Taliban; a Fait Accompli and Prevailing Common Interests
The analysis of the social structure of the Taliban Movement and linking that structure to its military expansion during the past months indicate that the Movement has, in fact, emerged from the cities it captured, rather than entering them.
The truth is that the Taliban Movement has not returned to the forefront of the Afghan events recently; it has always been at the core, ever since the United States attacked this Asian country at the turn of the current millennium. So, it continued to be an influential factor in the country and in the ongoing events therein, over the past two decades.
That is why analyzing the Afghan scene from the perspective that the Taliban is an impromptu case that has emerged during the past months is primarily in the interest of the United States, by suggesting that the ongoing hectic situation in Afghanistan is the result of the US withdrawal from the country, and not of it being there to start with.
Taliban… A national-Islamic movement
The rapid expansion of the Taliban Movement in the Afghan provinces reflects the extent of the Movement's penetration into the Afghan society, otherwise, it would have faced many difficulties in preserving its gains and maintaining its very existence for 20 years, despite its lack of influence in power in terms of sponsorship or relations.
Here, it is necessary to differentiate between the Taliban and other movements that have emerged in recent years regardless of their political and ideological stances, given that these movements did not emerge from a social status, which subjected them to rapid political and security setbacks, in a few years, and perhaps even in a few months in some cases. And perhaps the "al-Qaeda" organization in Afghanistan is the best example of this, not to mention other similar organizations at the international level.
Upon looking into its ideological and national backgrounds, the Taliban is defined as a "national-Islamic" movement. The Islamic dimension is understandable and clear, but it is necessary to understand the national dimension herein in order to understand the Movement's positioning in the Afghan fabric, how rapidly its expansion is, and how stable it is at the social level, in spite of all the wars, battles, and strikes it has gone through.
The Movement's militants, in their majority, belong to the Pashtun ethnicity, which represents about half of the Afghan population and is concentrated over a large area in the east and south. In this context, it is worth noting that Kandahar, south Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Taliban during the past two days, is the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Kandahar’s significance is derived from that time phase during which the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 90s of the last century, being the Movement’s stronghold. It is also considered the homeland of the "Pashtuns" since it was the capital of the "Pashtun" Kingdom during some time in the eighteenth century before the capital was moved to Kabul later.
The analysis of the social structure of the Taliban Movement and linking it to the military expansion during the past months indicates that the Movement has, in fact, emerged from the cities it has captured, rather than entering them. This means that it was there waiting for an opportunity and the right moment to take action, otherwise, there is not any other military and political explanation for its control of 17 provinces (out of 34) during that period until August 13, especially that it moved from the bordering provinces and cities towards the center; the location that ensures a logistical and security weight for the Movement's militants.
Relations with neighboring countries
The Taliban is regarded, at different levels, internally and externally, politically and militarily, as a movement that is facing a government backed by the United States and the West in general. As for why the Movement is not facing the US forces directly, it is due to the fact that those forces are withdrawing from the country, otherwise, they would have undergone attacks, based on the statements of the Movement’s leaders and on the stage that preceded the February 2020 "Doha Agreement", when the roadmap related to the withdrawal of foreign forces was announced.
Therefore, there are two routes that govern how the international powers deal with the Taliban and its course of action in Afghanistan. The first route has to do with how close the Movement is to their borders and the impact of its presence there. The second route has to do with the Movement’s political project in Afghanistan, in terms of its relations with the West and the East, amid heated international political "arm wrestling".
The geographical location of Afghanistan grants the country a very important geopolitical role in this "arm wrestling", as it is a country that has direct borders with China and Iran and with most of the Central Asian countries, which are within Russia’s orbit, in addition to the American-western interests in it. Based on this, the Russian-Chinese stances regarding the progress of the Taliban in the recent months are approached based on the Taliban’s confrontation with the US influence in the country and the Movement’s unwillingness (and rejection) to establish any political project that is against Moscow and Beijing. To this end, several Taliban delegations have arrived in China in recent months to meet with Chinese officials in order to reassure them about the future of the relations and to ensure that Afghanistan will not turn into a military or security base against China, contrary to what the United States had in mind. Most importantly, the two sides have drawn up a roadmap for Chinese projects and investments in the country.
As for Russia, which hastened military exercises with its allies in Central Asia, its Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, stated last July that the most active clashes are happening in the northern provinces bordering Central Asian states that are allies and partners of Russia. At the same time, he saw that Moscow's steps are meant to prevent combat from spreading from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. Kabulov discussed this issue directly with the Taliban during their visit to Moscow, during which he confirmed that the Movement will not allow the presence of ISIS on Afghan territory, amid Russia’s continuous warnings that ISIS elements are moving from Syria and Libya to Afghanistan. In the meantime, the maneuvers it has conducted and is still conducting with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as other countries bordering Afghanistan, simulate the elimination of "terrorist groups that infiltrated the territory of one of these countries."
These Russian statements and the accompanying practical steps indicate that Moscow’s concerns have nothing to do with the Taliban's military expansion against the Kabul government, but are rather related to the resulting combat that other organizations and countries might exploit to expand towards the Central Asian regions, which have for so long been a US target in particular. The Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan expressed this by saying that "the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan should not turn into the relocation of US military infrastructure to neighboring countries," while describing the Taliban’s control of areas in northern Afghanistan as "a positive factor that provides security for Russia’s partners in Central Asia.
The Taliban has been keen on reassuring Moscow and Beijing in recent months regarding its political project and military expansion, based on its desire to open new relations with them, which will mostly be focused on confronting the US project in Afghanistan and the region in general. Russia and China received these assurances and responded similarly by demonstrating their acceptance of an influential role for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics and even offering support to this end. This came in parallel with caution related to fears of chaos that Washington could exploit against them, through terrorist organizations that can infiltrate into Chinese territory or Central Asia.
As for Iran, which has always been accused of having "hidden" ties with the Taliban, its stance is close to that of the Russians and Chinese, in terms of preventing chaos from spreading in the region, particularly near its borders. Iran has expressed, on more than one occasion, that Afghanistan's security is part of its security while stressing that "the Taliban Movement is part of the Afghan fabric." On its part, the Taliban expressed its "deep sadness", in January 2020, over the martyrdom of the "Quds Force" Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, emphasizing at the time the necessity of "fighting American brutality". At the same time, it sent similar assurances to Iran during its repeated visits to Tehran, the most prominent of which took place last January, when a Taliban delegation met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. However, the process of ensuring the safety of Iran’s mission in the Afghan city of Herat, which was recently captured by the Taliban, 150 km away from the Iranian border, put these guarantees to test, at a time when the majority of the Afghan border area with Iran is under the Taliban's control.
In addition to Tehran hosting several rounds of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, there are multiple indicators that a change has occurred in the relations between Iran and the "Taliban," after the two had reached the brink of war in 1998 upon the killing of Iranian diplomats at the time. The change in the course of the relations is related to the changes in the Taliban's structure, framework, and project, as well as the guarantees it can provide inside and outside Afghanistan, given that they are of equal importance to Iran.
It is worth noting that Western reports spoke of security cooperation that came into existence in the last few years between Taliban leaders and Iran, in the face of the United States. In 2016, Foreign Policy reported cooperation between Iran and the Taliban in order to establish a buffer zone on the border with Afghanistan to ward off the ISIS threat and to secure the 572-mile border. This area extends from Helmand Province in the south all the way to Kunduz along the border.
The United Kingdom was against the US withdrawal, and the European Union threatened the Taliban with "international isolation." Those are the latest European statements regarding the Afghan developments. In contrast to the Russian-Chinese-Iranian calm in dealing with the situation, the Europeans appear tense and unable to deal with events in a manner that guarantees their interests and influence, as the pressure related to the Afghan refugees in European countries mounts. Therefore, the European stance remains vague, but without doubt, it does not welcome the ongoing contact between the Taliban, Beijing, and Moscow. Similarly, it is not in favor of the rapid collapse of the government forces it backs. While waiting for the last moments related to the political scene after the battles, it is evident that the European countries, being part of the NATO, were unable to impose their full agenda in Afghanistan. The issue is not whether or not they were defeated, but rather, it is related to the future of its presence in that part of Asia, starting with Afghanistan. It goes without saying, however, that the Taliban assuming power after more than 20 years of the invasion, is not what the European countries concerned with this file had in mind.
What does Washington want?
At home, the Taliban is a fait accompli that cannot be disregarded and whose spread cannot go unheeded socially, politically, and even culturally. Abroad, the Movement has been able to impose itself as a regional player, and it has paved the way for those who seek to establish an understanding with it in a way that guarantees its interests and the others'. In this particular instance, it is difficult to say that the US withdrawal came after the task was completed and that it was intended. The questions related to the future of Afghanistan's political project in several aspects do not concern US opponents, but rather US allies. This is proven through the Afghan facts, statements, and ongoing events themselves. However, assuming that Washington is looking for loopholes to use the Afghan developments for its own advantage and that it has left the Afghan arena to the Taliban, its opponents are sparing no efforts ahead to fill those loopholes, from the northern borders of Russia’s allies to the eastern borders with China, all the way to the western border with Iran.