The Joe Biden administration has abandoned the most pro-American Afghan government in history. The withdrawal was announced by the White House with no consultation whatsoever with Ashraf Ghani, and came at a moment of impasse in the negotiations between the government in Kabul and the Taliban movement. Some analysts say that the pullout was predictable after the peace agreement signed in February 2020 in Doha, Qatar. Others had hoped that Joe Biden taking over in the White House could delay the process, allowing better preparations for a post-American Afghanistan. Most commentators agree that the American decision will have a destabilizing effect, and that the consequences will be much more dramatic than can be gleaned today. The American contingent in Afghanistan is barely 2,500 strong. Therefore it is not a matter of costs. This is a paradigm shift in American foreign policy and security.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan was an unpleasant surprise not only for the Ashraf Gani government, but most regional actors, who, though they had wished for it to occur, are worried about its consequences. First and foremost because of the Taliban offensive, which, in only a few months, took over 80% of Afghan territory.
The Taliban movement survived the demise of the Islamist state, in 2002. This was encouraged by those resented the consolidation of the US position in the heart of Eurasia, from Russia, to China, to Iran. However, the most important sponsor of the Taliban was and still is Pakistan, whose military secret services are seen as the main supporter of the Islamist movement. Starting in 2016, the head of the movement is Hibattulah Akundzada (b. 1961), a Pashtun who hails from Kandahar province, and rules by fetwale (religious edicts). In fact, a source of power for the Taliban is the control over the justice system by imposing Muslim law, Sharia.
Some Western governments hope that the Taliban has changed. The Ghani government has nurtured this illusion for a while. In the almost 20 years of NATO presence, a new generation emerged in Afghanistan, who dress in Western clothes, meet in cafes and gyms, watch Netflix, listen to music, and have smartphones. It is a Westernized social layer, but a very thin one. Out of a population of almost 40 million, less than 4 million use social networks. This fact in itself does not mean much. Even the Taliban uses smartphones, and shoot videos which then they disseminate as propaganda.
Therefore the statement that the Taliban has changed for the better and become more tolerant is wildly exaggerated. There are areas controlled by the Taliban where women are permitted to work, and girls are permitted to attend school. However, most sources in the field inform that women have to cover their face, men dressed in Western clothes or who clip their beards are assaulted in the street, FM radio stations that used to broadcast music are now shuttered, and, in villages, those who collaborated with NATO forces are hunted down and killed.
Among the population, a state of apathy is widespread. People are tired of war, it doesn’t seem to matter who rules, they want stability and to be left in peace. In spite of the uplifting messages from President Ashraf Ghani, few are ready to resist the Taliban onslaught. Women are the most active; they have already put together armed resistance groups.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves a vacuum of power in the center of Eurasia, and several actors will join the competition. First and foremost Russia, which is the most active and vocal. Moscow is not preparing to intervene in Afghanistan, where it suffered great losses until the retreat in the spring of 1989, but is consolidating its lines of defense in the former Central Asian Soviet republics. Russian foreign and defense ministers have visited the region many times, as well as the general secretary of the Federal Security Council. Russian-Uzbek joint military exercises were held at the Afghan border between July 30 and August 10. Tajikistan, which has a 1,300 km long border with Afghanistan, triggered the biggest mobilization in its history, calling to service 230,000 reservists. Also, Tajikistan has prepared 100,000 beds in refugee camps. The Tajiks know very well their neighboring country, as over a quarter of the Afghan population is made up of Tajiks. Alongside the Uzbeks, the Tajiks were the backbone of the anti-Taliban alliance of the 1990s, organized as the Northern Alliance, led by the Tajik Ahmad Shah al-Massoud, who was assassinated two days before the attack that brought down the Twin Towers in New York. The Northern Alliance had been discreetly, but effectively supported by Russia and India, who frowned upon the consolidation of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
It is no wonder that, this spring, the first Taliban target was the north of the country, where Tajiks and Uzbeks live alongside, having in the past successfully resisted the Taliban movement, dominated by ethnic Pastun. Up to 2002, the Northern Alliance was the strongest buffer between the Taliban and the former Soviet Republics. Hence the haste with which the Taliban have taken over in the last few weeks all border crossings, in order to cut any communication between the Tajik and Uzbek communities in Afghanistan and those in the former Soviet republics that are able to support them.
Tashkent, Dushambe, and Ashabad are laying their hopes in Moscow and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Even though it pulled out of the organization, Uzbekistan is coordinating its efforts with the latter, and recently signed a military partnership with Russia. The three former Soviet republics are sending peace messages to the Taliban, but are preparing for the worst.
Recently, President Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan stated that Russia had started establishing relations with the Taliban movement as early as 7 years ago, even though the Supreme Court of Justice banned that movement, which it labeled terrorist. The Kremlin made no secret of the fact that the most important thing was for the US to be defeated in Afghanistan, even though that would increase the Islamist threat. At the same time, Putin is preparing to use the Taliban threat to blackmail its Central Asia allies, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, each of these feeling threatened and needing Russia’s help, which is using the context to bolster its influence in Central Asia.
As opposed to Iran, India, and China, Russia has the best chances of playing a major role in the evolution of the situation in the area. Just as Pakistan, Russia has good relations with both the Taiban movement and the government in Kabul. As opposed to Pakistan and Turkey, which are limited in their moves within the political and ethnic context in Afghanistan, Russia is able to have relations with all actors, big and small, involved regionally. It is a hard test not only for its foreign policy, in a traditional direction in which Russian diplomacy has been excelling for centuries, but also for the Collective Security Treaty Organization, dominated by Russia.
The stakes are huge. If Muslim extremism crosses the borders into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Islamist ideology will flood into Central Asia, and may strike on the Volga, in the heart of Russia.