Making sense of Afghanistan is harder than it seems

‘Afghans are pawns and players at the same time’

Why was the West in Afghanistan, and why did it decide, after 20 years, that a Taliban takeover wouldn’t merit a move, an intervention or even a timely evacuation? And what is the role and responsibility of Afghans in the drama of this war that has been going on for more than 40 years? Since Kabul fell, everybody knows why and what. But few understand.

It was a classic war of encirclement, according to tried-and-true Maoist precepts: first contest government control of the countryside and then take it over incrementally; then attack smaller cities and provincial capitals, make them insecure and take them over; and finally ride triumphantly into the capital left behind by a defeated government army.

Kabul has fallen, the Taliban claiming power in and over all of Afghanistan. This stunning development did not end history, and certainly not the insecurity nearly 40 million Afghans are experiencing in their day to day lives. But it did bring a sudden, and perhaps temporary, end to years of indifference. Everyone in the West suddenly has an opinion, everyone is an expert and everyone is concerned. But few understand what is really happening.

World War I

I have always described the longest war of the past hundred years as the First World War of the 21st century. That remains an apt image, I would argue. Afghanistan has been the battleground on which global and regional superpowers have waged their power struggles since the late 1970s: the Soviet Union versus the United States, China versus the U.S., Pakistan versus India, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, NATO versus China and Russia, “the international community” versus “international terrorism and jihadism”…

What interest does Afghanistan serve that could explain all that fighting?

The fact that the Afghan World War has lasted longer than the two European World Wars and the interwar period combined, speaks volumes on how devastating this geopolitical conflict of interests has been. (1914 to 1945 would have been 32 years, 1979 to today is almost 43 years.)

One of the questions that is constantly raised is: what interest does Afghanistan serve that could explain all the fighting, and what has changed about those interests in order to allow the Taliban unhindered access to the presidential palace in Kabul, after an offensive that took only a few months and a regime collapse that went faster than even the Taliban could have imagined?

The best answer to the “interest”-question was given to me back in 2011, by a Frenchman in Washington. Gilles Dorronsoro, then affiliated with Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: ‘The US wants to prevent India or China from developing into a competitor and in the context of the Afghanistan conflict they are constantly playing one country off against another. The second level is that of regional control, where proximity to Iran is particularly important. And the third level of U.S. presence is the twin concerns of the latitude Al Qaeda has and the growing instability of nuclear-armed Pakistan.’

And, Dorronsoro added, ‘The war in Afghanistan is essential for NATO. Because Washington did not want to lose its grip on Europe after the end of the Cold War, NATO’s mission was reformulated: from a defensive alliance to an offensive alliance, which would defend the West’s democratic and humanitarian values when necessary.’ Afghanistan, he said, offered a perfect environment to prove that such a military tool was necessary and useful.

It is no coincidence that a final end to the war was made by the American president who also wanted to get rid of NATO: Donald Trump.

It is therefore no coincidence that a final end to that intervention was made by the American president who actually also wanted to get rid of NATO: Donald Trump. He gave the Taliban a blank cheque in 2020 in exchange for the unscathed retreat of American and other Western troops.

The fact that the Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah was not even involved in the Trump-Taliban negotiations foreshadowed the apathy with which the Taliban’s recent advance and victory was looked at from the West.

Afghanistan had become a problem for the containment of Chinese influence, rather than a help. Al Qaeda and rival IS were not to be fought on this terrain, and Iran is being dealt with in a different way.

Were there also economic interests involved? Undoubtedly, though these have always been and remained secondary to the broader, strategic interests. But still. The geological surveys estimate that northern Afghanistan holds roughly 1.6 million barrels of crude oil, 442 million cubic meters of natural gas and 562 million barrels of liquefied natural gas.

In terms of industrial ores, copper ore reserves are estimated at 60 million tons and 2.2 billion tons of iron ore is guaranteed. Other raw materials present to a greater or lesser extent in the Afghan subsoil are barite, chromium, magnesium, asbestos (13.4 tons), nickel, mercury (32,000 tons), gold (2698 kg, certain), silver, lead and zinc (together 244,000 tons), bauxite (4.5 million tons) and lithium, a strategic raw material in times of mobile communications.

According to the Pentagon, there is at least as much lithium in the parched salt lakes of western Afghanistan as in Bolivia. The presence of large deposits of rare earth elements such as scandium, yttrium and lanthanides leads researchers to suspect that significant quantities of uranium are also present.

There is as much lithium in the salt lakes of western Afghanistan as in Bolivia.

There is, in other words, certainly something to dig and exploit in Afghanistan, and commercial lobbies have certainly been active — in the US, in China, in India, in Pakistan, in the EU.

But the fact that Kabul was left to fall without a hitch indicates that those commercial interests, too, gradually saw the war more as a hindrance than an opportunity.

Don’t ever underestimate Afghans

By using the image of a world war and focusing on international motives, however justified, we might conceal the fact that the violence was largely perpetrated by Afghans themselves, in a life-and-death struggle against each other. In this seemingly endless succession of wars, violent conflicts and brutal realitis, Afghans are victims, but also perpetrators. Afghans are pawns and chess players at the same time, though the latter is sometimes forgotten.

Afghans are victims, but also perpetrators; pawns and chess players at the same time.

In recent decades, the Afghan conflict has taken the form of a war between a government (installed, financed and sustained by the West) and a (political Islamist) insurgent army.

In the 1980s, it took the form of a conflict between a communist (militarily and politically supported by Moscow) government and a collection of (fundamentalist, armed and financed by the West, but controlled by Pakistan) insurgent movements.

What remains steadfast throughout the shifting geopolitical alliances, seems to be that Afghanistan’s staunchly conservative Muslims resist, by force of arms if necessary, attempts by any central authority to impose modernizations that are inconsistent with their literal or deeply cultural reading of their faith. King Amanullah already faced that reality in the 1920s, as did President Mohammad Daoud in the early 1970s. That resistance apparently always finds an international sponsor to arm itself.

For the past half century, political Islam has almost constantly been the ideology of resistance. With the takeover of Kabul, that changes radically. The Taliban Islamic Emirate now becomes the dominant ideology, while any movement based on human rights and secularization will be considered and must function as the new resistance. That current may be stronger and more widespread than at any time in Afghan history, certainly in Kabul, but also outside.

It is self-understood that the king or central government should not interfere in the local economy, justice or customs.

The resistance in the past was also always very local and tribal. It is no coincidence that Mollah Omar and his Taliban government ruled the country from Kandahar between 1996 and 2001. The resistance is not only ideological, it is also cultural: in the history of Afghanistan it was always self-understood that the king or central government should not interfere in the local economy, justice or customs. This also explains why resistance to the Taliban government came mainly from Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, because the choice of Kandahar expressed how much the Taliban was a Pashtun movement.

How the new Taliban leadership will deal with the internal tensions — between their sharia and the constitution, between central government and local autonomy, between stubborn nationalism and geopolitical interests — is difficult to predict. There is little doubt that they will behave as unchallenged victors, and impose their laws on the entire country and all its citizens. It is highly likely that the seeds of yet another cycle of conflict lie exactly in imposing from the center what is considered to belong to the tribal or cultural realm.

Much will depend on whether the regional and international superpowers finally realize that fomenting and financing internal conflicts in Afghanistan will ultimately hurt them as well. The bill of the US-led intervention since 2001 is extremely high. It will not necessarily be cheaper next time around.

Gie Goris has been covering Afghanistan and the larger region since more than two decades. In 2011 he published Opstandland, a book that argues that the wars in Afghanistan, the militant violence in Pakistan and the insurrection in Indian Kashmir are intimately interconnected.

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