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China and Russia will be key to solving an ancient geopolitical riddle: how to pacify the 'graveyard of empires'

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.

Mullah Baradar speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right foreground) in Tianjin. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry
Mullah Baradar speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right foreground) in Tianjin. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

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.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) meets with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (2d from the window on the left side of the picture) and his delegation in Islamabad on December 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Pakistan Prime Minister Office
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) meets with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (2d from the window on the left side of the picture) and his delegation in Islamabad on December 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Pakistan Prime Minister Office

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.

In February 1980 Afghan refugees who have fled the area of Kabul in December 1979, are shown in the Aza Khel refugee camp near Peshawar in Pakistan. Photo: AFP / EPU
In February 1980 Afghan refugees who have fled the area of Kabul in December 1979, are shown in the Aza Khel refugee camp near Peshawar in Pakistan. Photo: AFP / EPU

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:

 

Assaulted by cognitive dissonance across the spectrum, the Empire of Chaos now behaves as a manic depressive inmate, rotten to the core – a fate more filled with dread than having to face a revolt of the satrapies.

Only brain dead zombies now believe in its self-billed universal mission as the new Rome and the new Jerusalem. There’s no unifying culture, economy or geography knitting the core together across an “arid, desiccated, political landscape sweltering under the brassy sun of Apollonian ratiocination, devoid of passion, very masculine, and empty of human empathy.”

Clueless Cold Warriors still dream of the days when the Germany-Japan axis was threatening to rule Eurasia and the Commonwealth was biting the dust – thus offering Washington, fearful of being forced into islandization, the once in a lifetime opportunity to profit from WWII to erect itself as Supreme World Paradigm cum savior of the “free world”.

And then there were the unilateral 1990s, when the once again self-billed Shining City on the Hill basked in tawdry “end of history” celebrations – just as toxic neocons, gestated in the inter-war period via the gnostic cabal of New York Trotskysm, plotted their power takeover.

Today, it’s not Germany-Japan but the specter of a Russia-China-Germany entente that terrorizes the Hegemon as the Eurasian trio capable of sending American global domination to the dustbin of History.

Enter the American “strategy”. And predictably, it’s a prodigy of narrow mindedness, not even aspiring to the status of – fruitless – exercise in irony or desperation, yielding as it is from the pedestrian Carnegie Endowment, with its HQ in Think Tank Row between Dupont and Thomas Circle along Massachussets Avenue in D.C.

Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class is a sort of bipartisan report guiding the current, bewildered Crash Test Dummy administration. One of the 11 writers involved is none other than National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. The notion that a global imperial strategy and – in this case – a deeply impoverished and enraged middle class share the same interests does not even qualify as a lousy joke.

With “thinkers” like these, the Hegemon does not even need Eurasian “threats”.

Wanna talk to Mr. Khinzal?

Meanwhile, in a script worthy of Dylan’s Desolation Row rewritten by The Three Stooges, proverbial Atlanticist chihuahuas are raving that the Pentagon ordered the partition of NATO: Western Europe will contain China, and Eastern Europe will contain Russia.

Yet what’s actually happening in those corridors of European power that really matter – no, baby, that ain’t Warsaw – is that not only Berlin and Paris refuse to antagonize Beijing, but mull how to get closer to Moscow without enraging the Hegemon.

So much for microwaved, Kissingerian Divide and Rule. One of the few things the notorious war criminal really got it was when he noted, after the implosion of the USSR, that without Europe “the US would become a distant island in the coastline of Eurasia”: it would dwell “in solitude, a minor status”.

Life is a drag when the (global) free lunch is over and on top of it you need to face not only the emergence of a “peer competitor” in Eurasia (copyright Zbig “Grand Chessboard” Brzezinski) but a comprehensive strategic partnership. You fear that China is eating your lunch – and dinner, and nightcap – but still you need Moscow as the designated enemy of choice, because that’s what legitimizes NATO.

Call The Three Stooges! Let’s send the Europeans to patrol the South China Sea! Let’s get those Baltic nullities plus pathetic Poles to enforce the New Iron Curtain! And let’s deploy Russophobic Britannia Rules the Waves on both fronts!

Control Europe – or bust. Hence the Brave New NATO World: white man’s burden revisited – against Russia-China.

So far, Russia-China had been exhibiting infinite Daoist patience in dealing with those clowns. Not anymore.

The key players in the Heartland have clearly seen through the imperial propaganda fog; it will be a long and winding road, but the horizon will eventually unveil a Germany-Russia-China-Iran alliance rebalancing the global chessboard.

This is the ultimate Imperial Night of the Living Dead nightmare – hence these lowly American emissaries frantically scurrying around multiple latitudes trying to keep the satrapies in line.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, China-Russia build submarines like there’s no tomorrow equipped with state of the art missiles – and Su-57s invite wise guys to a close conversation with a hypersonic Mr. Khinzal.

Sergey Lavrov, like an aristocratic Grand Seigneur, took the trouble of enlightening the clowns with a stark, erudite distinction between rule of law and their self-defined “rules-based international order”.

That’s too much for their collective IQ. Perhaps what they will register is that the Russian-Chinese Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship, and Cooperation, initially signed on July 16, 2001, has just been extended for five years by Presidents Putin and Xi.

As the Empire of Chaos is incrementally and inexorably expelled from the Heartland, Russia-China are jointly managing Central Asian affairs.

In the Central and South Asia connectivity conference in Tashkent,

Lavrov detailed how Russia is driving “the Greater Eurasian Partnership, a unifying and integrational outline between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans that is as free for the movement of goods, capital, labor and services as possible and which is open to every country of the common continent of Eurasia and the integration unions created here.”

Then there’s the updated Russian National Security Strategy, which clearly outlines that building a partnership with the US and hitting win-win cooperation with the EU is an uphill struggle: “The contradictions between Russia and the West are serious and are hard to solve.” By contrast, strategic cooperation with China and India will be expanded.

A geopolitical earthquake

Yet the defining geopolitical breakthrough in the second year of the Raging Twenties may well be China telling the Empire, “That’s enough”.

It started over two months ago in Anchorage, when the formidable Yang Jiechi made shark fin’s soup out of the helpless American delegation. The piece de resistance came this week in Tianjin, where Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng and his boss Wang Yi reduced mediocre imperial bureaucrat Wendy Sherman to stale dumpling status.

This searing analysis by a Chinese think tank reviewed all the key issues. Here are the highlights.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, China, NATO, Russia 
Afghan security forces deployed and start operations against Taliban around Torkham border point between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on July 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Stringer
Afghan security forces deployed and start operations against Taliban around Torkham border point between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan on July 23, 2021. Photo: AFP via Anadolu Agency / Stringer

Over a week ago the excruciatingly slow Doha peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban resumed, and then they dragged on for two days observed by envoys from the EU, US and UN.

Nothing happened. They could not even agree on a ceasefire during Eid al-Adha. Worse, there’s no road map for how negotiations might pick up in August. Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada duly released a statement: the Taliban “strenuously favors a political settlement.”

But how? Irreconcilable differences rule. Realpolitik dictates there’s no way the Taliban will embrace Western liberal democracy: They want the restoration of an Islamic emirate.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, for his part, is damaged goods even in Kabul diplomatic circles where he’s derided as too stubborn, not to mention incapable of rising to the occasion. The only possible solution in the short term is seen as an interim government.

Yet there is no leader around with national appeal – no Commander Massoud figure. There are only regional warlords – whose militias protect their own local interests, not distant Kabul.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban, in Afghan warlord and former Mujahideen leader Ismail Khan’s house in Herat on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hasimi
Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban, in Afghan warlord and former Mujahideen leader Ismail Khan’s house in Herat on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hasimi

While facts on the ground spell out balkanization, the Taliban, even on the offensive, know they cannot possibly pull off a military takeover of Afghanistan.

And when the Americans say they will continue to “support Afghan government forces,” that means still bombing, but from over the horizon and now under new Centcom management in Qatar.

Russia, China, Pakistan and the Central Asian “stans” – everyone is trying hard to circumvent the stalemate. Shadow play, as usual, has been in full effect. Take for instance the crucial meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (former Soviet states) – nearly simultaneous with the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Dushanbe and the subsequent Central Asia-South Asia connectivity conference in Tashkent.

The CSTO summit was 100% leak-proof. And yet, previously, they had discussed “possibilities of using the potential of the CSTO member states” to keep the highly volatile Tajik-Afghan border under control.

That’s very serious business. A task force headed by Colonel-General Anatoly Sidorov, the chief of the CSTO Joint Staff, is in charge of “joint measures” to police the borders.

Now enter an even more intriguing shadowplay gambit – met with a non-denial denial by both Moscow and Washington.

The Kommersant newspaper revealed that Moscow offered some “hospitality” to the Pentagon at its military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (both SCO member states). The objective: keep a joint eye on the fast-evolving Afghan chessboard – and prevent drug mafia cartels, Islamists of the ISIS-Khorasan variety and refugees from crossing the borders of these Central Asian ‘stans.

What the Russians are aiming at – non-denial denial withstanding – is not to let the Americans off the hook for the “mess” (copyright Sergey Lavrov) in Afghanistan while preventing them from reestablishing any offshoot of the Empire of Bases in Central Asia.

They established bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan after 2001, although they had to be abandoned later in 2004 and 2014. What is clear is there’s absolutely no chance the US will re-establish military bases in SCO and CSTO member nations.

Birth of a new Quad

At the Central Asia-South Asia 2021 meeting in Tashkent, right after the SCO meeting in Dushanbe, something quite intriguing happened: the birth of a new Quad (forget that one in the Indo-Pacific).

This is how it was spun by the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs: a “historic opportunity to open flourishing international trade routes, [and] the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links and strengthen business-to-business ties.”

If that sounds like something straight out of the Belt and Road Initiative, well, here’s the confirmation by the Pakistani Foreign Office:

“Representatives of the United States, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed in principle to establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity. The parties consider long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan critical to regional connectivity and agree that peace and regional connectivity are mutually reinforcing.”

The US doing Belt and Road right into China’s alley? A State Department tweet confirmed it. Call it a geopolitical case of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Now this is probably the only issue that virtually all players on the Afghanistan chessboard agree: a stable Afghanistan turbo-charging the flow of cargo across a vital hub of Eurasia integration.

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen has been very consistent: the Taliban regard China as a “friend” to Afghanistan and are eager to have Beijing investing in reconstruction work “as soon as possible.”

The question is what Washington aims to accomplish with this new Quad – for the moment just on paper. Simple: to throw a monkey wrench into the works of the SCO, led by Russia-China, and the main forum organizing a possible solution for the Afghan drama.

In this sense, the US versus Russia-China competition in the Afghan theater totally fits the Build Back Better World (B3W) gambit, which aims – at least in thesis – to offer an alternative infrastructure plan to Belt and Road and pitch it to nations from the Caribbean and Africa to the Asia-Pacific.

What is not in question is that a stable Afghanistan is essential in terms of establishing full rail-road connectivity from resource-rich Central Asia to the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar, and beyond to global markets.

For Pakistan, what happens next is a certified geoeconomic win-win – whether via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is a flagship Belt and Road project, or via the new, incipient Quad.

China will be funding the highly strategic Peshawar-Kabul motorway. Peshawar is already linked to CPEC. The completion of the motorway will symbolically seal Afghanistan as part of CPEC.

 
While the dogs of demonization bark, Russia's newfangled armaments are flat out beating the competition

The annual MAKS aerospace show kicked off its 2021 installment at Zhukovsky Airport outside Moscow – not with a bang, but with multiple bangs.

MAKS – whose name is an acronym for the Russian mouthful Mezhdunarodnyj aviatsionno-kosmiches, literally international aviation and space show – is famous for showing off the latest hits in aerospace and defense technology from major Russian and foreign companies.

The lands of Islam would not have failed to notice that President Vladimir Putin’s welcoming address fell exactly on Eid al-Adha – and the president made sure to note, in a nod to ethnic integration, that 20% of Russian aviation industry employees are Muslims.

The undisputed star of MAKS 2021 was Checkmate, concisely described by military analyst Oleg Panteleev as a single-engine, 5G light tactical fighter – and teased before the official presentation with a slick, Hollywood-style ad tailored for global customers (UAE, India, Vietnam, Argentina).

Checkmate’s artificial-intelligence-friendly onboard computer. Photo: screenshot
Checkmate’s artificial-intelligence-friendly onboard computer. Photo: screenshot

Checkmate is already being hailed across the Global South as the new epitome of lethal beauty – like the aerial equivalent of a pair of Louboutin pumps. It will probably be known by the less sexy denomination Su-75: after all, Checkmate belongs to the Sukhoi family.

The CEO of Rostec’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), Yuri Slyusar, says that production of Checkmate will start in 2026, after a series of complex tests.

Here is Rostec’s full presentation (in Russian), where we learn that Checkmate “can carry up to five air-to-air missiles of various ranges in its top version,” including the entire spectrum of 5G missiles.

This means that Checkmate can carry all weapons deployed by the Su-57 jet fighter – another star of MAKS 2021. Slyusar explained that Checkmate’s design was based on the Su-57.

The Sukhoi Su-57 – which made an exhibition flight at MAKS – is a fifth-generation multi-role fighter conceived to raise hell against all types of air, ground and naval targets.

The Su-57 features stealth technology utilizing a vast array of composite materials; reaches supersonic cruising speed; and comes with a very powerful onboard computer – described as an “electronic second pilot” – and a radar system spread across its body.

Weapons export firm Rosoboronexport, via its CEO Alexander Mikheyev, says five nations are already interested in buying the Su-57.

A close look at the SU-57 during an exhibition flight at MAKS 2019. Photo: Sergei Bobylev / TASS
A close look at the SU-57 during an exhibition flight at MAKS 2019. Photo: Sergei Bobylev / TASS

No hangar queen

Yet the first day at MAKS was all about Checkmate. Military analyst Andrei Martyanov, in his inimitable style, summed it all up: “This Checkmate or, if you wish, Su-75 is not a hangar queen and is designed for battle and, in the end, it is Su-57 Lite and a platform (I stress it – platform) which gives birth to very many other variants of this aircraft. Do not also forget that Su-57 will also be offered for export.”

Checkmate, according to chief designer Mikhail Strelets, essentially has a single engine with a deflected thrust vector; goes supersonic for a long time; and has a shortened take-off and landing compared with the Su-57. The West will be uncomfortable when it comes to further comparisons between Checkmate’s efficiency and that of the not exactly brilliant F-35.

Some of Checkmate’s most important features, according to UAC, include: flying at high altitude in all kinds of weather; modularity; simplified maintenance and operations; post-sale support; “good transportation capability” (range and endurance); “AI support for combat missions”; “low flight hour cost and large payload”; and, most important of all for international clients, good value for money.

Oh yes: there will be an unmanned “variant.” UAC is already working on it.

SU-57 exhibition flight at MAKS 2021. Photo: handout
SU-57 exhibition flight at MAKS 2021. Photo: handout

In parallel to MAKS, the Russians also conducted another test of the S-500 “Prometheus” missile system, which for all practical purposes is beyond any competition in terms of intercepting the whole range of current – and even future – air and space attack at top altitudes and speeds.

For years, Martyanov has been writing in detail about the whole process in his books and articles.

Quantum Bird, a top physicist from the CERN in Geneva, tells me that “with Prometheus getting online, NATO gets the worst-case scenario vis-a-vis Russia: NATO attacking missiles getting intercepted even before leaving their territory, with Russia’s retaliatory response getting there before or together with the interceptors. Prometheus can also handle inconvenient low-orbit spy satellites NATO likes to fly over Russia.”

One day before the start of MAKS, Russia also test-fired the Tsirkon hypersonic missile, launched from the frigate Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union Gorshkov in the White Sea, at Mach 7, against a ground target 350 km away in the coast of the Barents Sea. The Russian Defense Ministry said the missile hit “a bullseye.” Tsirkon hypersonic missiles will be equipping Russian submarines and warships.

The 3M22 Tsirkon/3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) is a scramjet-powered maneuvering hypersonic cruise missile being developed by Russia. Credit: Handout.
The 3M22 Tsirkon/3M22 Zircon (NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) is a scramjet-powered maneuvering hypersonic cruise missile being developed by Russia. Credit: Handout.

Martyanov concisely explains the “secret” – which is no secret – of all these technological advances: “It is like milking a productive cow – once you have a great healthy cow, you just take care of it and milk it. Same here, but you need to make the right strategic decisions, which consider all trends. That is how you get S-500, Zircon, Su-57 and this new one. Chinese aircraft will not be able to compete with Su-75 in former Soviet markets and the F-35 is not a competitor to it at the international level. In a sense, it is a checkmate.”

For denizens of America’s Thinktankland, already losing sleep over Su-35s, S-400 missile systems and silent submarines, what the future is bringing is extra insomnia over hypersonic missiles, the S-500 Prometheus and an array of early warning systems and radars.

Russia spends on its military industry roughly 12 cents for every dollar the US spends. The practical result is that the Beltway is consistently out-planned, out-designed and out-gunned.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Russia 
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a family photo before a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a family photo before a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting of Foreign Ministers on Wednesday in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, may have been an under-the-radar affair, but it did reveal the contours of the big picture ahead when it comes to Afghanistan.

So let’s see what Russia and China – the SCO’s heavyweights – have been up to.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi laid out the basic road map to his Afghan counterpart Mohammad Haneef Atmar. While stressing the Chinese foreign policy gold standard – no interference in internal affairs of friendly nations – Wang established three priorities:

  1. Real inter-Afghan negotiations towards national reconciliation and a durable political solution, thus preventing all-out civil war. Beijing is ready to “facilitate” dialogue.
  2. Fighting terror – which means, in practice, al-Qaeda remnants, ISIS-Khorasan and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Afghanistan should not be a haven for terrorist outfits – again.
  3. The Taliban, for their part, should pledge a clean break with every terrorist outfit.

Atmar, according to diplomatic sources, fully agreed with Wang. And so did Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin. Atmar even promised to work with Beijing to crack down on ETIM, a Uighur terror group founded in China’s western Xinjiang. Overall, the official Beijing stance is that all negotiations should be “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.”

There is no sign yet that the Taliban will enter a power-sharing arrangement with President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Photo: AFP/Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto
There is no sign yet that the Taliban will enter a power-sharing arrangement with President Ashraf Ghani’s government. Photo: AFP/Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto

It was up to Russian presidential envoy Zamir Kabulov to offer a more detailed appraisal of the Dushanbe discussions.

The main Russian point is that Kabul and the Taliban should try to form a provisional coalition government for the next 2-3 years while they negotiate a permanent agreement. Talk about a Sisyphean task – and that’s an understatement. The Russians know very well that both sides won’t restart negotiations before September.

Moscow is very precise about the role of the extended troika – Russia, China, Pakistan and the US – in the excruciatingly slow Doha peace process talks: the troika should “facilitate” (also Wang’s terminology), not mediate the proceedings.

Another very important point is that once “substantive” intra-Afghan negotiations resume, a mechanism should be launched to clear the Taliban of UN Security Council sanctions.

This will mean the normalization of the Taliban as a political movement. Considering their current diplomatic drive, the Taliban do have their eyes on the ball. So the Russian warning that they should not become a security threat to any of the Central Asian “stans” or there will be “consequences” has been fully understood.

International Policy Research Institute
International Policy Research Institute

Four of the five “stans” (Turkmenistan is the exception) are SCO members. By the way, the Taliban have sent a diplomatic mission to Turkmenistan to ease its fears.

Break for the border

In Dushanbe, a special meeting of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, established in 2005, for the first time was held at the foreign minister level.

This shows that the SCO as a whole is engaged in making its “facilitate, not mediate” role the prime mechanism to solve the Afghan drama. It’s always crucial to remember that no fewer than six SCO member-nations are Afghanistan’s neighbors.

During the main event in Dushanbe – the SCO Foreign Ministers Council – the Russians once again framed Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy as an attempt to deter China and isolate Russia.

Following recent analyses by President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russian delegation explained to its SCO counterparts its view counterposing Moscow and Beijing’s effort to develop a polycentric world system based on international law, on the one hand, with the Western concept of the so-called “rules-based world order.”

The Western approach, they said, puts pressure on countries that pursue independent foreign policy courses, ultimately legitimizing the West’s “neocolonial policy.”

On the ground

While the SCO was discussing the drive towards a polycentric world system, the Taliban, on the ground, kept doing what they’ve been doing for the past few weeks: capturing strategic crossroads.

The Taliban already controlled border crossings with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. Now they have taken over ultra-strategic Spin Boldak, bordering Balochistan in Pakistan, which in trade terms is even more important than the Torkham border crossing near the Khyber Pass.

Taliban in Spin Boldak, the very busy commercial border between Afghanistan and Balochistan in Pakistan. Photo: AFP
Taliban in Spin Boldak, the very busy commercial border between Afghanistan and Balochistan in Pakistan. Photo: AFP

According to Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, “the Spin Boldak district in Kandahar province has been cleared of the enemy” – Kabul’s forces – “and the district is now under the control of the mujahideen.” The term “mujahideen” in the Afghan context means indigenous forces fighting foreign invaders or proxies.

To have an idea of the importance of Spin Boldak for the Taliban economy during their years in power, see the third chapter of a series I published in Asia Times in 2010, here and here. Eleven years ago, I noted that “the Afghan-Pakistan border is still porous, and the Taliban seem to believe they may even get their Talibanistan back.” They believe that now, more than ever.

Meanwhile, in the northeast, in Badakhshan province, the Taliban are getting closer and closer to the border with Xinjiang – which has led to some hysteria about “terrorism” infiltrating China via the Wakhan corridor.

Nonsense. The actual Afghanistan-China border in the Wakhan is roughly 90 kilometers. Beijing can exercise full electronic surveillance on everything that moves.

I crossed part of the Wakhan on the Tajik side, bordering Afghanistan, during my Central Asian loop in late 2019, and on some stretches of the Pamir Highway I was as close to Xinjiang as 30 kilometers or so through no man’s land. The only people I saw along the geologically spectacular, desolate landscape were a few nomad caravans. The terrain can be even more forbidding than the Hindu Kush.

If any terror outfits try to get to Xinjiang, they won’t dare cross the Wakhan; they will try to infiltrate via Kyrgyzstan. I met a lot of Uighurs in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital: mostly businessman, legally going back and forth. On the Kyrgyz-Xinjiang border, there was a steady flow of cargo trucks. ETIM was dismissed as a bunch of nutcases.

 
Russia-China-Iran alliance is taking Afghanistan's bull by the horns

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on a Central Asian loop all through the week. He’s visiting Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The last two are full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, founded 20 years ago.

The SCO heavyweights are of course China and Russia. They are joined by four Central Asian “stans” (all but Turkmenistan), India and Pakistan. Crucially, Afghanistan and Iran are observers, alongside Belarus and Mongolia.

And that leads us to what’s happening this Wednesday in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital. The SCO will hold a 3 in 1: meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers, the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, and a conference titled “Central and South Asia: Regional Connectivity, Challenges and Opportunities.”

At the same table, then, we will have Wang Yi, his very close strategic partner Sergey Lavrov and, most importantly, Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar. They’ll be debating trials and tribulations after the hegemon’s withdrawal and the miserable collapse of the myth of NATO “stabilizing” Afghanistan.

Let’s game a possible scenario: Wang Yi and Lavrov tell Atmar, in no uncertain terms, that there’s got to be a national reconciliation deal with the Taliban, brokered by Russia-China, with no American interference, including the end of the opium-heroin ratline.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi chats with guests after the opening ceremony of the Lanting Forum in Beijing on June 25. Photo: AFP / Jade Gao
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi chats with guests after the opening ceremony of the Lanting Forum in Beijing on June 25. Photo: AFP / Jade Gao

Russia-China extract from the Taliban a firm promise that jihadism won’t be allowed to fester. The endgame: loads of productive investment, Afghanistan is incorporated to Belt and Road and – later on – to the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU).

The SCO’s joint statement on Wednesday will be particularly enlightening, perhaps detailing how the organization plans to coordinate a de facto Afghan peace process farther down the road.

In this scenario, the SCO now has the chance to implement what it has been actively discussing for years: that only an Asian solution to the Afghan drama applies.

Sun Zhuangzhi, executive director of the Chinese Research Center of the SCO, sums it all up: the organization is capable of coming up with a plan mixing political stability, economic and security development and a road map for infrastructure development projects.

The Taliban agree. Spokesman Suhail Shaheen has stressed, “China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.”

On the Silk Road again

After economic connectivity, another SCO motto encouraged by Beijing since the early 2000s is the necessity to fight the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism. All SCO members are very much aware of jihadi metastases threatening Central Asia – from ISIS-Khorasan to shady Uighur factions currently fighting in Idlib in Syria, as well as the (fading) Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The Taliban is a way more complex case. It’s still branded as a terrorist organization by Moscow. Yet on the new, fast-evolving chessboard, both Moscow and Beijing know the importance of engaging the Taliban in high-stakes diplomacy.

Taliban fighters have taken large swathes of Afghanistan in the past two weeks. Photo: AFP / Aref Karimi
Taliban fighters have taken large swathes of Afghanistan in the past two weeks. Photo: AFP / Aref Karimi

Wang Yi has already impressed upon Islamabad – Pakistan is a SCO member – the need to set up a trilateral mechanism, with Beijing and Kabul, to advance a feasible political solution to Afghanistan while managing the security front.

Here, from China’s point of view, it’s all about the multi-layered China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), to which Beijing plans to incorporate Kabul. Here is a detailed CPEC progress update.

Building blocks include the deal struck between China Telecom and Afghan Telecom already in 2017 to build a Kashgar-Faizabad fiber optic cable system and then expand it toward a China-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan Silk Road system.

Directly connected is the deal signed in February among Islamabad, Kabul and Tashkent to build a railway that in fact may establish Afghanistan as a key crossroads between Central and South Asia. Call it the SCO corridor.

All of the above was solidified by a crucial trilateral meeting last month among China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Foreign Ministers. Team Ghani in Kabul renewed its interest in being connected to Belt and Road – which translates in practice into an expanded CPEC. The Taliban said exactly the same thing last week.

Wang Yi knows very well that jihadism is bound to target CPEC. Not Afghanistan’s Taliban, though. And not the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), as quite a few CPEC projects (fiber optics, for instance) will improve infrastructure in Peshawar and environs.

Afghanistan in trade connectivity with CPEC and a key node of the New Silk Roads could not make more sense – even historically, as Afghanistan was always embedded in the ancient Silk Roads. Crossroads Afghanistan is the missing link in the connectivity equation between China and Central Asia. The devil, of course, will be in the details.

The Iranian equation

Then, to the West, there’s the Iranian equation. The recently solidified Iran-China strategic partnership may eventually lead to closer integration, with CPEC expanded to Afghanistan. The Taliban are keenly aware of it. As part of their current diplomatic offensive, they have been to Tehran and made all the right noises towards a political solution.

A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh
A map shows the route of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Wanishahrukh

Their joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif privileges negotiations with Kabul. The Taliban commit to refrain from attacking civilians, schools, mosques, hospitals and NGOs.

Tehran – an observer at the SCO and on the way to becoming a full member – is actively talking to all Afghan actors. No fewer than four delegations were visiting last week. The head of Kabul’s team was former Afghan Vice President Yunus Qanooni (a former warlord, as well), while the Taliban were led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who commands their political office in Doha. This all implies serious business.

There are already 780,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran, living in refugee villages along the border and not allowed to settle in major cities. But there are also at least 2.5 million illegals. No wonder Tehran needs to pay attention. Zarif once again is in total synch with Lavrov – and with Wang Yi, for that matter: a non-stop war of attrition between the Kabul government and the Taliban could lead only to “unfavorable” consequences.

The question, for Tehran, revolves around the ideal framework for negotiations. That would point to the SCO. After all, Iran has not participated in the snail-paced Doha mechanism for over two years now.

 
Deploying diplomatic skills refined from Doha to Moscow, the Taliban in 2021 has little to do with its 2001 incarnation
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) and other members of the Taliban arrive to attend an international conference in Moscow on March 18, 2021. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AFP
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) and other members of the Taliban arrive to attend an international conference in Moscow on March 18, 2021. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AFP

A very important meeting took place in Moscow last week, virtually hush-hush. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, received Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser.

There were no substantial leaks. A bland statement pointed to the obvious: They “focused on the security situation in Afghanistan during the pullout of Western military contingencies and the escalation of the military-political situation in the northern part of the country.”

The real story is way more nuanced. Mohib, representing embattled President Ashraf Ghani, did his best to convince Patrushev that the Kabul administration represents stability. It does not – as the subsequent Taliban advances proved.

Patrushev knew Moscow could not offer any substantial measure of support to the current Kabul arrangement because doing so would burn bridges the Russians would need to cross in the process of engaging the Taliban. Patrushev knows that the continuation of Team Ghani is absolutely unacceptable to the Taliban – whatever the configuration of any future power-sharing agreement.

So Patrushev, according to diplomatic sources, definitely was not impressed.

This week we can all see why. A delegation from the Taliban political office went to Moscow essentially to discuss with the Russians the fast-evolving mini-chessboard in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban had been to Moscow four months earlier, along with the extended troika (Russia, US, China, Pakistan) to debate the new Afghan power equation.

Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. Photo: AFP / Viktor Tolochko / Sputnik
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. Photo: AFP / Viktor Tolochko / Sputnik

On this trip, they emphatically assured their interlocutors there’s no Taliban interest in invading any territory of their Central Asia neighbors.

It’s not excessive, in view of how cleverly they’ve been playing their hand, to call the Taliban desert foxes. They know well what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been repeating: Any turbulence coming from Afghanistan will be met with a direct response from the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

In addition to stressing that the US withdrawal – actually, repositioning – represents the failure of its Afghan “mission,” Lavrov touched on the two really key points:

  • The Taliban is increasing its influence in the northern Afghanistan border areas; and
  • Kabul’s refusal to form a transitional government is “promoting a belligerent solution” to the drama. This implies Lavrov expects much more flexibility from both Kabul and the Taliban in the Sisyphean power-sharing task ahead.

And then, relieving the tension, when asked by a Russian journalist if Moscow will send troops to Afghanistan, Lavrov reverted to Mr Cool: “The answer is obvious.”

Shaheen speaks

Mohammad Suhail Shaheen is the quite articulate spokesman for the Taliban political office. He’s adamant that “taking Afghanistan by military force is not our policy. Our policy is to find a political solution to the Afghan issue, which is continuing in Doha.” Bottom line: “We confirmed our commitment to a political solution here in Moscow once more.”

That’s absolutely correct. The Taliban don’t want a bloodbath. They want to be embraced. As Shaheen has stressed, it would be easy to conquer major cities – but there would be blood. Meanwhile, the Taliban already control virtually the whole border with Tajikistan.

New face of the Taliban: The insurgents’ spokesman Mohammad Suhail Shaheen speaks to media in Moscow on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Elena Teslova / Anadolu Agency
New face of the Taliban: The insurgents’ spokesman Mohammad Suhail Shaheen speaks to media in Moscow on February 15, 2021. Photo: AFP / Elena Teslova / Anadolu Agency

The 2021 Taliban have little in common with their 2001 pre-war on terror incarnation. The movement has evolved from a largely Ghilzai Pashtun rural guerrilla insurgency to a more inter-ethnic arrangement, incorporating Tajiks, Uzbeks and even Shi’ite Hazaras – a group that was mercilessly persecuted during the 1996-2001 years of Taliban power.

Reliable figures are extremely hard to come by, but 30% of the Taliban today may be non-Pashtuns. One of the top commanders is ethnically Tajik – and that explains the lightning-flash “soft” blitzkrieg in northern Afghanistan across Tajik territory.

I visited a lot of these geologically spectacular places in the early 2000s. The inhabitants, all cousins, speaking Dari, are now turning over their villages and towns to Tajik Taliban as a matter of trust. Very few – if any – Pashtuns from Kandahar or Jalalabad are involved. That illustrates the absolute failure of the central government in Kabul.

Those who do not join the Taliban simply desert – as did the Kabul forces manning the checkpoint close to the bridge over the Pyanj river, off the Pamir highway; they escaped without a fight to Tajik territory, actually riding the Pamir highway. The Taliban hoisted their flag in this crucial intersection without firing a shot.

The Afghan National Army’s chief, General Wali Mohammad Ahmadza, fresh into his role by appointment from Ghani, is keeping a brave face: ANA’s priority is to protect the main cities (so far, so good, because the Taliban are not attacking them); border crossings (that’s not going so well), and highways (mixed results so far).

This interview with Suhail Shaheen is quite enlightening – as he feels compelled to stress that “we don’t have access to media” and laments the “baseless” barrage of “propaganda launched against us,” which implies that Western media should admit the Taliban have changed.

Shaheen points out that “it’s not possible to take 150 districts in just six weeks by fighting,” which connects to the fact that the security forces “do not trust the Kabul administration.” In all districts that have been conquered, he swears, “ the forces came to the Taliban voluntarily.”

A smoke plume rises from houses amid an ongoing fight between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the western city of Qala-i- Naw, the capital of Badghis province, on July 7. The Taliban launched its first major assault on a provincial capital since the US military began its final drawdown of troops from the country. Photo: AFP
A smoke plume rises from houses amid an ongoing fight between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the western city of Qala-i- Naw, the capital of Badghis province, on July 7. The Taliban launched its first major assault on a provincial capital since the US military began its final drawdown of troops from the country. Photo: AFP

Shaheen makes a statement that could have come straight from Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s: The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are the real freedom fighters.” That may be the object of endless debate across the lands of Islam.

But one fact is indisputable: The Taliban are sticking by the agreement they signed with the Americans on February 29, 2020. And that implies a total American exit: “If they don’t abide by their commitments, we have a clear right of retaliation.”

Thinking ahead to “when an Islamic government is in place,” Shaheen insists there will be “good relations” with every nation, and embassies and consulates will not be targeted.

 
The US is on the verge of its own second Vietnam repeated as farce in a haphazard retreat from Afghanistan
US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009. – The US pullout from the Pentagon’s once mighty Bagram Air Base in the dead of night, while Taliban fighters pour across the country, looks a lot like a military defeat. Photo: AFP / Manpreet Romana
US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009. – The US pullout from the Pentagon’s once mighty Bagram Air Base in the dead of night, while Taliban fighters pour across the country, looks a lot like a military defeat. Photo: AFP / Manpreet Romana

And it’s all over

For the unknown soldier

It’s all over

For the unknown soldier

The Doors, “The Unknown Soldier”

Let’s start with some stunning facts on the Afghan ground.

The Taliban are on a roll. Earlier this week their PR arm was claiming they hold 218 Afghan districts out of 421 – capturing new ones every day. Tens of districts are contested. Entire Afghan provinces are basically lost to the government in Kabul, which has been de facto reduced to administer a few scattered cities under siege.

Already on July 1, the Taliban announced they controlled 80% of Afghan territory. That’s close to the situation 20 years ago, only a few weeks before 9/11, when Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud told me in the Panjshir valley , as he prepared a counter-offensive, that the Taliban were 85% dominant.

Their new tactical approach works like a dream. First, there’s a direct appeal to soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to surrender. Negotiations are smooth and deals fulfilled. Soldiers in the low thousands have already joined the Taliban without a single shot fired.

Map by CIG / Telegram / Counter-Intelligence (t.me/CIG telegram) showing recent Taliban advances and Afghan districts being captured, as of July 5, 2021
Map by CIG / Telegram / Counter-Intelligence (t.me/CIG telegram) showing recent Taliban advances and Afghan districts being captured, as of July 5, 2021

Mapmakers cannot upload updates fast enough. This is fast becoming a textbook case of the collapse of a 21st-century central government.

The Taliban are fast advancing in western Vardak, easily capturing ANA bases. That is the prequel for an assault on Maidan Shar, the provincial capital. If they gain control of Vardak, then they will be literally at the gates of Kabul.

After capturing Panjwaj district, the Taliban are also a stone’s throw away from Kandahar, founded by Alexander the Great in 330 BC and the city where a certain mullah Omar – with a little help from his Pakistani ISI friends – started the Taliban adventure in 1994, leading to their Kabul power takeover in 1996.

The overwhelming majority of Badakhshan province – Tajik majority, not Pashtun – fell after only four days of negotiations, with a few skirmishes thrown in. The Taliban even captured a hilltop outpost very close to Faizabad, Badakhshan’s capital.

I tracked the Tajik-Afghan border in detail when I traveled the Pamir highway in late 2019. The Taliban, following mountain tracks on the Afghan side, could soon reach the legendary, desolate border with China’s Xinjiang in the Wakhan corridor.

Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, seen from the Pamir highway in Tajikistan during the author’s November 2019 trip. This district, not far from Ishkashim, is now under Taliban control. Photo: Pepe Escobar

The Taliban are also about to make a move on Hairaton, in Balkh province. Hairaton is at the Afghan-Uzbek border, the site of the historically important Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya, through which the Red Army departed Afghanistan in 1989.

ANA commanders swear the city is now protected from all sides by a five-kilometer security zone. Hairaton has already attracted tens of thousands of refugees. Tashkent does not want them to cross the border.

And it’s not only Central Asia; the Taliban have already advanced to the city limits of Islam Qilla, which borders Iran, in Herat province, and is the key checkpoint in the busy Mashhad to Herat corridor.

The Tajik puzzle

The extremely porous, geologically stunning Tajik-Afghan mountain borders remain the most sensitive case. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, after a serious phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, ordered the mobilization of 20,000 reservists and sent them to the border.

Rahmon also promised humanitarian and financial support to the Kabul government.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon leave after this year’s Victory Day Parade on May 9, which marked the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia. Photo: AFP / Dmitry Astakhov / Sputnik
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon leave after this year’s Victory Day Parade on May 9, which marked the 76th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia. Photo: AFP / Dmitry Astakhov / Sputnik

The Taliban, for their part, officially declared that the border is safe and they have no intention of invading Tajik territory. Earlier this week even the Kremlin cryptically announced that Moscow does not plan to send troops to Afghanistan.

A cliffhanger is set for the end of July, as the Taliban announced they will submit a written peace proposal to Kabul. A strong possibility is that it may amount to an intimation for Kabul to surrender and transfer full control of the country.

The Taliban seem to be riding an irresistible momentum, especially when Afghans themselves were stunned to see how the imperial “protector,” after nearly two decades of de facto occupation, left Bagram airbase in the middle of the night.

Compare it to the evaluation of serious analysts such as Lester Grau, explaining the Soviet departure over three decades ago:

When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, they did so in a coordinated, deliberate, professional manner, leaving behind a functioning government, an improved military and an advisory and economic effort insuring the continued viability of the government. The withdrawal was based on a coordinated diplomatic, economic and military plan permitting Soviet forces to withdraw in good order and the Afghan government to survive.

The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) managed to hold on despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Only then, with the loss of Soviet support and the increased efforts by the Mujahideen (holy warriors) and Pakistan, did the DRA slide toward defeat in April 1992. The Soviet effort to withdraw in good order was well executed and can serve as a model for other disengagements from similar nations.

When it comes to the American empire, Tacitus once again applies: “They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… They are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor…. They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”

In the wake of the hegemon, deserts called peace include in varying degrees Iraq, Libya, Syria – which happen to, geologically, harbor deserts – as well as the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan.

 
In praise of James Douglas Morrison, 20th century poet, dead at 27 half a century ago

He was like Blake’s tiger, always burning bright and chasing Rimbaud rainbows – just to finish, like Marat, in a bathtub. He was only 27.

Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1971 in Paris. Half a century later, The Collected Works of Jim Morrison: Poetry, Journals, Transcripts, and Lyrics lavishly celebrates the soul of the poet.

Before he died, Jim had self-published three limited editions of his poetry: The Lords/Notes on Vision (1969), The New Creatures (1969), and An American Prayer (1970).

Now, finally, we may have access to his complete writings, including the screenplay for his 50-minute experimental film, HWY, shot in Godard’s cinema verité style in the spring and summer of 1969 in L.A. and the Mojave desert, with Jim playing a hitchhiker. Old-school petrol heads will savor Jim on the wheel of his 1967 Shelby GT 500 Mustang in this HD clip from a film inspired by HWY.

The Collected Works feel like a collar of magic jade fragments, complete with handwritten pages in notebooks, crossed out words, underlines, the whole perhaps similar to the ‘Plan for Book’ Jim once sketched.

The overwhelming majority of us baby boomers belong to the “die young, stay pretty, leave a beautiful corpse” generation. Following our own road maps, prone to trial and error, we did live all the roads of excess; but unlike Blake’s dictum, we may not have reached the palace of wisdom. We never cease to be amazed that unlike Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Otis Redding, we are survivors at best.

For so many of us then in our teens, from 1967 to 1971 the Doors were impregnated in our body and soul. Jim was the psychedelic Dyonisus, his excessive alter egos – Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin’- propelling him over and over again towards the next ride in the infinite highway.

Before he metastasized into instant legend, Jim was what Hunter Thompson would immortalize in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which came out in 1971: “A man on the move, and just sick enough, to be totally confident”.

Now the poetry oozing out of the freestyle soundscapes weaved by Krieger, Densmore and Manzarek, or HWY as a sort of prelude to L.A. Woman (“cops and cars / the topless bars / never saw a woman / so alone”) may be relieved as a prequel to what was about to vanish, poignantly evoked by Thomas Pynchon in Inherent Vice, the Greatest Hippie Detective Novel – or Raymond Chandler on LSD:

The Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness… how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness, and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.

And all the children are insane

Any Top Ten list of 20th Century Poetry in the Anglo-American sphere would necessarily include Yeats’s The Second Coming, Eliot’s

The Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos. From the mid-century beats, comes Ginsberg’s Howl. Afterwards it’s Dylan land – from

Ballad of a Thin Man, Desolation Row and Visions of Johanna to the total dilaceration in Blood on the Tracks (Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate).

And then, there’s Jim Morrison’s The End – the closing track of

The Doors, recorded in August 66, released in January 1967, six months before the Summer of Love.

It was my dear friend Quantum Bird – not even born when Morrison died – who led me to a re-appreciation of The End in the Western canon, prompted by a Morrison epigraph I used in a column on NATO.

Striking images emerge like rocks out of the Morrison river, like “the streets are fields that never die”, in The Crystal Ship, or “speak in secret alphabets”, in Soul Kitchen.

Strange Days could not be more contemporary: “Strange days have found us / strange days have tracked us down / they’re going to destroy / our casual joys / we shall go on playing / or find a new town”.

Yet we could only guess what shore Morrison’s Crystal Ship was heading for, the words – “be-fore / you / slip / in-to / un-consciousness” – coiling like a snake, barely whispered. The journey could be anything: Chandler’s Big Sleep, an overdose of heroin, a ghastly murder, suicide, even a suicide pact.

Morrison was usually Blake on steroids, rewriting “some are born to sweet delight / some are born to endless night” in his own way. The End is a journey through the corridors of the endless night (“the killer awoke before dawn / he put his boots on / he took a face from the ancient gallery / and he walked on down the hall”). No wonder Coppola carefully chose it for the opening of Apocalypse Now – or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam, where the Empire was lost “in a Roman wilderness of pain / and all the children are insane”.

Ride the snake

In 1966, when he wrote The End, two years before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, it’s as if Morrison had already intuited that as a poet laboring at the apex of Empire, life would become necessarily unbearable.

LSD + Rimbaud + insights in Navajo land only amplified his aesthetic and philosophical illuminations. The End includes references to “every element of systemic collapse”, as Quantum Bird remarked, from imperial arrogance to cultural collapse, from wokeism to loss of control of the empire’s own internal space, from dystopic propaganda to the sense of total bewilderment facing a dying ethos. Woke soldiers are about to be reprogrammed as serial killers.

Morrison had his vision way before the Summer of Love, way before Woodstock (summer of 1969), way before the Stones at Altamont (winter of 1969) – the official end of peace and love.

When the Empire collapses “in a desperate land” – look at the tawdry, farcical Afghanistan remix, happening right now – there’s “no safety or surprise”. It’s “the end of laughter and soft lies / the end of nights we tried to die.”

The end of everything that stands.

I’ll leave you now mentally riding a Mustang in the desert, down on the infinite highway and – in geopolitical synchronicity – riding the snake.

Julian Assange – held under psychological torture in Belmarsh by the lords of the Empire for the crime of committing journalism – is 50 years old today. Julian Assange was born the day Jim Morrison died.

Dance on fire. If you dare.

 
• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Jim Morrison, Music 
The West’s ‘rules-based order’ invokes rulers’ authority; Russia-China say it’s time to return to law-based order

We do live in extraordinary times.

On the day of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Xi Jinping, in Tiananmen square, amid all the pomp and circumstance, delivered a stark geopolitical message:

The Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to intimidate, oppress or subjugate them. Anyone who tries to do this will find themselves on a collision course with a large steel wall forged by more than 1.4 billion Chinese.

I have offered a concise version of the modern Chinese miracle – which has nothing to do with divine intervention, but “searching truth from facts” (copyright Deng Xiaoping), inspired by a solid cultural and historical tradition.

The “large steel wall” evoked by Xi now permeates a dynamic “moderately prosperous society” – a goal achieved by the CCP on the eve of the centennial. Lifting over 800 million people out of poverty is a historical first – in every aspect.

As in all things China, the past informs the future. This is all about xiaokang – which may be loosely translated as “moderately prosperous society”.

The concept first appeared no less than 2,500 years ago, in the classic Shijing (“The Book of Poetry”). The Little Helmsman Deng, with his historical eagle eye, revived it in 1979, right at the start of the “opening up” economic reforms.

Now compare the breakthrough celebrated in Tiananmen – which will be interpreted all across the Global South as evidence of the success of a Chinese model for economic development – with footage being circulated of the Taliban riding captured T-55 tanks across impoverished villages in northern Afghanistan.

History Repeating: this is something I saw with my own eyes over twenty years ago.

The Taliban now control nearly the same amount of Afghan territory they did immediately before 9/11. They control the border with Tajikistan and are closing in on the border with Uzbekistan.

Exactly twenty years ago I was deep into yet another epic journey across Karachi, Peshawar, the Pakistan tribal areas, Tajikistan and finally the Panjshir valley, where I interviewed Commander Masoud – who told me the Taliban at the time were controlling 85% of Afghanistan.

Three weeks later Masoud was assassinated by an al-Qaeda-linked commando disguised as “journalists” – two days before 9/11. The empire – at the height of the unipolar moment – went into Forever Wars on overdrive, while China – and Russia – went deep into consolidating their emergence, geopolitically and geoeconomically.

We are now living the consequences of these opposed strategies.

That strategic partnership

President Putin has just spent three hours and fifty minutes answering non-pre-screened questions, live, from Russian citizens during his annual ‘Direct Line’ session. The notion that Western “leaders” of the Biden, BoJo, Merkel and Macron kind would be able to handle something even remotely similar, non-scripted, is laughable.

The key takeaway: Putin stressed US elites understand that the world is changing but still want to preserve their dominant position. He illustrated it with the recent British caper in Crimea straight out of a Monty Python fail, a “complex provocation” that was in fact Anglo-American: a NATO aircraft had previously conducted a reconnaissance flight. Putin: “It was obvious that the destroyer entered [Crimean waters] pursuing military goals.”

Earlier this week Putin and Xi held a videoconference. One of the key items was quite significant: the extension of the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, originally signed 20 years ago.

A key provision: “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that…it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.”

This treaty is at the heart of what is now officially described – by Moscow and Beijing – as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era”. Such a broad definition is warranted because this is a complex multi-level partnership, not an “alliance”, designed as a counterbalance and viable alternative to hegemony and unilateralism.

A graphic example is provided by the progressive interpolation of two trade/development strategies, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU), which Putin and Xi again discussed, in connection with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which was founded only three months before 9/11.

It’s no wonder that one of the highlights in Beijing this week were trade talks between the Chinese and four Central Asia “stans” – all of them SCO members.

“Law” and “rule”

The defining multipolarity road map has been sketched in an essay by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that deserves careful examination.

Lavrov surveys the results of the recent G7, NATO and US-EU summits prior to Putin-Biden in Geneva:

These meetings were carefully prepared in a way that leaves no doubt that the West wanted to send a clear message: it stands united like never before and will do what it believes to be right in international affairs, while forcing others, primarily Russia and China, to follow its lead. The documents adopted at the Cornwall and Brussels summits cemented the rules-based world order concept as a counterweight to the universal principles of international law with the UN Charter as its primary source. In doing so, the West deliberately shies away from spelling out the rules it purports to follow, just as it refrains from explaining why they are needed.

As he dismisses how Russia and China have been labeled as “authoritarian powers” (or “illiberal”, according to the favorite New York-Paris-London mantra), Lavrov smashes Western hypocrisy:

While proclaiming the ‘right’ to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries for the sake of promoting democracy as it understands it, the West instantly loses all interest when we raise the prospect of making international relations more democratic, including renouncing arrogant behavior and committing to abide by the universally recognized tenets of international law instead of ‘rules’.

That provides Lavrov with an opening for a linguistic analysis of “law” and “rule”:

In Russian, the words “law” and “rule” share a single root. To us, a rule that is genuine and just is inseparable from the law. This is not the case for Western languages. For instance, in English, the words “law” and “rule” do not share any resemblance. See the difference? “Rule” is not so much about the law, in the sense of generally accepted laws, as it is about the decisions taken by the one who rules or governs. It is also worth noting that “rule” shares a single root with “ruler,” with the latter’s meanings including the commonplace device for measuring and drawing straight lines. It can be inferred that through its concept of “rules” the West seeks to align everyone around its vision or apply the same yardstick to everybody, so that everyone falls into a single file.

 
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