US handover of Afghanistan to Taliban: Placing new puzzle on region’s table – IV
by Ramtanu Maitra on 28 Jan 2022 1 Comment

Too many dangers, too many unknowns


A bill of goods was accepted by Khalilzad and Co. and sold to the Americans at Doha by the English-speaking Taliban leaders, a Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, who is on a United Nations sanctions list and has been named a leader of the new government, and a Kandahari Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – none of whom made any effort to fulfill the delivery end of the deal. For instance, one of the clauses of the “peace agreement” said the Taliban would cease violence. Taliban never ceased violence throughout the talks.


Secondly, the agreement says that the Taliban no longer have any link with al-Qaeda - a bald-faced lie that only the American negotiators chose to believe. In the Feb. 3, 2021, report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN Security Council, it was stated: “Member States report little evidence of significant changes in relations between Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Al-Qaida assesses that its future in Afghanistan depends upon its close ties to the Taliban, as well as the success of Taliban military operations in the country. The overall number of members of Al-Qaida and its affiliates in Afghanistan is currently estimated at between 200 and 500, spread across at least 11 Afghan provinces: Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktiya and Zabul.”


Notwithstanding what Khalilzad convinced others of over the years, it was well known that the Taliban and al-Qaeda never parted ways. The question is: Why couldn’t the Taliban break off relations with al-Qaeda? Some scholars of al-Qaeda point to the history between the two groups, which can be traced back to the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Others argue that al-Qaeda remains an important ally of only a sub-group of the Taliban, the Haqqani faction. These two groups are bound by ties of marriage among families of key leaders. Al-Qaeda also remains popular among the rank and file of the Taliban. In addition, all of them have fought against their common enemy - the United States - for years, and that has kept them closer.


Furthermore, al-Qaeda and its regional branch, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), operate under the banner of Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. That means AQIS’ operations are not considered distinct from that of the Taliban’s in their fight against their common enemies. AQIS and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, including Central Asian and Uyghur jihadists, are also embedded within the fabric of the Taliban-led insurgency.


On Jan. 4, 2021, the US Treasury Department posted a written update to combat illicit terrorism financing. In response to inquiries from the Department of Defense’s Lead Inspector General, it said: “Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. Al- Qaeda broadly depends on donations from likeminded supporters, and from individuals who believe that their money is supporting humanitarian or charitable causes. Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support. Senior Haqqani Network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda. Elements of al-Qaeda, including affiliate al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), and terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), continue to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a haven. AQIS likely receives funding from al-Qaeda senior leadership.” (Al Qaeda ‘gaining strength’ in Afghanistan, U.S. Treasury says: Thomas Jocelyn: FDD’s Long War Journal: Jan. 25, 2021)


Most worrisome to the region, perhaps, is the presence of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan. ISIS-K, which comprises many former Taliban field commanders and fighters and now also includes many transnational jihadis, was set up in 2015 and now is a force to reckon with in eastern Afghanistan, primarily in the eastern province of Nangarhar and northeastern province of Badakhshan. The group was reportedly on the verge of being eradicated from its main base in eastern Afghanistan in late 2019 by US and Afghan military offensives but the group’s operational capabilities appear to remain strong, according to an UN report. 


On Aug. 26, 2021, ISIS-K carried out an attack at the Kabul International Airport that left 13 US service members and more than 150 Afghans dead. The group has also claimed responsibility for numerous attacks against Taliban forces in the eastern city of Jalalabad, as well as the October 2021 suicide bombing of a Shi’a mosque in the northern city of Kunduz that left approximately 100 people dead. Continuous ISIS-K attacks undermine the Taliban’s effort to demonstrate its ability to govern and secure the country (ISIS-K is trying to undermine Afghanistan's Taliban regime, from inside and out. That's America's problem, too: Sami Yousafzai, Tucker Reals: CBS News: Oct. 8, 2021). 


ISIS-K also carried out an attack on a Shi’a mosque in Kandahar, heart of the ruling Taliban group, in October. Another major attack was carried out in early November inside the 400-bed Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan military hospital in one of Kabul’s more affluent neighborhoods, killing at least 25 people and wounding dozens. There are also reports that some of the US-trained Afghan National Defense Security Force personnel, since the Taliban takeover, have joined hands with ISIS-K, making the situation more perilous.


From the look of things, it is evident that the Taliban are finding it difficult to counter ISIS-K using the kind of asymmetric tactics that they had used against the American forces. It is not unlikely that they would ask for outside help to defeat ISIS-K. CIA Director William J. Burns’ secret meeting in Kabul with one of two Taliban deputy prime ministers in late-August has not gone unnoticed in the region.


Another group of concern is the Pakistan-based, Pashtun-dominated extremist group, TTP. Though its prime objective is confronting the Pakistani military and setting up Shariah laws in the tribal areas, TTP has reportedly formed an alliance with ISIS-K. Reunification between TTP and some former splinter groups (possibly facilitated by AQIS) since 2020 has swelled the group’s ranks to between 2,500 and 6,000, according to UN sanctions monitors (UN Document S/2021/486). The TTP also has connections with the Taliban perhaps because both groups derive support from ethnic Pashtuns, a group that spans the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.


Last November, Islamabad and the TTP agreed to a one-month ceasefire. “The government of Pakistan and banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan have agreed on a complete ceasefire,” Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said in a statement, adding that the ceasefire would be extended as the talks progressed. However, on Dec.10, TTP unilaterally ended the ceasefire, accusing the Pakistan government of failing to honor its part of the agreement.


Taliban took over a bankrupt nation


In addition to the existence of various terrorist groups within Afghanistan that could pose a serious threat soon, the Kabul-based Taliban leadership’s immediate challenge is perhaps securing the finance it requires to keep the administration afloat. Until their August takeover, Taliban primarily earned its revenue through criminal activities, including opium poppy cultivation, drug trafficking, extortion of local businesses, and kidnapping, according to an UN monitoring group. Estimates of their annual income range from $300 million to $1.6 billion. According to one estimate, Taliban earned about $460 million from opium poppy cultivation in 2020. They have also supplemented their income with illicit mining and donations from abroad, despite strict UN sanctions. (The Taliban in Afghanistan: Lindsay Maizland: Council on Foreign Relations: Sept. 15, 2021.


At the time of the Taliban takeover, the Ghani administration was still heavily dependent on foreign donors. The Washington Post reported that about 80 percent of Kabul’s GDP at the time came from donors. Soon after Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Biden administration, embarrassed by its failure to provide the Afghans a period of interlude, imposed sanctions, announcing that a substantial portion of Afghanistan’s official foreign reserves – $9.4 billion, held in liquid assets such as US Treasury bonds and gold offshore - would not be made available to the Taliban government.


The sanctions freeze any US assets belonging to the Taliban and bar US citizens from engaging in transactions with them, including the contribution of funds, goods, or services. In addition, Washington canceled a planned shipment of physical dollars due to be delivered to the country and directed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to renege on its long-planned release of funds to Afghanistan. To begin with, the IMF cannot release any money to a government that is not recognized by any of its member-nations.


These sanctions will add to the existing sanctions imposed by the United Nations on the Taliban back in 1999 (UN Resolution 1267). That was when Taliban was sheltering al-Qaeda chief Osama bin-Laden. Subsequently, following the killing of bin-Laden, the United Nations came up with resolutions 1988 and 1989, replete with bureaucratic language and confusing to the core, that tried to separate the Taliban and al-Qaeda, virtually imploring Taliban to improve its behavior. However, it did not become clear whether the UN was asking its member-states to lift their sanctions against the Taliban. This, however, may not prevent some of the UN member-states, China and Russia among the major nations in Afghanistan’s vicinity, from striking deals with the Taliban and assisting the group to consolidate power in Afghanistan. That, however, has not yet occurred.


One small relief for the Taliban came on Sept. 24, when the US Treasury Department issued licenses that could facilitate the movement of US humanitarian aid and financial assistance to the people of Afghanistan, without undermining the sanctions imposed earlier by the Biden administration.


Another point of relief is the unhindered trade with Uzbekistan across the river Amu Darya.  Landlocked Uzbekistan has kept the Termez Cargo Center, a logistics hub opened five years ago to coordinate cross-border trade, mainly to Mazar-i-Sharif, about 60 kilometers away in northern Afghanistan, working normally. For Afghanistan, Hairatan, the border crossing with Uzbekistan, is perhaps the most important border crossing in terms of income generation.  AFP correspondents reported on Nov. 1 seeing several trucks and two trains, each pulling about 30 wagons, going over the bridge. Uzbekistan's bilateral trade with Afghanistan stood at $776 million in 2020, up a quarter from the year before.


Taliban’s ‘trump-card’ – narcotics


Considering the intense economic stress, one wonders what the Taliban could fall back on to tide over the crisis before some countries decide to have meaningful economic relations with Kabul. The process of getting recognized as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan could be a long one, and it is evident that the Taliban do not hold all the cards to make that happen. If Kabul shows it has the determination and the backbone to take on the terrorists, it is likely that several major nations, including China, Russia, some Central Asian countries and even the United States, would consider opening economic relations with the Taliban.


During this interim period, it is a certainty that the Taliban will continue to depend heavily on its income from narcotics to the chagrin of all affected countries, particularly Central Asia, Iran and Russia. On seizing power, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference in Kabul that Afghanistan will not be a country of opium cultivation, and that they will bring opium cultivation to zero again – a reference to the 2000 ban. “From now on, Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country, but it needs international assistance. The international community should help us so that we can have alternative crops. We can provide alternative crops. Then, of course, very soon, we can bring it to an end,” Mujahid said. (Taliban Could Affect Afghanistan’s Opium Production: Emily Murray: Addiction Center: Aug. 27, 2021)


For Mujahid, it was the right kind of noise to make to encourage the world to believe that the new Taliban are strongly opposed to continuing its dependence on Afghanistan’s vast narcotics industry. During the last two decades, this industry played the most important role in sustaining Taliban’s fighting capabilities and, in essence, its survival. In the process, it created very many independent Taliban commanders who nurtured the growth of the narcotics trade, delivering to the leaders the much-needed cash and capturing Afghanistan’s real estate. For this reason alone, most observers do not believe that Mujahid’s vow will ever be pursued by the Kabul leaders. What Mujahid said was primarily cosmetic. With this statement, the group hopes to avoid the isolation they experienced in 1996, when they first gained control of the country.


The fact is that the opium trade has become too integral to the Taliban and Afghanistan’s economy. The country is on track to become a “narco-state” because the poppy plant is much more lucrative than any other cash crop. Cultivation of opium in Afghanistan has seen a 37 percent increase in the past year alone. By banning opium production, the Taliban risks alienating the country’s rural areas and the farmers who are financially dependent on the substance. The process could endanger the regime further.



User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top