We all remember the slogans the US and UK used to justify their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Firstly, the Taliban had to be removed because they were harbouring Islamic terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden who was held responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Secondly, the Taliban was an oppressive, fundamentalist Islamic movement, so unless it went it would harbour people like bin Laden, and threaten the rest of the world, for evermore.
Trying to emphasise the second slogan, they called the invasion Operation Enduring Freedom. The Taliban could not be allowed to stay in power because they would always contradict fundamental human values. Only by removing them, and keeping them out of power for good, would Afghanistan be free. If they came back, that would be the end of Afghanistan and the entire civilized world; it was that simple.
As always, the rest of the world took the West at its word, and agreed with the invasion for the same reasons. It is therefore a sickening insult to all Afghans, and to the troops who have lost their lives there over the last fourteen years, for the US and its allies to be telling the Afghan government they installed that they must now bring the Taliban into that government to secure a lasting peace, and so they can go home.
Westerners’ sons and daughters have been sent to die to achieve any outcome but this. Millions of Afghans have been displaced, having already endured twenty prior years of civil war, to achieve any outcome but this. A destroyed Afghanistan and continual terrorist threat are being inflicted on everyone by those who told us they were there to stop these things.
Why is this happening? Has the Taliban changed its spots? Or has the West had a different target all along?
How we got here
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to get rid of a fellow Communist who was displaying Tito-like independence this move was roundly condemned. The West, and Saudi intelligence, supplied local commanders with money and logistics so they could take their own country back, and they even had a name for it, “Charlie Wilson’s War.”
However few Westerners, drunk on their own importance, realised that Afghans know their history, and know that they have always driven invaders away and always will. With or without Western assistance, the Afghans would have expelled even the mighty Soviet Union eventually. Even if Western support shortened the process, which is debatable in itself, it ended up doing more harm than good.
The Western assistance created gangs of armed warlords who each wanted the whole country and now had the muscle to pursue internal conflicts alongside national independence. It is often forgotten now that each of these groups also went out of its way to call itself Islamic, just like the Taliban. Though Afghanistan also has significant Hindu and Sikh minorities, everyone understands the teachings and values of Islam. Islam is both nationalism and moral justification rolled into one for most Afghans.
The Afghans who saw these groups in action in the long civil war which followed concluded that they were neither Islamic nor nationalist, whatever they were claiming. For example, as they made and broke alliances of convenience with each other whole civilian, and fellow Moslem, populations were targeted by groups which had protected them the day before, contrary to the Qu’ran.
It is this which created the Taliban. When the other groups had fought each other to a standstill it came along with something a bit different – Pashtunwali, the Afghan tradition’s equivalent of “Victorian values”. This was not fundamentalist Islam as such – it was only fundamentalist inasmuch as everyone likes to be seen as a strict, observant Moslem, as that is considered better than being nominal and inconsistent.
The Taliban advanced on Kabul without having to fight a major battle, as most Afghans understood and accepted its values. Just like when Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran in 1979, few cared about the ideological diktats which would underpin its leadership. Even when they discovered them, Afghans put up with the “fundamentalism” for a long time. These people had cleaned the stables, they had to be tough, the imposition of the traditional religion was just returning the country to itself.
Like Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, the Taliban had a positive side which came back to bite the West. Freeing people from its crimes was welcomed, but replacing every aspect of what it stood for with foreign occupation was not. It after the Taliban did the drug trade has the opportunity to really flourish with the help of aid agency who made millions off its export.
Perhaps wisely, the West has now realised that the Taliban will not go away and needs to be harnessed for Western purposes. But these purposes do not involve bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan – if they did, the West would acknowledge it had been defeated, having gone into Afghanistan to achieve the opposite outcome to the one it is now promoting.
The Western game plan
Western funding and supplying of ISIS have so far proved a great success. The Greater Kurdistan which the US has long stated as a policy goal is being brought closer by the day, helped in no small measure by the sale of ISIS-derived oil at US exchanges.
At present the Taliban “insurgency” is being equally successful. Its only real obstacle is not the Afghan state or the withdrawing Western troops but the Islamic Caliphate, which propounds a slightly different version of Islam. These two groups are now fighting for control of the drug and arms supply routes the West has been using to supply its troops, advancing to the northern borders of Afghanistan to do so.
If the Taliban is part of the Afghan government again it can be dealt with as a legitimate partner. There is a big difference between terrorism and state terrorism. If an independent group of “freedom fighters” commit atrocities it is illegal to supply it with arms or publicly support it. If forces linked to a government do the same there is no obstacle to helping it continue to do so in the name of national security.
Turning the Taliban into a political rather than a military force will give the West the legal basis to keep using the supply routes the Taliban and IC are fighting over, and to use legal terrorists to protect them from illegal ones. It no longer wants to use these supply routes for NATO troops of course. They are a useful bargaining tool in the places the Taliban forces are rapidly approaching: the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and the regions of Russia itself where Islamist groups are known to operate.
The offer goes like this. “Everyone knows the profits that are being made along these routes. The terrorist group which controls them doesn’t need to do anything to justify its actions; it has the resources to do whatever it wants. So come in with us and all these riches can be yours, and places in your government too. If you don’t, we can send our friends the Taliban after you in the name of Afghan security. You know all about them too, so this is an offer you can’t refuse.”
All the Islamic states of Central Asia are under pressure from local radical movements who think they are not nearly Islamic enough. They can swiftly be destabilised in this way. They also house groups who have strong connections with Islamist groups in Russia who are known contributors to ISIS, the IC and the global jihad in general. By doing this they have demonstrated they are prepared to be bought off by the infidel. If that means keeping Russia busy, that is a price any Islamist group is prepared to pay.
Nowhere else to look
Russia doesn’t like being surrounded by NATO bases with weapons pointed at Moscow and wants to stop NATO enlargement at any cost. It is having more success with this than the West expected. Azerbaijan and Armenia were supposed to be pursuing EU membership but have instead joined the rival Eurasian Economic Union and told the West that if it really likes them it can offer them similar levels of support. That’s what Ukraine said too, under Yanukovych, and we all know what happened there, at Western insistence.
The West can’t afford to impose NATO and the EU on its Eastern fringes, all guns blazing. It would be diplomatically impractical and an economic impossibility. The West would still be in Afghanistan if it could afford it, spouting its original rhetoric, and the US already spends a far greater proportion of its GDP on defence than any other item, despite the fact no one is actually attacking it.
But the West can cut its losses in Afghanistan, and refocus its war machine, by attacking Russia by proxy. If even the Taliban can be offered Western sponsorship, who can’t? If the Western infidel is no longer the primary enemy, who is?
Joining a militant group is a way to earn a living, it doesn’t matter who the enemy is as long as they can be made into one. Only Russia has been on “the other side” long enough to fit the bill for all sides. The west destroyed the Soviet Union with Afghan Islamists between 1979 and 1989. In a time of uncertainty, it is rubbing its hands at the thought of using this tried and trusted method again.
The base without a base
Russia might even want more NATO bases on its borders if they help it deal with radical Islamists sponsored by the same West. It could challenge the West to oppose its new friends, as it will doubtless still claim to, by putting bases there to attack them. Or it could still reject the whole idea and take on the Islamists alone. Either way the West will get its bases, and claim victory.
But even NATO isn’t the issue. Western politicians know the history of Afghanistan too. They know that the First Afghan War in the 1840’s was the United Kingdom’s greatest military defeat, and the UK was the Western superpower in those days. They know that Russia’s support of the Afghan ruler of 1878, and his refusal to accept similar British support, gave the UK an excuse to temporarily avenge its humiliation.
They know that the only reason the West has ever been interested in Afghanistan is to stop Russia threatening Western hegemony. In the nineteenth century it was colonies, now it is oilfields and mineral wealth. That is why the US really went in in 2001, when they knew that no foreign force can remain in control of Afghanistan. The Taliban was never going to go away. It just had to be bought off, so the New Great Game could begin again.
Millions of lives have been sacrificed to get rid of the Taliban, in the name of saving the planet. Now those who did this want to impose the Taliban on us all, for the sake of hurting Russia. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that all those lives were also lost for the sake of adding injury unto insult and hurting Russia even more than anything else, and now many millions more will follow.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.