The Return of the TalibanThe End of the US Empire?
Before 9/11, Nafeez Ahmed warned of an impending invasion of Afghanistan to control a strategic pipeline. 20 years on, the return of the Taliban is the predictable legacy of America’s failed strategy
“The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis… There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law. We can live with that.”
These were the words of a US diplomat a year after the Taliban first conquered Kabul in 1996, as reported by the renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.
US intelligence had in fact covertly supported the rise of the Taliban since around 1994, through to 2000. The policy has never been officially acknowledged, but I had extensively documented the evidence for it 20 years ago, about six months before the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan.
Even the school textbooks the Taliban uses to indoctrinate children into its militant ideology had been bankrolled to the tune of millions of dollars by the US Government. And they weren’t just paid for – the US Agency for International Development (USAID) commissioned the University of Nebraska in Omaha to draft and produce the textbooks, which were then smuggled into Afghanistan through networks built by the CIA with Pakistan’s military intelligence, the ISI.
The books were filled with violent images and extremist Islamist teachings. Theology justifying violent jihad was interspersed with “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines”. The textbooks even extolled the heavenly rewards if children were to “pluck out the eyes of the Soviet enemy and cut off his legs”.
Forty-Two Years of Interference and Invasion
The Taliban was the outgrowth of a sequence of both overt and covert military interventions that had begun not 20 years ago – as the conventional pro- and anti-war discourse continues to incorrectly assume – but in 1979.
Six months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that year, the US launched a covert operation to “bolster anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan”, AFP reported in 1998.
“We did not push the Russians into invading, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would,” said Zbigniew Brzezenski, former national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter. “That secret operation was an excellent idea. The effect was to draw the Russians into the Afghan trap.”
The US and UK played the lead roles in channelling funds and arms to the newly formed ‘mujahideen’, which brought in up to a hundred thousand recruits from across the Muslim world. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the most prominent among the network of Muslim states funnelling financial, military and logistical support into Afghanistan, coordinated by the CIA, Pentagon, MI6 and Ministry of Defence.
The Afghan war became the frontline in a new global Islamist movement supported by the West as a counterweight to Communist influence.
By 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat, but the vacuum in Afghanistan left a country in a continued state of civil war as rival mujahideen groups turned on each other.
The end of the Cold War, however, did not lead to the end of the West’s flirtations with Islamist groups. In Afghanistan, the US continued to use the Pakistan-Saudi nexus to funnel support to the emerging Taliban movement throughout the 1990s.
The Covert Alliance with the Taliban
“An object of competition between the British and Russian empires in the 19th Century, Afghanistan became a source of controversy between the American and Soviet superpowers in the 20th,” wrote Elie Krakowski, a former advisor to assistant secretary of defence Richard Perle, who was directly involved in America’s Afghan policy, in a paper for the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in New Dehli published in 2000.
“With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become an important potential opening to the sea for the landlocked new states of Central Asia,” he said. “The presence of large oil and gas deposits in that area has attracted countries and multinational corporations… Because Afghanistan is a major strategic pivot what happens there affects the rest of the world.”
The Taliban was seen as a new vehicle for the US to acquire control of this strategic pivot, and thus a gateway to wider Central Asian resources that could potentially bypass Russian and Iranian influence.
“Between 1994 and 96 the US supported the Taliban politically through its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, essentially because Washington viewed the Taliban as anti-Iranian, anti-Shia and pro-western,” Ahmed Rashid told Radio Azadi, the Afghan branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, on 15 April 2000. “Between 1995 and 97, US support was driven by the UNOCAL oil/gas pipeline project.”
In 2016, peace studies founder and futurist Professor Johan Galtung, who had accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1980, told me that the “US empire” would begin to collapse around 2020
Throughout the late 1990s, the notorious energy giant Enron was working with California-based US energy company Unocal to develop an oil and gas pipeline that would tap Caspian basin reserves, and carry oil and gas across Afghanistan, supplying Pakistan, India and potentially other markets.
The endeavour had the official blessing of Bill Clinton’s administration, and later the George W Bush administration, which held several meetings with Taliban representatives to negotiate terms for the pipeline deal throughout 2001. The hope was that the Taliban would receive formal recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan in return for permitting the installation of the pipeline.
Enron paid $400 million for a feasibility study for the pipeline, a large portion of which was siphoned-off as bribes to Taliban leaders, and even hired CIA agents to help facilitate.
“The UNOCAL project was based on the premise that the Taliban were going to conquer Afghanistan,” said Rashid. “This premise was fed to them by various countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and elements within the US administration. Essentially it was a premise that was very wrong, because it was based on conquest, and would therefore make it absolutely certain that not only would they not be able to build the pipeline, but they would never be able to have that kind of security in order to build the pipeline.”
War Plan Afghanistan
Indeed, when security relations deteriorated under Taliban rule throughout the summer of 2001, Bush administration officials scrambled to get the group to agree to a federal government in partnership with the Northern Alliance – a rival faction of warlords. The Taliban rejected the proposal. The Bush administration had anticipated this result, which is why – as I documented extensively in May that year – the US had begun preparing for an impending invasion of Afghanistan months before the 9/11 attacks.
By August, desperate to pull off the deal, US officials threatened Taliban representatives with war if they refused to accept American terms. According to the then Pakistani Foreign Minister Niaz Naik, who had participated in the US-Taliban negotiations, US officials told him in the summer that they planned to invade Afghanistan in mid-October 2001.
No sooner had the war commenced than Bush’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, called Pakistani Oil Minister Usman Aminuddin to discuss “the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipeline project,” according to the Frontier Post, a Pakistani English-language broadsheet. They reportedly agreed that the “project opens up new avenues of multi-dimensional regional cooperation particularly in view of the recent geopolitical developments in the region”.
The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) trans-Afghan pipeline has received support from every US administration, including that of Donald Trump and Joe Biden – although they have been careful to attempt to foster more regional and local financing for the project.
That the Taliban would play a prominent role in Afghanistan’s governing structure at some point has increasingly been accepted, as US officials have repeatedly sought to negotiate with Taliban officials to reach a compromise federal arrangement that might bring the war to an end.
Biden’s Gambit and the Unravelling of Empire
Under Joe Biden, there were no direct contacts between the US and the Taliban, but some evidence of the continuation of a similar approach by proxy.
Six months ago, a Taliban delegation paid a surprise visit to Turkmenistan where the group pledged support for the pipeline. “Signs point to the trip having been brokered by the US Government, which has long championed what is known as TAPI,” reported the Columbia University-based Eurasianet, which receives US and UK Government funding.
Despite the tacit backing, the Biden administration has provided no direct support for the project, its preference being for the Taliban to reach an accommodation with the US-UK-backed regime in Kabul. But the latter’s abrupt collapse as US troops has withdrawn has brought us full circle.
With the Taliban in power, the full legacy of the last 42 years of Western intervention has come to horrifying fruition, with the establishment of a new Islamic state structure in one of the most strategic regions in the world.
Russia and China have worked hard to build relations with the Islamist movement, and even Iran has forged an ‘enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend’ strategic partnership with the movement despite its rampant persecution of Hazara Shi’as, with credible reports that it is continuing during the current takeover.
The Taliban is keenly aware that its worldwide image of committing mass atrocities has deterred investors from wanting to invest in the TAPI project, but the group recognises TAPI’s significance as a potential source of lucrative revenue and international legitimacy. Yet, its track record speaks for itself. The Taliban was responsible for more than 45% of civilian casualties in 2020, though is certainly not the only guilty party. Forces supported by the US-UK-backed regime in Kabul were responsible for 25% of civilian casualties.
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When the Trump administration signed its peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, Amnesty International noted that it had “made no mention of human rights or of women”.
“Under the agreement, impunity was preserved for serious crimes under international law by all parties,” it said. “In September, the US administration cemented this position by imposing sanctions, including asset freezes, against the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who was poised to lead an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties to the conflict since 2003.”
The Biden administration had done nothing to reverse that appalling position, despite its promise to ‘review’ the agreement.
The return of the Taliban thus unveils the self-defeating hubris of the neo-colonial state-building ideology that had inspired the Afghan endeavour in the first place. Forty-two years after US forces had first covertly intervened in the country, the Islamist militant movement that emerged as a direct consequence of ongoing Western interference is resurgent amidst reports of it beating women trying to flee despite the Taliban’s promise of ‘safe passage’, and ordering women not to work.
In 2016, peace studies founder and futurist Professor Johan Galtung, who had accurately predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1980, told me that the “US empire” would begin to collapse around 2020. He had actually made the original prediction in the year 2000, arguing that this would happen within 25 years – but after the election of George W Bush, he revised his forecast five years forward due to Bush’s extreme militarism which he said would act as an accelerant. He said that, during this phase of decline, the US would experience a period of reactionary fascism.
The fall of the US-UK-backed client regime in Kabul has driven a nail in the coffin of the neo-conservative fantasy that once captured the corridors of power. But now the Afghan people will yet again pay the price as this delusion unravels before our eyes.