The end of the Afghan trap


The fall of the Afghan government within few days in August had shocked both Afghan people and external observers. Few expected that the fall of scarcely populated Nimruz province in South-Western Afghanistan at the hands of radical Taliban fighters would start an unpredicted chain of events unwrapping. Nimruz after all is a comparatively small deserted periphery and home to the Baloch tribes mostly. Consequently, its fall should not have mattered as much for the official Kabul.

It was even understandable that government troops had abandoned the province due to difficulties to defend it. Nimruz is not perceived as the strategic place being located too close to Pakistan, in particular to its Balochistan province. It was clear that Nimruz province was vulnerable to attacks from the Taliban supporters from the other side of the border. Baloch tribes are widespread in Pakistan and there was never a lack of Taliban supporters among them.

Thus one can conclude that government troops had purposefully abandoned vulnerable Nimruz to gather forces to defend much more important areas. Any Afghan government sitting in Kabul fully grasps the idea of controlling certain territories. Firstly, such territories include predominantly Pashtun inhabited areas: its Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the South; Nangarhar, Logar, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika provinces in the South East. It is because Afghanistan as the name of the state still presupposes that the loss of the aforementioned provinces would deprive Kabul of its Pashtun content. a

Besides it automatically creates the conditions for Pashtun South to wage war against the North with its ethnic minorities. For example, something similar occurred in 1929 when Kabul fell under Tajik warlord Habibullah Kalakani or as some called him by his nickname "Bacha-ye Saqao". Pashtun tribes of Wazirs and Mahsud defeated him and brought back the royal dynasty from Durrani.

In 1989 after the withdrawal of Soviet troops Najibullah government had desperately defended the major cities of Kandahar, Jalalabad and Khost to drive Mujahedeens out of the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Because at that time Kabul government already started to rely heavily on national minorities' support, like Uzbeks and Tajiks and needed to keep their Pashtun foundations safe.

After the fall of Najibullah between 1992 and 1994 Pashtuns had been sieging Kabul from Southern direction under the leadership of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Kabul at that time was ruled by the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, both Tajiks. This confrontation between Tajiks and Pashtuns entailed the emergence of the Taliban which seized Kabul in 1996 forcing Tajiks to dislocate to the North. Taliban struggled to access the North for another two years until Uzbek General Abdul Malik didn't switch sides and opened the road to the Hindu Kush mountain range. After that Talibs fought against local Tajiks in the North until 2001.

Unsurprisingly Ashraf Ghani's government followed a similar logic by defending key Pashtun provinces in the South and the South East. No wonder Nimruz was abandoned. During the last months of the Taliban takeover, it was Northern provinces that fell first, while South-Eastern provinces took time to surrender to the Taliban and held out longer which turned out to be unexpected.

The fact that key events in August 2021 took place not in the South of the country is quite indicative. However, it still remains surprising bearing in mind that the Taliban is still predominantly Pashtun movement. There in the border areas with Pakistan that Talibs can receive support from Pakistani Pashtuns, madrasa students and other volunteers from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

Nevertheless, it was the events taking place in northern and western Afghanistan that facilitated the fall of the Ghani government. These territories have strategic importance for Kabul's ultimate defence. On the one hand communication lines with the outer world pass through them, like in the West via Herat with Iran; in the North via Balkh with Uzbekistan; in the North-East via Takhar and Badakhshan with Tajikistan.

At the same time, the western and northern provinces are mainly inhabited by national minorities: Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Charaymaks, as well as the Ismaili religious minority. The only northern province with a substantial Pashtun population is Kunduz. It matters as we should remind that the Taliban is mainly the Pashtun movement. Consequently, to successfully control the Afghan North Taliban either need to relocate the bulk of their forces from the South or secure support from the part of the local Tajik and Uzbek population.

This rational was shared by most of the external observers concerning the longevity of Ghani's government. Should the Taliban have failed to secure North due to the lack of support by locals, government forces could have focused on the defence of Kabul and key Southern provinces. In this case, North would have played the role of the strategic rear and transportation hub for necessary deliveries to the country.

It was this specific model that allowed the Najibullah government to sustain itself for 3 years after the Soviet Union withdrawal. The defence of Southern provinces was reached by making deals with local Pashtun tribes whose militias had agreements with the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Therefore, between 1989 and 1992 Mujahedeens failed to capture the Southern periphery. This system collapsed only in 1992 when President Yeltsin decided to stop supporting Najibullah which resulted in a lack of funding to secure the loyalties of warlords.

Ashraf Ghani's government too could have followed a similar scheme considering there were many Northern national minorities' representatives in the power structures. Vice President was Tajik from Panjshir Amrullah Saleh; another one is Abdulla Abdulla also from Panjshir whose father is Pashtun. Former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan too was Panjshiri.

Many northern Tajiks have served in the Afghan army and security structures since 2001. It was mostly them who constructed these state institutes after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Overall Tajiks consist of 30% of the Afghan population and this should have been enough to secure strong support for Ashraf Ghani's government. Furthermore, they densely live in Northern and Western provinces.

Also important to note that the second Vice President was Sarwar Danish belonging to the Hazara group which also meant support for the Hazara people consisting 10-15% of the country's total population. Hazaras also happen to be Shiites making relations with Sunni Taliban even more complex. And finally, the Hazara people are being traditionally supported by Iran. Theoretically, it provided the stability for Hazara inhabited mountainous provinces in the middle of Afghanistan as well as access to Iran.

Other huge ethnic groups are Turkic speaking Uzbeks and Turkmens, both consisting of 10% of the total population. They were more inclined to seek support from Uzbekistan. Considering most of the Northern ethnic minorities had their issues with the Taliban they could have ensured the backup for Ghani's government even after US withdrawal.

The government of Ashraf Ghani could also rely on the urban population, especially in Kabul including the local Pashtuns. Naturally, the vast majority of the city residents did not welcome the Taliban with their archaic practices. Moreover, many of them were employed by the state. While the rise of the Taliban to power meant the loss of jobs and the end of the convenient lifestyle for the urban population.

In addition, Ashraf Ghani could also rely on many Pashtun tribes. Traditionally tribes in Afghanistan are attracted to support the government by paying for their services. Also their representatives served in large numbers in the army and security forces. There were many generals with corresponding surnames indicating their belonging to a particular tribe.

Thus such a model of Afghanistan's existence looked quite stable giving the reason to assume that Ghani's government in fact could hold out for a relatively long time. At least as long as the US kept paying its maintenance. Normally it would have taken the Taliban with their guerrilla forces quite a long time to occupy all of Afghanistan. After all, there were many former mujahideen with the necessary skills in combat among his opponents. They used to be former militia.

Even if the Taliban got reinforcements from Pakistan as was the case in the 1990s, fighting both state army and local Tajik and Hazara militia in the mountains around Kabul would have required massive efforts. The war could have dragged on for years.

In the end, President Ashraf Ghani had to publicly announce his position on the situation in the country concerning the US withdrawal and coordinate it with other political forces, like leaders of ethnic communities and individual Pashtun tribes. He needed to provide clear guidelines to the state apparatus and society, who were in a state of utter uncertainty after the announcement of the final departure of the Americans. The government would have had a common position towards the Taliban which might have given necessary impetus for resistance for both the army and the militia whose involvement would have provided the army with additional military resources.

However, this would automatically mean strengthening the role of national minorities in the Afghan government. Since the defence of Kabul and provision of resources would require the mobilization and arming of additional forces from among the supporters of the leaders of national minorities. When demonstrations erupted in July in Kabul of militia ready to oppose the Taliban it was clear that these were mainly people from national minorities.

Possibly this idea may not have been as popular among Pashtun commanders of the Afghan army since such militia would have been loyal to their leaders meaning the change of balance within the Afghan power system.

If Ismail Khan in Herat, Atta Muhammad Nur and Abdul Rashid Dostum in Balkh and other northern provinces began to gather their armed forces similarly to the model of small armies they had before 2001, it would have led to a decrease in Pashtun influence in the provinces in the West and North of Afghanistan. Also, new squads needed weapons. The army didn't want to supply and equip the new militia at its own expense.

Another factor should be looked at that had a direct connection to the 2021 August events. President Ghani's government starting from 2014 had been seriously pressuring some representatives of ethnic minorities, particularly those with power in the northern provinces. The most illustrative example is what happened to Atta Muhammad Nur. This Tajik warlord belonged to the Jamiat-i Islami party led by Burhanuddin Rabbani. After defeating the Taliban in 2004 he became the governor of Balkh province with the centre in Mazar-i-Sharif, the most important city in northern Afghanistan. In December 2017 Ashraf Ghani removed him from the office. At the time Atta Mohammad Nur tried to oppose that decision.

This summer Atta Mohammad Nur tried to arrange a counterattack against the Taliban in Balkh by gathering troops. However, he no longer held the power and authority he had when he was a governor. It is possible to assume that if he still was a governor Balkh may not have fallen so easily.

It is clear how US withdrawal posed many questions before the complex structure of checks and balances Afghan government and army represented. The United States played a key role in maintaining its relative stability. On the one hand, they handled the difficult issues in the relationship. On the other hand, they funded the expenses of the influential officials within the Afghan state as well as beyond it; none of them wanted Americans to complete their presence in the country.

But this system was never stable as internal contradictions between different communities and individual officials were too deeply rooted. US withdrawal brought this internal negative dynamic forth along with the growth of suspicions between the parties involved.

Mutual distrust only grew more as the US failed to inform their Afghan counterparts concerning their withdrawal plans. Rather they informed not everyone and not completely. For example, Ashraf Ghani knew of secret dealings and other little perks. It's turning increasingly clear today that he did take part in closed and classified talks with Americans partially explained by the fact that he used to be a US passport holder once.

Though he was still not as informed as other US national of Afghan descent Zalmay Khalilzad who is truly considered as one of the architects of the deal with the Taliban. It was him who conducted negotiations with the Taliban in Doha under former President Trump, the process that started the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Still, Ghani may have been privy to many details of the unfolding events.

Such assumption helps to understand his behaviour in August 2021, his unwillingness for decision making to organise resistance to fight the Taliban and finally his escape. Because at any development of events, any accumulated military strength of Taliban, their local support, etc. it would have been impossible for the entire government army, security and police forces to surrender so rapidly. Especially in the territories belonging to ethnic minorities.

Undoubtedly it was political surrender done by not only President Ashraf Ghani but the majority of army, police and security forces' commanding officers. Another question is what was it about? Why Afghan military simply refused to fight? Why they preferred to change sides? Why in the face of obvious paralysis of the central power structures no units decided to stay behind and fight trying to achieve better negotiation terms and conditions or at least to attempt evacuating the most vulnerable groups of people whose life was under direct threat from Taliban? Why pro-government military could not hold at least one or a few provinces to save face and make the situation less disturbing? Why military could not hold even Kabul during the negotiations even with the difficulties regarding the supplies involved?

During Najibullah time the system of fortifications around Kabul was in place with vetted and trusted military personnel guarding it. Mujaheddin was not able to storm the capital like they failed to capture Jalalabad and Khost defended by local Pashtun tribes who supported the government.

Under Ahmad Shah Massoud Kabul lasted for two years, first against Hekmatyar then against Taliban. Surely the population of the city was much smaller then but supplies still lasted for 1-2 months. Nothing of the sort was done in 2021 and this remains to be the biggest mystery regarding the fall of the state the US had been trying to build since 2001.

The simplest thing to explain here is what happened to the Afghan police. Out of 300 000 people President Biden spoke of as being trained and funded by the US, a huge chunk consisted of the police force. In most cases it used to be local police in charge of order in certain areas in exchange for funding and support of representatives of those communities’ local police was carved from. These people had no issues changing the sides. They stayed at their assigned posts just changing the flags displayed. They did loose government funding though. So their refusal to support the government had to do with the said government paralysis.

It is harder to explain the situation with the military. During the first 10 years of their presence in Afghanistan, the US had been heavily relying on Northern Alliance. The army was constructed according to the Western standards - with 6 corps including special forces and recruits being trained under American and or European instructors.

But since there were many people from ethnic minorities from the former Northern Alliance in the leadership of the army, recruits were recruited mainly in the North. Therefore, there were too many Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks stationed in the Pashtun South as part of the Afghan army. Pashtuns naturally abhorred the fact. This period was characterized by fierce hostilities in the south of Afghanistan where the military from the international coalition took an active part. It was also when the United States had over 100 thousand troops in Afghanistan. No anti-government activities were registered in the North at the same time.

The fierce fighting in the Pashtun South led to increasing governmental recruiting, particularly in the northern provinces. The hostilities in the South did not contribute in any way to the activities of the recruiting bureaus, as well as to other state structures. At that moment Pashtun regions of South-East Afghanistan failed to get involved more deeply into the state-building process the US worked hard to run. In the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province) Pakistani army was simultaneously fighting local Pashtun commanders close to the Taliban. So the war took place on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.

In the end instead of relying on northern ethnic minorities, the US had to conduct military operations in Afghanistan's South themselves. Using parts of the Afghan army containing northerners in the South only sparked an increase in Pashtun resistance.

It was Hamid Karzai from the Durrani tribe ruling as President at that time. In Kandahar inhabited by mostly Durrani, the environment was relatively stable due to the role Karzai's brother played there in keeping peace and order. Though another neighbouring Durrani majority province Helmand witnessed some heavy fighting. Helmand is also one of the key opium-producing provinces.

Principal tensions existed in South-Eastern provinces bordering so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). From the Afghan side Pashtuns belonging to the Ghilzai tribe mainly lived. Incidentally, since April 1978 coup all the leaders of Afghanistan from the communist Nur Muhammad Taraki to Taliban leader Mullah Omar was Ghilzai, except Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Ghilzai-Durrani confrontation still plays a certain role in the political life of Afghanistan.

In 2014 Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai became the new President. By origin he comes from the Ghilzai tribe. Although Ashraf Ghani came to Afghanistan from the United States where he worked as a professor at the university his tribal background mattered.

The scale of the inter-tribal conflict is demonstrated by the fact that in the second round of the presidential elections in 2014 Zalmai Rassoul Durrani candidate after losing during the first round called for voting not for Ghani (even though both were Pashtuns), but for his rival Abdullah Abdullah. Abdullah's father is Pashtun but he usually receives support from the Tajiks.

In other words, Zalmai Rassoul being Pashtun from the old Durrani aristocracy opposed the Ghilzai candidate Ashraf Ghani and supported Abdullah Abdullah who represented the interests of Tajiks and other ethnic minorities. It looked in line with the previous political practice during the presidency of Hamid Karzai when Durrani actively interacted with the Tajiks. Still, it reflected internal tribal divisions among Pashtuns.

Under the presidency of Ashraf Ghani, the situation in Afghanistan had somewhat changed. Pashtun South had more or less stabilised while in North it exacerbated further. In particular, Taliban militants started attacking mountain districts in Badakhshan province and an attempt was made to seize Kunduz. It is likely that one of the reasons for the emergence of security issues in the North and the decrease in the level of such threats in the South was a noticeable decrease of influence by Tajiks and other ethnic minorities on military-political issues under Ashraf Ghani. In particular, Bismillah Khan appointed by President Karzai in 2012 as Minister of Defence surrendered his post to Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai (Pashtun) in 2015. Since then the post was held by the Pashtuns until summer 2021. As a result, the influence of Pashtuns had grown immensely. From the perspective of nation-building it might have been a rational decision as the fighting dwindled in the southern Pashtun areas meaning such policy did deliver some tangible results.

However, when the United States decided to leave the willingness among Pashtuns to continue their service in the army turned out to be lower than that of the Northern Alliance's veterans from ethnic minorities' backgrounds. Due to Pashtuns' dominance in the chain of command including Afghanistan's northern provinces, the sheer endeavour by Tajiks and Uzbeks who rapidly formed resistance units proved futile. Some witnessed how army command structures simply refused to obey the orders in the first place. It is said this is how Ismail Khan managed to get captured by the Taliban in Herat. He and his men found themselves trapped in the military base and had to surrender after the capitulation of the troops.

In any case it is turning increasingly clear that the Afghan military virtually showed no resistance whatsoever to the Taliban across the entire country. Even the police role barely matters. Most of the police force is scattered across the regions and ready to support the winning side. But the sudden capitulation of the army raises a lot of questions. No matter how many Talibs there were to fight against the army units at least in cities like Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat it would have taken them a great amount of time and efforts to face the local military be they Pashtuns, Tajiks or Uzbeks as long as they had fight left in them.

There are also questions regarding ethnic minorities: one can recall that they didn't have separate command structures as in the 1990s. Najibullah government did establish few ethnic military units, the most famous of them being the 53rd Afghan Infantry Division under Abdul Rashid Dostum. Anyhow Taliban managed to capture northern provinces too fast. Considering there were tens of thousands of experienced fighters who once stood against the Soviet Union, Mujahideen and who frequently battled against each other, it would have taken the Taliban enormous efforts to achieve what they did.

They would have needed to transfer serious expeditionary forces from the South to the North, at least tens of thousands of fighters as they did in 1998 and later. Also they could not pass through Kabul and then the Salang pass until August 15. Mountain routes via the Hindu Kush from the southern direction towards Badakhshan allow only relatively small forces to pass. One can say that the Taliban or their allied forces were already located in the north of Afghanistan. Though it could not have been a full-fledged army, only small guerrilla groups. Furthermore, any strangers from the South of Afghanistan or even from Pakistan would have been identified in the local communities dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks.

The questions are how did most of the northern provinces suddenly fall so swiftly since August 11 and how Taliban managed to occupy most of the border crossings with Central Asian countries? Where did they get so many fighters from? Before US intervention in 2001, they kept tens of thousands of armed men in the North and fought gruelling battles against the Northern Anti-Taliban Alliance. Now they didn't need it. In all northern provinces the majority of the population simply did not resist.

And here we come to a very delicate point regarding the general situation around Afghanistan. In the history of this country there has always been a lot of room for secret diplomacy, cases of betrayal and sudden change of sides. The most typical example is Uzbek General Abdul Malik who in 1997 changed the sides twice within the same week. First Malik overthrew Abdul Rashid Dostum and welcomed the Taliban, then three days later he helped the local Hazaras defeat them.

In 1996 Ali Mazari, the leader of the Hazaras first sided with the Taliban and opposed the Tajiks of Ahmad Shah Massoud, then a few days later got killed by the Taliban. Later the Hazaras battled the Taliban again. During the same year the Pashtuns from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's group massively sided with the Taliban when their leader suddenly joined his former adversary, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Thus the sudden change of sides by the Afghan political groups is old news. It's just that after 20 years of US presence we started overlooking it. Currently we are witnessing it again. Such kinds of manoeuvres are often associated with involvement by the outside powers. For example, Pakistan first supported Hekmatyar, then switched to Taliban which signalled to other Pashtuns to side with the latter. When Malik overthrew Dostum and later reversed back to the side with the Northern Alliance, observers connected it with Uzbekistan's pressure upon Malik.

These stories are worth remembering since such gigantic fiasco of the Afghan army and police, as well as ethnic minorities with their surrender to the Taliban is most likely connected to an external factor. The plot involves the very negotiations by the former Trump Administration with the Taliban.

Why did the United States believe so much that the Taliban would keep their end of the deal? Why Washington signed the paper with the clear cut deadline of their withdrawal? Why Afghan government joined the negotiations only after the deal was done? With how things unfolded Taliban only needed to wait wasting the time of their counterparts during the inter-Afghan Doha talks. With the US intending the leave the country was there any meaning to negotiate at all?

Discussed during Trump's presidency the withdrawal from Afghanistan was listed not only as part of his pre-election promises but also a reflection of isolationist trends within the American political establishment and society. Washington maintained its isolationism policy until Second World War. However, the present mode of expansionism costs too high bringing too few results at the same time.

Afghanistan had become a burden; with it being a landlocked country it is either via Pakistan or Central Asia the delivery of supplies operates. However Central Asian direction faces multiple issues, one being Russia's perception of the region as its strategic backyard. It became even clearer after 2014. Until then the US could exploit specific Russian routes. Things changed after the events in Ukraine worsening Russian-American relations. Suffice it to remind about the informational pressure Kazakhstan faced due to its decision to allow the US to transport its non-military cargo via Aktau port.

Equally, the Pakistani route is dependent upon negotiations. During Trump Administration there were few issues in the US-Pakistan relationship. Under Trump Washington scrapped the Iranian deal which resulted in the growing tensions between the US and Iran in Iraq and Syria. Experts expected a war to erupt chiefly because of the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In this regard, a small number of US troops still left in Afghanistan appeared too vulnerable. From Tehran's perspective 100,000 US troops being deployed under former US President Obama presented a much more tangible threat. After 2014 their number decreased ten times. By the time President Joe Biden assumed his office no more than 3500 military and other hired personnel served in Afghanistan.

Given the fact that Biden considered the possibility of returning to the Iranian deal it was assumed that the new American president might also backtrack on Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Washington could have ignored the understandable discontent of the Taliban in this case. If the US stayed Afghan army and police would have followed suit.

However, Biden chose to continue Trump's policy and even go beyond. The primary goal became the evacuation of the US troops rather than anything else. The evacuation had clear priorities focusing on the safety of the contingent and had to run smoothly, without losses. The military was not much interested in political issues.

And here we approach the most delicate moment. The political component of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, in theory, should have been associated with securing the positions of the government it previously supported. Like it was the case with the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 or the withdrawal of the Americans from South Vietnam in 1973.

This was necessary at least to preserve the face of great power so that the departure did not look like a defeat. At least two years are required to make the regime survive on its own with the help of advisors and state funding in place. Later such a regime may fall due to systemic weaknesses. Important though not to associate the fall of the regime with the withdrawal of troops of the superpower.

In this case, however, President Biden had officially declared that the Afghan government proved to be incapacitated in the middle of August 2021. He said that US objectives in Afghanistan had more to do with anti-terrorism policy rather than state-building narrative. Which looked like an attempt to save face. No matter what pragmatic reasons drove Washington to leave Afghanistan, it still bore ideological features within. The US cannot admit the failure of nation-building in Afghanistan according to Western standards. It contradicts the basic principles of their ideology. It is much simpler to lay the blame upon the Afghan nation itself.

Though it was precisely this moment that caused an incredible shock the general public and political circles of the United States and Europe faced against the background of the current crisis in Afghanistan. For them the most shocking thing seemed to be an ideological component of the Afghan crisis. Especially because the ideological model they backed had collapsed and supporters of a rather archaic religious ideology came to power instead. They were not even communists as was the case with South Vietnam in 1975 or with China in 1949. Because the communist ideology is nevertheless connected with modernization, education and progress encompassed into a heavy totalitarian shell.

People came to power who from a European perspective look like adherents of medieval traditions. For the average American or European person Taliban means something incomprehensible but associated with dark times. This is not Turkey with its moderate Islam. This is not Pakistan with its British law system and British education system. This is not Saudi Arabia and not even the Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait with their Salafism which simultaneously strives for modernization. Therefore, the total surrender in Afghanistan caused such distress in the United States and Europe. To a certain extent it even reflected the blow to the ideological matrix of Western European democracy which since the time of Francis Fukuyama and his article "The End of History" has been regarded as the only valid narrative.

The US officials failed to take these facts into account. Perhaps this happened precisely because the architect of the whole process was Zalmay Khalilzad, a purely oriental and very pragmatic politician. He had a task and he solved it; rather he was part of a pragmatic system.

New information keeps appearing about the negotiations held at various levels before the withdrawal and it might be assumed that what followed was the direct result of it. Like we know that Taliban representatives visited Iran, China and Russia, though much more probably remains hidden behind the scenes.

For example, we cannot find out exactly who and how convinced Tehran not to support Hazaras and obstruct the Taliban's return to power. What arguments were presented in Moscow and Beijing? Why they never objected Taliban's victory? Why Tashkent remained silent when Uzbek inhabited provinces surrendered within two days?

In fact, Tajikistan turned out to be the only country getting nervous in terms of the Taliban's advancement in northern Afghanistan this summer. Dushanbe held unprecedented exercises, took different drastic measures, held talks with CSTO members and continued getting exceedingly alarmed. They couldn't have known what was occurring in Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, etc. Tajikistan's leadership had been witnessing the steady loss of ethnic Tajik positions in the North and felt agitated.

It does look like the important parties involved were aware. They may not have welcomed the development of events but they didn't object to it either. In the end, it became apparent that it was the United States who suffered the most devastating defeat in one of the most strategic regions in the world.

Surely this option looked quite attractive for Iran, China and Russia; all three having complicated relations with the US. It also means that they no longer need to tolerate US presence in the region. Furthermore, the US abandoning Afghanistan can signal the end of their previous policies and China, Iran and Russia can take this as an indication that Washington might change its perspectives regarding them too.

If within the framework of the previous strategy Washington mixed geopolitical interests with ideology, then Iran, China and Russia might have thought that perhaps their new policy would get more pragmatic. Accordingly, it might become possible to negotiate with them, including the issue of dividing areas of responsibility in world politics. Clearly, that would fully meet the interests of Iran, China and Russia.

In any case, they didn't intend to prevent the US from committing, from their point of view, some sort of geopolitical and ideological hara-kiri by evacuating from Afghanistan so speedily. But still, they needed guarantees. Iran wants the Taliban to keep away from Hazara Shiites; Russia wants no threats emerging for Central Asia; China wants no support for the radical Uighurs.

The leadership of these countries requires much more valid guarantees than representatives of the Taliban could provide. In this context Taliban's visits to Iran, China and Russia in July 2021 looked rather propagandistic. It was clearly not enough to avoid interference. At least that was the case with Iran.

Oriental politics requires a solid counterpart to sign an agreement with and who will guarantee its implementation. And only Pakistan could provide such guarantees to Iran, China and Russia in these difficult summer days. And here we reached the key element of the entire decision-making system around the August events in Afghanistan – Pakistan loomed behind it all.

Only Pakistan was influential enough for Iran, China and Russia to ensure the Taliban would observe their obligations. Only Pakistan was capable of reinforcing the Taliban to the point of creating armed pressure throughout Afghanistan - from Nimruz to Herat, from Badakhshan to Jalalabad. Among the Taliban fighters who freely roamed the streets of Afghan cities in August, people with a typical South Asian appearance were prominent. Pakistan nationals have the opportunity to draw on virtually unlimited manpower from their own Pashtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Only Pakistani Pashtun representatives could persuade the Pashtun Afghan military to give up armed resistance.

Only Pakistani representatives could negotiate with many influential people in Afghanistan on the ground, including the same northern provinces. Only that could ensure their neutrality at the time of the Taliban's offensive and failure to counterattack. Undoubtedly it was an important condition for such rapid and bloodless occupation of the Afghan North with all its ethnic minorities and traditions of resistance against the Taliban.

Only Pakistan could provide strategic planning during the Taliban offensive. It involved the capture of the border points with Central Asia and Iran making the efforts to recreate the Northern anti-Taliban alliance impossible in the first place. It was such a kind of planning that in fact predetermined the fall of the Afghan government.

Only Pakistan could have negotiated with Washington from the perspective of control over the Taliban and ensuring their decent behaviour. This development looks much more likely bearing in mind Washington's willingness to negotiate with the Taliban at the highest level. Also it is supported by the fact that during the August crisis in Afghanistan, US troops didn't appear to be panicking being around and within close proximity to the armed Taliban fighters.

The questions emerge as to why Americans don't fear any hostilities from the armed Taliban; why they are convinced that former prisoners of Guantanamo whom they labelled as terrorists would not retaliate? Why did they believe that the Taliban could be negotiated with in the first place?

Here a mediator who can ensure and guarantee is required. Obviously, the only candidate for that role is Pakistan. It's already becoming known that Pakistani citizens are beginning to actively participate in the political processes in the South of Afghanistan.

Pakistan is a very convenient candidate for the role of controlling the Taliban, irrespective of its participation in the creation of this organization in 1994. Firstly, Islamabad has a long-standing relationship with both the United States and China. Secondly, Pakistan contains enough people and organizations with radical Islam views, but the army and special services of the country keep tabs on them. Third, Pakistan has been interested in establishing transport corridors to Central Asia since the early 1990s. It continues to be a priority since Pakistan's relations with India fluctuate and remain tense.

If the Taliban would indeed manage to provide an order albeit severe, it might ensure the implementation of certain projects, like the construction of a railway from Uzbek Termez to Pakistani Peshawar or the construction of TAPI (Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline) from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Islamabad has direct interests in completing them as well as the US to a certain extent. Because during US presence in Afghanistan, these projects had continuously faced issues involving security threats. Having operational transport corridors from Central Asia that would not cross the territories of Iran, China and Russia was always part of the American strategy since the 1990s.

Thus Pakistan had actually turned into the key player in Afghanistan. Now Islamabad is responsible for the security of other countries which concern Central Asia, China and Russia; for Taliban's approach towards women which alarms the West, as well as religious minorities which is a matter of concern for Iran. Apart from that Pakistan shares the burden of avoiding a collapse in the Afghan economy with the US cutting its funding off and unemployment growing day by day. Particularly this includes state-provided jobs.

In fact, the principal issue today is not even those tens of thousands of Afghans trying to flee the country because they worked for the Americans and other Western countries. Much greater difficulties await the country associated with an almost inevitable economic crisis. Aside from the loss of livelihoods for millions of people, it's completely unclear how the critical imports, primarily the food to Afghanistan would function considering that Afghan Central Bank's assets remain frozen.

Roughly 38 million people live in Afghanistan today. This is about twice as much as in 2001. The economic collapse might entail real disaster for millions of desperate people. It would be hard, if not impossible, to contain them within the state borders.

So whoever runs this covert operation to seize power in Afghanistan, whoever negotiated the surrender of the military and police managed to establish an incredibly complex situation with no simple solution. Rather it can be assumed that many tactical issues were successfully solved for many participants. However, as far as the strategy is concerned, there are more questions than answers.

One should still admit that the operation proved to be immensely successful and clearly took an enormous amount of time in terms of preparations. It is worth reminding that in November 2001 Taliban too crumbled like a house of cards, even without American infantry getting involved. Pashtuns then mostly went home. Those of Pakistan origin went back to their home country. Only in northern Afghanistan Uzbeks and Tajiks surrounded the Taliban group which included many foreign fighters and Pakistanis. Rumours spread that the most crucial Pakistan nationals were flown back to Pakistan from Kunduz airport. The other remaining militants were dealt with by the soldiers of the Uzbek General Dostum who locked them in the railway containers under the hot blazing sun.

Today Dostum continues to battle. According to some sources he allegedly arrived in Panjshir where Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, and former Vice President Amrullah Saleh are leading the resistance movement. The information about Dostum is not entirely accurate but Tajik leaders believe they might last fighting in Panjshir for some time until the Taliban start making mistakes. Perhaps also they expect that external forces might change their stance concerning the current crisis. Or, at the very least, they might conclude their own deal with either Taliban or Pakistan.

Afghan history contains plenty of difficult and tragic moments. Today we might have witnessed perhaps the most difficult of them. Moreover, we are talking about the failure of the state-building project to create a modern state with properly functioning institutions. That state simply vanished, evaporating within few short days leaving behind angry and bewildered people as well as a clear sense of the end of history. At least not in the way Fukuyama meant 30 years ago.

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