Internal and external factors of the Afghan conflict
Afghanistan.ru - 5.10.2008
Alexander Umnov (Photo: afghanistan.ru)
Umnov Alexander Yurevich, Ph.D. (history), senior researcher at the Institute of World Economics and International Relations, an expert in Afghan affairs
Although the crisis in the Caucasus has strained Russia’s relations with the west there are areas where bilateral cooperation will inevitably be promoted and strengthened. Undoubtedly, one of these is Afghanistan. The reasons are quite clear. First and foremost reason is the fight against international terrorism. Reportedly, international terrorists are the allies of the Islamic movement of Taliban. Several members of Taliban have recognized the existing power after becoming parliamentarians. However, the movement as a whole together with al-Qaeda enjoys considerable influence among the population of Pakistan and Afghanistan and resists actively against the Karzai administration and the US-led forces. Originally, Afghanistan seemed to be an unconditional success of the US and NATO, but now it is turning to a strategic trap for the west.
The Taliban is now stronger compared with the past years, and their actions are more refined. Currently, it is armed with air defence systems. Its rear support is being improved. Taliban militants employ gorilla warfare tactics and carry out actively terrorist attacks against officials and servicemen of both the Karzai government and western coalition.
The strengthening influence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is brought about by the interweaving of local conditions with foreign support. The protracted war with the involvement of foreign groups has thrown back the country into one of the poorest states in Asia in economic development for many years. It is gradually reviving now leaning on foreign, especially western support but political instability has seriously hampered this. Unemployment, poverty and corruption forces people, especially the youth to join actively the Taliban where they get money for their survival. Air raids on settlements killing civilians and searches in private houses also play a negative role. Attempts by the authorities to stimulate the refusal to grow poppy by paying incentives have proved to be ineffective since it is more profitable to cultivate poppy. The elimination of poppy plantations has stirred dissatisfaction among people. Karzai administration launches the campaign with the assistance of Americans and British since the growing poppy is the only survival for millions of farmers.
Taliban that has close links with drug-lords capitalizes on the situation to achieve its targets. During the Taliban rule it restricted the production of drugs but now it plays the role of patron and defender. Many field commanders, who have their own armed units and are hostile to the central government, cooperate with the Taliban. The Taliban movement is provided the support by the neighbouring territory of Pakistan, the country that has the longest border with Afghanistan compared with its other neighbours. In fact, Kabul does not recognize it as a border. None of the Afghan governments, including the Karzai government has considered it as the border between the two countries. The border drawn by British between Afghanistan and British colony of India divided Pushtu tribes into two equal parts.
Taliban has camps in Pushtu-populated regions in Pakistan where religious schools independent of the government train new reinforcement for the Taliban. In fact, there are no such schools in Afghanistan. The favourable regime for these schools is stipulated by three factors. Firstly, the Pakistani government’s control over the Pushtu-populated regions is quite weak. Secondly, local Islamists, the allies of Taliban are strong there. Thirdly, Taliban has established links with Pakistani structures, first and foremost, Inter-Services Intelligence agency or ISI under the Defence Ministry. Some time ago, the agency played the crucial role in founding the Islamic Movement of Taliban. Consequently, although the Pakistani army fights against Taliban it does it reluctantly and inconsistently.
The Taliban groups united in late 2007 and founded the Tehric E Taliban Pakistan or Taliban Movement in Pakistan. The organization is headed by Baitullah Mehsud, a top Taliban warlord. It is aimed at uniting groups in the fight against American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, introduction of sharia laws and putting up active resistance to the Pakistani army. Kabul has pointed to the situation more than once and threatened to launch attacks on Taliban camps on the Pakistani territory. A military conflict almost stirred up between Pakistan and Afghanistan in June 2008. The main reason for the incident was a peace deal between Islamabad and Baitullah Mehsud. After signing the deal with the Pakistani authorities Baitullah Mehsud stepped up Taliban’s activity in Afghanistan. In response Hamid Karzai threatened to hunt Taliban militants on the Pakistani territory.
The US condemns the Afghan Presidents’ statements but at the same time it establishes contacts with the opponents of Taliban in Pakistan, especially the supporters of Benazir Bhutto assassinated by terrorists and puts pressure on Islamabad so that it takes up a tough stance against Taliban. On the contrary, Washington threatens to deprive Pakistan of financial support and carry out anti-Taliban operations on the Pakistani territory by American forces. As a result of the American pressure Inter-Service Intelligence agency was put under the subordination of the Interior Ministry. President Pervez Musharraf, who resisted openly against such moves, was forced to step down. Much depends in Afghanistan on Islamabad’s relations with Taliban. Currently, Pakistan withstands Taliban. But the weakened control over Western and north-western regions of the country along the Afghan border has created favourable conditions for cross-border movements of the Taliban militants. Taliban’s ties with local Islamists also play a significant role to this end. It is no mere chance that God Father of contemporary terror, Osama bin-Laden has taken refuge in north-western Pakistan along the Afghan border. The establishment of strong central government is the key to the Afghan settlement. But several obstacles have to be removed in the way towards this goal. Although the government headed by President Hamid Karzai and backed by US-led forces exists in Kabul, it exercises only formal control over largely-Pushtu-populated southern and south-eastern provinces.
Russia, which was a former Soviet republic, has not been bordering with Afghanistan for 17 years. Although Central Asia is between Russia and Afghanistan, Moscow is keen on the country which is in the south of former Soviet Union and leaning on Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Afghanistan has ethnic and cultural links with these states. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kyrgyzs live along both sides of the border. Consequently, not only the four states but also Russia responds to the developments in one or the other side of the border. Currently, all these factors are quite significant. A key event in Russia’s policy towards Afghanistan was the writing off of Afghanistan’s debt to the former Soviet Union, which was estimated at $11.2 billion. This has paved the way for state financing of economic projects and Russia is ready to help its private sector that has yet to show keen interest in establishing economic ties with Afghanistan in realizing the projects.
Mountain ranges divide Afghanistan into two parts, north and north-west, on the one hand and south and south-east, on the other. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen lives in the first part, while Pushtus in the second. When taking into account the Hazars the non-Pushtu population is greater than Pushtus. Since Taliban has great influence on Pushtus, the division of the country into two parts, which are bordering with former Soviet Republics in the north and northwest and Pushtu-populated region along the Pakistani border appears to be in Russia’s interests. This means the terrorist threat is moved away from the former Soviet south that has no properly equipped border with Russia. The split of Afghanistan and turning of its south and south east into a reserve of terrorism does not meet Russia’s interests. According to my opinion, the only way to avert this threat is to integrate south and south east with north and northwest. This could be done only by returning Pushtus the unifying role since, as experience shows, no other ethnic group cannot play it.
After the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan the local allies of Moscow headed by Najibulla remained in power for another three years. If Russia continued to render economic assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union at least all cities and a large part of rural areas could have still been under their control. Currently, Washington has no such alternative. Truly, Karzai administration has managed to take roots into the local soil. However, they are not deep rooted yet to stay in power without the western military presence. Kabul has made progress in fighting against Taliban in the past years. Afghanistan’s national security department, which is under the CIA influence, has eliminated several Taliban leaders. Nevertheless, the Karzai government as a whole continues to depend largely on the US-led forces. Naturally, in these circumstances the pullout of these forces will be not only a failure of the Karzai administration but also a great blow on the US prestige and clear defeat in the fight against terrorism headed by it. This will deal a blow also on Russia, which is vitally interested in the victory over the terrorists.