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Afghanistan - 10 Points for Understanding the Crisis

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, the analysts of the AMIStaDeS Study Center produced a ten-point compendium explaining the historical and sociological reasons that led to this situation and what the medium-long term consequences might be.

1. Where, How and When?

(by Eleonora Corsale)

At the crossroads between Iran, the Arabic Sea and India on one side, and between Central and South Asia on the other side, Afghanistan has always been of strategic importance from an international perspective. Since its constitution (1747), the country witnessed violent internal uprisings and its own State integrity has been frequently threatened by external interferences (Great Britain and Russia first, USA and USSR after) in the context of what lately has been defined “The Great Game”. This made Afghanistan a buffer State between the colonial empires and the country was forced to accept the borders drawn by the Britishs and the Russians (1893). During its history, Afghanistan experienced some moments of renaissance: the declaration of its independence (3 April 1919) and the following renounce from the British Empire to control the Afghan foreign policy (Rawalpindi Treaty, 19 August 1919). Moreover, a mention is due to the modernized boost of the ideas shared as of 1940 by Radio Kabul (later Radio Afghanistan). The oil crisis ended this period and put the bases for the coup of 17 July 1973, that transformed the country in a presidential republic first and then led to the constitution of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (30 April 1978), immediately recognized by the USSR. Due to the internal challenges experienced by the communist party, the insurgencies of the population and the indifference from foreign countries, the Afghan government called for the intervention of the Soviet Army (24-27 December 1979). After ten years of war, the Soviet Army had to withdraw in February 1989. Fights continued and became a civil war that ended only with the seizure of power from the Taliban, which lasted till the American intervention in 2001.

2. How many Islams in Afghanistan?

(by F. Adele Casale)

Photo: the Blue Mosque of Mazar-e Sharif

Afghanistan is officially a Sunni-majority Islamic Republic (at the time of writing the Emirate has not been officially announced yet, even if some newspapers talk about Afghanistan as an Emirate), where 70% adhere to the (mostly tolerant) Hanafi school, with influences from the 18th century Deobandi movement (not extreme, but orthodox) from India. In 2020, 25% of the whole population (about 38,928,344) is estimated to follow Imami Shi’a Islam allowing the phenomenon of taqiyya which refers to the “the practice of concealing one's belief and foregoing ordinary religious duties when under threat of death or injury”. 4.5% adhere to Ishmaeli Shi’a Islam, and other religions make up 0.5%, including Hindus, Jews, Christians, Sikhs and Baha'is. Afghan religious life is characterized by its multiple mixed ethnic and cultural identities. They should be considered as related to political doctrines and practices, including Salafism (to be distinguished from terrorism), and to their stakeholders, such as 'ulamā, mujāhidūn, tālibān. Lastly, cultural and religious diversity must be contextualised both at the national and regional levels from a geopolitical point of view. An example, the Wakhan Corridor connecting Afghanistan to the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where the Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority is established.

3. Who are the Talibans and who are the Mujahideen?

(by F. Adele Casale and Alessandro Vivaldi)

The mujaheddin (mujāhidūn) have arisen between the 18th-19th centuries, and they aim to establish a military and political Islamic block against external interference since the civil war broken out after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Among them there are several stakeholders, such as the Salafist political movement of the Taliban (tālibān), students of religious sciences educated according to the traditional and puritanical Deobandi principles. Supported since the 1990s by al-Qaeda and foreign fighters, the mujaheddin occupy Kandahar in 1994 and Kabul in 1996, establishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and fuelling internal clashes until they were ousted in 2001. The Taliban traditionally maintain relations with the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, especially around Quetta, and thanks to this connection, and to their activity, they shadowy revive. Their annual income is estimated to be about $1.5 billion from taxation on opium trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, and tax collection in the controlled territories and from donations from abroad. Under the leadership of Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, a religious dignitary and scholar of Islamic law trained during the Soviet invasion, the Taliban are expected to involve the manifold local militias in a more moderate ideological policy protecting people. However, Ahmad Masʿūd, son of the 'Lion of the Panjshir' Aḥmad Shāh Masʿūd, leader of the anti-Taliban resistance, seems to have begun to coordinate the revival of the Northern Alliance, with some clashes on the border in the Panjshir Valley.

4. How did the Taliban reach Kabul in one week?

(by Alessandro Vivaldi)

Through a refined strategy far removed from the image of the jihadist in flip-flops, the insurgency - a term which cannot be referred only to Koranic students - is today THE problem of the Low Intensity Operations conducted by the Great Powers. Since well before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan has been the home of endemic insurgency, however the Taliban are no longer the same as they were 20 years ago and not only under the military perspective. Indeed, they have painstakingly strengthened their alliances, inside and outside Afghanistan, and waited for the right moment to start a war, mainly psychological, which began with the green-on-blues - i.e., the government attacks against NATO forces: the aim was to show the Afghans that Taliban are the only ones capable of countering the corrupt elite of Kabul, not at all interested in the rest of the country. On the other hand, NATO's 'bubble' strategy, worse than that of the Soviet zastava, failed: the insurgents returned at night to the villages they had lost during the day, the Western military were locked in its FOBs and the Afghans were trained, of course, but they were never told what to fight for. Thus, in barely more than a week, senior Army officers, governors, councils and local militias handed over arms, men and vehicles (watch the video), converging in what was a victory parade rather than an offensive: a few shots were fired and the victors' chariot was incredibly crowded. The Taliban have adopted the principle of Sun Tzu: to win without fighting. NATO, on the other hand, has learned very little in 20 years.

The video shows how the surrender took place without bloodshed, and above all by handing over all modern vehicles, weapons and ammunition to the Taliban.

5. What are the ethnic groups in Afghanistan and which minorities are threatened?

(by Davide Giacomino)

Hazara of the Daykundi province /Ph. Karla K. Marshall

Due to its geographic position, Afghanistan has always been a natural corridor between Asia and the Middle East, as well as a crossroads of different peoples and cultures (there are about 50 ethnic groups). The majority group, the Pashtun (38 %) is of Sunni faith. The second largest group in terms of numbers is the Tajiks (25%), also of Sunni faith. Instead, the large central plains of Hazajarat are inhabited by the Hazara, probably of Turkish-Mongolian origin and of Shiite faith. This group, which constitutes 19% of the Afghan population, is the one most at risk, in addition to the minorities of the Uzbeks, the Baloch and the Nuristani: already in the 19th century, due to the attempt of the Emir Abdur Rahman Khan to build a united Sunni state, the Hazara communities suffered discrimination and real ethnic cleansing for religious reasons until the fall of the Taliban regime after the American intervention in 2001. Today the greatest danger is that, with the establishment of a new Islamic Emirate, the ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Hazara may resume: a fear already confirmed by several episodes of violence against them during the Taliban advance towards Kabul in recent months and by the destruction, on 18th August 2021, of the statue of the Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, in Bamiyan (where the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas in 2001).

6.1 What future for human rights in Taliban-run Afghanistan?

(by Chiara Mele)

The Afghan people have already endured severe human rights violations during the last clashes of the civil war, due to the inability of the actors involved to handle properly the situation in a way to avoid violence and abuses, as Michelle Bachelet the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in an official note. There are strong concerns regarding the protection of fundamental human rights in Afghanistan in the near future, notwithstanding Talibans have promised that they will respect women rights and their right to access education to the international community. News coming from the country are conflicting: on the one hand, former members of the fallen government are searched house by house; police officers and people who worked with western NGOs are victims of public executions, in every part of the country women are not allowed to leave their households and to go to school. On the other, on the media are circulating images of girls going to school wearing the hijab instead of the burqa or of women protesting to defend those basic rights they managed to obtain. As far as freedom of opinion and press is concerned, Talibans have never tolerated dissent, targeting journalists especially women; in their ‘re-polished’ version, high ranks Talibans accept interviews conducted by women and allow lives streaming on Tolonews by anchor-women. It is wise to say that time will tell us whether to have a ‘moderate’ Taliban government or a transition phase leading to a new dark age for women rights.

6.2 Bacha Bazi practice in a Taliban Afghanistan

(by Vittoria Paterno)

Understanding how the practice of bacha bazi (an Afghan tradition in which children become the property of wealthy patrons and are forced to dress as women, becoming victims of sexual assault and abuse) is linked to the oppression of women's and children's rights, human rights violations, and paedophilia, will be crucial in a post-American Afghanistan. The Taliban's opposition to this phenomenon is one of the key factors in their rise since they banned the practice in the 1990s. When their regime was overthrown in 2001, the practice resurged; the efforts of eradicating failed due to government corruption and American reluctance to be involved in Afghan internal affairs. In January 2017, bacha bazi was officially criminalised, however the Taliban had already begun to settle local disputes by rescuing abused children and trying to distinguish themselves from those who participated in the abuse. This is in contradiction to the UN Secretary-General's fifth report of 16 July 2021 on children in Afghanistan and on the situation of children affected by armed conflict: out of more than 6,000 serious violations against children during the reporting period (1 January 2019 - 31 December 2020), at least half of them were attributed to the Taliban.

7. Should we expect a new migration crisis and an increase in Afghan refugee influx?

(by Luigi Limone)

The mass exodus of refugees fleeing Afghanistan could trigger a new migration crisis, similar to the one caused by the war in Syria in 2015-16. UNHCR estimates that 400,000 people have been forced to leave Afghanistan since the beginning of 2021 and that between 20,000 and 30,000 departures per week have been recorded in recent weeks. The UN Agency has issued a non-repatriation notice but, at the same time, Europe is concerned that the number of people seeking international protection may increase. The most frequently used migration route is through Iran (sometimes preceded by a passage through Pakistan) and then Turkey, (which, like Greece, is already building a wall on the border) to reach the Greek islands and move on to other European states. Along this route, there are many smugglers who facilitate illegal border crossings in exchange for money and with serious risks of exploitation and abuse for migrants. At the same time, alternative migration routes are emerging and will need to be monitored in the upcoming months: it seems, for example, that some Afghan migrants have started to arrive in Lithuania via first Ukraine and then Belarus. Vilnius has already accused Minsk of organizing illegal border crossings as part of a 'hybrid war' against the EU.

8. What are the interests of the neighbouring Powers?

(by Giusy Musarò)

The crisis and future of Afghanistan cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration past and present regional dynamics. Pakistan, which has been historically pro-Taliban and provided the group with financial and logistical resources since the 90s, has not spoken out against pro-Taliban rallies in the country. At the same time, Islamabad counterbalances the potential risks (e.g. increasing flow of refugees and resurgence of local anti-government militant groups, such as the Pakistan Tehrike Taliban) with the prospect of having a government in Kabul that limits both Indian influence and Pashtun nationalist claims along the Durand Line (created in 1893). China, which pays special attention to its neighbours, shares Pakistan's rivalry with India (e.g. the Kashmir) and the diplomatic process that it initiated in 2011 with the Taliban is mainly aimed at ensuring the success of the New Silk Road and preventing Kabul from becoming a logistic base for Uighur separatists and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The hydrocarbons and rare minerals of which the Afghan soil is rich (estimated value: $3 billion) could be another reason to push China to continue this diplomatic process. Iran's position, which initially supported the anti-Taliban struggle in the 1990s and then in 2001, remains ambiguous, but it favours the maintenance of commercial and diplomatic relations as a guarantee of regional security and greater control over both mass migration and the independentist thrusts of Baluchistan in the south-east of the country.

9. What are the interests of Russia and United States?

(by Laura Santilli)

Source: Anadolu Agency

After twenty years of conflict - which developed in two periods of time: until December 2014, with Operation Enduring Freedom (since October 2001) and within the framework of the NATO-led ISAF mission (since August 2003); from 1 January 2015 to nowadays, NATO has activated the Resolute Support mission and, at the same time, the US has launched Operation Freedom's Sentinel mission - Washington has completed the withdrawal of its military troops from Afghanistan well in advance of the planned date: 11 September 2021 (note that France - in December 2012 - and Canada - in March 2014 - had already withdrawn their troops). In his speech, President Biden reiterated that the choice to leave Afghanistan was right and due, given the dragging on of a war that, in his view, was only waged by the US to defeat terrorism and not to 'import democracy' or for nation-building purposes. Barring a new attack on their security by the Taliban, therefore, US military power will not return to Afghanistan and, after all, an unstable Kabul could be useful in anti-Chinese and anti-Russian terms. In fact, the return of the Taliban could create several stability problems in the region, which is also strategically important for the national security of the Russian Federation. This is one of the reasons that has induced Moscow to maintain its embassy and not to lose, therefore, a diplomatic dialogue with the new government in Kabul. However, it is crucial for the containment of Taliban power that Russia above all maintains dialogue with the Pakistani authorities.

10. Islamic terrorism: what are the threats?

(by Eleonora Corsale)

Talibans benefitted from the vacuum left by the western democracies, busy in their internal fight against COVID. The establishment of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan led by the Talibans reopens a wound never closed up and increases the existing risks posed to international security. With the seizure of power from the Talibans, jihadism has again its “base” and resources. Al Qaeda is still active in at least 15 Afghan provinces and in the Indian subcontinent, where is acting with Taliban’s support. Sleeping cells of ISIS, openly fighting against Al Qaeda, are active around Kabul, Badakhstan and Kunduz with the aim to gather under their control everyone against the peace agreement between USA and Talibans. What could happen next is not reassuring and Afghanistan risks to turn again in the Woodstock of the Middle East: a pole of attraction for the Islamic fundamentalism. In this scenario, potential jihadists from Africa, like the unstable Sahel, and Europe would refer to the training centers in Afghanistan to be trained and then return in their countries to attack.

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