Taliban* Reconquista 27.07.2021

"Politics is war without bloodshed, whereas war is politics with bloodshed."
(c) Mao Zedong. The Little Red Book.

At the beginning of this article, I would like to write that I consider the Taliban to be a terrorist organization and in no way support it or its activities. This material is an analysis of the current situation in Central Asia and the Middle East only.

To date, the Pashtun movement Taliban, according to some reports, controls 85% of Afghanistan and 90% of its borders. The most interesting thing is that during the current offensive, the Taliban* have already captured the Afghan province of Badakhshan, inhabited by ethnic Tajiks and its geographically strategically important part, the Wakhan corridor borders with the territories of Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. The Taliban did not control this area even during the 1995-2001 period of their domination in Afghanistan. That is, the Taliban's current reconquest of Afghanistan is going on in earnest and apparently for the long haul. Furthermore, the fall of Kabul and the secular regime of President Ashraf Ghani is a matter of months, if not days. So, it makes sense to do a little analysis of what awaits Afghanistan after it turns the “white colours of the Taliban”.

Let us begin with the fact that the current Taliban and the Taliban, who ruled in Afghanistan before 2001, are not the same. The Taliban of the 1990s was a more radical structure that followed Sharia law and an unspoken local Pashtun set of rules called "Nana" or "Pashtunwali". The Taliban, following these codes and laws, wiped out the opium poppy crop. Thus, by 2001, according to estimates by both the UN and the U.S. government, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan had fallen to virtually zero (only 8,000 hectares were planted, compared, for example, with 209,000 hectares in 2013 or 82,000 in 2000). Today, for the Taliban, the drug trade is an essential source of income, and they are actively promoting poppy cultivation in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, which have recently fallen under their control. The coming of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan will cause an increase in drug trafficking from that country in all directions: both to Central Asia and then to Russia and the European Union and neighbouring Iran. Also, the Taliban is turning from a fully Pashtun movement into an international one. In particular, there are already many Tajiks and Uzbeks in its ranks. This is why it is spreading into Central Asia and primarily into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Moreover, Turkmenistan, which borders Afghanistan, has already moved its army to the Afghan border and evacuated civilians from settlements bordering Afghanistan. I very much doubt that the Taliban will start their invasion right now anywhere but the uncontrolled areas of Afghanistan. However, in the next 5-10 years, they will expand their influence to the North Caucasus and the Volga region of Russia.

Right now, another regional centre of power is emerging in Central Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, all players in the region, including Turkey, China, Iran and Russia, will have to reckon with it. Taliban official representatives have already visited Moscow, Ashgabat and Tehran and are now likely to visit Istanbul to discuss the fate of Turkey's military presence in Afghanistan. Now, I am sure that the main task of the diplomats from the countries that have invited Taliban delegations is to reach an agreement with the Taliban on the non-proliferation of their expansion beyond Afghanistan. Also, I am sure that these talks, whatever the Taliban are promising now, do not make any sense. Over time, when the Taliban finally gains a foothold in Afghanistan, they will start to expand their influence in neighbouring countries just as Iran started to do after Islamic Revolution in Afghanistan in 1979.

Another critical issue is the factors of the Taliban's coming into power in Afghanistan. The main factor is the decision on the complete withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from the territory of Afghanistan, and first of all, the U.S. military servicemen. The military and political leadership of the United States decided that the Afghan problem was not their matter and that it made no sense for the United States to spend enormous resources on maintaining stability there. Henceforth, Russia, China, and Iran, the primary adversaries of the U.S. in the region, will have to spend these resources. The United States' position is thus abundantly clear.

The second factor is that no adequate secular leadership has been able to emerge in Afghanistan. Afghan people have so fed up with the current Afghan leadership's excessive corruption and lawlessness that Afghanistan is greeting the Taliban with a firm ideology and laws with near jubilation. I would not be surprised if the same thing happens in a few years in some other countries.

So, the factors that let the Taliban come into power in Afghanistan are clear. There is no doubt that the Taliban will soon have control of the whole of Afghanistan. Perhaps there are two most important questions now. The first one is who the Taliban are. And the second one is how Russia, China and Iran are going to confront them.

The Taliban was founded in 1994 in Pakistan's so-called “Tribal Areas”. In Pashto, Taliban means “students of madrasas”. In 1995 they controlled a third of Afghanistan and captured Kabul in 1996. The main enemies of the Taliban at that time were former Mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Masood, who had fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and then overthrew the pro-Soviet regime of Mohammad Najibullah, who had no chance after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The founder of the Taliban is considered to be Muhammad Umar, an Afghan muslim cleric who took part in the Afghan war on the side of the Mujahideen. It is an interesting fact that Muhammad Umar, like many other Taliban leaders, was a supporter of Sufism, an Islamic school of mysticism. According to some reports, Muhammad Umar died of tuberculosis between 2013 and 2015. He was followed by Akhtar Mansour, who was killed on May 21, 2016, by a U.S. drone shot near the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Taliban is now led by Haibatullah Akhundzada, appointed commander-in-chief of the Taliban on May 25, 2016. However, some analysts believed that there was disagreement within the Taliban over who should be appointed as the new leader of the Taliban. There were two other contenders for the post, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, who is the son of Muhammad Umar, and who since May 2020 headed The Quetta Shura, the supreme political body of the Taliban, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was the most prominent member of the Haqqani Network*. However, Haibatullah Akhundzada retained support among the rank-and-file Taliban. To avoid conflict following the election of Haibatullah Akhundzada as their leader, the Taliban agreed that Mohammad Yaqub and Sirajuddin Haqqani would serve as his deputies.

Thus, the Taliban now consists of three main factions. The first faction is the inner circle of Haibatullah Akhundzad, which tends to be represented by local religious figures and has no serious influence over the Taliban as a whole. The second faction is the Haqqani Network and Sirajuddin Haqqani, who has extensive support from Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani army. The third faction is Mullah Mohammad Yaqub and The Quetta Shura, which brings together many Taliban "field commanders" and is funded by several countries from the Arabian Peninsula. Given that the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was diplomatically recognised by only three states: the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, it is not too difficult to guess which countries fund The Quetta Shura.

So, we are clear on the organisational structure of the Taliban and the states that will support it on the international stage. Now I would like to add to them the Emirate of Qatar, where the so-called "political wing" of the Taliban headed by Abdul Hakim Haqqani is based. It is the same one that travels around to negotiate on behalf of the whole Taliban, but I doubt if those agreements are worth anything. Qatar is now a kind of pariah country on the Arabian Peninsula, and with its support, the Taliban hardly has any influence. As well as the credentials of Sheikh Shahabuddin Delawar, who led the Taliban delegation to Moscow, or Shir Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, who led past Taliban delegations to Moscow and the current delegations to Tehran and Dushanbe, to put it mildly, are unknown to the general public, and I assume that they have no real authority whatsoever.

This brings us to the second question: how exactly are Russia, China and Iran going to confront the Taliban?

To begin with, the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is not advantageous for Russia, China and Iran. Sunni Muslims headed by Sufi mystics are a direct challenge to Shia Iran under the leadership of the Ayatollahs who rule based on the ideology founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Tehran will have to conduct tough diplomacy with the Taliban based primarily on Tehran's "leverage" over the situation in Afghanistan, which will be limited once the Taliban fully comes into power. I do not think an open conflict between Tehran and the Taliban will come to pass. However, the "diplomatic struggle" is expected to be serious.

Russia is satisfied with the visit of Qatari "diplomats". In the long term, Moscow will give some real support to Tashkent and Dushanbe militarily and reinforce The Russian 201st Military Base on the territory of Tajikistan. Nevertheless, Moscow has no "leverage" to influence the situation in Afghanistan right now and no real desire or capability to do anything serious in this direction. As to the increase in drug trafficking through Central Asia to Russia and the European Union, which will inevitably happen very soon, there, I think, the corrupt generals and colonels from the FSB and Interior Ministry, with their "colleagues" are already beginning to calculate the future profit. So, for some forces in Russia, the Taliban coming into power is a very positive development.

As for China, the rise of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan means a deterioration of the situation with Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region bordering Afghanistan (and, also, troubled Tajikistan). Also, I should note that the Uigurs are Sunni Muslims of Khanafi madhhab. They are absolutely of the same religious persuasion as the Pashtun Taliban. The Chinese authorities are tackling Muslims by sending them to internment camps for "re-education" now. According to some reports, the Chinese government has already sent several hundred thousand Uyghurs to such camps. Naturally, it does not make Uigurs, who, in addition to China, reside in Kazakhstan, sympathetic to China. Furthermore, the total number of Uigurs in the world is close to 10 million. In the long term, the "Talibanisation" of Central Asia can create a serious problem along China borders. The border between China and Afghanistan, 80 kilometers long, can still be controlled. On the other hand, the common border between China and Central Asia, located in an area that is difficult to control, is virtually impossible to secure.

In this situation, the Chinese are likely to place their main bets on Pakistan and the Haqqani Network, the second faction in the Taliban leadership controlled by the Pakistani security services. Pakistan-China relations, especially against the backdrop of the global deterioration in China-India relations, have been described by Pakistan's ambassador to China as "higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight and sweeter than honey". Therefore, I have absolutely no doubt that Pakistan will make every effort to solve China's possible problems with the Taliban. To do this, Pakistan's intelligence agencies need to gain full control over the Taliban, and they have been already taking steps in 2020-2021. For example, members of the Haqqani Network have been taking the lead over the Taliban during this time. Some reports suggest that as early as 2020, Haibatullah Akhundzada dismissed Shir Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai as the head of the Taliban delegation to the Qatari capital of Doha and appointed Sheikh al-Hadith Maulawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani of the Haqqani Network to replace him, while Stanikzai himself became his deputy. It is now the Haqqani representative who negotiates Taliban policies with the world, although the actual military power is still in the hands of the Quetta Shura. Moreover, if the son of the Taliban's founder, Mohammad Umar, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub, have full control over the Taliban, then we are in for some exciting things in the near future indeed. 

*The Taliban is a terrorist organisation forbidden in Russia.

*The Haqqani Network is a terrorist organisation forbidden in Russia.

Dmitrii Ershov, political scientist.

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