglo-American hegemony over sea-trade routes. Such a doctrine, embodied in the Belt and Road Initiative, requires a long-lasting stabilization of the Eurasian geopolitical space, and Afghanistan occupies a strategic place within this constellation.       

Of course, most the Chinese officials could do in their public activities was to keep the embassy in Kabul open, recognize the Taliban, and send their Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, to meet the Taliban delegation in Tianjin. On their part, the Taliban described China as a ‘friendly country’ and invited it to participate in reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, guaranteeing the safety of Chinese investments. However, there is no need to make vain guesses about whether the new version of the Taliban will really prevent various Islamist militant groups to penetrate China’s territory, as well as the territory of the post-Soviet Central Asian republics: this time, the Taliban have been resurrected and installed as a watchdog, to serve no other than this very purpose, so as to eventually make Afghanistan a part of a potential strategic alliance of China, Pakistan, and Iran. All in accordance with the Chinese strategic vision to make the Eurasian land-mass stable for transcontinental development of infrastructure, trade, and industry, designed to lead to economic, and eventually political, unification of the Eurasian continent.

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Initial Taliban moves fail to convince Afghanistan’s neighbours

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The Taliban’s record in recent weeks on making good on promises to respect human and women’s rights as well as uphold freedom of the press is mixed at best. Afghanistan’s neighbours and near-neighbours are not holding their breath even if some are willing to give the Central Asian country’s new rulers the benefit of the doubt.

A litmus test of Taliban willingness to compromise may come sooner than later.

It’s most likely only a matter of time before China knocks on newly appointed Afghan acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani’s door demanding the extradition of Uighur fighters.

The Chinese demand would be challenging not only because of the Taliban’s consistent rejection, no matter the cost, of requests for the expulsion of militants who have helped them in their battles.

The Taliban already made that clear two decades ago when they accepted the risk of a US invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 by refusing for the umpteenth time to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. There is little in Taliban 2.0 that suggests that this has changed.

If Haneef Atamar, the foreign minister in the US-backed Afghan government of former president Ashraf Ghani, is to be believed, Uighurs, including one-time fighters in Syria, contributed significantly to the Taliban’s most recent battlefield successes in northern Afghanistan.

A demand to extradite Uighurs to China would also be challenging because Mr Haqqani himself, the Afghan official in charge of internal security, is a wanted man with a $5 million US bounty on his head. Moreover, the United Nations has sanctioned Mr Haqqani’s prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, and several other members of the caretaker government.

“It’s hard to see a wanted man turning over someone who is wanted for similar reasons,” said a Western diplomat.

Moreover, honouring extradition requests could threaten unity within the Taliban’s ranks. “Taliban actions against foreign jihadist groups to appease neighbouring countries would be especially controversial, because there is quite a widespread sense of solidarity and comradeship with those who fought alongside the Taliban for so long,” said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Unanswered is the question of whether China would go along with what seems to be an unspoken international consensus that it may be best not to seek extraditions if the Taliban keep their word and prevent militants from striking at targets beyond Afghanistan.

Counterterrorism experts and diplomats argue that if forced, the Taliban would quietly let foreign militants leave their country rather than hand them over. That would make it difficult to monitor these individuals.

China has in recent years successfully demanded the extradition of its Turkish Muslim citizens from countries like Egypt, Malaysia, and Thailand and has pressured many more to do so even though they were not suspected of being foreign fighters and/or members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The United Nations Security Council has designated TIP’s predecessor, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation.

There is little reason to assume that China would make Afghanistan, a refuge from Syria for Uighur fighters, the exception. 

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made that clear when he hinted at possible extradition requests during talks in July in China with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and the new government’s first deputy prime minister. Mr Wang demanded that the Taliban break relations with all militant groups and take resolute action against the TIP.

Moreover, the Taliban may have destroyed any chance of Chinese reliance on them by demonstrating early on that they and the international community may be speaking different languages even if they use the same words.

The Taliban made clear that their definition of inclusivity, a term the group and the international community, including China, Russia and India, appeared to agree on, was very different. The Taliban formed an overwhelming ethnic, all-male government that was anything but inclusive by the universally agreed meaning of the word.

Similarly, Mr Haqqani and his colleagues, including Qari Fasihuddin Badakhshani, the Afghan military’s new Taliban chief of staff, a Tajik and one of only three non-Pashtuns in the new 33-member government structure, is believed to have close ties to Uighur, Pakistani and other militants

As a result, they are likely to be equally reticent about entertaining Chinese-backed Pakistan requests for the transfer of members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban.

The TTP is a coalition of Pashtun Islamist groups with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that last year joined forces with several other militant Pakistani groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violently anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim supremacist organization. 

Hazara Shiites, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population were not included in the newly appointed Afghan government even though the Taliban made a point of last month protecting Shiite religious celebrations. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s notion of inclusivity has already troubled relations with Iran and could persuade the Islamic republic to covertly support resistance to the group’s rule.

China fears that the fallout of the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan could affect China beyond Afghanistan’s borders, perhaps no more so than in Pakistan, a major focus of the People’s Republic’s single largest Belt-and Road (BRI)-related investment.

The killing in July of nine Chinese nationals in an attack on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan raised the spectre of Afghanistan-based religious militants jihadists targeting China. Until now, it was mainly Baloch nationalists who targeted the Chinese in Pakistan.

The attack occurred amid fears that the Taliban victory would bolster ultra-conservative religious sentiment in Pakistan where many celebrated the group’s success in the hope that it would boost chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.

“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.

Indicating concern in Beijing, China has delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated the implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of the People’s Republic’s transportation, telecommunications and energy-driven BRI.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently kept the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP ambiguous.

“The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response,” Mr Mujahid said during an interview on a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

Afghan sources suggest that the Taliban advised the TTP to restrict their fight to Pakistani soil and have offered to negotiate with the Pakistan government an amnesty and the return of the Pakistani militants to the South Asian nation.   

Uncertainty about where the Taliban may be taking Afghanistan has also cast a shadow over Indian hopes that the Iranian port of Chabahar would facilitate trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia and counterbalance the Chinese-supported Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Eager to maintain leverage in its relations with Pakistan as well as China, Taliban official Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai chose his words carefully by stressing that economics should be at the centre of Afghan-Indian relations. “We give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard,” Mr Stanekzai said.

Mr. Stanekzai’s business-focused approach coupled with the pressure on Taliban to police militants on Afghan soil, some of whom have attacked India in the past, dovetails with Islamic scholars in the Deobandi alma mater in the Uttar Pradesh town of Deoband stressing the divide between themselves and their Afghan and Pakistani brethren. 

The Indian Deobandi posture created an opportunity that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to grasp to involve them in India’s backchannel and direct contacts with the Taliban. India invested US$3 billion over the last 20 years in building Afghan roads, girls’ schools and health clinics. Mr. Stanekzai’s remarks indicate that the Taliban would like India to continue its investments in the country.

The Taliban as well as a significant number of Pakistani ultra-conservatives root their worldview in Deobandism, a strand of Islam that emerged in India in the mid-19th century to oppose British colonial rule by propagating an austere interpretation of the faith. Deobandism became prevalent among Pashtuns even if Deobandis in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India went their separate ways after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Arshad Madani, the principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, the original Deobandi madrassa established in 1886, recently welcomed a decision by India’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) to set up a training centre in Deoband.

“There is nothing wrong with what we teach, and we welcome the ATS staff to be a part of our classes whenever they like,” Mr. Madani said. A spokesman for the madrassa added that “we are a religious school, but we are also Indians. To doubt our integrity every time the Taliban spread terror is shameful.”

Mr. Madani’s posture should serve as an incentive for the Modi government to work with Indian Deobandis in the hope that the Taliban may be more willing to listen to religious figures with whom they share a history.

Mr. Madani has never had contact with the Taliban nor has he ever visited Afghanistan. “I’m weak and old,” says the 80-year-old cleric. “But if given the chance, I would go to Afghanistan.”

Author’s note: This article was first published by the China India Brief of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation

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