It was no surprise that the Afghan states were losing to the Taliban's expansion. With the actual implementation of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, weaknesses have clearly emerged in the structure of the Afghan state, which has not survived fighters with light weapons but with deep faith and high confidence— a confidence that the group has drawn from its steadfastness despite 20 years of "war on terrorism" operations and Washington's acceptance of an agreement that provided for the complete withdrawal of US troops from the country, in exchange for the Taliban's pledge not to allow terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda to operate or prepare for any operations from Afghan territory.
In the face of the new realities that are being shaped and imposed on the ground, Taliban will be at the center of attention and accusation about what is happening in Afghanistan. Regardless of whether it is a power grab, handover or participation in a political process that accommodates all tribal, ethnic and sectarian contradictions, the Movement is well aware that it cannot continue with its previous political logic.
Back in September 1996, when Taliban seized power after months of local clashes, the current landscape looked different. The Movement killed former president of communist-ideology Najibullah, closed diplomatic missions, and set up field yards to implement sharia provisions derived from a narrow hardline understanding of religious texts (which had restricted non-absolute interpretation), not to mention the destruction of Buddhist monuments over its first years of control that extended until the fall of Kabul to the international coalition forces in November 2001.
Perhaps the most prominent turning points of that period was the Movement's attempts to impose its culture on the 18.8 million Afghan society at the time; a culture that blended the customs and traditions of the Pashtun tribes with the fundamentalist Hanafi doctrine, resulting in a religious political authority that failed to meet living needs and therefore resorted to "religion" as a means of covering up its inability.
Currently, the movement appears to have changed the way it deals with the local and the foreign. After entering Kabul, first-rank officials soon sent messages of reassurance, amnestied all former officials, pledged the security of diplomatic missions and headquarters, emphasized respect for the security of neighboring states and the world at large, prohibited the intrusion of anyone's home for search and confiscation purposes, and affirmed that freedoms would be safeguarded in accordance with Islamic Shari’a while allowing women to work, receive education and engage in community and political activities within specific controls.
The most important changes now taking shape are the Movement's positive interaction with some official currents and its desire to build a just and corrupt-free government that represents all components. In this regard, a meeting was held on August 18, 2021, which included the Taliban leader, Anas Haqqani, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah.
The Taliban's openness faces domestic fear and foreign skepticism, as the "past" stereotype of its rule and behavior continues to surface when dealing with Afghan affairs. It is too early to say that Taliban have "changed" or that there is a modified version of it; such a change requires the Movement's announcement of an intellectual review that reformulates its position on basic concepts, such as: the state, women, freedoms and the principle of divine governance (the ruler derives his legitimacy from God, it is not permissible to rebel against it) and governance (standards of public administration such as accountability and the rule of law).
The radical changes that have taken place so far are almost exclusively in the discourse directed at the other, as recently armed groups have been forced to "modernize" their appearance and discourse for political ends. For example, the Syrian-based Tahrir al-Sham Liberation Authority, which re-produced its entity from al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, presented itself as a political resistance movement, not a terrorist, and tried to draw a new, more acceptable picture, as its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, promoted with Frontline Network in April 2021.
Judgment on the political nature of Taliban remains pending until the governing legal rules (such as the constitution and legal legislation) have matured, and whether or not these rules will be applied in an exclusionary discriminatory manner based on sect, race, or tribe; since selective and biased application can undermine fair and objective legal norms.
The Taliban's action in the next phase will be governed by the purpose of any political system, namely survival, continuity and adaptability. This "end" is different from the previous one in which it had been an armed group was engaged in sporadic operations and clashes, and is now at the forefront of the Afghan situation and the main party concerned with addressing existential challenges. These can be summarized as follows:
1. Nation-building and population living needs management
Coinciding with the signing of the Peace Agreement between Washington and Taliban, STRATEGIECS conducted a research paper that assessed the overall situation in Afghanistan. The paper explored several scenarios that could arise in the Afghan landscape, the first of which was the successful implementation of the Washington-Taliban agreement, and the latter being able to quietly expand toward the state bureaucracy.
This scenario is weighted on the basis of an objective reading of the Afghan reality. If the US military withdraws as defined in the agreement, the structural imbalance in Afghanistan's political and administrative structure will emerge, and Taliban will move to fill this void.
The "Afghanistan Papers" file is perhaps the most accurate to diagnose structural imbalance. In fact, the Washington Post published in December 2019 the file which consists of nearly 2,000 pages divided into six main sections, four of which relate to the Afghan interior and its interactions.
The third section of the documents, “Built to Fail”, showed how the US strategy for Afghanistan’s reconstruction failed despite allocating $133 billion in support of Afghanistan's development and security services. Instead of bringing stability and prosperity, the United States has inadvertently built a government that is unable to carry out its functions and even dependent on US forces for its survival, according to the newspaper.
It can therefore be said that the United States and its allies have not failed militarily but have been unable to align their military advance with an appropriate "domestic" political path. According to common military strategy principles, the use of military force is insufficient unless it is driven by a clear, practical and specific political purpose.
Afghanistan's military situation was no better than its political situation, as the 300,000-strong army has diminished in the face of the Taliban's fighters, and US training and qualitative arming did not succeed in spreading the fighting spirit in the ranks of the army, despite the fact that the US Defense budget spent on the Afghan army amounted to more than 83$ billion dollars.
Economically, the situation does not look better. There are no effective institutional standards in the Afghan administrative structure, and corruption is but a natural practice, as Afghanistan was ranked in 2020 165th on the global Corruption Perceptions Index covering 179 countries.
The Afghan economy relies on foreign aid by 75%, the matter which makes it remain subject to Washington and the West's overall satisfaction with the behavior of the Afghan government. Indeed, the US Treasury Department has announced a freeze on Afghan government reserves held in US banks, estimated by the International Monetary Fund at $9.4 billion, nearly half of 2019's $19.2 billion GDP.
Thus, the next government, whether entirely Taliban or pluralistic, will face the prominent challenge of convincing influential capitals and global financial institutions of the necessity of integrating the new Afghanistan in the international monetary system. Of course, this is not only political security but also subject to technical standards that the Afghan Government has to meet.
One of these criteria relates to the activity of black markets outside the official framework, as smuggling is common in Afghanistan by virtue of being a landlocked country bordered with six countries with mountainous terrain without effective border guard forces. Afghan markets have adapted to this reality, with smuggling networks taking over the task of "importing" without any formal controls. As a matter of course, these networks will resist any change aimed at their activity, and Taliban is expected to clash with these armed gangs if it is to impose the rule of law and build a formal economy.
What has been reviewed in this item may be clear and measurable, thus facilitating diagnosis and treatment. What is difficult to diagnose and treat, however, is what is associated with the awareness adapted to the state of prevailing insecurity and chaos in what can be called a non-state. More than reconstruction, Afghanistan is in need to a radical state building, the results of which are a more accepting society.
2. Ideological Schizophrenia
At home and abroad, Afghanistan continues to test Taliban's ability to fulfil its commitments in statements by its political leaders— a turning point in the Movement's rhetoric that observers hope will translate into a new reality for Afghanistan.
These statements, which are more or less pluralistic and civil that preserves rights and freedoms, are in stark contrast to the Movement's historical course and the logic of its supporters in the mountainous countryside. Therefore, if this shift in discourse takes root and moves to the level of practical practices, Taliban is expected to lose its luster and persuasion, bringing it into a state of "ideological schizophrenia" as a result of the contradiction between the old and the new version of it.
This "ideological schizophrenia" will be accompanied by an increase in popular economic service demands from the Movement; therefore, it will not be able to wave its religious legitimacy in the face of these demands after its speech abandoned part of its fundamentalism.
This could lead to a rebellion and a conflict to represent the country's fundamentalist legitimacy on many levels, whether in Taliban's relationship with other organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, or within the Movement itself, whose political leadership continues to insist that it is making an effort to control the actions of its members and that it is investigating any "complaint" against such actions. Practically speaking, it is difficult to identify a unified supreme leadership capable of imposing its vision and approach on all the Movement activities.
One of the most important currents within the Movement is the Haqqani network, which reportedly has 6,000 members in control of the Afghan capital, and it is designated a terrorist organization by the Obama administration in 2012. The logic of its operations is similar to al-Qaeda and ISIS, as it includes suicide cells, adopts a strategy close to the "global jihad" strategy, and does not resent targeting civilian facilities where members of non-Sunni communities reside.
The latest of these attacks was when terrorists attacked a Sikh temple in Kabul in March 2020 and claimed the lives of 25 people. Afghan authorities announced that they had arrested eight members of ISIS and the Haqqani network in connection with the attacks.
The most prominent rifts within the Movement emerged after Akhundzada took over from Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who was killed in May 2015 by a US raid, with the new leader expressing his desire to reach an agreement with the Afghan government "once it abandons its foreign allies." The statement led to the announcement by a dissident military group led by Mawlawi Naqibullah Honner (We could not find reliable information about this figure) to wage jihad against Taliban, taking advantage of the country's chaotic "jihadist" scene after ISIS created a foothold in Afghanistan, only to lose it to Zadeh who seized the exclusive power over the country after being given the oath of allegiance (Bay’ah) by al-Qaeda's head, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Returning to the internal of the Movement, the directions of the Haqqani network are relatively converging with the presidency of the Taliban military commission led by Mullah Yaacoub, son of one of the Movement's spiritual leaders, Mullah Omar. According to some media reports, Mullah Yacoub often resides in Kandahar near the critical Afghan-Pakistani border, given the Taliban's ties with Islamabad, and because this area is a human reservoir for Taliban due to the major presence of Pashtun tribes.
3. "Armed" demographics
Taliban cannot be reduced to being a religious group based on the Sunni Hanafi doctrine, for it is also an ethnic group consisting of the country's largest social component, Pashtun tribes, which account for 42% of the country's estimated population of nearly 40 million and spread across several Central Asian countries.
The second largest demographic component of the country is the Tajik nationalism, which constitutes approximately 27%, then Uzbeks 9% and Hazaras 9%, who are Persian-speaking Shia. These groups are distinct from each other in terms of ethnicity, nationalism or even sectarianism. The country is therefore prepared for a state of sectarian nationalist conflict if a somewhat consensual or non-exclusionary political formula cannot be reached.
The potential for ethnic clashes is compounded by the fact that minorities are mostly stationed on Afghanistan's borders and are closely linked to their extensions in the surrounding States, providing an "incentive" for some foreign forces to use the Afghan demographic situation to achieve their own goals in Afghanistan or even in Central Asia.
The control map shows that Taliban has been able to take control of all but one province, Panjshir, or what is also known as the “Five Lions”; thus becoming an open base for troops withdrawing from the other provinces, particularly Kabul.
This state is home to Tajiks by about 99%, and 20 military bases have been established due to its vital location overlooking the capital. This state has a historical specificity in the relationship with Taliban. In the first expansion of the Movement in 1996, the "Five Lions" prevented falling of the entire country under Taliban control, thus turning into a center of the Northern Alliance, which included local forces opposed to the religious grip imposed by the Movement at the time and played a pivotal role in supporting the international coalition against terrorism that toppled Taliban after the September 11 attacks.
Several figures now reside in the province, including Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who was declared by the constitution to be the interim president after President Ashraf Ghani's departure and the vacancy of the president's position. Ahmed Masood, the son of Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud who was killed two days before 9/11, is also living in the province. Acting Minister of Defense of the collapsed Afghan Government, Bismillah Mohammadi, is expected to be operating from the province or from the northern regions. Mohammadi announced that the Popular Resistance Forces had regained control of three areas in the northern province of Baghlan after clashes with Taliban’s fighters.
Taliban Movement will therefore face tribal ethnic and sectarian resistance unless it succeeds in achieving a minimum of consensus and Afghan society feels serious about meeting living needs and, most importantly, managing its foreign relations to prevent the country from slipping into the cycle of competition and conflict between regional and international powers.
Afghanistan in the international strategic perspective
The recent events in Kabul are very relevant to the debate over global hegemony between the US as a dominant power on the one hand and China and Russia as rising powers on the other. Analysts who do not hide their bias toward China and Russia have seen what is happening as a further sign of Washington's deteriorating global standing, arguing that its withdrawal from Kabul is a sign of weakness that signals the collapse of its hegemony.
This "prediction" was put forward after the 1973 US withdrawal from Vietnam in the midst of the Cold War. However, what actually collapsed was the Soviet Union, while in the last decade of the 20th century the US has become a superpower in an undisputed unipolar world order.
At present, it is difficult both “in theory and in practice” to agree on the form of the world order in light of China's growing presence on the world stage. Beijing is still far from being classified as a polar power, while its presence has gone beyond regionalism and its economic arsenal is able to influence global decision-making.
There are certainly reversals of the rivalry and conflict in international politics over Afghanistan, which in turn will also affect this policy, at least in the regional context. First, the goal of "democratization of regimes" in US foreign policy, which has been a priority in US calculations, believing the plausibility of imposing a liberal character that does not take into account the specificity and nature of different societies, will be diminished. The ability of the United States to export its model will be reduced in light of the rise of the Chinese model, which has proven its worth in building social justice and in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Secondly, the high probability of a proliferation of cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan. Afghanistan's 650,000 km2 geography is a fertile environment for international terrorism to reorganize, and these safe havens may be employed by countries seeking to spread chaos from Afghanistan against China, which has a 91-km common border with Afghanistan. Security reports indicated that the "Uyghur" terrorists from Idlib would be towards this rugged border enclave, known as the Wakhan Corridor.
Central Asia is the cornerstone of China's global "Belt and Road" project to transport goods and individuals around the world. If the security situation in Central Asia collapses, China will not be able to achieve its full objectives from this project, which US research institutions fear and call for blocking or crowding.
In addition to China, Afghanistan has an indirect border with Russia, where the former Soviet Republics bordering Afghanistan are a traditional sphere of influence for Moscow, which, by virtue of its past experience in the "Afghan Jihad", pays special attention to what is going on in Kabul.
What is remarkable about the diplomatic moves is that Beijing and Moscow made relatively “semi-friendly” statements toward Taliban after its takeover of Kabul, and even announced that their embassies are still operating, calling at the same time for restraint and stability. It is still too early to judge the nature of Taliban’s relations with Beijing and Moscow and whether the movement is serious about preventing the targeting of these two countries from their territories.
Thirdly, the "zero-sum" competition on minerals and raw materials. The facts in security-unstable States have shown that this wealth usually turns into a curse by international competition and the pursuit of the monopolization of these resources by one party or the other.
In August 2021, Quartz published a report on Afghanistan's mineral resources, estimated by the Geological Survey to be worth nearly $3 trillion, most notably the Lithium, around which the Pentagon issued an internal memorandum entitled "Afghanistan - the Saudi Arabia of lithium", following the massive discoveries of the metal, which is estimated at $1 trillion. This metal is indispensable in China-dominated renewable energy batteries by being the world's largest lithium producer, putting Afghanistan in the cycle of a "clean energy struggle" that is taking shape with the trend toward carbon neutrality.
The second of these geostrategic minerals is the "rare earth elements", of which Afghanistan's reserves are estimated at 1.4 million tons, which was reported at the height of the Tariff War between Washington and Beijing under Trump. As China controls these elements globally, that has become a pressure tool that has prevented the Trump administration from imposing further tariffs, as they are indispensable in the electronic circuit industries in smartphones, and is also included in the US defense industry.
Afghanistan has the world's second largest copper reserves ($88 billion), Beryllium ($88 billion) and 2.2 billion tons of iron ore. According to a fact paper on Afghanistan published by Reuters in August 2021, the country contains a huge carbon wealth of 1.6 billion barrels of oil, 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 500 million barrels of liquid natural gas.
Fourthly, a refugee wave similar to the one that started from Syria and Iraq during the control of ISIS. If terrorism and violence spread in the country, the current slow asylum movement to neighbouring countries would deepen, driven by relative stability and the Taliban's continued pledge not to retaliate and violence against any party.
It is worth noting that what weakens the refugee wave from the country is that it is a landlocked country. There are no waterways that can carry boats wishing to reach Europe, as is the case for many Syrian refugees. The positions of the European parties towards the position of receiving Afghan refugees have varied, as the memory is still rich in terrorist attacks carried out by refugees, not to mention the pressure caused by the refugee bloc on public services.
Seeking international legitimacy
Perhaps Taliban's first foreign objective is to gain international recognition of its government – a hard objective that entails accepting the Movement as a natural member of the international community, allowing for the exchange of diplomatic representation with Kabul, and the lifting of sanctions and restrictions on its integration into the international monetary system.
Even if Taliban gains international recognition, it will remain under the microscope of suspicion whenever any development emerges. It is required to build trust with various parties as a political party not as an armed group with an ideological background. The first test for the ruling Taliban is its handling of the August 31, 2021 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops and whether it will respond to demands for an extension of the deadline so that various countries — especially NATO countries — can evacuate their nationals and collaborators.
The second of these tests is to manage the profile of cross-border terrorist groups and prevent Afghan territory from being used as a platform for preparing and training for terrorist attacks such as 9/11. Despite statements by US intelligence leaders that terrorist organizations, referring to al-Qaeda and ISIS, do not currently pose a threat to US interests from Afghanistan, they are often directed to reassure public opinion and absorb their anger at the chaos associated with the withdrawal.
This does not mean that what is happening in Afghanistan clashes with vital US national security interests, as the continued "burden of Afghanistan" prevents Washington from focusing its capabilities to confront China and Russia. For it is agreed that the gap between the United States and its major competitors in global sovereignty has narrowed in the decade during which US strategy has been preoccupied in fighting terrorism with its direct official tools, draining its assets and capabilities.
Regardless of the nature of the new US strategy in dealing with terrorism, whether it is a " back command" through proxies or "forefront command" through the field deployment of its forces, Washington will remain committed to preventing the terrorist threat in its infancy and doing everything necessary to prevent US interests from being targeted.
The third of these tests is to preserve the unity of the country so that it is not disputed by sub-components and international powers. Indeed, voices are beginning to rise from some Tajik and Turkmen provinces, which explicitly demand the application of the principle of decentralization in the public internal affairs and that Taliban does not impose its powers in the local administration of these provinces. This means that the country may be on the verge of a form of autonomy and/or federalism similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. The administrative division may deepen into a political separation in which the sub-components and their international supporters share the Afghan geography.
The fourth of these tests is to confine heavy and medium weapons to the state, and to control the huge legacy of American and Afghan weapons stored in military bases that are now under the control of Taliban. The risk of these weapons leaking into the "wrong hands" is high because of the large number of such hands and the lack of a competent and legitimate bureaucratic body to control the entire military hardware, with all the complexity of the security landscape.
The next Afghan government should be able to monopolize the right to exercise force, which is an exclusive sovereign right of the state, without which Central Asia will become a link to chaos — not just trade — from the Middle East to the Far East, where China poses the primary threat to US national security, according to official classifications.