What is the Future of Afghanistan - Post-Cold War DOCUMENTARY
The Cold War has been over for more than thirty years, most certainly a part of history. But, as we all know, the events of the present are rooted firmly in the past and so we wanted to take a look at some present global hotspots to give an explanation of current events, how they came to be, and some possible outcomes going forward. For centuries, Central Asia has been a focus of global attention, from the Silk Road to the Great Game to ideological and religious battlegrounds and it remains a region of opportunity and risk. I’m your host David and today we are looking at the past, present and possible future of Afghanistan! This is…the Post-Cold War. While we at the Cold War spend our time examining events that often deal with matters of national security, the security of our personal information and data is never far from our minds, which is why I am thrilled to be working with the sponsor of todays video, Incogni.
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using the link in the description, will get 60% off of Incogni. Go sign up today! Afghanistan is a beautiful country, home of Rumi and Zoroaster, crossroads of Naqhsbandi Sufis, Assyrian Christians, and Mahayana Buddhists. It was home to the empires of the Durranis, Zunbils and Kushans, and it was where Emperors such as Alexander, Shah Jahan and Timur waged their titanic battles for control of the Silk Roads. It’s also a land with a rich tapestry
of ethnicities and geographies. Unfortunately, much of this history has been lost in popular discussion during the last forty years of imperial invasions and civil conflict. As of 2023, the Taliban are in full control of Afghanistan in the wake of the US military’s 2021 withdrawal, and the country, with its dire economic and food situation, remains far from Western headlines.
Despite this, Afghanistan’s future has tremendous implications for global politics moving forward. The humanitarian disaster magnified by international sanctions is gruelling enough to warrant attention just on its own. But, the stability of the country overall has deep implications for many of its neighbours. And it is the Taliban regime and its rule that can make or break all of the above. So, let’s take a look at what the future of Afghanistan might hold To understand the current situation in Afghanistan, we must first understand its people, its geography and its past. Afghanistan lies at a nexus point along the Silk Roads, the ancient trading routes connecting China and East Asia to the Middle East and Europe.
Geographically, at the centre of Afghanistan are hills that stretch from the Hindu Kush Mountains in the north. This hilly centre is framed on the north by more open grazing fields while the southwest of the country is largely semi-arid land. Geologically, Afghanistan is the estimated home to over 1.3 Trillion dollars in mineral wealth, as both the Indus
Valley’s lapis lazuli colonies in Shortughai, and China’s failed Mes Aynak mine project can attest. So why is this important? Well, these geographic divisions have resulted in ethno-cultural divisions which have determined where each part of the country looks towards. Herat looks towards Iran, Kabul towards the East, while Balkh looks towards the North and Kandahar towards the South.
And there is also a stunning amount of ethnic diversity present in the country. We are unsure about numbers due to the census registering ethnicity in order to accommodate cultural sensitivities, but the majority appears to be the Pashtun community, themselves split between Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan the result of the 1893 Durand Line which created the border between the British Raj and the Emirate of Afghanistan. The next largest ethnic groups are the Tajiks and the majority-Shia Hazaras who live primarily in the north and the west of the country, and have cultural links to Iran and Tajikistan. Smalller
Uzbek and Turkmen communities are also present in these regions as well as Qizilbash, Arab, and Aimaq people. And then there are miniscule groups of Kurds, Pamirs, Pashais and the Nuristanis also. All of these groups have ethnic and cultural links to other countries in the region, which becomes important in terms of geopolitics, not only regarding contested borders with Pakistan but also spillovers into Tajikistan. On top of these ethnic divides is the ever-growing rural-urban divide. Anatol Lieven has described the rural areas as perfectly falling within James Scott’s paradigm of ‘the art of not being governed’ with mediation with the centre coming through local khans or warlords. Lieven has also quoted Afghans as describing their politics as a ‘permanent conversation’ with fluid allegiances and clan links changing often. Many generals were
once Communists, then America-supporters, then other allegiances as they saw fit. Pashtun nationalism often causes fear amongst other groups, particularly Tajiks and Hazaras, the latter of which have faced severe repression by the Taliban due to being of the Shia minority. Afghanistan has a deep and long history but for our purposes, we will begin very recently, in the late 1970s. It was then that a small Communist cadre in the Army, composed of the Parcham faction and the Khalq doctrinaire faction, eventually staged a coup and imposed a Communist regime in 1978. The more gradualist Parchamis were eventually purged by the Khalqis. Insurgencies began to popup however, driven by discontent and repression and fueled by the Pakistani ISI and Chinese Maoist groups. The Afghan communists pleaded with the Soviet
leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, which although it was quite cautious at first, eventually sent support to Afghanistan in the form of the Soviet Army on December 25th, 1979. The takeover of the country was straight-forward due to the friendly government in Kabul, but an insurgency which was eventually dominated by Mujahideen groups emerged, fighting the Soviet occupation from the mountains. Pakistan, whose ISI saw the opportunity to expand their geopolitical influence, as well as the Gulf states and the United States, all funded these opposition groups, with some well-known foreign fighters, including men like Osama Bin Laden joining the fight on the ground. As a point of interest for some of you, even China sent some Uyghur fighters to Afghanistan, a dividend of the Sino-Soviet split. The Soviet occupation was to put shortly, a brutal affair, with many war crimes being committed, and millions of refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan. In the latter,
in schools run by Wahhabi fundamentalists, young men were indoctrinated into Islamism, forming the core of the Taliban. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, the Soviet-backed regime held onto power while a civil war raged across the country until 1992. It was at this time that the Taliban, a mostly Pashto-chauvinist Islamist movement with a talent for imposing law and order in the regions under their control, managed to gain the upperhand over most of Afghanistan.
After 9/11, and despite the Taliban pleading with the United States that they would hand over Osama Bin Laden, an American-led NATO invasion took place and Western forces occupied Afghanistan for the next 20 years. The Taliban were dispersed, while the US imposed its own client government of friendly warlords. The Afghan Papers reveal that during these 20 years, massive funds went towards the military-industrial complex and some funds just disappeared, as the US backed local friendly forces over proper nation-building. We would be remiss if we didn’t point out that the United States and other coalition partners also committed war crimes including the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in an effort to put down insurgent movements by the Taliban and other groups.
Eventually, after negotiations which excluded the Afghan government, the United States and Taliban agreed in 2020 during talks held in Doha to a US withdrawal. In 2021, the US rapidly withdrew, leaving many of its interlocutors at the hands of the Taliban, and the Afghan National Army, with its western support structure no longer in place, effectively disbanded under Taliban pressure. The Taliban took Kabul, and they rule the country today, facing crippling sanctions, a lack of financial reserves and dealing with a famine caused by punitive western policies. So, there is the background. The first question we can now ask is;
will the regime collapse due to sanctions? Well, historically sanctions have not been particularly successful at directly forcing regime change. The United States’s freezing of foreign assets has hurt the general Afghan population much more than the Taliban elite. The US has allowed for some financial transactions in early 2022, so they do seem to understand this, however, the consensus in Washington is still based on trying to punish the Taliban. This largely stems from the failure, or perhaps a lack of intent, to understand the Afghan context. The United States government has yet to officially recognize the Taliban, in an almost de facto support of the Ashraf Ghani government that fled Kabul. The US may eventually change this policy,
but it will take time, the result of the reputation hit it took after the 2021 withdrawal. As a way to try to salvage this reputation, the sanctions can function as a guarantee of force and a demonstration that the US is not to be trifled with, even in defeat. The Doha Agreement of 2020, signed between the US and the Taliban without Afghan government input you will remember, shows that informal discussions will of course be possible, most likely conducted through intermediaries. Recognition has been mentioned by former British PM Boris Johnson, based on the implementation of conditions such as respect for women’s rights but this is something which the Taliban have yet to acquiesce to. The original Taliban government in the 1990s also only had limited international recognition, but it survived until the US invasion in 2001. The Taliban will most likely make use of the international black market and other methods, including the opium trade, to maintain their finanances. The Afghan economy, even before the
Taliban takeover, was not structured to stand on its own feet and was highly dependent on foreign aid. The cutoff of this aid means that the people of Afghanistan will suffer the most, further exacerbated by Taliban orders to remove women from most work sectors. In terms of resistance, there is little evidence that a new Northern Alliance, the military opposition that operated against the Taliban during the 1990s will be able to counter the Taliban regime. The fact that the Afghan National Army collapsed so quickly shows that neither the Ghani government, nor the various warlords that ended up siding with the US during the occupation had much independent backing, and can only work sporadically for now. As a result, the Taliban won’t be going anywhere any time soon. But, drone strikes and bombing raids can also continue as a
scare tactic, as in summer 2022 when an al-Qaeda leader was killed via US drones. In case of geopolitical realignments, which we will discuss in a minute, these may be invaluable in coercing Afghanistan, especially if used in conjunction with the promise of sanctions being lifted. Another question that is worth asking is will the Taliban break up into internal disorder or unrest? This is more likely, but not a guarantee. The Taliban of the 1990s leaned very heavily into
Pashtun nationalism, but we have seen evidence of Uzbeks and Tajiks in the ranks of the modern Taliban. So the government does have some ethnic minority members, although it is difficult to tell if this could just be window-dressing, something that won’t become clear until it is decided which factions within the Taliban end up consolidating control. As Anatol Lieven has described, although the fluidity of Afghan politics is a constant, we must also consider that the Taliban do crack down on opposition in a very hard way. Tariq Ali has also commented on the fact that the Taliban, while brutal and reactionary, is effective in leveraging patronage networks as well as maintaining law and order by means of the building of religious networks for ideological recruitment.
Now, a small number of US contractors do remain in the country, and Washington may yet use them as leverage. They can use this to gain the loyalty of at least a part of the population, even though they also have failed to deliver economically. This is the biggest risk for the regime at the moment, but we must also consider how sanctions weaken opposition via cutting people off from external support. It’s likely that a disagreement within the Taliban will develop; we’ve seen this happen before in the Quetta Shura, the Taliban Leadership Council, during their fight against the US occupation.
It’s unclear as to what form these divisions amongst the Taliban have taken, but we should note they are more ideological in nature, and tend to be about more moderate or practical elements. None of these men are liberals, but issues such as women’s rights may be better, or worse, depending on who’s in overall command. The root of this lies in traditionalist old guard Taliban and hardline members, with the former trying to keep power by pleasing the latter. For other members who are more peripheral, a lot of these ideas are seen as impractical or even bad, and factional fighting may emerge. Some of these moderates choose to engage with external factions including those in the West, or could move to leverage women’s protests to gain more domestic influence. OK, so we’ve discussed how the US and the Taliban are likely to engage, but a quick look at a map clearly shows that Afghanistan has many direct neighbours, each with their own interests in the region. The most obvious of these are China and Pakistan. Pakistan had historically used the
Taliban as a proxy, but since the mid-2000s the Afghan Taliban have asserted their independence from Islamabad. The Pashtun chauvinism that has been present in previous incarnations of the Taliban has been an issue due to the Durand Line splitting the Pashtun community across both countries. Some Pakistani politicians, including the ousted Imran Khan, were cautious and favoured some engagement with the Taliban, but there has been increasing animosity developing. The Pakistani Taliban, who are their own groups, despite various overlap with the Afghan Taliban, remain a thorn in the side of Pakistani security services. China on the other hand, has already engaged with the Taliban, the same as it did with the previous Ghani government, over projects like the failed Mes Aynak mine. Chinese diplomats have faced
violence in Afghanistan, and there is a concern in China that Taliban islamism may spillover into the persecuted Uyghur communities, but for now the Taliban has shown moderation on the matter. There is speculation that there will be attempts to bring Afghanistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, something which has been supported by China, but this does mean that if things deteriorate between Islamabad and Kabul, China would have to choose between the two, something Beijing would rather avoid. As it stands, China will likely stick to its long-termist approach and try to cultivate its relationship with the Taliban, using Islamabad as a mediator. This may help entice the Taliban to try to introduce stability to the country, as Chinese loans have fewer strings attached to them than Western loans. An unintended consequence of Chinese involvement however could be that the United States recognizes the Taliban or even tries to co-opt them, especially as the Sino-American rivalry escalates.
Regionally, India, too, is an actor worth noting. Indian foreign policy has historically seen Afghanistan as a bulwark and a partner against Pakistan. New Delhi tried to cultivate relationships with the pre-Taliban Kabul government, but now the Hindu nationalist leadership of Narendra Modi is in a bind, facing an Islamist government in Kabul. Slow engagement has taken place, including a meeting between Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and high-ranking Indian officials in summer 2022.
India has also maintained shipments of food aid via the World Health Organization, which suggests that unlike the first Taliban government, which India opposed, Modi is more of a geopolitical pragmatist and is prioritising the rivalry with China and Pakistan over one with the Taliban. Here, too, the Taliban may show restraint as India’s persecution of Muslims is sure to cause calls within the government to attack India. From their precarious position, the Taliban may either choose sides between India, Pakistan and China, or alternatively try to balance between the three. This is where the Taliban is most likely to fail, as they would need strong, pragmatic leadership to sideline fundamentalists. But, it is safe to say that all of their neighbours will try to engage with Afghanistan to both outcompete the other, and to try and gain some access to Afghanistan’s precious mineral resources and its strategic location. And what about the Central Asian states and Russia? Well, they all have a keen interest in Afghanistan. The ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks in Afghanistan are always among the leadership of
the elites, but for Russia specifically, Islamism is a risk they very much wish to contain. The Central Asian republics had a mixed set of reactions to the Taliban takeover. Tajikistan, which suffered a civil war in the 1990s as result of an Islamist insurgency, has been negative so far, even accepting some deserters from the Afghan National Army. Uzbekistan has been cautious, perhaps too busy with events and unrest in its Qaraqalpaq Autonomous Region. Turkmenistan has been positive towards the Taliban, likely due to its own isolationism possibly seeing the Taliban as a possible communicator.
And as for Russia itself? They’ve been soft on the Taliban, choosing to engage with the regime. Part of this is due to a common enemy; the Islamic State in Khorasan, an offshoot of ISIS. Moscow, as recently as February 2023, has organized a consortium with regional actors including the Central Asian states, India, Iran and China, to build regional security. Part of the agenda for this meeting dealt with Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan skipped it, alleging that it was initiated by India, caused a minor controversy. There is a concern that Afghanistan may use terrorism as a bargaining chip, or fall into instability, which neither Russia, nor the other participants wish. The consensus seems to be that all these states, with Russia at the spearhead, will engage with the Taliban based simply on the fact that they are in control of the country right now. The Taliban
itself may oscillate however, depending which faction is in control, from being more bold to more conciliatory with each of these neighbours. And what of Iran? Well, they have backed the Hazaras in the past and have obvious anxieties about their Sunni Islamist neighbour. It’s also where over 3 million Afghans have fled as refugees for the past 40 years. The Taliban have understood that their position is precarious, and their shift towards including Tajiks and Uzbeks in their ranks has been a pragmatic move. They have done this with Iran by allowing water from rivers to flow into Iran in exchange for trade deals with them. In addition,
they have the Islamic State in Khorasan as a common foe, just like with Russia. As such, these priorities are most likely to, in the short term at least, drive some form of cooperation. Then there’s the Gulf States, who used to fund the Taliban madrassas and ome of them had even recognized the initial Taliban government. Saudi Arabia is trying to contain and influence the current Taliban, while Kuwait is being very cautious due to the possible instability. The
UAE and Qatar have opted for investment, with the latter also acting as a mediator for the Afghans to the rest of the world. This is where the Doha Agreement took place in 2020, after all. Turkey also has deep ties to Afghanistan, from the Ottoman era to the training of government officials in the 1920s and even to Turkish NATO troops acting as mediators during the occupation. All of these actors are likely to have some ongoing influence in Afghanistan, which in turn will either let them talk to the West, or perhaps bypass it all together. As we wrap up this episode, we will freely note that there are many things that influence Afghan politics which are beyond the scope of this video. For instance, the women of Afghanistan, far from being passive, have been organizing various social movements for various causes, from going to workplaces to seeking justice for US backed death squads, the Zero Units. Afghanistan’s
future remains uncertain, but perhaps more stable than had been originally thought. Sanctions will not cripple the regime, though they will cause mass starvation and privation. A conflict within Taliban ranks is more likely, but still unclear. In the short-term to avoid isolation, the Taliban will engage with neighbours like China, India, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and those in Central Asia. They will also look to use their links with Turkey and the Middle East for
mediation with the West. This may draw the US back into the region again albeit in a much less active role, but in the long-term the Taliban may have to pick sides in emerging broader geopolitical struggles. After 40 years of war, the future of Afghanistan is still dark, but as more actors move in to engage with the country in a more long-term way, the country may yet have some peace. We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and to make sure you don't miss our future work, please make sure you have not only subscribed but have also pressed the bell button. Please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon.com/thecoldwar or through YouTube membership. We can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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