Twenty years since 9/11… Afghanistan takes centre stage again

Al-Quds Al-Arabi – Sep. 13, 2021, issue 10384, p. 21

At 8:45 a.m. New York time in 2001, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Masri Muhammad Amir Attah hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center with his plane on what al Qaeda called the “Battle of Manhattan” (ghazwit Manhattan), or as it was called by the Americans and the international community “9/11 attack”. In less than twenty-four hours, the White House had made two war decisions. The first was to strike Al Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden who was believed to be behind the attack and therefore America had to declare war on Afghanistan, while the second decision was to wage war on Iraq until the CIA elements try to find evidence linking Al Qaeda to Iraq, or even if it does not, invent the weapon of mass destruction theory to justify this war.

And as F-16s and B-52s were hitting the Tora Bora Mountains in Kandahar province and on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Times wrote on its cover, “The last days of the Taliban.” The real causes for this war decision have nothing to do with the events of September 11, 2001, but with events before that. What is certain today, after twenty years of this war which was the longest for the United States of America, is that now Washington is no longer Washington twenty years ago, while the most important question that remains is whether the Taliban today are the same as they were twenty years ago.

The events that preceded

During a 1998 visit to India by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, he called for a strategic alliance in Asia that would include Russia, India and China. This invitation was not considered important by the international media at the time. What is certain is that it was a warning to strategists in Washington, who began to develop plans to prevent any geopolitical rapprochement between India on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. It was therefore necessary for Washington to be geographically close to this planned alliance. So, Afghanistan became a target.

In the same vein, this country’s strategic position would enable Washington to reduce Beijing’s influence and cut off any ambition for economic expansion into the Middle East. Washington could also use its presence in Afghanistan to turn a new page in its relations with New Delhi so that the Indian government can forget about important US-Pakistan relations.

All these ideas and many more were on the minds of American politicians about the importance of Afghanistan and the need for a US presence there before the events of September 11, 2001, which were only the pretext and cover for the implementation of this prepared plan which eventually collapsed and disintegrated as a result of the changing scene in Washington and the changes in its strategy under the successive presidents, to close with the scene of the American plane fleeing from Kabul airport and thousands of Afghans trying to grab it to escape in search of hope.

Beyond the causes of this defeat suffered by Washington and its NATO allies – and here it must be emphasised that what happened was a defeat and not anything else – the crucial point is what Mr. Biden said weeks ago when he repeated : “Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires”, a lesson that Americans took twenty years to learn, although British history books had written about it a hundred years ago and Moscow schools published its details forty years ago. But as the saying goes “better late than never”.

In the light of the differences that began to emerge between the two sides of NATO, the European and the American, as a result of the European side’s dissatisfaction with the form of this defeat, it pushed it to hold an emergency conference in which it stressed the need to create a European military force for emergency situations. Meanwhile, Moscow is calmer, while China was the most courageous, India was the most fearful and Pakistan the most cheerful. It is certain that the coming months in one way or another can affect these players, either negatively or positively. Therefore, it is necessary to quickly read the priorities of each of them in the Afghan scene.

The western files

In Europe, it is clear that the issue of immigration and refugees is at the forefront. Greece hastened to request an urgent meeting of EU foreign ministers, which in turn stressed the need to stabilise security in Afghanistan to prevent any situation that could lead to waves of migration that would repeat the 2015 scenario. In this context, Europe as a whole desires political stability in Afghanistan, at least for now, even if it is under Taliban rule.

This vision may not coincide with that of the American ally, which suffers from a division within which there are two views: based on the first, any state of insecurity and civil war in Afghanistan can revive extremist organizations, the most important of which are Al Qaeda and ISIS and thus forcing Washington to revive the war on terror. The other side sees that any civil war will jeopardize the security of Beijing and Moscow and the fever of instability may spread due to the geography of these countries and this in itself could be an American victory. Biden and his government are in the middle of these two sides, watching closely what will happen in Afghanistan and how the Taliban themselves operate, their plans and policies. Based on these developments, Washington will choose its next strategy.

In Beijing, the atmosphere is calmer and plans and projects that have been prepared in advance are waiting for the green light. The Chinese government, which was one of the first to welcome the caretaker government announced by the Taliban a few days ago, is well aware that Afghan geography is the cornerstone of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and that Afghanistan’s mineral wealth must be within the sphere of influence of its companies.

Of course, this calm did not come without prior direct contact with Taliban representatives before the end of the war, when Beijing promised financial openness. This Chinese impetus was a major motivator and supporter of the Taliban movement, which feared an economic siege imposed by the West thus its choice to form a government of all its first-class leaders, some of whom are wanted by the Americans. This move by China was met with hesitation by Russia. The interim Taliban government is raising concerns in Moscow, which sees the need to maintain channels of communication with them to prevent any kind of chaos, fearing it could spread to neighbouring Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, which constitute the depth of Russia’s national security.

While research centres in Washington, New York and London are trying to understand the mentality of Taliban leaders and delve into the similarities and differences between the Salafiyah Doctrine and the Deobandiyah School, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada announced from Kandahar, the warm house of the Taliban, the ministers of the caretaker government in a statement in which he confirmed that this government will pave the way for a more enlarged future government. The formation of this government included the son of the movement’s founder, Mullah Muhammad Yaqub Ibn Muhammad Omar, as defence minister, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalal al-Din Haqqani, as interior minister, while officials from the movement’s political bureau were meeting with Chinese, Qatari and Russian officials, stressing their economic openness and desire to build a stable state.

This complicated, paradoxical and intelligent move by the Taliban has led Washington and the West to a state of confusion, so what plans will they settle on?

Is the movement still the same or has it changed to become more open? Questions that undoubtedly confirm that the Taliban today are not only stronger militarily, but also more savvy politically.