Afghanistan: Return of the Taliban.
The Great Game between empires in Central Asia
(Int.C.P. ‘The Communist Party’ Nr. 36, September 2021)
The return of the Taliban to power in Kabul is a fact that does not surprise us too much. Of course, we cannot deny that the grand finale of the macabre spectacle of a twenty-year conflict, which has cost rivers of blood and mountains of money, has taken on surreal characteristics, especially if the result of so much mad effort has been nothing other than to see the faction that had been driven out of power thanks to the military intervention of the United States return to power.
The collapse of the regime held in place thanks to the protection of the armed forces of the first military power in the world, looks like a stinging defeat likely to significantly alter the balance between the great imperialist powers. It is not by chance that the Beijing government, emboldened by the American defeat, took the opportunity to reaffirm the imperial appetites of mainland China over Taiwan and wanted to send a warning message to the Taipei rulers: “watch how the United States abandon their protégés to an inauspicious fate. Tomorrow the same fate could befall you.”
But the consequences are not necessarily less serious at the domestic level: reliving in the Kabul of 2021 the defeat already suffered in Saigon in 1975, and moreover with a very similar script, inflicts a disfiguring wound to the image of the U.S. establishment that after more than 2,400 American deaths and a trillion dollars dissipated in a totally inconclusive occupation, is presented in front of the spectacular machine of bourgeois propaganda with very meager spoils of war. Yet we would be wrong to see in these results only the ineptitude of the four presidents who in these twenty years have managed American foreign policy.
If in the epoch of bourgeois decadence the frenzied race of the economy towards the overproduction of goods and capital seems to us ever more irrational and destructive, why should we be surprised if the policy of the greatest economic and military power on the planet also turns out to be absurd and inconclusive? If politics for us Marxists is a concentration of economics, why shouldn’t a demented economy correspond to an equally demented policy?
We don’t want to insist too much on the real or presumed ineptitude of those responsible for US policy, because it is not in our method to overestimate the function of individuals. Our reading starts rather from the consideration that the foreign policy of states is nothing more than the result of objective factors linked to the necessities imposed by the valorization of capital, by the aims of social preservation imposed by the overall interests of the ruling class and, in the last instance, by the relations of force between the powers.
In the case of the United States, marked by decades of relative decline in its economic weight on a global scale, foreign policy can no longer adhere to a coherent overall strategic design, but finds itself forced to come to terms with ever-increasing difficulties in many areas of the world that impose swings and sudden turns with almost never decisive consequences.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001 against the Twin Towers in New York and against the Pentagon, the decision of then US President George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan was officially motivated by the need to strike at the alliance linking al-Qaeda to the Taliban regime that had been ruling the Central Asian country of Afghanistan since 1996. In reality, if the aim had really been that of striking the protectors and instigators of those who had struck the beating heart of American power in such a devastating way, the war would have had to be conducted elsewhere, given that behind al-Qaeda were the great economic interests tied essentially to oil revenues in Saudi Arabia.
This aspect was also confirmed by the fact that most of the attackers were Saudi citizens. In the second place, if the objective had been that of striking the Taliban, at the time at the helm of a fragile State structure, born on the ruins of the civil war between the “war lords” of the so-called “resistance” to the Soviet invasion, then it would have been more logical to take it out on Pakistan, which had been, since its birth, the nurturer and political godfather of the movement of the “Koranic students”. But all that was impossible since Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were historic allies of the US.
A State designed by imperialism
Then there had already been some of those natural setbacks that mark the progress of history: the religious Afghan mujaheddin who had been supported militarily to sustain the war against the Soviet Union, once the pro-Soviet regime had been overthrown, massacred themselves in a bloody civil war whose sides had been defined along the fault lines of the various ethnic and religious components of a country with an only fictitious national unity.
The fragility of the country’s cohesion stemmed from a process of state formation in which British colonial policy had played a decisive role. In a certain sense, Afghanistan resembles many states that were first drawn on maps by the old colonial powers rather than in actual reality. In fact, the 2,670-kilometer-long border separating Afghanistan from Pakistan was the result of an agreement reached in 1893 between the Secretary of State of British India Sir Mortimer Durand and the then Afghan Emir Abd ur-Rahman Khan. Since then, the so-called Durand Line has defined, with few variations, the arbitrarily drawn boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, two states that, in the act of birth, bore in varying degrees and for different reasons the stigmata of British colonial domination.
The former was born at the time of Indian independence, thanks to the work of fragmentation of the independence movement on a religious basis, planned and pursued with pertinacious determination by London. The second was born instead as a “buffer state”, again at the behest of British diplomacy, in order to keep under control the expansionist aims of Tsarist Russia, which through Central Asia were turning in the direction of the warm seas. It should be added that the birth of Afghanistan, which became fully independent from a de facto British protectorate only in 1919, was a sort of fallback solution for the colonial power.
This was the consequence of the outcome of the three Anglo-English wars that in a span of 70 years had failed to subdue the country. This solution was the result of the so-called Great Game which, starting from the middle of the 19th Century, involved the great world powers of the time around what is now Afghanistan. It is no coincidence that in the mid-1970s, after decades of relative dormancy, the Great Game came back to the fore as a consequence of the first serious economic crisis of the cycle of capitalist accumulation following the Second World War. Just as it is no coincidence that in the last 42 years Afghanistan has gone from one war to another in a process of social upheaval that has also manifested itself in the urbanization of large portions of the rural population.
The last two decades of the “American war” have also seen the progressive inclusion of China in the Afghan Great Game, in a way completely parallel to the affirmation of the latter as an industrial power in the world. The Chinese interest in Afghanistan was also propitiated by the geographical contiguity, so much so that the two countries shared a 92-kilometer-long stretch of border, the route of which was defined for the first time in 1895 in an agreement between Russia and Great Britain in which the two empires placed a “no man’s land” between their respective areas of influence, arbitrarily attributing to Afghanistan the inhospitable, desolate and impervious Wakhan Corridor (350 kilometers long and less than 30 wide on average), located between the high altitudes of the Hindokush mountain range.
Today, China’s attention towards Afghanistan is motivated by various aspects, first and foremost the fact that it represents an obligatory passage along the three lines of expansion of Chinese trade, one of which moves in the direction of the Indian Ocean, another goes towards ex-Soviet Central Asia and yet another heads straight for the Mediterranean. With regard to the first line of Chinese expansion, Beijing has invested in two major projects: the first is the “Five Countries Railway” which, passing through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, will end in the Iranian port of Chabahar and will connect China to the Gulf of Oman; the second is the “Sino-Pakistan Economic Corridor” which, crossing the areas inhabited by Pashtuns and Beluci (the same populations also present in Afghanistan), will reach the port of Gwadar, on the Indian Ocean, which is being enlarged thanks to substantial Chinese funding.
So it is not surprising if Beijing’s Afghan policy aspires first and foremost to the political stabilization of the neighboring country. This is an aspiration that, for diametrically opposed reasons, does not arouse the same enthusiasm in the United States, China’s main imperial rival.
This crucial knot has had its weight in the chain of events that has led the United States to derail on the road to its military disengagement from the Afghan conflict and it is certainly no coincidence that in an attempt to make Chinese hegemony over a vast geo-historical area including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran more difficult, the last two US administrations have decided to play the card of the political rehabilitation of the Taliban, who have become key players in Washington’s Afghan policy. There are several factual elements that corroborate the picture of a dialogue and cooperation with the Taliban that may never have completely disappeared but have certainly been growing in recent years.
In 2017, the United States pressured Pakistan to release Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund, from its prisons in order to represent the “Koranic students” movement in direct negotiations. The negotiation between the U.S. Representative for Afghan Affairs, the Afghan-born, Pashtun-ethnic diplomat Zalmai Khalilzad, and Abdul Ghani Baradar himself, also like most of the Pashtun-ethnic Taliban, resulted in the February 2020 Doha Agreement in which Washington agreed on the agenda for its military withdrawal with its apparent “arch-enemies” after nearly two decades of uninterrupted war.
But the thing that made this circumstance even more paradoxical was that the “friendly” government in Kabul was kept (rightly!) out of the negotiations.
To highlight some of the paradoxical and apparently incongruous aspects of imperialist warfare, it so happens that Qatar, of which Doha is the capital, is also the country where the US military base of al-Ubeid, the most important in the Middle East, is located. But at the same time, Doha has been home to the headquarters of the Taliban for several years. Moreover, Qatar is, as is well known, the main international sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest component of Sunni political Islam, whose expansion has been opposed or encouraged in alternating phases by the United States itself. Suffice it to say that the Muslim Brotherhood is also affiliated with the A.K.P. of Turkish President Erdogan and the Palestinian group Hamas, further confirmation of the ambivalent relations between states and organizations once considered enemies and now considered allies. And it is no coincidence that, taking advantage of the hospitality offered to the Taliban, Doha has risen to contribute to that shift in identity that has changed the features of the Afghan fundamentalist movement, bringing them closer to the Muslim Brotherhood and in some respects – something that was unheard of until recently – even to the Iranian theocracy.
The mutated Taliban
Once [mystics] and iconoclasts (one remembers the destruction of the gigantic statues of the Buddhas of Bamyan or the scenes in which the television sets were smashed with an ax in spectacular propaganda representations of the fight against unbelief), the Taliban are ready to propagandize their new course in which, in tune with modern fundamentalism, they show themselves willing to Islamicize capitalist modernity rather than oppose it. This attitude was manifested immediately after the fall of Kabul into their hands with a proclamation affirming their commitment to respect property and investments, including foreign ones. The Taliban want to make themselves out to be the best promise of bourgeois continuity for Afghanistan available on the market today, and in this endeavor it cannot be taken for granted that they will fail since they have excellent credentials (of which the world capitalist class is well aware).
In this regard, it is worth noting the immense trust granted to the Taliban by the U.S. that, among the points of the Doha Agreements, had agreed to include the release of 5,000 prisoners of war from Afghan jails. This aspect of the agreement was opposed in every way, and for reasons easily understandable, by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani who precisely opposed the measure, denouncing it as unconstitutional. But a puppet government cannot but obey the strings of its puppet master and so Washington “suggested” to the president the convocation of a Loya Jirga, the Great National Assembly that groups together the Afghan notables representing all the ethnic groups and all the territorial realities of the country, judged in that case to be competent to adopt such a decision. So in August 2020, in his opening speech of the Loya Jirga, Ashraf Ghani found himself obtorto collo [bluntly] in the paradoxical condition of pleading for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of a thousand soldiers and public officials detained by the Koranic students. An episode which explains how ample strata of the Afghan dominant class, worried by such weakness on the part of the Kabul Government, was encouraged to keep its foot in two [camps], thus preparing itself for the eventuality of a change of regime, limiting possible clashes, friction and useless and inculcated heroism.
To make the surrender without a fight that took place in the first half of August more plausible, there is also the Afghan custom (typical of all societies that do not boast of a tradition of solid state order) of not considering loyalty to the State or to a political alliance as superior to the loyalty owed to one’s own tribe. It is almost needless to say that most of the prisoners freed in September 2020 went to swell the ranks of the Taliban militias, contributing to creating havoc and distrust in the government forces.
At the end of 2020, the Taliban already controlled a conspicuous part of the Afghan territory. Although excluded from the large cities, which were held by the regular army backed by US and NATO forces, they were at the head of a “de facto State”. A state which they managed with efficiency and shrewdness, especially when compared to the extreme inefficiency and corruption of the official government which, lacking any real cohesion, was a brand behind which the interests of the tribal clans survived the lack of centralization of the country due to the fragility of a state entity without its own strength.
In fiscal year 2020, the Taliban managed a budget of about $1.6 billion, only part of which came from the taxation of opium cultivation, the refining of drugs and their marketing (a fact that, according to sources such as the Financial Times, dispels the myth of an armed insurgency entirely dependent on drug trafficking). According to some estimates, the narcotics trade has contributed a quarter of the Taliban’s income, roughly equal to that of the taxes collected on the exploitation of the mines, a very important sector and very promising for the future, considering the wealth of the Afghan subsoil. Particularly profitable is the exploitation of the talc mines extracted in Afghanistan, exported through the porous Pakistani border thanks to the good offices of the ISI (the Pakistani secret services) and then marketed as talc “made in Pakistan” throughout the world (the US and Italy are among the major consumers).
Among the other sources of income were the taxes imposed on the subject population (the press opposed to the Taliban defines these as “extortion”) which contributed 160 million to 10% of the total budget. Exports of goods yielded $240 million, while donations came from many countries. Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates contributed a similar amount to the Taliban coffers, confirming the existence of a dense international network of support.
The financial resources of the Taliban played an essential role in the long war of position that prepared the triumphant final offensive if, as it appears from various sources, the Taliban militias were mercenary troops in all respects and received a salary generally higher than that of the regular troops. Moreover, as has been repeated in several media outlets in recent days, the regular army’s numbers were inflated by commanders in order to obtain more funding from the state.
Back in power
There are now various difficulties and unknowns for the Taliban in power. The political unification of the country under its own flag, with the exception of a few pockets of resistance, seems substantially complete. The chances of the so-called “Northern Alliance”, barricaded with a few thousand men in the Panjshir valley, to effectively oppose an announced Taliban offensive also seem slim.
It is necessary to remember that the spoils of war of the Taliban, obtained from the dissolution of the regular army supplied by the United States, include many hundreds of Humvee armored vehicles, some Black Hawk combat helicopters and twenty or so A-29 Super Tucano aircraft. All of which put the Taliban in a clear advantageous position in the face of any eventual armed insurgency.
This does not mean, however, that the country will be easily pacified. Another difficulty with which the Taliban must reckon is the freezing of international financial flows destined for the old Afghan government and which were indispensable to guarantee its functioning. A third difficulty could come from the internal divisions of a not very homogeneous political structure. Some components would be more interested in imprinting an “internationalist” character of all-out Islamic propaganda on the Taliban Emirate, as would be the case of the Haqqani Network traditionally tied to the Pakistani services and to Al Qaeda.
The most influential component, at the moment, seems to be more interested in highlighting the national character of the movement. Exponents of this tendency are the leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, designated as Amir al-Muminin (Prince of Believers) and the already nominated Head of the Government, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
In a meeting in early August in Tianjin with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the latter pledged not to interfere with the thorny issue of the Uyghurs, a Sunni Muslim and Turkic-speaking population in China’s Xinjiang, whose ethnic discrimination by the Beijing government is one of the leitmotifs of anti-Chinese propaganda advocated by the US and Western powers. The armed movement called the Turkestan Islamic Party, which gathers Uyguri jihadists, is active in China and took part in some moments of the war in Afghanistan and the war in Syria by joining the jihadists in Idlib. This aspect presents itself as one of the obstacles that could hinder the development of those “friendly” relations between China and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that the Beijing government hastened to hope for immediately after the fall of Kabul into Taliban hands.
The Great Game of the 21st Century
For us Marxists, national and religious conflicts conceal material interests that are mostly unacknowledged, just as the Taliban flag is waved to propitiate and co-conspire more or less shady business deals. A new advance by China could undoubtedly benefit from a pacified and unified Afghanistan, even if under the banner of the Taliban, which is indigestible to many. Chinese imperialism is anxious to fill a void left by the retreating American imperialism, but a success in this sense is far from being taken for granted. What will determine future developments in the Great Game of the 21st Century will be the balance of power between the great powers on the verge of entering the final straight of the general war, of the infamous world imperialist slaughter.
‘The Communist Party’ Nr. 36, September 2021.
Source: Afghanistan: Return of the Taliban. Translation from: Il Grande Gioco fra imperi in Asia centrale (Sept. 4, 2021)
Paragraph titles have been inserted according to the Italian text. H.C., September 9, 2021