So this is the way the Forever War in Afghanistan ends – if one could call it an ending. Rather, it’s an American repositioning.
Regardless, after two decades of death and destruction and untold trillions of dollars, we’re faced not with a bang – and not with a whimper, either – but rather with a pic of the Taliban in Tianjin, a nine-man delegation led by top political commissioner Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, solemnly posing side by side with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Lateral echoes of another Forever War – in Iraq – apply. First, there was the bang: the US not as “the new OPEC,” as per how the neo-con mantra had visualized it, but with the Americans not even getting the oil. Then came the whimper: “No more troops” after December 31, 2021 – except for the proverbial “contractor” army.
The Chinese received the Taliban on an official visit in order once again to propose a very straightforward quid pro quo: We recognize and support your political role in the process of Afghan reconstruction and in return you cut off any possible links with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, regarded by the UN as a terrorist organization and responsible for a slew of attacks in Xinjiang.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang explicitly said, “The Taliban in Afghanistan is a pivotal military and political force in the country, and will play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction there.”
This follows Wang’s remarks back in June, after a meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, when he promised not only to “bring the Taliban back into the political mainstream” but also to host a serious intra-Afghan peace negotiation.
What’s implied since then is that the excruciatingly slow process in Doha is leading nowhere. Doha is being conducted by the extended troika – US, Russia, China, Pakistan – along with the irreconcilable adversaries, the Kabul government and the Taliban.
Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem stressed that the Tianjin meeting focused on political, economic and security issues, with the Taliban assuring Beijing that Afghan territory would not be exploited by third parties against the security interests of neighboring nations.
This means, in practice, no shelter for Uighur, Chechen and Uzbek jihadis and shady outfits of the ISIS-Khorasan variety.
Tianjin has been added as a sort of jewel in the crown to the current Taliban diplomatic offensive, which has already touched Tehran and Moscow.
What this means in practice is that the real power broker of a possible intra-Afghan deal is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by the Russia-China strategic partnership.
Russia and China are meticulously monitoring how the Taliban have been capturing several strategic districts in provinces from Badakhshan (Tajik majority) to Kandahar (Pashtun majority). Realpolitik dictates that the Taliban be accepted as serious interlocutors.
Pakistan, meanwhile, is working closer and closer within the SCO framework. Prime Minister Imran Khan could not be more adamant when addressing US public opinion: “Washington aimed for a military solution in Afghanistan, when there never was one,” he said.
“And people like me who kept saying that there’s no military solution, who know the history of Afghanistan, we were called – people like me were called anti-American,” he said. “I was called Taliban Khan.”
We are all Taliban now
The fact is that “Taliban Khan,” “Taliban Wang” and “Taliban Lavrov” are all on the same page.
The SCO is working all-out to present a road map for a Kabul-Taliban political settlement in the next round of negotiations in August. As I have been chronicling it – see, for instance, here and here – it’s all about a comprehensive economic integration package, where the Belt and Road Initiative and its affiliated China-Pakistan Economic Corridor interacts with Russia’s Greater Eurasia Partnership and overall Central Asia-South Asia connectivity.
A stable Afghanistan is the missing link in what could be described as the future SCO economic corridor, which will integrate every Eurasian player from BRICS members India and Russia to all Central Asian ‘stans.
Both President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul and the Taliban are on board. The devil, of course, is in the details of how to manage the internal power play in Afghanistan to make it happen.
The Taliban have done their crash course on geopolitics and geoeconomics. In Moscow, in early July, they had a detailed discussion with Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov.
In parallel, even the former Afghan ambassador to China, Sultan Baheen – no Taliban himself – admitted that for the majority of Afghans, irrespective of ethnic background, Beijing is the preferred interlocutor and mediator in an evolving peace process.
So the Taliban seeking high-level discussions with the Russia-China strategic partnership is part of a carefully calculated political strategy. But that brings us to an extremely complex question: To which Taliban are we referring?
There’s no such thing as a “unified” Taliban. Most old-school top leaders live in Pakistan’s Balochistan. The new breed is way more volatile – and feels no political constraints. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with a little help from Western intel, might easily infiltrate some Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.
Very few in the West understand the dramatic psychological consequences for Afghans – whatever their ethnic, social or cultural backgrounds – of living essentially under a state of non-stop war for the past four decades: USSR occupation; intra-mujahideen fighting; Taliban against Northern Alliance; and US/NATO occupation.
The last “normal” year in Afghan society was way back in 1978.
Andrei Kazantsev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and director of the Center for Central Asia and Afghanistan Studies at the elite MGIMO in Moscow, is uniquely positioned to understand how things work on the ground.
He notes something I saw for myself numerous times; how wars in Afghanistan are a mix of weaponizing and negotiation: