Author: Kenan ROVSHANOGHLU
As expected, the withdrawal of the American troops from Afghanistan has intensified the Taliban movement in the country. Again, such a turnout of events has been expected as early as since February 29, 2020, when the US government and the Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha, Qatar.
By negotiating peace with the Taliban, Washington gave them legitimacy and, most importantly, a moral and psychological advantage. In accordance with the agreement, the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed to establish peace, ensure the mutual release of POWs, and the United States - to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. Despite President Biden's announcement about the withdrawal of American troops made in the spring of this year, the process is very slow. The final withdrawal of troops is slated for a symbolic date of September 11th. It was shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 that the US military invaded Afghanistan.
So, the US military leaves Afghanistan, and the Taliban subjugates the country gradually again. The current situation is somewhat reminiscent of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan more than thirty years ago. As before, foreign troops are leaving the country, the rebels are advancing, and the local government is unable to resist them. As of the third decade of July, the Taliban control more than 160 of 407 districts in 34 provinces of Afghanistan. During July, the Taliban attacked and took control of almost the entire border of Afghanistan with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. At the beginning of the same month, they seized the border posts of Islami-Gala on the border with Iran and Spin-Boldak on the border with Pakistan. At the same time, a large number of Afghan soldiers took refuge in Iran and Tajikistan, or surrendered to the Taliban.
Power of the Taliban
The issue of strengthening of this paramilitary political movement has become one of the most discussed topics in Afghanistan. What did make the Taliban so powerful? Obviously, the ongoing events in Afghanistan are somewhat similar to what we can observe in Iraq. In fact, the US military, which invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, did little to defeat the Taliban. Although initially the Taliban lost the control of Kabul and other major cities in the country within a few days after the US invasion, and fled to Pakistan along with their leadership and main forces. But later, some of the members returned to the Pashtun tribes, who live mainly in the south of the country making up about 40% of the Afghan population.
Soon favourable conditions contributed to the resurrection of the Taliban. This was largely due to the failure of the newly formed Afghan government to establish in the country the expected peace, justice and prosperity. Initially, the Taliban resumed their activities in remote provinces of the country, and soon secured the support and trust of ordinary Afghan citizens, who had suffered from rampant corruption and bribery of government officials in Kabul and other large cities. They established their own judiciary system, brutally punishing thieves and crimes against honour, accompanied with cutting off the hands and public executions of the criminals. When more than $900 million were reported lost from the Central Bank of Afghanistan in 2010, this confirmed the facts of large-scale theft and corruption in the country's government. By that time, the Taliban had already returned to Afghanistan and posed a serious threat to both the coalition forces and the Afghan army. The Afghan government, backed by the US and coalition forces, controlled central cities and large settlements, while the Taliban dominated the highlands and small villages. But the Taliban grew stronger every year.
Certainly, there were external factors contributing to their success. There were countries interested in sinking the US in the Afghan ‘swamp’ thanks to the support provided to the Taliban. At the same time, the leaders of the movement no longer expressed harsh slogans, demonstrating their readiness to compromise and achieve mutual agreement instead.
Importance of Afghanistan
Like 2000 years ago, due to its geographical location in the middle of Asia, Afghanistan still plays a role of a transit country in this important region of the world. This mountainous country with a harsh climate has never been the ultimate goal of Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, the Mongol-Tatar armies, Tamerlan or any other armies that followed them. For those who came to these lands from the West, Afghanistan was a transit point on the way to India and further to the East, and for those who moved from the East – to the Middle East and Europe. In the 19th century, the British viewed Afghanistan as a gateway to Central Asia, while the Russians – as a gateway to India. Despite the 1979 military intervention of the USSR in Afghanistan, many years before that Moscow launched and completed a major transport project in the country – a 3,700 m long tunnel going through the Salang Pass in the Hindu Kush mountains and connecting the north and south parts of Afghanistan. Although the tunnel built in 14 years was planned to make it easier to occupy Afghanistan, it still remains the main transport artery of the country from the north to south and back.
But the frequent conflicts of interest, a harsh climate, and generations of Afghans who grew up in the state of constant wars have turned Afghanistan into an impenetrable swamp for invaders. The US, with the most powerful army and modern weapons in the world, has been fighting there for over twenty years. No wonder the intervention in Afghanistan became the longest military campaign in the US history.
First Trump, and now Biden understands that every day spent in Afghanistan is a great loss for the US. The growing power of the Taliban in a country where the US has long been considered an invader also contributes to this process. Moreover, the agreements of the regional rivals of the US with the Taliban increased the risks associated with the presence of the American contingent in the country. In the summer of 2020, the American media leaked some data based on a report allegedly from the intelligence services, which claimed that the Russian intelligence was rewarding the Taliban for the killings of the American military in Afghanistan. Although the Russian Embassy to Washington denied this information, the fact of publication hinted at a conflict of interests between Washington and Moscow over Afghanistan. Moreover, Russia invited a delegation of the Taliban to join an event dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and Afghanistan, which took place at about the same time. This was clearly a sign showing that the Taliban would not be one of the last priorities in the Russian foreign policy in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the deterioration of Washington's relations with Pakistan seriously weakens the US manoeuvrability in Afghanistan, since Pakistan has a serious impact on Afghanistan, especially on the Taliban.
Thus, thanks to its rich natural resources and geographical location, Afghanistan remains a desired territory for the whole world. But global players are well aware that the classical form of presence in Afghanistan with their armies is fraught with great losses.
During the Eid al-Adha, the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed to establish a ceasefire and ensure unhindered access to difficult areas of the country. However, it is unknown how long the ceasefire will last, as many similar agreements have so far been violated. The Taliban do not have plans to retreat, and it is clear that they will try to regain power in Afghanistan. Thus, we can assume several likely scenarios for the development of the military-political situation in the country.
Firstly, the Taliban can continue the offensive further to capture most of Afghanistan and create a Sharia state in the country, as it was back in 1996. Obviously, the Taliban cannot establish control over the entire territory of Afghanistan now, but the geography of the recent attacks shows that their first priority is to take control of the country's borders, especially in the northern regions. Thus, the Taliban seeks to sever the ties of their opponents with external forces and establish a large-scale rule over Afghanistan.
Secondly, it is possible that the government in Kabul and the Taliban agree to share their powers. This will be more difficult, but the Taliban will try to stay in areas where they are stronger, to legalise their military power and achieve international recognition as yet another political player in the country. But to do this, the UN and international organisations will have to exclude the Taliban from the list of terrorists and lift the sanctions. By the way, in July the leadership of the movement addressed Russia and the UN on this matter.
Thirdly, it is possible that the civil war in Afghanistan intensifies, ISIS and al-Qaeda become more active and, as a result, the country turns into a hotbed of endless terror and chaos. This process can lead to the de facto division of the country and the creation of several autonomous governments. There are already measures implemented to separate the northern regions of the country known as South Turkestan.
Whether or nor any of these scenarios materialise largely depends on the role of the US and international organisations. The US has already handed over to the Afghans the country's main airbase, Baghram, which once hosted a contingent of 10,000 American troops. Now all eyes are on the Kabul airport.
The Kabul Airport located almost in the centre of the city and named after the country's former President Hamid Karzai, is the main air hub connecting this mountainous country with the outside world. It played a similar role in 1992, when the forces of the Northern Alliance captured Kabul. But then, in 1996, former President Mohammad Najibullah, hiding in the UN mission, could not leave the country. He was captured and brutally executed by the Taliban.
Western countries have already learned a lesson from the fate of Najibullah. On the one hand, employees of the diplomatic missions leave the country through the Kabul airport, and on the other, the security of the airport is being enhanced. Because this facility is the extreme gateway of Kabul and the whole of Afghanistan to the outside world.
Turkey's strategy in Afghanistan
As per the agreement reached during the meeting of the presidents of the US and Turkey in June, a contingent of the Turkish army (500 servicemen) as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission will take care of the security of the Kabul airport during the entire period of the withdrawal of the American military from Afghanistan. This choice is not accidental, given that Turkey is a Muslim country with a well-known reputation in Afghanistan and the Muslim world, with vast experience in the protection and operation of airports. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that his country was not indifferent to the security of the Kabul airport. But Ankara also has its own conditions: diplomatic, logistical and financial support to Turkey. If NATO provides these conditions, then Turkey will be ready to take over the protection of the airport. It seems that Washington has already reached an agreement with Ankara, since the White House has no other alternatives to implement its plans, but to use the services rendered by Turkey, at least as a reliable partner.
It is clear that Turkey's control over such a strategic facility as the Kabul airport is a very serious advantage for Ankara. In fact, Turkey will remain the only legitimate foreign power in Afghanistan, thus expanding its influence on political processes in the host country, and in Central Asia in general.
But there are serious risks as well. First, the Taliban will not agree to Turkey's presence in Kabul on behalf of NATO. The movement has already stated its position saying that after the withdrawal of all coalition forces in September, it will consider the troops of any state remaining in Afghanistan as ‘invaders’ and will treat them accordingly. In other words, the Taliban will declare war on the Turkish troops if they remain in Kabul.
The Turkish President expressed his hope that his government would still be able to negotiate the issue with the Taliban and reach a definite mutual agreement. It is no secret that the main allies of the Taliban, Qatar and Pakistan, have close ties with Turkey. Ankara hopes to use these connections in negotiations with the Taliban. But some groups in Pakistan have already made a number of unfriendly statements against Turkey. This means that it will not be easy to find a common language with the Taliban and their supporters.
Another trump card of Turkey in Afghanistan is Turkish and Islamist groups. The current Turkish government maintains close ties with the political leaders of Afghanistan. Among them are an influential politician, leader of the Islamic Party of Afghanistan and former Prime Minister of the country Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, former vice-president, leader of the Uzbek community of the country, General Abdurrashid Dostum, and some representatives of the Hazaras. These people and the communities they represent oppose the Taliban. And in the future, Turkey can consolidate these forces for the same purpose. But this is a rather risky and costly business.
Ultimately, the ongoing processes in Afghanistan look like the ones we observed back in the 1990s. But this does not mean that the further course of events will follow the same patterns. General situation in the world, as well as the players and the rules of the game on the political map have changed significantly. The only thing that remains unchanged is the interests that attract everyone to this distant yet mysterious oriental land also known as Afghanistan. It is these interests that have been the cause of bloodshed and brutal wars in this country for decades.