As the Taliban Retakes Vast Areas of Afghanistan, What Is the Effect on Neighbouring Countries?
Afghanistan's national army is well equipped with weapons provided by pro-US international donor nations but morale has slumped in some regions following the withdrawal of foreign forces. May 2012. Image: Karl Allen Lugmayer/Shutterstock
Fighting in Afghanistan has been intensifying as the US and its allies continue their unconditional withdrawal of military support – due to be complete by September 11, 2021. This has left a well-armed but demoralized Afghan army alone to face the resurgent Taliban whose government pro-US forces had ousted from power in 2001. Many observers have described the West’s military exodus as abandoning, not just departing from the country. Already the Taliban has captured vast swathes of the country by a mixture of military assault and local capitulation. The renewed war is further misery for the country’s long-suffering people. Meanwhile, its effect on regional countries is growing as neighbours worry about spillover and a growing exodus of refugees.
Disquiet in Central Asia
The situation is especially problematic for states in Central Asia wary of being drawn into a wider conflict. Earlier in July, the Taliban swept into the northeastern Afghan region of Badakhshan. Overwhelmed, many Afghan army soldiers simply fled across the border, leaving Tajikistan with another problem to solve in one of its most impoverished regions. On both sides of the Afghan-Tajik border, the population shares a very mellow form of Ismaili Islam. Locals on the south side now fear that their traditions will be under threat from the Wahabi-style Sunni fundamentalism of the new regime.
The historic Yanchun Fortress above Ishkashim once guarded the Panj River that divides Badakhshan into what is now Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Image: Alisher Primkulov/Shutterstock
On July 22, 2021, with its president calling for vigilance about developments in Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s military held its biggest ever exercise. The three-hour display of force involved the nation’s whole army, including 130,000 reservists, underlining the extreme sense of nervousness felt in the Central Asian nation. Some 20,000 troops are now to be deployed along the border where Russia announced that it would help Tajikistan construct a border outpost. Russia also plans further military drills during August in concert with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while in Turkmenistan, troops are also being sent to bolster that country’s Afghan borders.
The relatively sudden pullout by US agencies has left many who previously worked with American and other western organizations fearing that they will be branded traitors...
Meanwhile, it was reported that Uzbekistan has ‘no space’ for pro-regime Afghan citizens, who have been crossing that border in unprecedented numbers hoping to apply for US visas. The relatively sudden pullout by US agencies has left many who previously worked with American and other western organizations fearing that they will be branded traitors if – as appears increasingly likely –the Taliban regain power. After all, from a Taliban perspective, they could be considered collaborators with an occupying force.
Problems Ahead for Iran
While Iran is often portrayed as being “America-hating,” the unceremonious departure of US forces from Afghanistan is not likely to be at all welcome in Tehran. Despite common misconceptions, Iran’s form of state Islam is far less fundamentalist than that of the Taliban, whose ultra-strict forms of Sunni Wahabism are at odds with Iran’s Shiite traditions. In recent years Iran had played a significant role in stabilizing western Afghanistan, notably the linguistically related Herat region, and had been building a major new railway to link the two countries. In early July, much of Herat province was retaken by the Taliban, including the all-important border post with Iran at Islamqala. That’s one of Afghanistan’s most important trading posts and source of an estimated $20 million (USD) in monthly customs revenues. Its role for Iran has been particularly crucial during recent periods of international sanctions, which have closed many other trade routes into Iran. The Taliban is likely to maintain the trading entrepot’s functioning as a useful source of income, but increased insecurity is, at the very least, liable to affect trade volumes.
Islamqala: the dusty but important main trading post between Iran and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban by July 9th, 2021. Image: Travel Stock/Shutterstock
Refugees Reach Turkey
For wealthier refugees hoping to gain asylum abroad, some have tried to reach Turkey, hoping that just getting themselves to Istanbul Airport would be enough to escape. While applications are being considered, sympathy is limited, and applicants might face deportation. After all, Turkish authorities are already dealing with a genuinely massive refugee problem due to other conflicts nearer to home in Iraq and especially Syria, from which there are an estimated 3-4 million refugees. Meanwhile, those with fewer options are fleeing to Turkey in ever greater numbers, crossing hidden in trucks via Iran. In one incident filmed by citizen journalists in central Anatolia, dozens got out of an unmarked container truck and fled up a barren hillside – most of them later being apprehended by authorities.
Pakistan and India
Relations between India and Pakistan are never straightforward. Still, events in Afghanistan are once again stirring up tensions here, too, notably following the death in Kandahar province of one of India’s foremost journalists, Pulitzer prize-winning Danish Siddiqui. He had been covering attempts by Afghan’s elite special forces to retake Spin Boldak, an important Taliban-held border market town on the crucial road linking Kandahar with Quetta, Pakistan. Historically Pakistan had been the Taliban’s main backer, especially in the 1990s. While its position had been more ambivalent in recent years, Afghanistan has often been seen as a proxy conflict where India and Pakistan fight out their political differences in miniature. In such a game, Islamabad sees the pro-Western Kabul regime of Ashraf Ghani as leaning toward India. In turn, at mid-July’s Central and South Asia 2021 conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Ghani claimed that Pakistan had allowed as many as ten thousand jihadi fighters to cross into Afghanistan in the previous month.
Afghanistan has often been seen as a proxy conflict where India and Pakistan fight out their political differences in miniature.
The Other Afghan border: Western China
Cartographically, Afghanistan is like a clenched hand with its outstretched forefinger pointing east at China. The long sliver of land that reaches the Chinese border is known as the Wakhan Corridor: a very remote if dramatically beautiful land that, like Badakhshan, has a predominantly Ismaili-Shiite population. Until recently, communication in the Wakhan was so difficult that there was essentially no way to travel by vehicle to the Chinese border, but in recent months a new road had been under construction.
Two decades ago, the area had resisted falling to Taliban control, but this time it was taken by surprise in the events of July 4, 2021. On taking control of the area, cautious Taliban spokesmen set about reassuring their eastern neighbour. Specifically, they stated that they had no intentions of backing Uyghur separatism in China’s western Xinjiang Province, where the two countries share a 74km stretch of border. Some observers have gone further to suggest that China might welcome the new situation if the Taliban keep a reported promise to stop Afghan territory from being used by Uygur separatists.
The Historical Context
History has a tragic way of coming full circle. And today’s Afghanistan is a striking example. Until 2021, the US-led international coalition of forces had spent 20 years propping up their vision of an Afghan state. As though recognizing that their effort is now doomed to failure, the withdrawal of coalition forces has been largely without fanfare. Western governments are worn down by war fatigue and leaving behind them a regime whose future looks extremely bleak. The unconditional withdrawal, described more as an abandonment by many commentators, is timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the US. The attacks led to the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and acted as the trigger for an ill-conceived “War on Terror.”
While the withdrawal, announced by US President Joe Biden in April, is not yet complete, already the military vacuum left by the retreating coalition sees the forces of the opposition Taliban movement capturing large swathes of territory with relative ease. By July, despite showing remarkable sang froid during prayers as Taliban rockets whizzed overhead (see below), the pro-Western leadership in Kabul was looking besieged if not doomed.
For anyone in their 50s with a memory for news, this looks very much like a replay of 1988-9. On April 14, 1988, the USSR announced that it would pull its own troops out of Afghanistan by early 1989. They had spent almost a decade attempting to shape the country into a pro-Soviet satellite state, but despite a vast investment of lives and weapons, the war proved unwinnable. Unable to distinguish between opposition combatants and regular farmers, the Soviet forces found themselves “fighting ghosts.” They were hit by attacks from insurgent groups called mujahadeen trained in Pakistan and generously funded by the USSR’s cold war enemies. Once the US started providing stinger shoulder-held rocket launchers, the Red Army’s one major weapon – the helicopter gunship – became vulnerable to a piece of kit costing 200 times less. More brutal tactics against Afghan villages simply exacerbated the situation. Six million refugees fled abroad – notably women and their children who would later become students (‘talibs’) of Islam and resistance and eventually return as fighters.
Rival mujahedeen fought each other for control of Kabul and Afghanistan, becoming even more dangerous than before. Finally, in the late 1990s, the anarchic situation was stabilized thanks to a fearsomely strict group known as the Taliban.
Once the Red Army had withdrawn in 1989, the pro-Moscow puppet government was left fatally weakened and finally collapsed in 1992. Rival mujahedeen fought each other for control of Kabul and Afghanistan, becoming even more dangerous than before. Finally, in the late 1990s, the anarchic situation was stabilized thanks to a fearsomely strict group known as the Taliban. Their fundamentalist Islamic precepts were shockingly medieval, especially in terms of attitudes to women. Still, the group managed to successfully end the civil war so that after nearly 20 years of destruction and constant fighting, the country could at least find time to rebuild. Except – then came 9-11.
The War on Terror
By 2001 the whole world order had changed geopolitically. The USSR had collapsed in 1991, partly undermined by its humiliation in Afghanistan. Ten years later, with NATO needing a new enemy, the USA used the attacks of 9-11 to re-focus public fears on the dangers of fundamentalist Islam. At that time, there was relatively little such fundamentalism to actually fight. Nevertheless, the US set about stirring it up, starting in Afghanistan, which was the one place it was known to exist. The Western powers had been consciously finding it in the 1980s as an anti-Soviet. Though General Wesley Clark’s memories of the shocking decisions are often framed as humorous, the George W Bush regime set out a plan to attack another seven Islamic countries across the Middle East.
The coalition forces moving into Afghanistan after 2001 made many of the same mistakes that the Soviets had made 20 years earlier.
The coalition forces moving into Afghanistan after 2001 made many of the same mistakes that the Soviets had made 20 years earlier. This was reported very clearly by General Andrew Mackay, one of the UK’s former military commanders in Helmand Province, who made the searingly honest 2014 BBC radio documentary Afghanistan: The Lessons of War. That took an unflinchingly look at the lack of long-term strategy or sensitivity that had bedevilled any real hopes of success in the coalition’s intervention.
Most memorably, in examining intelligence failures, it highlighted stark differences in perception of time and history by relating the tale of UK troops in Gereshk (at 12’33” into the programme). In the bazaar, a grey-bearded old man quipped at a British soldier (via a translator),
“What are you doing here again? Are you here to burn the souq [i.e. market]?”
The soldier looked bemused, so the questioning old Afghan continued – “You came through in 1879 and burned our market down. Are you here to do it again?”
The soldier looked bemused, so the questioning old Afghan continued – “You came through in 1879 and burned our market down. Are you here to do it again?”
A great lesson for Mackay and other thoughtful observers is that deep wounds simply take a long time to heal. Such healing cannot be imposed by others, however well-intentioned. Western mindsets and short electoral cycles demand results in periods of a few years. That’s simply too short-term for wounds as deep as those that the world has inflicted on Afghanistan.
Thanks, But No Thanks
The USSR had been bled dry by its attempts to change Afghanistan. Decades later, Western efforts to do the same have had similarly astronomical costs - in both lives and lost prestige, as well as hard cash. Figures vary, but conflict deaths since 2001 are estimated at around 106,000 Afghans and over 3500 foreign soldiers from 31 countries, with the cost of war to the US alone being over $2.2 trillion. In July 2021, the BBC reality check team gave a somewhat lower estimate of the US’s direct Afghanistan spending since 2002 at $815 billion. Of that, $54.95 billion was allocated to non-military/police development, while at least $19 billion had been lost in fraud, wastage and abuse over just the last ten years. Yet, in 2020, a report to Congress estimated that poverty levels in Afghanistan were still expected to be around 61-72%. It’s hard not to wonder whether all this money may have had more effect if it had simply been given to help rebuild the country rather than to defeat its rulers.
It’s hard not to wonder whether all this money may have had more effect if it had simply been given to help rebuild the country rather than to defeat its rulers.
Are the Taliban as Bad as They’re Portrayed?
As Taliban fighters close in on Afghanistan cities, the group's fundamentalist views on the treatment of women becomes ever more worrying for citizens.Image: timsimages.uk/Shutterstock
As anti-government forces gain ground, the fight is often framed as a “war between liberty and totalitarianism.” The Western press is full of blood-curdling tales of atrocities, such as the 25th July throat-slitting of ‘popular comedian’ Nazar Mohammad. The Taliban deny that they committed that crime, but such charges fit neatly with a perceived narrative of the rebel group as a bunch of humourless murderers. However, a question that’s rarely raised in the Afghanistan story is whether this characterization of the Taliban as a force for evil might be an oversimplification. In June, before the most significant collapse of pro-government forces, France 24 reporters gave a movingly frank glimpse of life in today’s Afghanistan, including within a village that has been Taliban-held for 12 years. What is clear in the footage, part of which was carefully monitored by Taliban minders, is the obvious difference in cultural expectations between the traditionally minded villagers and the significantly more Western-oriented cities. For the Taliban, cities with their trendy barbershops and freedoms like flying kites or dancing at weddings are places of irreligious debauchery. Some villagers living under Taliban rule volunteered the observation that they can travel safely at night, whereas government areas are dangerously insecure even by day. American government forces, claimed one previously apolitical village elder, had kicked in his door and killed five of his family: after which he understandably decided it was better to trust the Taliban.
For many city residents, however, Taliban ideals of life are restrictively puritanical, with little in the way of entertainment and strict religious rules curtailing many freedoms – even a phone conversation with a non-relative male being enough to bring a woman a public flogging. Adultery – actual or even potential – might result in a woman being stoned to death. For many who have developed tastes for more liberal lifestyles, all this makes a Taliban takeover something to fear. The France 24 film crew saw no women dare to shop at the village market where they stayed for two days. One respondent openly told them that Taliban officials would visit families who didn’t go to prayers regularly.
The big unknown is whether a “Taliban 2” regime, if it should come to power, would be more tolerant this time around and whether it really could bring long-term peace at last.