by Tariq Marzbaan for the Saker blog
Without a knowledge of history, one cannot understand the world today… For most people, especially Westerners, “Afghanistan” remains a dark enigma. But the enigmatic nature of this construct was cultivated… and still is today, because it suitably represents the enduring colonialist romantic myth of a wilderness populated by swashbuckling barbarians.
And today this bleeding crossroads, at the heart of the Heartland, also represents a thorny obstacle for Eurasian integration and a multipolar world…
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The 15th of August this year marked the anniversary of the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan. In the countless articles, reports, reportages and analyses published throughout the world, efforts were made to take stock of the current state of affairs. The tenor was more or less the same: Afghanistan is poor; the Taleban are backward Islamic extremists; women are oppressed; girls cannot receive an education; the Afghan economy has collapsed because the US has frozen the country’s funds; the population is facing famine and untold suffering; etc. …
Sadly, all this is true. It is not difficult to paint such a bleak picture of today’s Afghanistan under the Taleban.
For some fairly thorough “facts and figures” on the current situation in Afghanistan I can recommend this report (though I am not in agreement with everything that is claimed in it, especially concerning topics beyond the author’s jurisdiction – such as: “China’s harsh crackdown on Uyghur identity and politics”).
However… in all this information and all the latest reporting on Afghanistan, there is little to no mention of the historical roots and behind-the-scenes agendas of this current state of affairs….
The “international community” calls on the Taleban ad infinitum to “respect and guarantee human rights and women’s rights” (it is significant to note the distinction frequently made between “human rights” and “women’s rights”!), “to reject terrorism, to form an inclusive government in which all ethnic groups, religions and genders existing in Afghanistan are represented”, and so on… and as long as these demands are not met, the Taleban will not be “recognised”.
Following the Taleban-US talks in 2018, there were claims (made both directly and indirectly) that “the Taleban of today are not the Taleban of 20 years ago“… “they have changed!”. These assessments implied that the Taleban were suddenly in tune with the times and could run a state in adherence with contemporary norms. It was even believed by many that the entire Afghan population was suddenly behind the Taleban and wanted them in power. From this perspective, one could conclude that the Taleban were the right choice for Afghanistan.
But only recently has it become clear to many that the Taleban have not changed in the least… and, furthermore, they are not even considering any changes. The positions taken by a few “moderates” (as called by some media) who apparently exist and who occasionally express criticism of some of the government’s policies, constitute little more than a PR effort for foreign relations. Their invisible leader, Mullah Heibatolla Akhondzada, who allegedly resides in Kandahar, sent a clear message to the world… that, even if they were faced with a nuclear threat, they would pursue their own path resolutely.
And yet, their critics – consisting of women’s groups, human rights activists, local and foreign dissenters, various politicians and statesmen from East and West, the so-called “international community” – keep on reiterating their demands and exhortations over and over to the Taleban. It all sounds like a litany…
While a weak armed resistance has formed in the Panjshir valleys, Badakhshan and Andarâb (these are all areas in the valleys and slopes belonging to the Hindu Kush and Pamir Plateau), other opponents of the Taleban hope to achieve their demands and solve problems through “talks”. But the Taleban either ignore them or simply invite them to work with them – under their command of course.
And yet, to this day, the Taleban cannot comprehend why they are not achieving due international recognition. They simply say: “With regard to the education of women and girls – that is an internal matter, and all problems will be solved over time.”
The position taken by the northern and western neighbouring states (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Iran) and other states and republics beyond (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Chechnya, Russia and India) is a “delicate” one: they want to avoid open hostile relations with the Taleban… For good reasons: the Taleban are harbouring, in addition to Al Qaeda, many other foreign militant forces from these very territories… and they are only waiting to be deployed in their respective home countries. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan seek to assuage the Taleban with economic aid. But Tajik President Rahman is the only one who has taken a firm stand and refuses to interact with the Taleban. Not only does he openly speak of the terrorist threat issuing from the Taleban “empire”, he has also provided a safe haven for the Tajik Panjshiri “National Resistance” faction, whose forces are fighting fierce battles on a daily basis in the rugged valleys of the Hindu Kush against a Taleban supremacy.
The Taleban, however, seek to assure everyone again and again that they will not allow anyone from within Afghanistan to threaten or attack neighbouring states. Even if their intentions are serious, what will they do with all their Uyghur, Tajik and other Central Asian counterparts who, fully armed and bored out of their minds, are killing their time mowing down endangered species (such as snow leopards and Marco Polo deer) on the slopes of the Hindu Kush? Will they ultimately hand these mates over to their respective native states, as the Chinese have demanded? Or will they simply “disappear” them?
Already this formulation that they “will not allow anyone from within Afghanistan to threaten or attack…” feeds the suspicion that there is already “someone” in the wings waiting to take action.
Alas, the history of Afghanistan shows that the people in power (the Pashtun elites, currently commanding the Taleban, whose members are predominantly ordinary Pashtun people) can quickly and easily change their positions and break their “promises”. The Pashtuns are known to be a pragmatic people… and, when it comes to politics, one only has one’s best interests in mind. If need be, bans can suddenly be revoked and permits granted… and there are some reasons that this may well occur – when the time comes.
However, not everything is in their hands… There are other players (or parties) involved who will want to give them the go-ahead first…
Until then, the Taleban can go about quietly deploying their drug squads and flooding their neighbours with narcotics – despite the big promises they made to end the opium cultivation and drug business in Afghanistan.
The breaking of vows and acts of betrayal are an integral part of Afghan history…
In 1920, General Mohammad Nader assured the defecting Tajik commander Habibollah Kalakâni with an oath on the Qorân that nothing would happen to him if he surrendered; and as proof he sent him a Qorân with his oath, signature and seal. In response, Habibollah, a devout Muslim, capitulated. He and some of his close comrades-in-arms were then apprehended, tortured and summarily executed.
In 1842, following the popular uprising against the British occupying forces, the British – amounting to roughly 15,000 people (including women and children) – agreed to depart all at once… with the guarantee, that, until they crossed the Afghan border, the Mujaheddin would not attack them. In the end, as is famously known, only the military doctor Dr William Brydon and a few dispersed Indian foot soldiers reached the border. Some women and children were captured and taken to Kabul. The rest were slaughtered or died in the cold.
In 1979, Prime Minister Hafizollah Amin, a Ghelzâyi Pashtun in the PDPA (the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan), ordered the assassination of President Nourmohammad Taraki, also a Ghelzâyi. Amin had previously cultivated a veritable personality cult around Taraki, praising him as his great teacher, bowing to him and kissing his hand at every public meeting.
The most recent example of Pashtun “loyalty” to their tribal traditions is the Taleban massacre of a large group of resistance fighters from the Panjshir Valley, who had been guaranteed bodily integrity in exchange for their surrender.
After taking power, the Taleban proclaimed a general amnesty for civilians and military personnel of the overthrown previous regime. Since then, however, hundreds of such men and women have been killed by “unknown persons” or disappeared without a trace.
Moreover, the Taleban had repeatedly claimed there was no Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan… until a building in Kabul was bombed by the US and it was subsequently announced that Al Zawahiri, a leader of Al Qaeda, had been residing there. By the way, rumour has it that Al Zawahiri had been kept there by a Haqqâni group under Serajoddin Haqqâni (of the Ghelzâyi tribe) and then sold to the Yanks by the Kandahari group under Mullah Yaqub (of the Dorrani tribe). Since the 19th century these two tribes have been competing for dominance in a geopolitical construct named “Afghanistan”.
The Dorrani tribe constituted the ruling class in Afghanistan until 1978. All the amirs and kings were either from the Mohammadzâyi clan or the Barakzâyi clan. Both these clans belong to the Dorrani tribe from areas in and around Kandahar. They were thus considered the “aristocracy” of the Pashtuns… which generated a certain degree of envy and hostility amongst the proud and poorer Ghelzâyis tribe. Several uprisings of the Ghelzâyis against the Dorranis in the 19th and early 20th centuries were brutally quelled by the latter.
On 27 April 1978, a coup was staged against the last ruler of the Dorrani, Mohammad Daud, by the Khalq faction of the PDPA (the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan). Even the (communist, Soviet-oriented) PDPA was divided into two opposing camps: The Khalq faction and the Parcham faction, named after their press organs: “khalq” (the people), “parcham” (the flag). The officers who launched and executed this bloody coup belonged to the Khalq Ghelzâyis, while the unsuspecting Parchamis were majority non-Pashtuns with some Dorrani Pashtuns. These circumstances eventually led to bloody purges within the PDPA to the detriment of the Parcham faction, which then created one of the incentives for the Soviet intervention. This period of history in Afghanistan is fascinating and makes for compelling reading… but there is no space for it here. Nonetheless it is important to mention that some of the once staunch Khalqi Marxists were later to be found amongst the Taleban.
The current cohesion of the Dorrani and Ghelzâyi tribes will not last long… So far, it seems that the Ghelzâyis now have the upper hand in the Taleban establishment.
To get a better grasp of what the Taleban is about, it can be helpful to view them from three different aspects that, though deriving from diverse sources, merge and complement one another in their organisation and core:
1. from the perspective of religion
2. from the perspective of their surrogate role as a secret service proxy
3. from the perspective of Pashtun tribal structures and their “national” identity, and…
The Taleban as a religious group
The command of the Taleban in the1990s comprised imams, mullahs and maulawis (clerics, religious leaders and scholars) of the first generation of mujahedeen, some of whom had fought in the ranks of the mujahedeen against the Soviets. The rest were young men who had previously been trained in the religious schools in Pakistan where they were submitted to a thorough religious indoctrination – hence the name of their movement: TALEBAN (in Persian, a religious pupil/student is called a “Tâleb”; the plural is: “Tâlebân”). These madrassas (the so-called “Qorân schools”) were sustained and subsidised by the Pakistani government and Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the CIA. The pupils and students were the children of Afghan refugees and mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, who then constituted the Taleban combat forces.
Legend has it that the Taleban wanted to end the civil war in Afghanistan, restore security and public order and eliminate crime and corruption – which they largely succeeded in doing. This was the real reason behind their initial reception and acceptance by a population terrorised by other mujahedeen groups and criminal gangs.
In 1996, they also succeeded in capturing Kabul and state power… There are reports that the military successes of the Taleban were only made possible by the active support of the Pakistani army. (There is plenty of material on the circumstances and events in Afghanistan at that time… that also corroborates the claim that the Taleban of today are scarcely different from what they were back then.)
The Taleban as an intelligence proxy – a Pakistani project
This aspect of the Taleban movement has never been adequately and duly covered in the international media or in any study I could find. The role of the intelligence agencies and covert policies of the agencies involved with them are indeed concealed or distorted. But it is an obvious fact that since time immemorial, the secret services of various states have benefitted from and directly supported and employed terrorism – whether perpetrated by an individual, group or organisation – in order to pursue their own goals. Examples abound… The Taleban movement was one such enterprise of the Western intelligence services and their regional offshoots.
The concept of the “Taleban movement” was born and put into practice in the backrooms of the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI with the active ideological, methodological and financial support of the Saudi and UAE intelligence agencies, the CIA and the MI6 in the 1990s. It goes without saying that all the political, economic, social and religious conditions present in Afghanistan were ideal at that time.
But before delving into the Pakistan-Taleban link, I will briefly describe the role of Pakistan in the region.
The Kingdom of Britain, after relinquishing India and partitioning it, bequeathed their colonial legacy to Pakistan. Without the role that was originally designated for Pakistan by the British, many things in Afghanistan would have been different from what we know today. A movement like the Taleban, as we know it now, would most likely not have existed.
Pakistan, like Afghanistan, is a spawn of British colonialism. While the British assigned Afghanistan the role of a buffer state during the Great Game, Pakistan was chosen as the heir and long arm of British colonialism… as a geopolitical tool and “troublemaker” in the region.
While Afghanistan’s buffer state status has long since fizzled out, Pakistan continues to play its role brilliantly and fulfil its function. This role is most evident in the conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan and India.
Between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Durand Line has always been a point of contention as a border. This line was drawn between Afghanistan and British India in 1884 by a British diplomat and leading figure of the Indian Civil Service, Sir Mortimer Durand and was approved of and signed by the prevailing ruler of Afghanistan, Amir Abdoll Rahman. It was to last until 1994, after which it would be renegotiated – just the year when the Taleban suddenly emerged out of thin air!
After the creation of Pakistan, there were repeated instances of friction at the border. Although this “Line” dividing the states of Afghanistan and Pakistan was internationally recognised, the Pashtun rulers in Kabul refused to recognise it as a border. It only provoked the two states to interfere in each other’s internal affairs. Owing to its military and economic strength, Pakistan was more successful than the poorer and weaker Afghanistan. And the prevailing positions and competition between the West (with the US at the top) and the People’s Republic of China on one side (the Pakistani side)… and the USSR and India on another side (the Afghan side) ensured the persistence of tensions.
Moreover Pakistan began to consider Afghanistan as its so-called “strategic depth”, which it always sought to penetrate and control. In due course, the war against the Soviets and the ensuing civil war, with the resulting disintegration of statehood in Afghanistan, created splendid opportunities for Pakistan to begin to launch this long cherished aspiration. By first backing the Mujahedeen groups opposing the Afghan leftist government and its Soviet supporters, then by its intervention in the country’s civil war and finally with its formation and deployment of the Taleban, Pakistan managed to come ever closer its goal.
The 2001 US/NATO invasion in did not deter Pakistan whatsoever from abandoning this goal. To realise their project, Pakistan has always needed the conscious or unwitting / involuntary help of the Pashtuns in Afghanistan. Their 20 years of support and encouragement of the Taleban and the current rule of the Taleban over Afghanistan has only strengthened Pakistan’s aspirations. Whether the Taleban are intentionally enabling Pakistan to realise this project or not is not clear. Sections of the Taleban, especially within the Haqqâni network, are under the strong influence of the ISI and strive for the goal of a unification with their Pashtun brothers in Pakistan. Whether at the end of these efforts Afghanistan remains within its present borders or expands at the expense of Pakistan with the formation of a Greater Pashtunestan, or whether a new Pakistan emerges with a northern border on the Oxus… no one can say, but these are the various visions for the future nurtured by the forces involved.
At the same time, one cannot ignore the role and positions of the other neighbouring states, the regional and global powers…
With its grandiose proclamations for its plans of eradicating Al Qaeda and Taleban terrorism and upholding human rights, “women’s rights”, democracy and state- and nation-building, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, toppled the Taleban, occupied the country and installed a vassal regime. It is, of course, superfluous to mention that the motives presented to the public by the USA and its allies were merely all pretexts. The plans for the invasion of Afghanistan were in the drawer long before 9/11. (See PNAC)
Consequently the Taleban and their Al Qaeda guests were defeated and retreated. And where to?… To neighbouring Pakistan, an ally of the US and the West. There they recuperated, regrouped and were soon ready for action again in Afghanistan… in an operation which lasted 20 years. And, during those years, in addition to their backing from Pakistan, the Taleban began to receive massive support from certain Arab Gulf states… all allies of the US and the West.
There are also unverifiable reports that the British have on several occasions airlifted or airdropped boxes with unknown contents into areas under Taleban control. Together with the US, Britain is also fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan… The Taleban are supported by Pakistan… Pakistan is not only an ally of the USA, but it has remained closely tied to Britain with regard to security since its inception. It is important to note that the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) was the brainchild of the former British Indian Army major general Sir Robert Cawthome, then Deputy Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army. Cawthome was Director-General the ISI from 1950-1959.
One can thus infer that the “Taleban Project”, is just as much a British project. The British are, after all, the inventors of Afghanistan…
Back in the 19th century, two colonial powers – Britain and Russia – competed against one another in Asia The Great Game. By occupying India, partitioning Iran and creating Afghanistan, The British, put a spanner in the works to hinder Russian expansion into the warm waters to the south (the Arabian Sea). Afghanistan was given the status of a “buffer state” and was definitively established in the 1907 Treaty of St Petersburg between Tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain. Although this treaty was then annulled in the Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1917, Afghanistan’s geopolitical importance was not diminished, but transferred instead… Afghanistan returned to what it had been for millennia – namely: The Battlefield of Nations… and Ideologies.
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In order to proceed with Point 3 in my next essay “Part II” – understanding the Taleban “from the perspective of Pashtun tribal structures and their “national” identity…”, I will provide a brief history of the construct of Afghanistan…