A new Afghan deadlock?


This summer political situation in Afghanistan is changing so rapidly and raising many difficult questions. The absence of decent answers to those questions causes a state of tense expectation among politicians and societies. This is especially important for the Central Asian states' public. This raises serious concern about the situation development in Afghanistan. Moreover, it seems that the Taliban movement, with its very archaic ideas about social values, may well come to power in Afghanistan. Naturally, this causes the emergence of very pessimistic public opinion within the region.

Undoubtedly, the negative perception of these events was caused by the rapid withdrawal of the Americans from Afghanistan. It almost looked like an emergency evacuation, especially in the case of the Bagram air base near Kabul. The images of shots with abandoned equipment and weapons have gone viral across the globe. Moreover, according to the stories of the Afghan military from the government forces, they were not informed about what had been happening in the country and they appeared in Bagram later on their own initiative. The information demonstrates a low level of coordination and trust between the American military groups and its former allies, if, of course, it is true.

This could not but evoke analogies with the hasty evacuation of American troops from Saigon to South Vietnam in 1973, which led to the fall of the local pro-American regime in 1975. As a result, many former Vietnamese employees of the local pro-American government were evacuated from Vietnam. After Americans withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to the Bloomberg news agency, Washington allegedly appealed to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan governments with a request to temporarily place 9,000 Afghans, assistants to the American military, for their safety.

This information was not officially confirmed, but the situation looked like that the United States was somehow unsure about the stability of the Kabul government and considers that the Taliban could take over. Because only in this case in this case theoretically Afghani loyalists could find the need for the speedy evacuation. 

In this framework, the general alarming case was further aggravated by the fact that the Taliban movement began to occupy a variety of territories within Afghanistan, while government troops were cramped. The most unexpected step was that the Taliban occupied border posts along most of the northern borders with Central Asia and even some on the border with Iran. The latter circumstance was especially striking given how much influence Iran has among the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan and how important it is for them to control the border between Afghanistan and Iran.

Nevertheless, the Taliban raised their flag along almost the entire border line with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and as well as on certain parts of the border with Iran. In some cases, Afghan border guards stepped back on the border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and were transferred to Kabul.

The control by the Taliban over the northern border of Afghanistan has an importance which explains by the fact that Central Asia in the 1990s was the strategic rear for the Afghan national minorities - Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens. In fact, from this territory the supply of weapons and material resources to the Northern Anti-Taliban Alliance was carried out and ensured its stability in the fight against the Taliban in the period from 1996 to 2001.

Therefore, the loss of most of the border points, in fact, meant that the northern minorities were effectively cut off from the Central Asian states. By the way, it was the basis for the conspiracy theories that this event did not happen by accident, instead, it was part of a plan to prevent the emergence of a new formation of the Northern Alliance. Although in this case, a difficult question naturally comes up - exactly whose plan could this be?

Indeed, the current situation in Afghanistan and around it as a whole provides rich ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories. Because the main events are taking place behind the scenes of the process, relatively speaking, “covert struggle”. By the figurative expression of Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister, this was the way of political competition in the former USSR, when from time to time someone's "political corpse" was thrown to the surface.

To some extent, this is also characteristic of the current situation in Afghanistan and around it. The behind-the-scenes negotiations, which are currently intensely conducted in Doha, Tehran, Moscow, Islamabad, and many other decision-making centers, are an important part of the complex political and geopolitical game around Afghanistan. It is clear that the most important processes take place behind the scenes.

In particular, the talks which the Taliban held from 7 to 9 July in Iran were very indicative. It must be viewed not only in the context of the Afghan problem itself but also from the point of the very complicated relations between Tehran and Washington in connection with the Iranian nuclear program. So, in Iran Ibrahim Raisi, representative of the conditional conservative wing, has just become president. It would seem that the Iranians in this regard should be very grateful that the United States is leaving Afghanistan. To Iranians, it shows as a failure of American policy in Afghanistan.

In addition, Tehran has very significant pro-Iranian military formations in Syria and Iraq, including a separate “Fatimiyah” unit, made up of Afghan Shiite Hazaras, as well as an undeniable determination to use them if necessary. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran becomes one of the most important players in the political field of this country. This is why the delegation headed by Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban office in Qatar, went to Tehran on July 7 to negotiate with Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian Foreign Minister.

Tehran clearly wanted to clarify the position of the Taliban on the Afghanistan future political structure and the place of the Shiite Hazaras in it. In turn, the Taliban obviously wanted to avoid confrontation with Iran and more active backing of its supporters in Afghanistan.

In its turn, Iran is interested in lifting the sanctions, which have a detrimental effect on its economy. Therefore, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan creates new opportunities for Teheran. Among other things, this means that in the eastern direction, in fact in the Iranian rear, there will be no more American military forces and, most importantly, no military airfields. Because in recent years there has been a lot of talks about the possibility of US or Israeli military strikes against Iran. Against the background of these conversations, Tehran could not but fear the American grouping in Afghanistan, and especially the airfields where strike aircraft could be based.

At the same time, the United States, by its hasty evacuation, creates the impression that if they do not leave the region altogether, then they noticeably reduce their presence there. If this is not a defeat, as many observers tend to think, at least it is a loss of previous ambitions and related opportunities. At the same time, in a certain sense, this creates conditions for reaching agreements between Washington and Tehran on a set of issues on sanctions, the nuclear program and the division of spheres of influence, for example, in Syria. Because if the US conducts a tactical retreat from a strategically important region, then why don't they start negotiating with their opponent on different terms.

That is why the beginning of a new war in Afghanistan and in this regard the re-establishment of the Northern Anti-Taliban Alliance as a whole does not meet the interests of Iran. Therefore, talks were held in Tehran with a Taliban delegation. The Iranians would be satisfied with the certain guarantees from the Taliban about the preservation of the Shiite Hazaras position in Afghan politics.

This means that, on the whole, the Iranians are interested in maintaining the republican model in Afghanistan. The Taliban, on the contrary, support the idea of ​​an Islamic emirate without specifying the principles of its formation. However, they have already declared their willingness to compromise. Most likely, this issue was at the center of the ongoing negotiations in Tehran. The Taliban clearly cannot ignore the military power of Iran and its considerable ability to create an anti-Taliban coalition if the need arises. They would like to avoid this possible situation, so they have to make concessions.

Almost simultaneously, on July 8, talks between the Taliban and the Russian leadership took place in Moscow.  Here, the Taliban's interest, as in Iran, undoubtedly was led to prevent Russian and its Central Asian allies to support the formation of the new anti-Taliban coalition in Northern Afghanistan in the form of the Northern Anti-Taliban Alliance of the 1990s. Therefore, the Taliban made a number of statements in Moscow that they would not threaten the Central Asian states, would not support ISIS and would control the drug trade.

All these statements in general do not contradict the well-known principles of the Taliban movement's policy. This is still a predominantly Pashtun movement and its representatives at all levels have previously stated that they have no plans to expand north into Central Asia Taliban with ISIS have ideological contradictions on different religious views, which were associated with the previously noted clashes between supporters of the two organizations. ISIS or IS is primarily radical Salafi. While the Taliban are closely connected with the so-called Deobandi direction in Islam. This is a very archaic ideology, its manifestations could be observed during the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, but these are still not Salafist. Also, it is known that the Taliban in the 1990s opposed the cultivation of drugs.

So, the talks in Moscow could well have been productive for both the Taliban and the Russian leadership. Moreover, for Moscow it was very important that the Taliban were negotiating with Russia on those issues that are directly related to the Central Asian states.

This once again underlines the Russian influence in Central Asia. Russia actually spoke on behalf of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and did so on the basis of their participation in the CSTO. Although in this case the Taliban were not negotiating with this respected organization, but with the leadership of Russia.

It is quite possible that in Central Asia such a subtle nuance of Taliban negotiations with Moscow could raise certain questions. For example, when Tajikistan on July 7 appealed to the CSTO for help, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied on July 8 that the CSTO will help Tajikistan in the case of attack. Incidentally, this happened on the eve of the Taliban delegation visit to Moscow, during which they announced that they would not attack Central Asia.

In this situation, Tajikistan's appeal to the CSTO for help indicates either the lack of information from the Tajik leadership about Moscow's plans or that Tajikistan is generally not satisfied with the course of events in Afghanistan itself and on the border with it. In this case, it turns out that Tajikistan and Russia have different attitudes towards what is happening in Afghanistan, and, therefore, may have different interests. If Moscow, in principle, is ready to negotiate with the Taliban, then Dushanbe may have other priorities.

The fact is that the Afghan territory along the borders with Tajikistan is mainly populated by Tajiks. The strengthening of the Taliban in Afghanistan primarily means a general deterioration in its position. As a result, the control of the Taliban over the border between the two countries leads to the fact that Tajikistan will not be able to perform the functions of a strategic rear for Afghan Tajiks, as it was in the 1990s. It dramatically reduces its sovereign significance in the context of the geopolitical game in the region.

In this regard, it is quite logical to mention the Urumqi Agreement, which includes China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. The last two countries were precisely the territories, in the period from 1996 to 2001, to supply the warring parties in Afghanistan. From the territory of Tajikistan, Russia and Iran supported the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan, in its turn, supported the Taliban movement. In this context, the Urumqi agreement de facto means the strengthening of China's role in the region as a whole, and in Afghanistan in particular. Given the economic and political influence of China on Pakistan and Tajikistan, it is clear that they will have to take his opinion into account on many issues, including the situation in Afghanistan.

But it is quite obvious that such a trend could not suit Russia, which has traditionally had significant influence in Tajikistan. The 201st Russian military base is located in Tajikistan, many labour migrants from Tajikistan work in Russia. At the same time, Russia also has good relations with China. However, the China position strengthening is not fully corresponding to Russian interests in Central Asia. At the very least, this is already competition for geopolitical influence.

It is clear that it is difficult for Russia to compete with China on an equal footing; it has neither the willingness nor the special opportunities to spend financial resources in the region, as Beijing can afford. In fact, this was the main reason why the Tajik authorities began to increasingly focus on China.

In this situation, security remains the main instrument for ensuring Moscow's influence in Central Asia. That is why the Russian authorities at various levels in recent years have been talking about the terrorist threat from Afghanistan. That is the reason for regional countries to increase the importance of security mechanisms immediately. In the case of Central Asia, this is the CSTO. Consequently, any external threat for regional security should theoretically increase their interest in support from Russia. Accordingly, the economic factor automatically fades into the background.

At the same time, both the Americans and the Taliban denied the existence of any threat to Central Asia from the South. On the other hand, the Americans lobbied for the opening of new transport corridors through Afghanistan from the North to the South. Many different projects were associated with this, for example, the Greater Central Asia, the construction of a railway from Uzbekistan to Pakistani Peshawar, gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.

Of course, all these projects were very risky in a situation when there was no military-political stability in Afghanistan. But at the same time, projects aimed at the creation of an economic situation that could ensure this stability.

The most revealing here are two important points. Two Central Asia states - Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - were among those who were interested in the implementation of these projects and both of these states are not members of the CSTO. Under any other circumstances, they independently from their relationships with all players. Therefore, in fact, the Taliban delegation visited Turkmenistan on July 10, to clearly discuss not only border security issues but also the fate of the TAPI gas pipeline.

At the same time, Uzbekistan is traditionally very active in the Afghan approach. On the one hand, Uzbekistan has an influence on the Uzbek community in Afghanistan. It is about 10% of the population. On the other hand, Tashkent is interested in reaching the southern seas, which greatly facilitates its economic situation. Instead of carrying cargo to Russian ports in the Far East or the Baltic States, it is much easier to deliver them to the Pakistani ports of Karachi, Gwadar. Therefore, Tashkent announced the construction of a railway from Afghan Mazar-i-Sharif to Pakistani Peshawar just on the eve of the withdrawal of American troops. In addition, Uzbek officials have shown little concern over recent events in Afghanistan. It can be assumed that, at least, they do not see anything special in this situation.

But Tajikistan expresses its concern very actively. The difference of the positions is based on the course of recent events, the position of Tajiks in Afghanistan is noticeably weakening. And this leads to serious changes in the situation both for them and for Tajikistan.

In the case of Tajikistan, the role of the state is declining for the main geopolitical players, including China, Russia and even the United States.

If there is no competition inside Afghanistan, and no possible wars, Tajikistan loses its significance as a main rear area and support zone for some political forces in Afghanistan, primarily for Afghan Tajiks. In the case of the Afghan Tajiks’ role decrease, Tajikistan will be not interesting for all external players as a possible channel of interaction with them on the widest range of issues.

At the same time, for Afghan Tajiks the situation is also not developing in the best way. For the past 20 years, they have been one of the most important forces in various Afghan governments. There were many Tajiks in the army and security services. Under President Ashraf Ghani their influence started to decline. In particular, in north Afghanistan the positions of the Pashtuns in the armed forces and border troops have strengthened. Atta Mohammad Nour, one of the most influential Tajik politicians, was removed from his post as governor of the Balkh province, centered in Mazar-i-Sharif.

However, today Tajiks are mobilizing. They hold demonstrations of armed militias in Kabul and in the areas populated by Tajiks, express their readiness to fight in the case of Taliban offensive. On July 14, it was reported that government forces recaptured one of the areas in Badakhshan. Prominent Tajik generals are playing an increasingly prominent role in the events. In particular, after the Americans left the key Bagram base, General Kuhistani was appointed as a commandant. According to his last name, he comes from the mountainous region of Kohistan to the north of Kabul, inhabited by Tajik.

Afghan Tajiks are a very impressive force. They are quite capable, even without the support of other parts of the army, to maintain their positions near Kabul and in those regions of northern Afghanistan inhabited mainly by Tajiks. But the main problem here is not in military affairs. Today, Tajiks have no own political figure equal to Ahmad Shah Massoud. Quite numerous politicians are divided into supporters of his brother Ziya Masud, into adherents of Abdullah Abdullah, Atta Mohammad Nur, Ismail Khan, Amrullah Saleh. In addition, there is also a division into Panjshiri, Badakhshans, Gerati, Kabuli and many other groups of the Dari-speaking population, which is often called the common term Tajiks in Afghanistan.

But most importantly, without the support of the Uzbeks and Hazaras, it is very difficult to reconstruct the working model of the Northern Anti-Taliban Alliance as it used to be. At the same time, without external support from Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, it will be very difficult for Tajiks to hold out on their own in the turbulent waters of the new Afghan policy. The question is not that they are ready for a war for their interests, the question is to give the opponents an impression of their readiness in the ongoing political bargaining. In addition, the factor of American influence still operates in Afghanistan. It is mainly associated with the ongoing funding of the army and government. As long as government structures are united, they receive funding. It is clear that as soon as they start to conflict with each other, funding may stop immediately. This is largely why, in fact, today there are no events similar to those that took place in 1992, when Tajik part of the Afghan army and special services went over to the side of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Accordingly, the Pashtuns from the relevant structures went over to the side of the commanders of Pashtun origin, mainly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It was possible because Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, cut off funding for Najibullah's pro-Soviet government.

The United States are still ready to continue funding. This guarantees that the numerous formations of the Afghan army and, importantly, the armed militia on the ground, will continue to oppose the Taliban. At the very least, they will prevent the Taliban from claiming victory in the territories they control.

The recent Taliban successes were mainly related to the situation on the ground. This is when a variety of groups in the regions, inspired by American’s departure, saw the opportunity to strengthen their positions at the local level. They united under Taliban flags. But this is also a factor in the weakness of the Taliban, because other groups on the ground saw this as a threat to their interests. Therefore, in response to the first successes of the Taliban, they also began to intensify their activity. The first were the Tajik commanders in the north of Afghanistan. But Pashtuns loyal to the government of Ashraf Ghani in the South and East have also become more active.

The Afghan President needs to demonstrate his ability and the government's ability to control the situation and be the center of resource allocation. But it was also necessary to respond to the discontent of national minorities, primarily Tajiks. Moreover, their actions demonstrate readiness to act independently against the Taliban. Therefore, they organize militias, hold demonstrations of armed people in Kabul.

In this regard, government troops began to report on their successes in the Pashtun areas. On July 13 Khibatullah Alizai, the commander of the Afghan special operations forces,  announced the elimination of two high-ranking Taliban. Be the way he belongs to the large Alizai clan of the Durrani tribe. The tribal militia of different clans from Durrani in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand during the war in Afghanistan was an important factor in the local system of internal political relations, including in relations with the Taliban. In 1994, the Taliban started with the execution of the Achakzai tribal leader of the Durrani clan, Mansur Achakzai. In 2001, tribal leaders refused to support the Taliban. Today, in these provinces, the outcome of the power struggle between the government and the Taliban still mostly depends on the support by the local Durrani Pashtuns.

In the meantime, we can observe a noticeable activation of the military, both Pashtun and national minorities. Retired military men who left the army in recent years are also becoming more active. In this case, it is very important that the current Afghan generals and politicians are closely connected with their communities. Many of them are former field commanders of the Mujahideen who have fought for decades, relying on the militia loyal to them and controlling the territories of their communities.

In this, the situation differs markedly from the time on the eve of the fall of President Najibullah in 1992. He also relied on the local police to pay for their services. However, there were serious ideological differences between the government and the mujahideen at that time. In addition, there were many urban residents among the Afghan communists, primarily from Kabul.

Today, in one way or another, all former mujahideen, major large communities and tribes are connected with the government. On the whole, the current situation suits them. So far, they have no reason to start an open confrontation with each other, although contradictions, of course, persist. The most influential local politicians and clans are biding their time, looking at the development of the situation and at what tendency in international relations will eventually prevail. Moreover, in their territories they can do this under a variety of flags, including the Taliban.

In addition, Americans still keep representatives of private military companies in Afghanistan, with a total number of about 18 thousand people. They provide maintenance, for example, aviation, but they can also perform purely military tasks. Therefore, all the successes of the Taliban known from the media should be viewed in the context of the real alignment of forces in Afghanistan.

For example, who actually took control of the border crossings with Tajikistan? If the Afghan forces on the border were Pashtun, then their opponents were most likely local Tajiks, but under the flags of the Taliban movement. This explains why the border guards withdrew to a neighbouring country and why they were then sent to Kabul. If the Taliban who seized the border were predominantly Pashtuns, then why did the Tajik militia in the same Badakhshan not react in any way to the concentration of Pashtun formations in their province and their seizure of the border, which is so important for them? Another question, who is the ethnicity of those Afghan army servicemen who went over to the side of the Taliban? Several such cases have been reported in northern Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, all these special cases do not change the overall picture. The situation in and around Afghanistan looks so confusing and internally illogical that the question of the complex manoeuvres of various political forces in search of a new balance involuntarily arises. Everyone understands that the previous balance of power has been disrupted, but it is not entirely clear to what extent and whether this is part of some kind of game of any of the external forces. This cannot but worry the interested parties, and there are a lot of them around and inside Afghanistan.

    But we can definitely say that too many were caught off guard. For example, it is very significant that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is going to visit Central Asia from July 12 to July 16. China is clearly trying to clarify the situation. On July 13, the Chinese minister held talks in Turkmenistan. On July 14, a meeting of the foreign ministers of the SCO countries will take place in Tajikistan. The SCO summit will take place on July 16-17. Moreover, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi will also participate in the meeting. Given the traditional Pakistani influence on the Taliban, its presence in Dushanbe takes on a special meaning.

Obviously, the common attitude of all external participants in the process is related to the search for a new formula for the balance of interests in and around Afghanistan against the background of a reduction in the American presence in the region, but not its termination. This is of key importance, because the level of difficulties relations within Afghanistan depends on external forces.

Therefore, it might be a compromise. A military victory for the Taliban creates too many difficulties. The impossibility of the victory in the shortest perspective means that the Taliban have to negotiate. The only question is with whom?  With the present government of Afghanistan or with the local ethnic and religious communities separately?


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