A grim foretelling of a fundamentalist-operated Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a small, poor country off the beaten track of world travel and commerce.
Yet, it is currently engaged in multiple critical conflicts of immense importance: First, is the conflict between the Taliban world view and the attitudes of more than half the Afghan population. This confronts belief in a mixed secular-moderate religious society with a religious group with social attitudes rooted in outdated, rigid religious beliefs at odds with science and progressive Islamic social attitudes.
This conflict is representative of one of the most critical, explosive confrontations on the planet. The ability of these fundamentalist Islamic groups to amplify their message through violence has hypnotized the Middle East, Europe, and the US. The evolution of the world-wide movement promoting a fundamentalist Islam, eager to use violence to achieve its ends, will strengthen with the imminent Taliban victory.
Second, is the conflict between the US and its NATO allies, and the Taliban, where an Afghan government, supported by NATO, battles it out with the Taliban. We differentiate this conflict from the first, more fundamental conflict, as the Afghan Government is not necessarily representative of the people.
The US objective is to deny a base for fundamentalist Islamic movements that threaten violent harm to NATO nations. It is certain that, should the Taliban gain control of Afghanistan, the fundamentalists will find a home where they can train and plot against their enemies.
After 18 years of fighting at a cost of about $2 trillion, President Trump seems to have decided that it is time to leave, fulfilling one of his campaign promises from 2016. Trump is facing up to the real situation: The US has lost the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban have won. An Afghanistan government will not be able to prevail in political and military conflict with the Taliban unless it receives indefinitely substantial American military, intelligence, and financial support.
Unable to bring this conflict to a successful conclusion, Trump wants out before the American election in November 2020. He understands that the American people will no longer support a conflict where no effective progress has been made over almost 20 years.
The third conflict is the battle between Pakistan and India for influence in central Asia and Afghanistan. The Taliban is Pakistan’s proxy, while India supports the Afghanistan government. Afghanistan is thus drawn into the continuing conflict between India and Pakistan. Pakistan sees a victory over India coming, should the Taliban return to power.
While NATO has no stomach for continuing this war, the Afghanistan government has not given up, and India is certainly determined to help. I think one can be confident that Modi and Trump discussed the Afghanistan problem in their recent meeting. Logistical considerations make it impossible for Indian armed forces to operate in Afghanistan, but without some continued strengthening of the Afghan military, the Taliban will defeat the Afghan government in one or two years. Is Modi itching for a fight with Pakistan?
The stakes are even greater
The victory of the Taliban and the consequent establishment of a permanent Islamic State that promotes fundamentalist views and provides a safe base for groups with similar views, threatens a war that will bring a heavy death toll and bitterness continuing for decades.
Al-Qaeda is such a group, allowed to flourish in Afghanistan under Taliban protection and learning to carry out operations around the world against nations proclaimed as Islam’s enemies. While Al-Qaeda may be fatally wounded, there are many more waiting to emerge.
The Taliban want to build a society that reflects their values; they are forced to fight to build this society by force, as most Afghans are not in agreement with the Taliban’s version of Islamic law and social norms.
To prevent the emergence of such a state, providing a base for the fundamentalist Islamic attacks was the objective of the long American war in Afghanistan. With that objective apparently lost, what are the prospects?
First, in a few years IS and Al-Qaeda will be established in Afghanistan. Perhaps they will fight each other or perhaps they will find a common cause. Their ability to mount operations in the US and Europe is limited.
There are two promising target areas for them working out of a safe haven in Afghanistan. One is the Middle East, where the war is essentially a Sunni army fighting the Shia. They will return to this objective but there will be limited opportunity as the US military capabilities in the ME, centred on bases in the Gulf States, are not going to go away.
The second target area is South Asia where India and Bangladesh are home to hundreds of millions of Muslims. In India, the Modi government is creating a Hindu society within which Muslim rights will be minimized. It will be a fertile ground for terrorism to flourish.
Bangladesh has been home to terrorist organizations focused on India; while these are now largely destroyed, there are continuing efforts to recruit and develop terrorists who will strike India. With the strong support Bangladesh provides to India, the fundamentalists will see the Bangladesh government as a legitimate target. The anti-Muslim behaviour of the Indian government creates an environment ripe for recruitment of terrorists.
The real unknown is how India and Pakistan will manage this new alignment in Afghanistan. Pakistan will see the Taliban victory as just what it needs to give India a bloody nose. Pakistan, now bitter over Kashmir, is spoiling to get even.
The NATO military operations in Afghanistan are coming to an end. The Afghan army has not shown the ability to fight the Taliban without the assistance of the US, particularly in the use of air operations. American concern with civilian casualties limits the application of such air-strikes but it is still vital to the Afghan military operations.
With the withdrawal of American troops likely by the end of 2020, the Taliban will ultimately prevail on the battlefield. The American air forces will continue to support the Afghan government but will gradually fade away as ground support is reduced. Continued military support in the absence of American troops inside Afghanistan will not continue long.
We will be back to December 2000.
Within another year or two after the Taliban take over the country, Islamic fundamentalists committed to violence will be established with home bases in Afghanistan. Drug production will grow. The Taliban nation will spread its destruction to the western nations and South Asia. Inside Afghanistan, women will lose their rights to education and have limited freedom to work.
A sad end.
America’s involvement with Afghanistan goes way back to the period after World War II.
Following a Soviet organized overthrow of the Afghan government, Afghanistan became a centre of conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, each nation trying to establish their version of an appropriate Afghan government through open war.
With the end of the cold war and the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan, there was a tremendous boost of world-wide interest in violent Islamic fundamentalism. A society that was moderate and tolerant lost its leaders and floundered in a confusion of values mixing religion with military violence and the cruelty of the bitter war with the Russians.
Afghanistan was of limited interest to the rest of the world and the Pakistani government filling this vacuum pushed forward their proxies, the Taliban, who came to rule most of the country. There were continuing unresolved struggles between warlords but the Pakistan support with weapons and guidance certainly gave the Taliban the greatest power.
Hosting Al-Qaeda led to disaster for the Taliban. After the successful 9/11 attack on the United States, retribution fell heavily on the Taliban: They lost political power, their leadership was decimated, thousands of their members were killed, and they were pushed into the remote areas of Afghanistan.
The Afghan government’s security forces were not able to maintain control of the country; the infrastructure investments were generally unsuccessful; corruption, led from the very top of the Afghan government, undermined the nation-building efforts. The efforts to build the structures of government were poorly executed.
NATO was unable or unwilling to destroy the Taliban. Over time, with the help of Pakistan, the Taliban have made a remarkable comeback, building up their cadres, fighting the NATO troops, fighting the Afghan army, and seizing effective control over large areas of the country. A recent BBC estimate is that more than 2,000 Afghans are killed in the fighting every month.
Of these, 1,000 killed are Taliban with a similar number wounded. There is no evidence that the Taliban have lost their will to fight and die. There are plenty of signs that NATO and the Afghan army have lost such determination.
The Taliban are anxious to get NATO out of their country, believing they will be able to take total control in a year or two afterwards. NATO has been defeated and are ready to leave. Of course they leave the Afghan population, particularly the women, at the mercy of this Satanic organization eager to inflict their torture and terror on their wives and daughters.
Once the Taliban were driven from political power in 2002, there were two alternatives. One path was to leave. Let the Afghans fight it out in their own country. This would have enabled the United States to say farewell to cooperation with Pakistan, a country that betrayed its relationship with the US. Rather than try to build a new Afghan government, the US might have settled for low cost, covert support for the warlords. But this path would likely lead to the Taliban emerging triumphant.
An extremism-free Afghanistan
The second path for NATO was to actually try to build a successful state working with the Afghan people, while rooting out the Taliban. To do this required recognition that key institutions had be to be built over time spans of 10-20 years and that the Afghans were not experienced to run such organizations until an extended period of training and experience was gained under NATO guidance.
The US government did not have and was never able to formulate a realistic and effective strategic vision to build a stable state. This strategic vision requires seven steps, none of which the US had the wit or courage to undertakes some of these are harsh but all were necessary. Perhaps it was never possible for the NATO countries to do what is necessary.
No trials, no release, life imprisonment. The Taliban were not going to reform and, if left free in the Afghan society, would only bring violence and death. One has to recognize this truth; there is no change of viewpoint of the radical fundamentalist. Members of fundamentalist violent organizations have to be either killed one by one or imprisoned for the rest of their lives.
Build up local governments first
Set up local governments around the country to run the day-to-day affairs of people; no central government is necessary. Local police forces under local control and local governments to run schools and hospitals. Councils would be elected by the people in the locality. Everybody learns what democracy means. The Americans started with a central government, creating a corrupt and useless elite group.
Concentrate infrastructure on roads, schools, police stations, and clinics. Develop small Afghan construction companies to do this work by contracting and rewarding success with more contracts while preventing monopolies and large contractors. Large contractors are a major source of corruption and concentration of wealth. Do not try to build up Kabul. Electricity can come later. Build roads to support the mining industry.
A strong economy
The Americans would set up and run the banking system. The dollar would circulate as the currency. The banking system could not easily be used for corruption. The Americans would set up and run the customs service slowly turning it over to the Afghans. Over a decade or more the transition to an independent currency could be made and a central bank established.
The opium trade must be suppressed. Death penalty for trafficking in drugs. If you grow poppies your land is confiscated. Drugs are destroying Afghanistan and this has to be stopped.
The Americans would give out contracts to mining companies and petroleum companies. Appropriate royalties would be paid into a central fund that would be distributed to all Afghans annually, an equal amount to each person. It is essential to get the Afghan economy functioning and developing the mining sector was one high priority action.
The point of all of this is to build the national government up from local governments distributed all over the country. Second, the economy needed to be started up, particularly in agriculture and mining. Then a society more or less free of corruption, becoming economically self-sufficient, with the focus on rural areas and farmers, could emerge. One must avoid turning over the country to a corrupt upper class.
The Americans did all the opposite, trusting an elite gang of Afghans to set up a country. Government was driven from the top and everyone grew fat from the American resources. These elites stole everything that they could. A Kabul centred state has come to the disastrous end we find today. Elites strutting around thinking that they have a country to govern. All armed with airplane tickets to flee along with the Americans.
Afghanistan is lost to the Taliban. It is sad for the ordinary men and women of Afghanistan who will now fall under the bitter, cruel, merciless Taliban regime. Particularly for the women, it is slipping back into the dark ages of a joyless slavery.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.