A United Nations report released on February 22 acknowledged that “more than 100,000 civilians have been killed or hurt in the last 10 years” in Afghanistan, since the UN started counting. Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan said, “Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence.”
It does shock us that how the UN, despite being the most resourceful international organisation, remained oblivious to the first eight years of intense bombing and raids into Afghan villages. Perhaps the gap can be filled with Professor Gideon Polya’s book, Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950, wherein he estimated that the “total avoidable Afghan deaths since 2001 under ongoing war and occupation-imposed-deprivation amount to around 3 million people, about 900,000 of whom are infants under five”.
One thinks why so much bloodshed? What does the United States get in return for so much human misery? It is interesting to note that according to UN reports, Afghanistan has consistently been the producer of 90% of the world’s illicit opiates since 2001, the year the US invaded the land. A 2015 study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that Afghan opiates trafficked to only Western Europe through the Balkans amounted to some $28 billion per year. Ironically, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the US has appropriated $9.01 billion of US taxpayers’ money for counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan since 2002 — an amount literally taken to do ‘nothing’. Not to say that some miscreant US officials or perhaps the thousands of contractors, who are not bound in any “conduct of war”, may have managed to take shares from the $28 billion too.
But surely, this sidekick is nothing compared to the riches that Afghanistan hides beneath its soil, which are estimated to be at least three trillion dollars in natural resources. These resources include rich natural gas reserves in northern Afghanistan; huge reserves of coal, copper, gold, iron ore and other precious metals, and lithium (a metal used in rechargeable batteries in electric cars) deposits in the Helmand province. The lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow to $93 billion in 2025. Germany, China or the US, whoever gets a dig of this lithium, will be leading the automobile industry in the coming decades.
That is why signing a deal with the Taliban has been so painful for the US. With the Taliban’s persistent demand of “complete withdrawal”, the US not only loses its ground on this geostrategic pivot, which if kept as a terra nullius, or “nobody’s land”, could be used by the US as a jumping pad into Central Asia. It could allow the US to have a combat presence very close to Russia, China and India, and could help the US manipulate industrial growth for decades to come.
On the other hand, the Taliban have been extending a warm hand towards China. In 2016, the Taliban announced that “all its Mujahideen would help in the security of national projects that are in the higher interest of Islam and the country”, including Mes Aynak, the three billion dollar mining project the Afghan government had signed over to China’s state-owned Metallurgical Group Corporation, in 2008. Since then, China has become party to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group and the Kabul Process; and the Afghanistan Contact Group of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has been reinvigorated.
Going a step further, China has reportedly built a military base in Badakhshan to counter any insurgency spillover from either side. So, is the Taliban insisting on a “zero” coalition troops on the one hand and allowing a little bit of the Chinese army in? In fact, zero US troops will also mean zero Indian presence, as India has been one of the players that never sought to befriend the Taliban, and hence has zero scope in a Taliban-Afghanistan. Or perhaps it was the Taliban who have had “zero tolerance” for India!
In fact, this eventual peace deal signed on February 29, seems to be bridging an Afghanistan/Pakistan/China corridor in the region. A bridge that would be a better compromise for both Russia and Iran. Russia, in its open hostilities with the US and a working alliance with China, would prefer a pro-China Kabul over a pro-US one. And Iran, who has just experienced India’s betrayal when it stopped buying Iranian oil in May last year, as Trump put more sanctions on Iran, would side by China too, who has kept its bilateral trade amidst the sanctions.
So, what does this tell us about the rag-tagged Taliban, who have resisted the US military complex with mere rifles and shoulder-held stingers for about two decades? What does this tell us about 21st century warfare? Have the Taliban defeated the Fourth Generation Warfare — the drones and the A-10 Warthog fighter jets? Indeed, the most powerful weapon in the hands of the Taliban was their resolve to stand and defend their land, while refusing all bribes and disregarding intimidation, and ensuring that the only victory they accepted was a complete victory.
This is also a victory of Pakistan’s diplomacy, which stood behind the genuine Afghan struggle for the country’s freedom. And a bitter defeat of India’s diplomacy, which stood behind the pro-occupation Kabul regime. India was with the Soviets when they had occupied Afghanistan. So India’s investment in the country has been double that of the US. Yet, it was a wrong investment aimed at Afghanistan’s resources minus the human element. Bad choices and a shameful retreat from Afghanistan has made India’s Hindutva regime more jittery as it realises that after losing Afghanistan to China and Pakistan, India will be more vulnerable to economic isolation in the region and to strategic pressure in Kashmir.
Perhaps that is why, General Bipin has announced a “separate theatre command for Jammu and Kashmir” — a small valley already smeared with over 700,000 Indian troops.
History has been written with this US-Afghan peace deal. Another superpower has faced a humiliating retreat from the “graveyard of empires”.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2020.