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Tom Clonan: The US loss to the Taliban will have severe global repercussions

The security expert looks at the fall of Afghanistan and how it all plays out on a global stage.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE INTERNATIONAL NEWS media are focused on the dramatic events unfolding at Kabul International Airport.

All eyes are on the US and Western powers rush to evacuate their citizens and Afghan refugees by air. In the background, however, away from prying cameras, the Taliban are slowly, but surely tightening their grip on Afghanistan.

In order to quell panic, public disorder and protests, the Taliban have launched a major propaganda offensive aimed at reassuring ordinary Afghans and the international media that they have become more ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’.

This is a blatant lie – a crude deception plan, designed to lull former government employees, security force personnel and civil society groups into a false sense of security.

The Taliban have asked all state employees to return to work – with no fear of ‘reprisals’. This appeal has been made in order to preserve essential state infrastructure and to avoid an inconvenient state of anarchy.

In the days, weeks and months ahead – in a process that has already begun in the provinces – the Taliban will cull the civilian population of all those it considers enemies of the newly formed emirate. This cull will consist of mass arrests, imprisonment, torture and execution.

As was the case with the previous Taliban regime from 1996 to 2001, Afghan women and girls will be the primary target of Taliban coercion and control. Amid all of the noise and fury of recent days, the Taliban have been explicit with regard to the status of women in the new emirate.
They have stated on the record that women will be subject to Sharia Law. Social control of the Afghan population will be exercised through fear, violence and coercion. Women will bear the brunt of this.

The long war

Despite the rapid – lightning speed – of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, its leadership has been preparing for this moment of victory for decades. Their insurgency has succeeded in ousting the US-led NATO coalition – in which Irish troops served for almost 15 years.

The ‘long war’ has been won by the Taliban. This sends a very clear signal about the capacity and willingness of the United States to project power – by means of military force – throughout the world.

The sudden withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan – with scant reference to her allies – also undermines the perceived cohesion and effectiveness of NATO. In 72 hours, from Friday to Sunday of last weekend, the US government lost control of Afghanistan and ceased to be a de-facto regional player in Central Asia.

This humiliation follows hard on the heels of their loss of face in the disastrous conflicts in Iraq and Syria. After the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq and the subsequent destabilisation of the entire region, Russia and Iran successfully intervened in Iraq and Syria to the extent that they are the dominant influence in the region from Teheran, to Baghdad through to Damascus and Beirut.

The US gamble in the region – a crude intervention by means of massive military force – has failed utterly to produce the results intended. The US is not the dominant player in the Middle East. Today it is no longer the dominant player in Central Asia.

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to make these observations – but let me be clear, the international world order is shifting. It is shifting in a direction that will have uncertain outcomes for Ireland and our diaspora.

The Russia and China connection

The Taliban have been negotiating carefully with their regional neighbours. Since 2014, from their stronghold in Pakistan, the Taliban have opened a dialogue and engaged with Russia. In July, just weeks before their spectacular take-over of Kabul, the Taliban sent a special delegation to Moscow.

Their spokesman, Mohammed Sohail Shaheen stated ‘we won’t allow anyone to use the Afghan territory to attack Russia or neighbouring countries. We have very good relations with Russia’. The Russian Embassy did not evacuate when the Taliban arrived in downtown Kabul last weekend.

The Russian Ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov declared the newly arrived Mujahideen to be ‘reasonable guys’. The Russians have not yet removed the Taliban from their list of proscribed terrorist organisations but describe their relationship with them as ‘vigilant’ but ‘calm’.

The Taliban has also carefully courted China. Afghanistan shares a narrow border with China through the Wakhan Corridor to the Xinjiang Region. This is a sensitive area for China. Islamist extremists – believed to have been trained by the Taliban – have carried out terror attacks in China.

In 2013, three Uighirs carried out a suicide attack in the heart of Beijing in Tianemen Square, killing two tourists. In 2014, Islamist extremists carried out a car bomb and gun attack in Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uighir Autonomous Region, killing 31 people and wounding 90. Since 2017, the Chinese government have carried out a major security operation in Xinjiang aimed at repressing Muslim Uighir aspirations for independence. The Chinese government have been accused of the persecution of Uighirs including claims of mass murder and mass imprisonment in concentration camps.

On 28 July, just weeks before they took control in Kabul, the Taliban sent a delegation led by their co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar to Tianjin in China. There, the Taliban met China’s foreign minister Wang Yi. It is believed that the Taliban gave reassurances to the Chinese that they would refrain from regional aggression and would not support or train or give safe haven to Islamist resistance groups such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or Muslim Uighir separatists.

As part of President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ economic initiative – a keystone of China’s foreign policy –, the Chinese are exploring ways in which Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, might give them access to the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Originally called ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt’ by President Xi Jinping, the Chinese are keen to extend their influence and supply lines through the so-called ‘China-Pakistan’ corridor via Afghanistan.

In short, Russia will seek to protect its regional interests through its ‘Collective Security Treaty Organisation’ with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – conducting joint military manoeuvres along Afghanistan’s borders – and extending pragmatic relations to a stable Taliban regime. China, in return for non-aggression and a ban on the exportation of Islamist violence to the Xinjiang region, may be prepared to invest in Afghan roads and critical infrastructure.

A new wave of terror?

Internally, with these regional understandings in place, the Taliban will be free to pursue their social experiment – an Islamist theocracy based on an extreme, Salafist interpretation of Sunni Islam.

This will result in the brutal oppression of millions of Afghan women and girls. It will also lead to the brutalisation of boys and men and the persecution of the LGBTI community in Afghanistan.

As Islamist extremists, the Taliban are on the same ideological spectrum as terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and Islamic State. If the Taliban give safe haven or physical sanctuary to such groups – it is feared that there will be a resurgence of terrorist attacks against western nations.

The terror attacks in Europe that climaxed in 2016 with 827 casualties across the continent, coincided with the existence of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. When the ISIS Caliphate was destroyed by the US, Russia and Iran in 2017, terror attacks in Europe decreased dramatically, with casualties dropping to 204 in 2017 and just 12 in 2018.

It remains to be seen if the Taliban will allow Islamist extremists to plan and mount attacks from Afghanistan. What is clear is that we are not in a position to meaningfully influence the Taliban regime as we evacuate the country at gunpoint.

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The Irish Defence Forces served with the UN-mandated, US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan for 15 years of the war there. There has been no mention by anyone in government or opposition of the service and sacrifice of our soldiers and their families in recent days.

In sharp contrast with the US, British and other EU governments, neither the Taoiseach nor Minister for Defence here have acknowledged the service of Oglaigh na hEireann in Afghanistan – and the efforts made by our troops to protect and empower ordinary Afghan men, women and children.

It is because of their efforts and those of tens of thousands of Irish troops who have served on UN-mandated missions internationally that Ireland has a precious seat on the UN Security Council. Sadly, at this distressing time for the Afghan people – and the Irish people who support them, no Irish politician has acknowledged or even mentioned the service of the Defence Forces in Afghanistan.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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