On 13 January 2022, after UNO had three days earlier launched an appeal for over 5 billion dollars (the highest amount ever requested in a single country), Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressly asked for the unfreezing of the Afghan Central Bank’s funds too, which had been locked up in the American banks’ coffers since the Taliban came to power. Since the return of the Taliban, the country’s inhabitants are in great financial distress due to foreign sanctions and the new national government.
On 14 April 2021, US President Joe Biden announced his decision to withdraw the remaining US troops – at that time about 3,000 – from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, in New York. A few days later, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed plans also to withdraw foreign troops under NATO command. The date chosen by Biden extended by about four months the date agreed between the Taliban and Washington in the Doha Agreement.
Signed on 29 February 2020 in the capital of Qatar, the agreement had identified April 30, 2021 as the date to withdraw foreign troops on the condition that the Taliban fulfilled certain commitments, including that to sever ties with international terrorist groups and to be disposed towards the peace process. The Doha Agreement was the outcome of the negotiations started in September 2018 by Zalmay Khalilzad, on the initiative of US President Donald Trump, who forced previous administrations, focusing on bilateral dialogues.
The bilateral agreement, however, excluded and weakened the Kabul Government, while it strengthened the Taliban, who obtained, at least in part, the international legitimacy to which they have aspired for years. Biden’s intention not to comply with the withdrawal schedule, agreed by his predecessor, offered the Taliban another opportunity to refuse to attend a peace conference under the aegis of the United Nations, which was to be held between April and May 2021, in Istanbul, Turkey. Strong on the military and diplomatic front, the Taliban observe the growing differences within the ‘republican front’, a wide political spectrum of gathering not only the Kabul Government but also all the main local actors.
The internally divided republican front struggles to find a unified diplomatic position. For now, it merely invokes the defence of the current institutional architecture. The Taliban are against the Constitution, but they still have not told what they would like to replace it with. Even their front is destined to suffer major aftershocks in the coming months. Everyone shares the ultimate goal of liberating the country from the occupying forces, but the various souls of the movement may have different ideas on effective alternatives. So far, there have been repeated official statements whereby the Taliban are not seeking political monopoly but are ready to share power with others; however, the daily practices seem to contradict them in the territories over which they have actual control.
On August 15, having completed the American withdrawal decided in Doha in advance, Kabul falls into the hands of the Taliban – the last of a series of large cities (Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad) and smaller cities conquered in the preceding weeks. The entry into Kabul, led by the Haqqani faction, leaves the Taliban themselves stunned while President Ashraf Ghani has already fled, amidst controversy, from the capital. Between August 14 and August 31, the United States and its coalition partners evacuate more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan by airlift from the capital’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Taliban set to work and, despite promises of an inclusive government, in early September they appoint the new executive headed by Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a close associate of the group’s late founder, Mullah Omar. A prominent position is assigned to Sirajuddin Haqqani (Interior) while Deputy Prime Minister is indicated Mullah Ghani Baradar, the Doha negotiator. Mullah Yakoob is appointed Foreign Minister. The (interim) executive is criticized for not being inclusive and without any female presence. And even if the feared retaliation against collaborators and activists do not actually take place with the feared extension (even if reports of summary executions follow one another), the Taliban impose a strict interpretation of Sharia, discriminate against women and there are several actions against the Hazara minority. In the meantime, the country is plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis due to a lack of funds and circulation, which is also due to the freezing of assets of the Afghan Central Bank (around 9 billion) blocked in the USA. With the advent of winter, the humanitarian tragedy worsens as emergency funds arrive slowly and the United Nations warns of a possible future high death toll due to hunger and cold.
On January 13, after three days earlier the U.N. launched an appeal for over 5 billion dollars (the highest amount ever requested in a single country), Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressly asked for the unfreezing of the funds of the Afghan Central Bank locked in the coffers of American banks since the Taliban came to power.
What is being fought for
Public opinion has very often addressed this question to the governments of countries engaged in a war that, with alternating phases, has been going on since 1979 – although the last phase of the conflict began in 2001 with the United States’ reaction to the attacks on the Twin Towers. This last stage of the conflict can be seen as a sort of muscle reaction and revenge against the Taliban government, accused of hosting Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It was also the start of the ‘War on Terror’ paradigm.
Some analysts identify natural resources as a source for conflict. Nevertheless, Afghanistan has no oil reserves, while it possesses limited deposits of natural gas; this means that the country can be bypassed by oil and gas pipelines, along with other coordinates. Afghanistan is also endowed with reserves of minerals that are, however, difficult to extract. In recent years, the global mineral market has expanded with China among the most interested actors. The geopolitical key will continue to hold. The Afghan territory provides a ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan in case of war with India, and it is a crucial junction between Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. With the withdrawal of all foreign forces in September 2021, some analysts think that a major factor that fuelled the conflict is missing now: the presence of Americans, the real dominus of Afghan politics, and their control over the Afghan airbases to control Iran and the southern border of the former USSR.
Afghanistan as a State was formally born from a coalition of Pashtun tribes led by Ahmad Shah Durrani (ca 1722 – 16 October 1772). Founder of the Durrani Empire, Ahmad Shah Durrani was regarded as the founder of the modern State of Afghanistan in 1747. The country has no outlet to the sea and is much smaller than it was at the time of Ahmad Shah or, even earlier, when it was dominated by a regency of Turkish-Mongol origin. Falling into Tsarist and British ambitions, the Afghans fought three wars with the British Empire. With the Anglo-Afghan Treaty of 1919, the modernist king Amanullah was able to proclaim independence from the status of British protectorate.
Starting after the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, the latest conflict has experienced ups and downs with a different intensity rate but is still ongoing and is continuing to claim victims, despite the peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States signed in February 2020 and the so-called ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue, launched in September of the same year. The small country, also known as the ‘crossroads of Asia’, is a key context of a local, regional and international conflict since the Soviet invasion, that began in December 1979 and ended ten years later in 1989. The Soviet invasion became the manifesto of the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan had already been the pivot of the ‘Great Game’ between the Russian Empire and the British Empire for the control of Central Asia and the mountain passes leading to the Indian subcontinent.
For 20 years now, the latest conflict has pitted the Kabul Government against the Taliban movement (of Islamic inspiration and faithful to the Deobandi school of Thought), which was founded by Mullah Omar in the 1990s and is currently led by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Taliban movement, as a nationalist movement fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate, is partly supported by Pakistan and financed by very different and various actors: from the Iranians to the Gulf Emirates, to the Saudis. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is instead supported by the United States, maintaining their military presence in the country in Operation Enduring Freedom, now concluded and succeeded by Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, and NATO which is providing Operation Resolute Support, that replaced the ISAF mission ended in 2014.
All foreign troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021. The Afghan government, established in contested presidential elections in 2019, can count on the Afghan National Army (about 175 thousand soldiers) and the Afghan local police force (about 150 thousand men). The military budget is guaranteed by international funds that are secured – at least in the short term – even after the withdrawal of the US and other countries participating in the NATO mission. A high-level confrontation between guerrillas and security forces is in almost all areas of the country, especially in the South-East and, for a few years, also in the North. Guerrilla warfare is mainly active in the countryside, while the government exercises authority over the urban areas.
Proclaimed between late 2014 and early 2015, the Province of Khorasan, the Islamic State’s local branch, has started to emerge. The name refers to the historical ‘Great Khorasan’ – an area that also included parts of Iran, Pakistan and some Central Asian countries. The so-called Islamic State has long had its stronghold in the valley of the Achin district in the eastern Nangarhar province, on the border with Pakistan, before being driven away by a joint operation between US and Afghan Special Forces and, in part, of the Taliban, who consider the Islamic State as an antagonistic group.
In April 2017, the United States dropped an 11-ton bomb (GBU-43/B, or Moab, known as the mother of all bombs) that hit the sanctuaries of the Islamic State in the valley of the Achin district. From the perspective of peace negotiations, the so-called ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue, which officially began in September 2020 in Doha (Qatar) has produced only a preliminary agreement on the rules to be followed in the event of disputes. The US diplomatic offensive was launched in March 2021, but it did not produce significant results. However, the UN-led peace conference scheduled for April-May 2021 was cancelled because of the Taliban’s refusal to participate.
Key figure or organization
Sweet and sensitive eyes and a well-groomed moustache, Ahmad Naser Sarmast is the founder and director of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Founded in June 2010, it was agreed that 50% of its seats are reserved for disadvantaged boys and girls. The Institute also houses the Zohra, the country’s first all-female orchestra, formed in 2015. On 11 December 2014, Sarmast was wounded by a Taliban attack during a performance at the French Cultural Centre, located on the grounds of the Esteqlal High School, in Kabul. He ended up in the hospital with eleven fragments of metal embedded in his head. Doctors said that the patient’s hearing was compromised, forever. He went to Australia, where he was subjected to medical surgery. “After everything that has happened, I am convinced to stay. My strong devotion to music showed that I am producing a real change that bothered the extremists”.
FOCUS 1 – the victims’ museum
Funded by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the Open Society Institute, run by the not-for-profit organization Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation (AHRDO), the Afghanistan Centre for Memory and Dialogue is the first museum devoted to victims of conflicts across the country. “We started years ago, meeting the first survivors and family members of the victims. At first, it was difficult. They feared that we would take advantage of their pain. Then they understood our intentions,” explained Kazim Ehsan, activist and program manager of the museum. “The goal is to reverse history.” So far, the storytelling of people who fought in the war have prevailed; the focus on the victims was missing instead. “We are collecting personal objects and stories to preserve their memory.”
Four rooms of the museum are dedicated to the four phases of the Afghan war: from 1978 to 1992, the communist regime, the occupation and the resistance; then, from 1992 to 1996, the conflict between the Mujahedin, victorious but divided and embittered by the resistance against the Soviet occupation force; the Taliban regime; and from 2001, the current phase marked by the war between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, supported by the US and allies.
FOCUS 2 – Justice in Afghanistan
On 12 April 2019, the Pre-trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) rejected the request made by the office of Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in late November 2018 to start an official investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan. Preliminary investigations lasting several years had established that there was ‘significant evidence of crimes against humanity and war crimes’ committed by the Taliban, Afghan security forces, US soldiers and the CIA. On 5 March 2020, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC upheld Bensouda’s appeal. But the road towards full justice is still uphill and arduous.