Afghanistan: The Northern Veto

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June 3, 2021: The Afghan military is negotiating with the U.S. and NATO over the issue of continued air support. American and NATO air force commanders with experience in Afghanistan agree that providing air support from one or two well-defended bases is possible based on past experience. The problem now is political. Apparently, the Afghans are expecting to be on their own for a while after this September, when all American troops are gone and if they can withstand Taliban pressure on their own, the return of foreign air support becomes politically acceptable in the West.

While western media tend to focus on continued Taliban attacks, less reported on are the heavy Taliban losses and the growing disagreements among the many Taliban factions over what to do next. There have been a lot of changes since Pakistan created the Taliban three decades ago and unleashed these religious fanatics on Afghanistan, then without any central government at all. The current Afghan government is something 1990s Afghanistan lacked. The current government is much stronger than any of the 1990s civil war factions. The current government sides with the majority of Afghans who oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs.

The Afghan majority has always been active and if there is another civil war it will not, as in the past, go well for the Pushtun minority. The Taliban are a Pushtun movement. During the late 1990s civil war, after Pakistan armed and recruited the Taliban to defeat the armed factions and take control, there was one insurmountable problem. The one part of Afghanistan the Taliban could never conquer was the north, especially the Tajik northeast. The Tajiks are undefeated, while the Pushtuns were beaten in late 2001. If there is another civil war the Tajiks will again be the main opponent. The Tajiks have allies that include the other minorities, especially Turkmen, Uzbeks and Mongols (Hazara). This anti-Taliban opposition is still known as the NA (Northern Alliance).

The Tajik and Pushtun are often called “eastern Iranians” because they are, like the Iranians, also Indo-European, as are most people in northern India, Pakistan and Europe. The Tajiks differ from the Pushtun in being less warlike, less religiously fanatic and more amenable to education and progress in general. Perhaps even more important is that the Tajiks have largely abandoned the use of tribes as a primary political organization. The Pushtun are still very much into tribal power and religious fanaticism.

The main reason the Northern Alliance did not defeat the Taliban in the 1990s was because the Taliban had a foreign backer (Pakistan) and the NA did not. That changed in late 2001 when the U.S. agreed to back the NA in its effort to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban control. In 2021 Russia is more willing to provide the NA with support than in the 1990s. Back then the Soviet Union had just dissolved (in 1991) and the much-reduced Russia was broke. Now Russia is less broke and interested in buying more influence in Afghanistan through the NA. Iran and India are also willing and able to back the NA if the Taliban take Kabul or just most of the south. With or without foreign support, the NA is still openly hostile to accepting Taliban rule. One possible outcome of a civil war is a temporary partition of Afghanistan, with the Taliban getting the Pushtun south and possibly even Kabul while the NA controls the north and most of the Iran border region if the NA makes a deal with Iran.

The northern provinces are already demonstrating to the Taliban that the north is not to be trifled with. All Taliban efforts to establish a stable presence in the north have failed, and those efforts incur heavy Taliban losses. The main reason the Taliban persist in the north is because the drug gangs need the northern heroin export route. The NA does not want the Taliban or the heroin in the north. A divided Afghanistan with the Pushtun south dominated by the drug gangs is even more vulnerable to a popular uprising against the wealthy Pushtun minority that benefits from the drug trade. The list of Pushtun tribes that have openly opposed cooperation with the drug gangs is growing.

Despite the Western forces leaving, Afghanistan has less to fear from Pakistan. This is largely attributable to China, which has kept illegal drug production out of China and insists that any trading new partners do the same. This makes the Afghan drug gangs nervous, because they have been a major supplier of cash to the Taliban since the 1990s. That has to worry the Taliban, or at least the more rational ones, because the drug gangs are run by Pushtuns, as is the Taliban. Pushtuns, as a group, follow family or clan interests before anything else. The drug gangs will offer to switch sides before they will back another Taliban attempt to conquer the entire country. With the drug gangs their goal is making money, for the Taliban it is religious fanaticism and imposing a Pushtun religious dictatorship on Afghanistan.

China is involved because of the trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources in Afghanistan that have never been developed into profitable exports. Everyone, especially China has, so far, found that the Afghans are too corrupt and unreliable to do business with. This is in addition to Afghanistan being the major source of heroin and other drugs that China will not tolerate. The few nations that have let a local narcotics operation get too powerful risked turning into narco-states and that never turns out well for the nation in question because there is eventually a popular, very violent and usually effective uprising against the drug gangs. China continues to remind Afghanistan that China will always stand ready to do business with nations that can provide law and order, at least for Chinese operations, in return. Enough Afghans have to be willing to fight for this rather than for more self-destructive causes.

For decades the Pakistani military has been a major supporter of chaos in Afghanistan and that support is also starting to fade. The Pakistan military has always had its own foreign policy and was able to force the Pakistani government to follow the military. That situation has been undergoing changes. Pakistani military leaders support a change to how it deals with the Afghan Taliban. Put simply, Pakistani generals no longer support the Taliban establishing a government that would control the entire country. Pakistani generals acknowledged there is widespread anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban sentiment in Afghanistan. These attitudes were present in the late 1990s, when the Pakistan military created and supported the Taliban whose current leadership is still fighting to gain control of the entire country. Since then, Afghans have increased their opposition to Pakistan and any Pakistani involvement with Afghanistan.

Pakistani generals have come to recognize that their Taliban effort cannot take control of the Afghan government, but believe it has a realistic chance of becoming part of the Afghan government. That may be too optimistic because the Taliban obtains most of its income from the drug gangs, which are hated by most Afghans and Pakistanis and all the local governments, except Pakistan, which is overruled by its own military which was in business with the Afghan drug gangs even before they created the Taliban. The Pakistani military pretends to care about the local addiction and corruption brought on by Afghan drugs, but actually cooperates with the drug gangs in return for large cash payments which have made many Pakistani officers very wealthy. This is obvious to most Pakistanis who note that many active and retired Pakistani officers have a standard-of-living that is not possible according to their official (and quite generous) pay scales.

May 22, 2021: The American military revealed that Pakistan has said it will continue to allow American military aircraft (combat and transports) to pass through Pakistani air space to and from landlocked Afghanistan. This was not unexpected because the Pakistani military has come to regard their creation (the Taliban) as more of a problem than a useful asset.

May 5, 2021: In the southeast, on the border with Pakistani Baluchistan province, Pakistani soldiers working on the new Afghan border fence were fired on from inside Afghanistan by about twenty Afghan tribesmen. Afghans oppose the fence, especially Afghans living near the border. The gunfire today killed four soldiers and wounded several others. The Afghan gunmen fled back into Afghanistan. The fence is 75 percent complete and tribes on both sides of the border object to it and the Afghan government claims that in some areas the fence extends into Afghan territory. The 2,600-kilometer-long fence is costing Pakistan about half a billion dollars. The fence actually consists of two three-meter (ten foot) chain link fences topped with barbed wire and separated by a two-meter gap. Hundreds of new border posts, some of them the size of small forts, are being built to observe and patrol the fence. Fence construction began in mid-2017 and has faced periodic attacks, mainly from inside Afghanistan, ever since.

 

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