Unfortunately, history seldom teaches us anything. Sometimes this
is due to ignorance, because we don’t know history, and sometimes
to presumption, because we underestimate history’s teachings.
Such is the case with Afghanistan, a strategically and geographically important territory; the crossing point for traffics and commerce in the Indo-European area; in its long story, Afghanistan has always been the object of foreign invasions. Notwithstanding, no army has ever managed to control this country’s population. On the contrary: the recurring need to defend oneself from invaders has instilled in the Afghan population a sense of belonging, a refusal of foreign domination and the need to embrace its archaic social structure before any foreign influence. Afghans are fighters and in their long history they have even dominated nearby territories. Gengis Khan and his Mongols, Tamerlane; they both occupied Afghanistan without ever dominating it. The English fought and lost three wars in Afghanistan, which gained its independence from Britain in 1919.
The war with Russia
Then, in September 1979, the Soviets disregarded both history and the pride of Afghan people by trying to invade the country and place a puppet of theirs at the helm. 10 years later, in February 1989, after innumerable defeats and losses, the Soviet Union decided to abandon the country.
was this enough to suggest that Afghanistan be left alone?
Apparently not. After 9/11 the US decided to invade the country. Yet another war without winners in a country which nobody controls. It is now 2017 and the US troops are still facing the same problems that the Brits and Russians had to face. Nobody controls Afghanistan, even when there is a strong NATO and US presence on the ground. President Bush invaded Afghanistan, President Obama decided to withdraw but then, with the risk of the country going back into Taliban hands, he was forced to stay. Now Trump’s turn: the new President decided to send another 8500 US soldiers in Afghanistan. Will it be enough to create stability in the country? To prevent the Talibans from taking power again? To end the crawling civil war?
The situation on the ground
Considering the country’s history and the situation on the ground, it probably won’t be enough. During the past few years, the Taliban have regained control over much of the country. The Afghan army, armed and trained by the US, shows a scarce operative capacity. Sometimes they are even in cahoots with the Taliban, who pay good money for weapons and gas. On top of that, when the Afghan army puts up a fight, it suffers countless losses: 6000 in the year 2016 alone.
What is Afghanistan
Afghanistan was the country where Osama bin Laden had operated on behalf of the US against the Soviets. Al Qaida was born from the same US-trained group of Afghan rebels before spreading in the Islamic world. In Afghanistan, the US administration gave a group of rebels Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters; now those missiles are shooting down American helicopters. In Afghanistan, nothing sticks except for the war against the next invader.
It’s tribal community is not represented by the central government. Power resides within the different ethnic groups. Afghanistan is dominated by the lords of war and their traffics – including opium. External interference is not appreciated and the warlords are the interlocutors for any potential accord. This is a characteristic of the Afghans that the US and Russians both failed to grasp. Only the Pakistani, through their Intelligence Service (IS), are able to manipulated local rivalries and play the ethnic groups against each other (especially in favor of the Pashtun). They even manage to get along with the Talibans. All of this will not be changed by 8500 additional soldiers or by the US airplanes that bomb Taliban bases daily.
This is in part due to the fact that a technological army is nearly useless against the Taliban. And so are the power relationships. The Taliban’s war is not nationalistic (especially due to their ethnic divisions) but religious in nature. That is why the war in Afghanistan fueled all of the radical Islamic armed groups worldwide. We are, of course, speaking of the Sunni Muslims, as the fight against the Shiite Hazara who live near the border with Iran shows. The Hazara used to be near Al Qaida, now they are ideologically with the ISIS.
Al Baghdadi’s militias are numerous in some parts of the country (Nangarhar, Zabul). They publicize their group through portable radio stations; they exalt the Sharia and try to recruit young Afghans. And their approach is often successful because the Afghans are poor, illiterate and sub-cultured.
The Soviets – now Russians – that had been ousted by the Afghans and their US support are now coming back to Afghanistan, not to conquer it militarily, but just to do business. In a country where legal and illegal are a matter of opinion and where corruption is rampant, there is room for business.
Afghanistan has immense mining resources: cobalt, lithium, copper, iron. All of these have never been exploited due to the country’s instability. The exploitation of such resources would require infrastructural investments but the economic risk is too high.
The new Russian policy
After being militarily defeated in Afghanistan in the 80’s, the Russians don’t really care who they do business with, as long as the country remains relatively stable. Russian policy in Afghanistan has undergone a profound mutation since 2012. Up until that year Russia was fighting the Talibans alongside the international community. They guaranteed the international forces the transit of airplanes and the transportation of men and logistic supplies. Then came the clashes with NATO in other theaters (ie Syria, Ukraine) and the awareness that the war in Afghanistan is slowly being won by the Talibans. All of these elements made Putin change his mind: today even the Talibans are considered to be a privileged interlocutor by Russia.
Russia has a direct interest in Afghanistan because the country is located along its southern borders and could raise issues of internal security. Unlike the US, which attacked Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaida and are now staying for geo-strategic reasons.
What really worries Moscow is the presence of the ISIS and the diffusion of radical Islam. Roughly 10 million Russians are Islamic. On top of that, Afghanistan borders Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all of them former Soviet republics that remained allies of Russia after winning their independence (Uzbekistan, 80% Muslim, Turkmenistan, 94% Muslim, Tajikistan, 98% Muslim). In other words, the risk of an epidemic among the Muslim community is pretty high.
Especially in Tajikistan, which is beginning to feel the effects of radical Islam. At least 1200 young Tajik joined the ranks of the ISIS. The Party for Islamic Rebirth, a local political party, is believed to be colluded with Islamic radicalism and, despite the government’s initiatives to fight the trend, results are scarce. Russia has therefore reinforced their military presence in the country.
And Uzbekistan runs the same risk. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a precursor of Islamic terrorism in the country, has later joined the ISIS and built bases both in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. There was also an “Uzbek brigade” among the ranks of the Caliph.
Turkmenistan is still unscathed by Islamic terrorism, since a desert covers roughly 90% of its surface, but there is a strong ISIS presence near its southern border with Afghanistan. Apart from security issues with Islamic terrorism, Russia has other interests in Afghanistan. Firstly, there is the geo-strategic interest: Afghanistan is central to the continent: there are huge economic and commercial interests at stake.
In virtue of these interests, Russia has convened a Conference on Afghanistan that was attended by all of the main bordering countries (Pakistan, China, Iran and, of course, Afghanistan).
While the US are reiterating the military option Russia is trying to find a solution to stop the civil war by using diplomacy. Their goal is stability, even with the approval of the Talibans, because that is the only way to continue fighting the ISIS while finding a new economic and political balance.
The way of diplomacy is supported by Iran and China. In other words Russia is trying to exercise its influence. As in the Middle Eastern scenario, even here Russia has a central role as an international broker. And, of course, if they find a solution, it will be in their favor.
MOAB - Mother Of All Bombs
On the other hand, the US military option seems inadequate. Like his predecessor, President Trump is probably not happy to increase the number of men in Afghanistan, but it's payback time for the military lobby that supported his election.
US are not in Afghanistan to win a war. The social conditions and
the kind of war they have been fighting in Afghanistan for the
past 16 years does not allow it. They flex their muscle to hide
their weakness. Dropping the super-bomb (Massive Ordnance Air
Blast – also called the Mother Of All Bombs) on the ISIS militia
in Nangarhar in April looked like a move triggered by frustration.
A whopping 10 tons of explosive to kill 34 measly terrorists.