by Hugh Fitzgerald
President Biden has done something good: he’s pulling the American forces out of Afghanistan. After 20 years of war, with 2,500 Americans dead and 25,000 wounded, and the U.S. having spent more than a trillion dollars on this fiasco, all American forces will be out of Afghanistan by August 31. A report on the withdrawal’s effect on Afghanistan’s neighbors is here: “Taliban resurgence raises terrorism fears from Moscow to Beijing,” by Eltaf Najafizada, Faseeh Mangi and Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Bloomberg, July 9, 2021:
The Taliban’s lightning-fast advance to control more territory in Afghanistan is raising alarms from Russia to China, as U.S. President Joe Biden’s move to withdraw troops disrupts a balance of power in South Asia that has held steady for about two decades.
At least 1,000 Afghan troops this week retreated into Tajikistan, prompting the country to mobilize an extra 20,000 soldiers to guard its frontier. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sought out assurances from the Taliban that it will respect the borders of Central Asian states that once were part of the Soviet Union, while neighboring Pakistan has said it won’t open its borders to refugees.
Putin has been hosting Taliban representatives in Moscow, who have assured the Russians that the Taliban will not, once it has taken over Afghanistan, attempt to expand its reach into the five Islamic “stans” — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan — where fellow Muslims might be inspired by the Taliban’s example to overthrow the Moscow-allied “secular” Muslims who rule those countries. Of course, such assurances mean little; right now the Taliban still needs to keep Russia satisfied; it may be another story when Afghanistan has completely succumbed to the terror group. And Putin, and the Central Asian leaders, know that very well.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who warned last week that the most pressing task in Afghanistan was “to maintain stability and prevent war and chaos,” plans to travel to Central Asia next week for talks on the country. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the ministry, on Friday called the U.S. withdrawal “hasty” and said Washington must honor its commitments to “prevent Afghanistan becoming once again a haven for terrorism.”
The U.S. has rushed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and left the Afghan people in a mess, which further exposes the hypocrisy behind the pretext of defending democracy and human rights,” Wang Wenbin said at a briefing in Beijing.
Of course the Communist Chinese want the Americans to stay to hold down the Afghan fort, losing more men, materiel, and money, while keeping the Taliban down, and away from China – that is, with Xinjiang, where the terror group’s success might encourage pan-Islamic sentiments, that could possibly spill over into violence, among the persecuted Uighurs.
The Taliban will not allow “anyone or any group to use Afghan soil against China or any other countries,” Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, a senior official at the group’s political office in Doha, Qatar, said in a WhatsApp message Friday. “This is our commitment.”
Cum grano salis. Or perhaps Mohammad Suhail Shaheen’s remark deserves a whole salt mine. We’ll see just how little such “commitments” from the Taliban mean.
Biden on Thursday had insisted the U.S. military had achieved its goals in Afghanistan and would leave by Aug. 31, just shy of its 20-year anniversary after the deaths of 2,448 U.S. service members and about $1 trillion in spending. Yet the battle will go on for the people in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, threatening in particular the $60 billion in projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) right next door.
The chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into other countries and lead to regional turbulence,” said Fan Hongda, professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of the Shanghai International Studies University. “China does not want to take over the U.S. role, but hopes to facilitate regional peace and stability because it has interests in the region.”
China’s massive Belt-And-Road Initiative is the name given to a vast collection of development projects being, or planned to be, built by the Chinese, as well as to the investments by China in infrastructure built by locals; it is intended to stretch from East Asia to Europe, significantly expanding China’s economic and political influence. China does not want the headache – and the danger – of dealing with a Taliban state that would likely seal off Afghanistan from the Belt-And-Road Initiative of the Uighur-tormenting Chinese.
If the Taliban takes control of the country, as seems likely if no other outside power replaces the Americans, Chinese plans will need rethinking. China does not want a Muslim caliphate, not on its own border (a small stretch of Afghanistan, at Vakhan, borders China), nor does it want Muslim countries in the region — Pakistan and Iran, and the five “stans” of Central Asia — to be unsettled by a Taliban-run state on their borders. Beijing will now have to consider whether to replace the Americans in helping the Afghan army, and the local militias, to keep the Taliban at bay.
The Taliban have dramatically expanded their hold on Afghan territory in recent months, leaving the U.S.-backed government in control of little more than 20% of the country, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal. The insurgent group now holds 204 of 407 districts, up from 73 at the beginning of May, while the Afghan government only controls 74 currently. The rest are contested.
The latest news, as of July 10, is that 85% of the country is now in the hands of the Taliban. And each day brings fresh news of an onslaught on another province, and a takeover by the terror group, while Afghan Army soldiers are filmed, defeated or simply defeatist, meekly handing over their weapons to the bearded fanatics who want to turn the Afghan clock back to the 7th century.
While Russia worries about what a Taliban victory might mean for the five Central Asian “stans,” and China worries about the Taliban’s possible disruption of its Belt-and-Road plans, its effect on neighboring Muslim states, and its appeal to the Uighurs inside China, Iran has another worry. Shi’a Iran has been hosting talks between the Taliban and Afghan government officials, and has been pleased that the Americans, in its view, have been driven out of the neighborhood. But underneath the feigned unconcern about the Taliban’s takeover, the Iranians know that the Taliban consists of arch-Sunnis who regard Shi’as Infidels. And in 2001, it was only the arrival of the Americans that rescued the Shi’a Hazara from continuing to be slaughtered by the Taliban, as had been going on since the 1990s. It is not only the Taliban who have been killing Hazaras – so did the Afghan government – but the Taliban brought the murderousness to a whole new level, as in the mass slaughter of Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998. Here is what the Talib Mullah Niazi, the commander in that city, who became the new governor of Mazar, declared from several mosques in the city in separate speeches:
Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Shia. They are kofr [infidels]. The Hazaras killed our force here, and now we have to kill Hazaras. (...)
If you do not show your loyalty, we will burn your houses, and we will kill you. You either accept to be Muslims [Sunnis]or leave Afghanistan. (…)
[W]herever you [Hazaras] go we will catch you. If you go up, we will pull you down by your feet; if you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair. (…)
If anyone is hiding Hazaras in his house he too will be taken away. What [Hizb-i] Wahdat and the Hazaras did to the Talibs, we did worse…as many as they killed, we killed more.
What if, after the Taliban takes over the country, it renews its assault on the Hazara, whom the group proclaims are “not Muslim, they are Shia”? Will Shi’a Iran simply watch as its co-religionists are slaughtered? Or will the Iranians be compelled to move their own forces into Afghanistan to protect their fellow Shi’a?
The Americans are on their way out, about 18 years later than they should have left Afghanistan. Good news. Even better news: if the American withdrawal leads to a Taliban takeover, that will be a problem, not for us, but for the three countries that happen to be America’s most dangerous enemies – Russia, China, and Iran.