World Island, Rimland and its value in the 21st century: some considerations on Afghanistan

After the withdrawal of international troops from Afghan territory, there is now a repositioning of major powers in the international concert
atalayar_talibanes-kabul

AP/ZABI KARIMI  -   In this August 15, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace after President Ashraf Ghani fled, in Kabul, Afghanistan. With the US exit from Afghanistan, China has seen its hopes of reducing the influence of a geopolitical rival in what it sees as its backyard realised.

The United States has moved out of Afghanistan and is focusing on the Asia-Pacific area.

Afghanistan's value lies not so much in its abundance of resources as in its geographic location, which is why the great contemporary empires have sought to draw it into their spheres of influence since the 19th century, with mixed results. Afghanistan was the centre around which much, perhaps the most important part of Anglo-Russian colonial action in Central Asia revolved. For Russia it represented the logical expansion of its economic interests to the south of the continent and Hindostan. For the British Empire, it was the possibility of creating a buffer state, under its control, between Russia and India, and thus enabling its domination of the Island World theorised by McKinder in 1905. Central Asia as a nexus between the East, Asia and Europe made it, from a theoretical point of view, the most important region in Asia. Until 1917, most of the region was the target of Russian colonial expansion, with large tracts of territory occupied through military occupation and the implementation of political measures to integrate these territories into Russia. The creation of the province of Fergana within Russian Turkestan initiated antagonism between London and St. Petersburg in the region. The General Governorate of Turkestan was the result of the military occupation and colonisation of the region. Around it, the Russian Empire extended its diplomatic action, more interested in bringing the regional khanates under its influence and establishing protectorates, thus promoting Russian expansion and commercial dominance without direct confrontation with the British. London understood Russian expansion as a threat to India and a threat to its dominance in the region.

atalayar_afganistan 2001
REUTERS/YANNIS BEHRAKIS - An Afghan woman wearing the traditional burqa walks along the shoulder of a road as an APC (armoured personnel carrier) of the Northern Alliance, carrying fighters and the Afghan flag, drives to a new position on the outskirts of Jabal us Seraj, about 60 km north of the Afghan capital Kabul, 4 November 2001.

Both empires saw the region comprising present-day Afghanistan as the key to their respective policies of regional expansion and containment of the adversary. Even before the Crimean War, the British Empire attempted to occupy Afghanistan in an attempt to limit Russian expansion, leading to the first Anglo-Afghan War, the defeat of the empire, and the withdrawal from Kabul, one of the most defining episodes of the Afghan character that has endured to this day. The war with Russia in the Crimea led to the Treaty of Peshawar, which made possible a peace with Afghanistan that was only disrupted by factional fighting.

While Russia continued to extend its political influence and occupy small portions of territory from the north, Britain again invaded Afghanistan, occupied Kabul and imposed its terms on the Amir by the Treaty of Gandamark.

In the late 19th century, after finding themselves on the brink of confrontation due to the Russian advance towards Persia, both powers converged on the need to reach agreements that would favour the division of the region between their respective spheres of influence. Russia would retain control of the northern territory of present-day Afghanistan and equal trading rights with the British, while recognising the British Empire's political control over the rest of the region, making the Afghan emirate a de facto British protectorate. 

atalayar_historia afganistan
AFP/AFP - Chronology of major events in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation

It was at this point that an event of relative significance occurred, the consequences of which remain to this day. The Durand Line was drawn, separating Afghanistan from northern India, the future Pakistan, cutting off Pashtunistan from the bulk of the Pashtun-majority areas that remained inside Afghanistan.

There was still to be a brief confrontation in 1919 between the British and Afghans when Amir Amanullah advanced into India across the Khiber. The defeat of the Afghans led to a paradoxical situation in that, after the armistice was signed, the British ceased to intervene in Afghan affairs.

As we can see, Afghanistan could be seen as the embodiment of the fact that history is cyclical, and how we tend to make the same mistakes as those who came before us. The helicopter evacuation of US Embassy staff in Kabul following the Taliban's entry into the city takes us back, far from the hackneyed comparisons with Saigon in 1975, and somewhat less so with Tehran in 1979, to the British withdrawal from Kabul in 1842. Afghanistan has historically become a 'cul de sac' for the powers that have tried to intervene in the country, with a strategy of non-intervention being preferable to non-intervention if others do not intervene

atalayar_afganistan opio
PHOTO/AP - Farmers harvest raw opium in a poppy field in the Zhari district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

This brief historical note, set in a specific context, serves to illustrate, in a brief way, the relative importance of Afghanistan in contemporary geopolitics beyond the Cold War. It also demonstrates that history unfolds in a 'continuum' where everything is the product of a concatenation of events and decisions of no apparent importance, which often go unnoticed, but which are decisive in the final consequences derived from a given event.

The emirate and later kingdom of Afghanistan maintained a low profile in the international context until the last decades of the 20th century. It continued to maintain a certain geostrategic importance, constituting part of what today we would call the USSR's backyard, whose importance became relative given Persia's realignment with the United States since 1953 and the growing antagonism between the USSR and China. Moscow, without intervening directly, made its neighbour one of the main recipients of Soviet aid after 1945.

atalayar_massoud
AFP/WAKIL KOHSAR - A Taliban fighter stands next to a poster with the image of the late Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Massoud Square in Kabul on 16 August 2021.

Three coups and Soviet intervention mark the 1970s. In 1973 Daud Khan, a former prime minister, staged a coup that overthrew his cousin the king - Shah - Mohammed Zahir. He adopts the traditional Afghan approach of maintaining a complex balance between the contending powers. He tries to implement liberal economic reforms while accepting Soviet aid and trains officers to command the army in the USSR. He was deposed and shot in 1978 following a coup carried out by the same officers. The reason was the repression of communist militants by the Daud government. The country definitively aligned itself with Soviet theses. The new strongman was Nur Mohamed Taraki, leader of the Pashtun faction of the Communist Party. Taraki tried to implement economic and social measures in a largely rural society with extremely traditional social structures, whose basic nucleus was the family, and where customary laws, mediated by religious and ethnic elements, prevailed. These reforms were mostly imposed through the use of force, as Marxism was an anti-religious ideology that implied social practices incompatible with their way of life.

At the beginning of 1979, the first groups of mujahideen, opponents of the centralist government, were organised, based on religion as an ideological basis against Marxism, and a civil war began. These groups were fuelled by mass desertions from within the army, with around half the army deserting or joining the mujahideen in the course of 1979. In September Taraki was deposed in a coup led by Prime Minister Amin, the first step being to execute Taraki, the second to openly call for Soviet intervention

atalayar_massoud
AFP/EMMANUEL DUNAND - In this file photo taken on 16 August 1997, Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud (R) gestures while talking to his commanders, including Abdullah Abdullah (C), in the village of Jabul-Os-Saraj, about 60 km north of Kabul.

Despite the debate within the USSR government and the conflicting positions of those who advocated aid to a friendly country, those who considered Afghanistan irrelevant, and the opposition of part of the army, in December 1979 the USSR intervened. It acceded to the request for help from the Afghan socialist government, which was embroiled in a civil war, to which, as is now the case, no viable solution could be found. In less than two weeks, President Amin was deposed, and Soviet units occupied the country's main population centres, taking control of military installations and the country's meagre infrastructure.  This was a limited intervention intended to support Moscow's candidate, Karmal, and stabilise the country. The intervention, as expressed by some senior army officers, was a mistake, which would soon prove to be a quagmire from which it would be very difficult to extricate oneself. During the eight years of intervention, the vast majority of the military resources deployed were used to defend cities, infrastructures and military installations. Offensive operations were carried out with specific means and in very specific contexts, such as operations against bases or insurgent groups. Most of the units used in the defence of the territory were of low quality, composed of replacements from the Asian Republics, with periods of service of two years. Special forces and air assets were used exclusively for offensive work.

atalayar_alianza del norte
PHOTO/HajiNoorUllah7 - The Northern Alliance flag is raised in the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan at this time represented a potential destabilisation point for the USSR, from which the US belatedly and badly tried to extrapolate, almost four decades later, the lessons learned in Vietnam, to a territory and in a conflict that presented notable differences but also interesting parallels, an opportunity to strike a decisive blow, indirectly, at Moscow. From 1985 US support for the insurgency, creating a solid structure to channel economic and military support through Pakistan, further complicated the situation for Soviet troops, increasing the number of opponents to the intervention within the USSR. Pakistan from 79 began to support Afghan religious parties, mainly Burhannudin Rabbani's Jamiat I Islami, a Tajik, in order to counterbalance the Pashtun majority. Pakistan treaded carefully when it came to feeding Pashtun concerns, basically because one of their demands, always played with by allies and enemies alike, was the abolition of the Durand line and the reunification of Pashtunistan into a single nation.

atalayar_afganistan 2001
AP/DUSAN VRANIC - In this 24 November 2001 file photo, a column of Taliban fighters crosses the front line in the northern Afghan town of Amirabad, as hundreds of Taliban defected to the northern alliance, paving the way for the fall of Kunduz.

Adjacent to Pashtunistan, the Panjshir Valley was the base and fiefdom of Ahmad Sha Massud's Tajiks, from where he led the war against the Soviets and, until his death in 2001, against Taliban militias. Massud was the main insurgent leader the Soviet troops faced, even controlling the Ring Road or the access to the Soviet Army's retreat routes to the USSR from the Panjshir Valley. However, Massud was not the main recipient of US aid; Pakistani management favoured organisations where the religious component outweighed the ethnic component, such as the Rabbani faction or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Pashtuns. The insurgency was always more effective in rural areas, where its influence was greater, multiplying its effectiveness with the arrival of modern equipment from the US and funding from both the US and Saudi Arabia, which were more interested in religious proselytising than in finding the least traumatic solution to the Afghan quagmire. The US invested around $5 billion in fighting the USSR in Afghanistan.

In 1986 Mohammed Najibullah replaced Karmal as president, faced with the announcement of the Soviet withdrawal and the restructuring of the army. Najibullah was Moscow's man in Kabul, exiled in the USSR until 1979, and headed the intelligence service of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan from 1980 to 1986.

atalayar_afganistan 2001
AFP/ROMEO GACAD - This file photo taken on 23 December 2001 shows Afghan anti-Taliban fighters displaying the victory sign as they leave the mountainous area of Tora Bora for their base.

In 1988 Soviet troops withdrew, although financial and material support for Najibullah was maintained. The collapse and decomposition of the USSR from 1990 paralyses Soviet support; Najibullah's government survives until February 1992, when Kabul falls to insurgent militias.

This is the turning point in Afghanistan's recent history. Along with the fall of the socialist government, the civil confrontation between the opposing factions intensified. The Peshawar agreements signed between the different mujahideen organisations gave the presidency to the Tajik Rabbani, who, supported by Massud, also a Tajik, and until 1994 by Dostum, an Uzbek, clashed with the Pashtuns of Hekmatyar, who did not accept the Tajik rule sanctioned in the agreements.

atalayar_afganistan 2001
AFP/SHAH MARAI - This file photo taken on 13 November 2001 shows Northern Alliance security forces entering Kabul during the fall of the Taliban regime.

Circumscribed to a civil conflict in an irrelevant area in the international context of the mid-1990s, with no external economic support, except for the ups and downs of Pakistan, which surfs between the Afghan factions, is when the production and export of opium through Pakistan began as a means of financing the war by the opposing organisations. It was in the middle of this decade, in 1994, that a new actor emerged in the Afghan political and social fabric, the Taliban. The student movement was made up of Pashtuns from refugee camps located on the other side of the Durand line, who during the Soviet intervention, by staying relatively distant from the conflict, channelled economic support. Mainly Saudi, in the religious training of their members in Koranic schools in Pakistan. In mid-1994 the students, taalib, as they are known, funded by Islamabad, formed armed units, and carried out the first interventions in Afghanistan. A year later, at the beginning of 1995, led by Mullah Omar, the Taliban movement, which was bolstered by the prestige of its military achievements, was in a position to take Kabul. The capital fell in 1996, achieving a relative unification of the country with the seizure of Kabul. Among other factors, repression and the adoption of a rigorous version of Islamic law, which is seen as an imposition alien to the prevailing customs and mores of Afghan society, push the opposition to try to cohere in a fragile alliance called the United Islamic National Front of Afghanistan, better known as the Northern Alliance, which includes Tajiks and Uzbeks as well as Hazaras.

atalayar_afganistan opio
AFP/NOORULLAH SHIRZADA - An Afghan farmer collects raw opium while working in a poppy field in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar province.

The Taliban receive funding from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, which picks up half the bill and direct funding for Koranic schools, and the UAE, the first three governments to recognise the government led by Mullah Omar in 1996, as well as from private donors, such as Osama bin Laden, whom they protect and harbour, along with his organisation. The responsibility of Al-Qaeda, the organisation led by Bin Laden, for the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US is the cause put forward for the intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 by the international coalition led by the US giant, which is now withdrawing.

Once again, this extensive note on Afghanistan's recent history helps us to understand that Afghanistan has never, throughout its history, managed to form a state, in modern terms, lacking, broadly speaking, a legislative corpus and a bureaucracy or administrative system and an economic system subject to common dynamics and regulations. Afghanistan is a country subject to sectarian, ethnic and clientelistic logics of a local or regional nature. We are witnessing the decomposition of a country, artificially sustained for 20 years by the economic and military power of the US, which has not failed to result in the imposition of a political system alien to the very characteristics that make up the Afghan identity, resulting in the absence of real state control over 80% of the territory and nearly 75% of the population.

atalayar_afganistan resistencia
REUTERS/MOHAMMAS ISMAIL - File photo , Ahmad Massoud, son of Afghanistan's anti-Soviet resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, speaks to supporters in Bazarak, Panjshir province, Afghanistan.

For the US government, the intervention in Afghanistan provided an objective for a society that, in part, was demanding revenge after the 9/11 attacks. To the outside world, the political and stabilisation factor was used, as part of a security operation, to gain the support of the United Nations and NATO, despite the certainty of being faced with the praxis of an erroneous model. A model that, after Afghanistan, was applied with greater virulence in Iraq, this time without UN support, since, while in Afghanistan the intervention did not involve the destruction of the state, which was non-existent, in Iraq the state structures were blown up out of control, with armed opposition manifesting itself earlier and with more traumatic consequences, due to the confluence of both endogenous and exogenous factors, the erroneousness of the model applied by the US. In strategic terms, it allowed Washington to establish an advanced control point over Pakistan and Russia, once again creating the paradigm of American troops deployed in a territory bordering Russia, with the particularity of being, as we have seen, part of Moscow's backyard. It could even have served to deploy troops on the borders of Iran and China at a time, at the beginning of the 21st century, when US foreign and defence policy was expanding.

atalayar_afganistan resistencia
PHOTO/REUTERS - Ahmad Shah Massoud, greets as he arrives to attend a meeting in Bazarak, Panjshir province, Afghanistan.

It is likely that the weariness generated in a traditionally isolationist society like the US over an exceptionally long conflict, around which new ones have arisen, and even the advent of Russia and China as the main antagonists of the US have weighed too heavily in reaching a solution that was always known was not going to end well. Since 2014 the situation in Afghanistan had been deteriorating at a rate proportional to the withdrawal of troops and funding by the US and its allies. It is then that the structural weaknesses of the Afghan system became clearer.

Afghanistan has a territory of around 655,000 km² bordering Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, former Soviet republics, to the north, China to the northeast, and India, Pakistan to the east and south, and Iran to the west. It is an eminently mountainous territory, with deep valleys, altitudes of up to 7,000 metres and few plains, especially in the central and northern parts of the country. It is these areas that have traditionally concentrated most of the country's major population centres around the arable areas and the country's few industrial centres and infrastructures. Without mass transport systems, during the 1970s and 1980s the only transport infrastructure of note was the Ring Road, a radial highway that circled Kabul and extended to the rest of the country's provincial capitals.

atalayar_afganistan karzai
AP/RAHMAT GUL - Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai

It is a multi-ethnic society, mostly rural and Muslim, where religion plays a decisive role in a society dominated by very basic social structures, with the family and the clan as the main nuclei, extending towards local and regional structures. The Qwam would determine the binding element between these smaller social units, by means of solidarity, clientelistic or kinship relations. In this way, the society structured around the Qwam establishes relations of both solidarity and internal competition, but also, and this aspect would determine the so-called Afghan character, competition between the different Qwam. Finally, the Qwam are organised around religious or ethnic units, the latter ultimately determining relations of solidarity or competition for political supremacy in the country. Between the late 1970s and early 1990s, the rural population was about 90 %. By 2017, rural population levels had declined to 73-75% of the country's total population, thus increasing rural-urban migration flows. Demographics in Afghanistan have soared since the 1960s, from a population of 8 million in 1960 to around 40 million in 2020, with an average life expectancy of almost 65 years for men and 66 years for women, according to World Bank data.

atalayar_afganistan
AFP/WAKIL KOHSAR - Taliban fighters stand guard along a road near Zanbaq Square in Kabul.

The ethnic element brings a new layer of complexity to the Afghan equation. Pashtuns are the majority ethnic group in the country, divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Durand Line. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, the latter being Shi'a, are the main ethnic groups in the country, below which there are minority groups with relative weight in Afghan society, such as Turkmen. The religious element is the only factor determining the composition of Afghan society that is relatively homogenous. It is a 99% Muslim society with 85% Sunni and 15% Shia. In the late 1970s the fundamentalist element in Afghan society was a minority. This was boosted by the emergence of Islamic parties and organisations financed by third parties, such as Pakistan, which were interested in exalting the religious factor in the country above political factors and as the main unifying element of the forces opposed to the Soviet intervention.

This social complexity, coupled with the country's limited socio-political development, both economically and in terms of infrastructure, has resulted in a highly fragmented society, confronted by multiple issues and influenced by an enormous number of factors, and over which the influence and projection of central power is and has been relative. This, in most cases, has responded to three factors: clientelistic relations or solidarity between those who held power in Kabul and their clients or relatives, relations determined by the provision of subsidies or favours in exchange for support, clientelism and, ultimately, subjugation by force, which, due to the solid establishment of revenge as a means of resolving conflicts in Afghan society, in turn generated new conflicts and not real subjugation. The Loya Yirga, the grand assembly of the Pashtuns, was the decision-making body, open to all ethnic groups in the country, adopted to make decisions by consensus on relevant issues affecting the whole territory of Afghanistan and as a means of resolving conflicts between warring groups.

atalayar_afganistan
PHOTO/AFP - A Taliban supporter holds a Taliban flag as he marches with others along a street in Kandahar on August 31, 2021, as they celebrate after the US withdrew all its troops from the country to end a brutal 20-year war that began and ended with Islamist hardliners in power.

The religious factor, while important as an ideological basis in the face of Soviet intervention, was not subsequently, and is not today, more important than any of the other factors influencing Afghan society, but as we see with the student movement, it is the factor around which the largest number of people, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, have organised themselves.

In the late 1970s the literacy rate in Afghanistan was 10% of the population, which was concentrated in the cities. In rural areas the literacy rate was less than 1% of the population. On paper, education was one of the priorities of the US and its allies in structuring the new Afghan state, an investment in this field that was weighed down by the levels of corruption at the regional and local levels.  Here, too, Afghan cultural factors come into play, which have limited the impact that initiatives in fields such as education have had in rural areas, as well as the corruption generated by the economic and political interests of the occupying powers.

In economic terms, apart from opium production, Afghanistan has mineral resources, which have attracted most of the investment in the country, with China being one of the most interested investors due to the high concentration of so-called rare earths in Afghanistan. These resources, according to some international media, have been quantified at around one trillion dollars.  

atalayar_CHINA-AFGANISTAN
PHOTO/LI RAN/XINHUA via AP -  Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China.

As was the case during the Soviet intervention, Afghan society and the Afghan government have resisted the economic reforms that have been tried to be implemented in the country since 2001. Partly because of the resistance to change inherent in the Afghan social system, partly, or as part of it, because of corruption.

Thus, the economy has also suffered significantly with the withdrawal of the US and its allies from the country. In 2017, donations accounted for almost 70 % of state budgets, high levels of corruption, the political and security situation, significantly reduced investment, increased unemployment levels in the cities, and mainly affected rural-urban migration flows. These factors gave a new impetus to opium production and the development of marketing networks. This economic system, reviving around opium, would provide the country's real economic and GDP levels, which in the mid-1990s provided around 80% of this indicator and which according to Turkish Policy Quarterly reached its peak production during the last 20 years, with a cultivated area of 328,000 hectares worth 400 million dollars, providing around 600,000 jobs.

atalayar_eeuu-taliban
AP/PATRICK SEMANSKY - In this Nov. 21, 2020 file photo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban's peace negotiating team, amid talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, in Doha

The elections at the end of 2014 sought to legitimise Ashraf Ghani's leadership through a democratic process. The Tajik candidate and leader of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, Abdullah Abdullah, a figure of prestige among the Afghan National Reconciliation Council, was to be his main challenger. The second round of the elections was a mess, marked by the absence of state power outside the big cities and their areas of influence and the endemic corruption in the country. The solution agreed by both candidates, before reaching a military confrontation that would have brought forward the situation we are witnessing today by several years, was the distribution of posts in exchange for not making the election results public. Ghani, representing Pashtuns and Uzbeks as the presumed winner of the elections, is appointed president and Abdullah, representing Tajiks and Hazaras, prime minister. Ghani is perceived outside Afghanistan as a more corrupt figure than was Karzai, who was given a veneer of prestige by the US that Ghani lacks.

This perennial feud and corruption was reflected in and influenced the deterioration of the political situation in the country, delegitimising the government's calls for unity

atalayar_ghani
REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI - Afghanistan's former president Ashraf Ghani

The weak state structure in need of funding fell victim to the doubts that corruption generated in the donors that sustained the state with the funds provided and to a tight political arrangement in which the rivalry between president and prime minister was permanent. With the government's main budget items audited in an attempt to tackle corruption, the Western powers' main theoretical objective in Afghanistan to achieve socio-political stabilisation was an achievement that seemed increasingly remote.

In this scenario the security situation deteriorated rapidly. The Afghan armed forces, ANDSF, supported by the economic and military power of the US, and by the ISAF mission, sanctioned by the United Nations in Resolution 1386/2001, also began to show signs of structural weakness with the withdrawal of this mission in December 2014. Despite this, the deadlines established for the creation of armed and security forces in a position to confront the insurgency, which until then had been dealt with by ISAF and the US, were met, completing the process of training, instruction and equipment necessary to take control of operations. They even executed some complex counter-insurgency operations successfully. We now know that the ANDSF was far from operational without US and ISAF support, so in a highly volatile political context and with security forces dependent on the powers that were beginning to withdraw, the outcome of August was entirely predictable. Even more so when, given the certainty of the structural weaknesses at all levels of the state it was trying to build, it seems that adequate means were not put in place to reinforce it. These means always involved mediation between warring factions within the government and mediation in the form of peace talks with the insurgents. The insurgency is not an abstract entity that begins and ends with the Taliban, but includes some student-friendly religious organisations, such as the oft-mentioned Haqqani Network, the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The agreements between the US and the Taliban included the gradual withdrawal of the US army and its allies, with a deadline for withdrawal set for April of this year, which was extended until May when it became clear that it was impossible to complete the withdrawal before the end of April.

atalayar_fuerzas armadas afganas
REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMAIL - An Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier guards a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 25, 2019 ahead of the presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28, in Kabul, Afghanistan

By mid-2017, the Taliban already controlled about half of Afghanistan's territory, slowed only by the presence of foreign troops, but with the support of part of the Afghan population who preferred an imperfect peace under the Taliban to what they see as foreign impositions and the corruption of the Kabul government.

Without the support of the US and its allies, the ANDSF demobilised in the face of the Taliban's first major offensive. Washington was aware that, once the withdrawal of troops was complete, the power vacuum would be filled by the Taliban, as evidenced by President Biden's intention in March of this year to negotiate with them to maintain anti-terrorist units in the country after the US withdrawal, when the religious militia controlled around 70% of Afghan territory. They were also aware that the withdrawal would imply, in a scenario of growing insecurity, the withdrawal of foreign civilian organisations operating in the country, as well as investments and donations, until the total collapse of the Kabul government, as has happened. The Taliban have proved more effective than their antagonists and within a week were able to take Kabul and force the government to negotiate the least traumatic transition possible under the circumstances. With President Ghani on the run, everything was left in the hands of Abdullah Abdullah, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and former President Hamid Karzai, El Panjshir was in the last weeks of August the refuge of the remnants of the Ghani government, where Vice President Saleh, in an attempt to retain the legitimacy of the government, proclaimed himself president. The fall of the valley in the first weeks of September symbolically reinforced the legitimacy of the new power in Kabul. Neither the Panjshir, led by Ahmad Masood, son of the Panjshir's Lion, nor Saleh, evacuated to Tajikistan, have been able to withstand the historical, cultural and socio-political determinants of the Afghan question, which create such complex dynamics that they condition the viability of any exogenous political project that attempts to implement them. The fall of Panjshir has also exposed the underlying Pakistani support for the Taliban government, not only through funding, but also through military support.

atalayar_fuerzas armadas afganas
AP/RAHMAT GUL - An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint d in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 25, 2019.

It is conceivable that, in times of grey zone conflicts, Afghanistan would represent an opportunity to stir up the Russian hornet's nest in an area that is extremely sensitive to Moscow's interests. But the multiplicity of interests in the region for the US would make it too risky a move, especially for a non-interventionist and conservative foreign policy administration. Afghanistan has the power to destabilise the region and the Taliban's outward projection could have complex consequences in other scenarios.

Afghanistan is a failure for the US in terms of maintaining political, economic and cultural hegemony. Exporting a socio-political model that would allow for a real projection of its power in a region whose control seems vital in order to limit China's expansion into Pakistan, to secure the region as part of its Silk Road project, or to bring Russia and China closer together in search of a point of convergence in the region between Beijing and Moscow. 

atalayar_china-rusia
AP/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO - Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre left, enter a room for talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, June 5, 2019

We can theorise about what role these two regional powers will play vis-à-vis the student government beyond the multiple economic and strategic interests they have in Afghanistan. In principle, the presence of both China and Russia serves to mark distances between the Taliban and the organisations affiliated with the caliphate present in the country. The Taliban understand that disassociating themselves from and confronting organisations such as those affiliated with the caliphate, or confrontational organisations such as the former Al-Qaeda, can in the short term avoid accusations of supporting terrorism or creating a state that sustains and harbours terrorists, which in 2001 was the trigger for the US intervention. In the medium to long term, it would avoid punitive action against Afghanistan at the slightest suspicion of being a sanctuary for such organisations. The consequences of this shift in the students' relations with their former allies have already been seen in the attacks in Kabul during the last week of August. The presence of the caliphate and its organisations, far from being residual, has also failed to gain a strong foothold on Afghan territory. These organisations have been challenged not only by the ANDSF and the Taliban, but also at the local level by militias and armed groups. In any case, it is likely that these organisations see the change in the political situation in Afghanistan as a window of opportunity to strengthen their positions.

atalayar_refugiados afganos
AP/RAHMAT GUL - Islam Qala border with Iran, in western Herat province

Operating in the same way as the attack on Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in 2020, we have seen that the US is capable of launching punitive operations on Afghan territory when it deems it necessary, while the Taliban lack the means to repel such interventions. With China and Russia, they establish a mutually supportive relationship and condition the relations that the withdrawing powers will have to maintain in the future with the new Afghan power. While the regional powers support the new government in Kabul with funding, China has already injected around 30 million dollars into the country and sent 200-million-yuan worth of grain, advice and military supplies, and become its external supporters: the Taliban would, with respect to Russia, prevent the export of jihadists both to the Muslim republics within Russia and to the Muslim republics of Central Asia. China would realign Kabul on the Uyghur issue, moving from hostility towards Beijing and harbouring this minority to support for Chinese policies towards the Uyghurs, including anti-terrorism policies, which is a priori of particular relevance to China.

atalayar_CHINA-AFGANISTAN
HOTO/REUTERS - Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit-Roundtable at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 4, 2018 in Beijing, China.

One of the aspects that will be of most interest is the role they will play as international support for the Taliban government. Not only vis-à-vis the US and the EU, but also vis-à-vis powers such as Turkey, which are interested in extending their regional influence. The US and the EU have already de facto accepted the Taliban government as a new interlocutor, as we have seen, and the US in March was already considering avenues for dialogue with the Taliban on security issues. Throughout the process of evacuating troops and personnel from the country in August, there were bilateral meetings between representatives of Washington and the Taliban, as well as declarations by the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, calling for dialogue with the new Afghan government, not only to achieve the most orderly evacuation possible, but also afterwards. In this regard, the EU has declared its intention to open a permanent office in Kabul, and bilateral meetings between Taliban leaders and senior US government officials are frequent. The United Nations also decided to extend the assistance mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, whose mandate ended on 17 September, and which will necessarily have to establish a fluid dialogue with the new Afghan government.

atalayar_joe biden
AP/EVAN VUCCI - President Joe Biden speaks about the Kabul airport bombings that killed at least 12 U.S. military personnel, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

Cynically, a victory for US interests is presented in that the US, despite acknowledging the failure of its plan to stabilise the country, has claimed to have fulfilled its expectations in the fight against terrorism, the main declared objective of the intervention in Afghanistan. But after 20 years of war and nearly 822 billion dollars invested in the country, the Taliban have regained power in Afghanistan. Three US administrations tried to manage a controlled withdrawal, negotiating with the Taliban, but without planning, beyond security issues, for the new period towards which the country was heading.

In a situation in which the context has changed, the hegemon has seen its supremacy challenged by other powers, which have taken advantage of US indecision to reposition themselves in the region and plan the future of the region according to their interests. Meanwhile, the US is preparing to do battle in another scenario, the Rimland theorised by Spykman, the Asia-Pacific axis, where it has formed a new alliance, the AUKUS, with Australia, the UK and the US, with the aim of counterbalancing China in the region. The great game has begun again, as we expected, but as Spykman postulated, whoever controls Rimland will dominate the heart of the world.