As an Essydo Magazine reader, you are surely aware of the currently escalating situation in Afghanistan. Further, you probably tried to find insightful news sources to better grasp the situation and make sense of the conflict. Unfortunately, the available sources describe the fighting and maybe, if lucky, the history of the conflict dating back to 2001. The recurrent actors in the explanations are the United States of America (USA), the Taliban and the Afghan government. The informed reader will quickly ask the following questions: why are the USA involved in the conflict and what are they fighting about? Further, the question as to why the conflict has lasted so long directly follows these previous two. Essydo Magazine will provide you with answers, that other media outlets cannot provide, due to the sensitivity of the issue. Again, our framework for analysing political events is applied here and will help you to build a comprehensive understanding around the issue.
Step 1: What Happened?
Over the last couple of days, the Taliban has, through military action, gained control over 18 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan and is about to take over the Afghan capital, Kabul. The Taliban is a military insurgency organisation, that has emerged in the 1990’s in the southern parts of the country and is using military means to gain political control over the Afghan state. Currently, the organisation is increasingly pushing back the Afghan military and was able to extend their control over two-thirds of the country. Naturally, this is met by military resistance by the Afghan military. As it is the case with any conflict, vast portions the civilian population is forced to leave their homes, in an attempt to escape the fighting. The current clashes are a continuation of decade-old struggles between the Taliban and the ever-changing Afghan government, which is yet to bring political stability to the country.
Step 2: What is my position?
Wars are in no case desirable. Next to their destructive implications for the civilians, atrocities that exceed the amount of necessary violence to achieve the ends of the forceful campaign occur and spread further suffering, having lasting effects on a population’s ability to recover psychologically. Next to this, we might hold different stances towards the insurgency. In some cases, we might support struggles of armed groups as we believe that their motives are honourable. This is much influenced by our own ideological views. For example, attempts to topple the governments of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Muammar al-Ghaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were met with much support from the international community – with a few exemptions. Here, however, the Taliban offensives are broadly denounced by the international community. The difference between the situations are that, first, the Taliban is an organised group with a distinct agenda. The aforementioned struggles against their respective governments were civil movements that emerged on an ad hoc basis and dispersed when the goal was reached or when the movement was overwhelmed by the respective government’s military. Second and related to the distinct agenda, the Taliban aims to establish a theocracy in Afghanistan, based on violent enforcement of religious principles. Accordingly, the aim of the organisation is not to address political, economic and societal problems from a technical point of view, but on the basis of ideological beliefs that they want to apply to the whole society.
Our personal position towards this conflict is, thus, based on whether we believe that such an insurgency is of use for the Afghan people or not, which, of course, Afghans themselves can assess best. In general, a state should never be ruled according to a predefined set of values that do not have an organic societal origin. Due to the dynamic developments in politics and societies, states need to be able to adapt to the situations, in order to produce the most effective policy outputs. This can be applied to forced capitalist and communist societies, as well as colonial states. Basically, every political system that is not born out of the dynamics of a society’s culture is bound to become dysfunctional. For example, the former Democratic Republic of East Germany was a system along ideological lines that did not originate in the German culture and was forced upon the population, which made the system ultimately collapse. Returning to Afghanistan, the Taliban has a case for its claim that the country should be under theocratic rule, as more than 99% of the population is Muslim, and thus religiously homogeneous. However, its operations include extortion, massacres, rape and torture of the civilian population, which is contrary to any society’s interests. From this, it follows that the organisation merely has an organisational interest and does not act in the interest of the society – something that was much different in other insurgencies, such as the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Our stance towards this issue can only centre around the view that the Taliban, in fact, is an organisation that cannot be validly supported.
Step 3: Who Are the Actors?
At the centre of this conflict are the Taliban and the Afghan government with its military. Another important actor are the USA. They have deployed a large number of troops in Afghanistan since 2001 and installed several leaders in the Afghan government. Naturally, this has fuelled the Taliban’s aggression, as they claim, in addition to their religious agenda, that they fight the foreign occupation of Afghan soil. Assisting the north American troops, other western nations, such as Germany, Great Britain and France, sustain deployments in Afghanistan, further compromising Afghan sovereignty. Now, the question that comes up is how such an active military and political involvement by seemingly powerful nations was not able to bring an end to the conflict in the past 20 years. The USA’s involvement alone cost them a staggering $144 billion over this period. Surely, the Taliban forces are estimated to comprise over 75 000, but one would expect that the technological advantages of the western nations, paired with the Afghan forces, would be sufficient to outweigh the Taliban’s strength. It becomes clear that a fragile balance between Taliban and western presence was sustained over the years. There must be more to the conflict than just one side fighting the other over political stability.
Step 4: Examine Background Information
No state in the world sustains a conflict this expensive for this long, costing them over 22 000 casualties on the north American side alone, of which 2 400 were fatalities, not including unofficial numbers that include mercenaries. Especially an oligarchic capitalist state, like the USA, would not engage in such a campaign, if there was not at least one greater economic concern to the cost-benefit analysis. There are a few factors that play into their involvement. First, Afghanistan is an important country from a geographical perspective. The USA views theocracies as inherently dangerous, and hence is a strong opponent of Iran, which borders west to Afghanistan. Accordingly, dimming religious tendencies in Afghanistan helps the USA to contain regional Iranian influence. Further, with its geographical proximity to Russia, controlling Afghanistan helps the USA to assert their presence in the region, while keeping Russia from expanding their powers in the region. Because Afghanistan has always been very fragile politically, it is an attractive spot for regional powers to expand their influence there, and the USA wanted to counter that. By controlling Afghanistan, which the USA practically did with their military, but also by installing governments there, the USA were able to keep two rival powers in check.
On the other side, the USA has an economic agenda in Afghanistan as well. With a market share of over 90%, Afghanistan is world’s greatest exporter of opium, which is used to produce heroin. It is estimated that the Afghan opium trade has an export volume of annually over $4 billion. Unofficial numbers might be a lot higher. The drug trafficking of opiates amounts to around 20% of the country’s GDP. Now, from a financial perspective it seems like a bad decision, since the Afghanistan campaign has cost the USA way more than the trade volume officially would bring in. Considering that it cannot be fully controlled by the north Americans, it is not a lucrative campaign. However, the vast majority of the opium grows in the southern region of Afghanistan, where the Taliban has their stronghold. Accordingly, they are dominating the global opium trade, which makes them so powerful, as they have a recurring source of funding. Through production outputs, they can dictate the opium market, which has implications for the global use of opiates and heroin. The main consumers of the drugs are in the western world and in East Asia. Uncontrolled drug trafficking causes societal problems. Especially in India and China, where opium consumption has traditional roots, the over-supply drove whole regions into misery. Another aspect of the opium cultivation is its medical use. Drugmakers are heavily dependent on opium, which is another reason why the USA wanted to get a hold on these Taliban-dominated regions, since it gives them pricing power in the global pharmaceutical industry. The war in Afghanistan is, thus, a war over drugs. Now, with the USA retreating from the conflict, Taliban gains nearly full control over the country and with it over the drug market.
Now, it sounds counterintuitive that a seemingly religiously motivated group is so heavily dependent on drug trafficking to survive. Further, it might read like the USA actually provided a certain degree of safety in the country. However, the USA were responsible for the misery in the country in the first place. The Taliban emerged after the Soviet war between 1979 – 1989. The USA indirectly supported the Afghan struggle against the Soviet army by sending weapons and training guerilla fighters – the so-called mujahideen, which later formed the Taliban. In order to make up for their technological disadvantages compared to the Soviets, the USA found that these fighters needed an immaterial boost. Quickly, the narrative was centred around religion, because the Soviet Union was an outspoken atheist state. The USA provided Afghanistan with school books that transmitted religiously radicalised contents. For example, the alphabet was taught like this: “A” is for Allah, “B” is for father (example sentences would be: “The father goes to the mosque…”), “T” is for rifle (tufang) and so on (the source of this information Craig Davis’ article – “A” Is for Allah, “J” Is for Jihad, 2002) . Everything in those books and in the education system was (and still is, as those books are partly still in circulation) centred around the religion and the fight against non-believers. Practically, the USA radicalised a whole generation through educational means. After the Soviet war, these people did not return their weapons, but turned them against the government and the rest of the population, as they were not as radical as themselves. The whole conflict started at this point. Now, the USA are retreating from the conflict after 40 years, leaving the country to drug trafficking extremists that were raised by the USA in the first place.
Step 5: Who gains, Who loses?
In this war, the majority of the involved actors lost – the civilians the most. Overall, even the north Americans lost – financially and from a reputational perspective. It seems like the Taliban will take control of the country, or at least over the most part of Afghanistan, but that will not end well for them, too. Under such a reign of terror, many people will flee the country, if they did not already leave. Afghanistan has become a failed state and the worst is yet to come. Recently, the current president of Afghanistan fled the capital, leading to further destabilisation. We can reasonably expect that the Taliban will gain full control over the country. Without politicians, lawyers, teachers and managers, their government’s chances of success are close to zero. It will not take long for a civil insurgency to emerge, but this might be the only perspective for the country. Other states will have little interest to sacrifice their troops, in order to fight the Taliban, which is now stronger than ever. Further, the war has triggered a diaspora of Afghans and countries that host significant numbers of refugees will have a hard time justifying military action in Afghanistan, after already helping them by hosting them. Moreover, Afghanistan is an ethnically and politically isolated country. Whereas other countries historically have nations that they maintain friendly relations with, Afghanistan has no ties to another nation strong enough that would make them feel obliged to help the Afghans. Again, nobody has won in this war. It was a battle to maintain a status quo, but it seems like the situation is turning out for the worst.
Step 6: How does that relate to me?
Unfortunately, the Afghans are, at this point, left alone. As mentioned earlier, no state will have a reasonable justification to intervene in this costly conflict. The only way the Afghans can regain their soil is to engage in a civil war, which will be a misery of incomprehensible extent. As an outsider, there is little one can do. Certainly, foreign nations should continue to provide humanitarian aid to the Afghan population and try to host as many refugees as possible, under the condition that the states make serious efforts to integrate these people into society. Fleeing from war means that many people are psychologically damaged. Paired with the overwhelming impressions of a new culture, people tend to behave unpredictably, which makes psychological support all the more important. It follows that an outsider’s role is to understand the background of Afghan refugees. From a political science perspective, the situation is going to be very interesting, as questions about the Afghan state’s legitimacy will inevitably arise. Will a Taliban government be recognised in the future? What about trade relations? Afghanistan has one of the world’s longest gas pipelines, which stretches from Türkmenistan over Afghanistan and Pakistan all the way to India. Or will Afghanistan become an isolated dictatorship like North Korea? Contrary to North Korea, Afghanistan has no protector state, which is China in North Korea’s case. For political scientists, the Afghanistan situation will provide a huge pool of issues to look at and make sense of. A final remark from an Essydo Magazine perspective concerns the USA’s behaviour. Over the past decades, the north Americans made Afghanistan dependent on their help, while not truly adding to the development and reconstruction of the country. The north American presence merely helped to avoid the worst. Now, that the USA retreated and the country fell into chaos, the question arises how the international community can prevent such powerful states from acting this irresponsibly in the future.