Donald Trump’s recent statement that he will not engage in talks with the Taliban and the US will be “hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!” and the subsequent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan are just the tip of the iceberg of the difficult and complex situation in which the people of that country have found themselves.
There is no doubt that the US has its own interests and there is currently a debate in the country about the role of US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and America’s European partners, and about what to do next, especially given the intensification of talks between the Taliban and Iran.
But it seems that the main problem is not America’s presence in Afghanistan, but that the country’s current leadership has nothing to gain from starting a peace process with the Taliban and basically opening up a path to power for them. There is a system of cronyism in Afghanistan and those involved have no interest in changing the status quo.
Corruption has also reached epic proportions. According to insiders in Kabul, for example, it is possible to buy a ministerial post in the current government for $300,000. For their part, the Taliban is using this corruption vulnerability to achieve its own aims. A recent terrorist attack on a hotel in Kabul was carried out solely due to corruption. Smuggling the weapons and ammunition through several security systems was only possible using bribes. In addition, delays in payments to the police and armed forces are leading to Afghan soldiers deserting the army and moving over to the Taliban, which has various sources of income.
The Taliban controls a significant portion of the country’s shadow economy – the entire flow of goods passing through Afghanistan is essentially taxed. The Taliban also takes a cut from all the pipelines in the country. Talks are in the form of an ultimatum. If the Taliban fail to get their share, they’ll simply destroy property. They regularly disrupt electricity supplies, for example. It is interesting that this “business” has an international dimension. The Taliban once appealed to the government of Tajikistan, inviting them to pay for “transit services” and the protection of electricity supplies. Dushanbe naturally refused.
Then the same request was made to Kabul. After receiving a negative response, the Taliban simply blew up a few power transmission towers, plunging Kabul into darkness for several days. The most recent transmission tower bombing took place on 15 September 2019. This time, it disrupted the electricity supply from Uzbekistan. In April, the same thing happened to electricity transmission lines from Turkmenistan.
The lack of national unity is another serious problem. In the five years he has been in power, President of Afghanistan Ashraf Ghani – a puppet of the West who was educated there (the American University of Beirut and Stanford University in the US) and who also used to work for the World Bank and the UN – has failed to put into practice what he wrote about in his book Fixing Failed States, published in 2008. All the main ethnic groups in Afghanistan – the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras – are a long way from entering into a dialogue and regard each other with distrust. Also, while the Pashtuns and Uzbeks are more or less united among themselves, the Tajiks, which represent the second largest ethnic group in the country, have no internal unity. The numerous leaders of this group merely bicker among themselves.
So, if we regard the Taliban as the biggest challenge to the country’s security, then, individually, no single ethnic force that also represents political structures is capable of managing on its own. And since there are not even attempts to create an alliance, everyone knows perfectly well that foreign presence – i.e. US and NATO military bases – is still both the only lightning rod and the only deterrent. At the same time, this presence is causing chronic fatigue. And if you consider the fact that the spread of ISIS in northern Afghanistan is not without the help of the US military (as a rule, emissaries are moved around at night by helicopter), then the situation is even worse.
Meanwhile, the US president’s statement that the country is refusing to engage in the peace process and will instead remain in Afghanistan indefinitely because of the murder of one or more US soldiers is an act of profound cynicism and hypocrisy. According to official statistics, around 1000 people, the majority of whom are civilians, are killed each week in Afghanistan as a result of armed attacks and terrorist attacks by government forces, the US military and NATO. The Taliban are not just fighting against the official government. The radical Islam party of “former” military commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also fighting against the Taliban, although the two groups entered into an informal ceasefire for the duration of the election campaign.
The influence of other external forces also remains a serious problem for the country. Pakistan has had a strong influence for many years due to Pashtun unity and the political and economic imbalance. Ashraf Ghani has significantly reduced this dependence and it is probably his only achievement, if judged in terms of national interests. Although, owing to the historical ties between Afghanistan and India, Pakistan accused New Delhi of attempting to destabilise it through a neighbouring country and, since 2019, has slowed down the flow of goods in transit from Afghanistan to India. Turkey has also had a strong influence for some time. While Ankara has used the Fethullah Gülen schools aimed at training a loyal elite to advance its own interests since the 1990s, it later began to expand financial investments.
Turks are active in the natural resources extraction sector, agriculture, healthcare and construction. Neighbouring Iran has a different strategy. Over the past decade, Tehran has been funding the education of Hazaras at European universities. A quota of around 1000 is allocated each year. The Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims, so as part of supporting its co-religionists, Iran is gradually turning them into an Afghan middle class. While the Hazaras mostly used to work in the service sector and occupied the lowest social stratum, they now work as teachers and company managers and are gradually starting to enter the public sector. For example, while interethnic cooperation used to be on the basis of manager–deputy, with pairings such as Pashtun–Tajik, Tajik–Uzbek, Uzbek–Pastun etc., it has now become an obligatory norm to also accept Hazaras as the second person. But, once again, the US has the strongest influence due to its actual military and political presence and the ability to carry out decisions through US-controlled mechanisms at the World Bank and other international organisations.
Given the above, and regardless of the outcome of future elections, the situation in the country will remain unstable for a long time to come and the US will do everything it can to prolong its presence. After all, it’s not just about Afghanistan for the US, but also the possibility for operational intervention in neighbouring Iran, Pakistan, and other countries of Central Asia.