Pictured: Militiamen gather with their weapons to support Afghan government security forces against the Taliban, on July 9, 2021 in Herat, Afghanistan. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)
September 11, 2021: All US and allied troops have left Afghanistan and Taliban gunmen are already at the ports of Kabul; one more push and they will be back where they were in 2001 just before America and Afghan allied forces sent them running like rats jumping out of a sinking ship. Once again darkness falls on Afghanistan.
Or does it? Not so fast.
Ever since President Joe Biden announced his cut-and-run scheme, many pundits have been predicting the return of the Taliban within a few weeks or months. Biden's cut-and-run began back in May, long before the 9/11 deadline was announced in a cheap shot at symbolism. US troops started sneaking out without even a token farewell shindig. Worse still, US diplomats continued to mumble about a "peace accord" with an outfit that has no notion of peace, while US military commanders publicly warned that withdrawing without a sober step-by-step plan could persuade the Taliban that they could secure all power without a deal that, at best, would give them only a slice of it.
The belief that the Taliban are on their way back to power has persuaded all players in this new version of the Great Game to hedge their bets or, in some cases, even start wooing the children of Mullah Omar. At the Islamic Republic in Iran, where Taliban were once regarded as bitter enemies of Shiism, a different tune is heard. In an editorial that raised many eyebrows even within the Khomeinist establishment, the daily Kayhan, reflecting the views of "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, claimed that the Taliban have reformed and no longer a threat either to Afghan Shiites or to Iran itself. The real threat now comes from ISIS and kindred groups.
Just days after that editorial the Revolutionary Guard's FARS news site claimed that the Islamic Republic had reached an understanding with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda and that Tehran wants in Afghanistan the establishment of an anti-Americana government. "In confrontation with America, the Afghan battlefield finds a strategic importance beyond the Taliban," the editorial said.
Where does that belief come from? The IRGC editorial claims that Iran "without a doubt has played a major though complicated role in reshaping the behavior of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda."
Forgetting years of denial that Iran had any relations with Al-Qaeda and Taliban, the IRGC analyst now says "Iran has succeeded in persuading them to cooperate in securing Iran's interests."
Immediately afterwards, Afghan parliament member Abdul-Sattar Husseini presented a report showing that Tehran had resumed shipping arms and money to Taliban.
For his part, outgoing Foreign Minister Muhammad-Javad Zarif seizes every opportunity to shower praise on Taliban, indicating a shift of position that transcends the factional feuds within the Khomeinist serail.
This change of course in Tehran is all the more interesting because Khamenei is trying to reshape his strategy by adopting Russia as the godfather of his regime. Russia, however, is not so starry-eyed about Taliban or its "neo" version advertised by the Iranian mullahs. In fact, President Vladimir Putin has set up a special task force to devise a strategy for Afghanistan after the US and allies have left.
All Central Asian republics, most notably Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are looking to Moscow for guidance on how to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hub for "Islamist" terrorism under Taliban and al-Qaeda control. Could Khamenei flirt with the Taliban and al-Qaeda when his great buddy, Volodia, regards them as deadly vipers?
To complicate matters further, China is also making eyes at the Taliban. Though concerned about "Islamist" terror being exported to Xinjiang via the Wakhan Corridor, Beijing seems to have fallen for the bundle sold by its Pakistani allies about Taliban having "matured" into a normal political force. The Taliban was created by the Pakistan military security in the 1990s to seize the opportunity provided by the Soviet withdrawal. However, a decade of experience showed that what Islamabad took as its Trojan Horse was capable of kicking its creator as well.
Will China be deceived by the Pakistanis, who persist in their dream of dominating Afghanistan and secure geopolitical depth by linking with the Central Asian landmass?
Biden's precipitous withdrawal has attracted other players to the Great Game. In the past few months India, too, has bought a section of the smorgasbord known under the generic label Taliban.
As the second biggest aid donor after the US in Afghanistan, India has had at least two decades in which to buy influence in all segments of the Afghan political and militia sphere.
Another player is Turkey, which still controls the Kabul Airport, with support from the remnants of the Communist Uzbek militia and a cultural base in Turkmen and Char-Aymaq ethnic communities.
Several Arab countries also have their respective antennae among the Taliban, largely through controlling their bank deposits and real estate portfolios in the region and beyond.
The Taliban have benefited from the myth that in the 1990s they managed to dominate Afghanistan with relative ease. At the time, however, they seized many areas by bribing the local warlords who wished to get the money and run -- a Samsonite full of crisp greenbacks in exchange for a white flag was the name of the game. The Taliban also banked on general lassitude, not to say despair, at all levels of Afghan society. Most Afghans felt that they had nothing worth fighting for while many hoped that the Taliban being a new outfit might prove to be less corrupt and brutal than the warlords who dominated large chunks of the country. When all options appeared as bad choices, the Afghans were resigned to testing the unknown.
This time, however, the Taliban are a known quantity while many Afghans have something to fight for. This is why some analysts believe that all talk of a blitzkrieg by the Taliban taking them to Kabul may be premature. The proto-democratic system built in Afghanistan in the past two decades is full of vulnerabilities caused by corruption, mismanagement and fickleness of western allies. It will be weakened further as the US and NATO withdrawal would lead to the destruction of thousands of well-paid jobs, not to mention the psychological impact.
I think new Afghanistan can hold its own and defeat any attempt by the Taliban to impose a monolithic hold on power. The Afghan army may not be as formidable as it appears on paper. But it has at least 50,000 well-trained and armed men who are unlikely to raise the white flag as the warlords did three decades ago.
To write off Afghanistan would be a costly mistake for all those who value regional peace and stability.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.