In our "ask an expert" podcast series, we hosted Dr. Murat Aslan, researcher at SETA Foundation. Mr. Aslan explained and discussed the recent developments in Afghanistan.

He graduated from War College on the field of Management in 1991. He assumed varying tasks and appointments in Turkish Armed Forces (TAF). He attended and graduated from Master’s Program (2010) and Ph.D. program (2017) in the International Relations Department of Middle Eastern Technical University. He preferred to be retired in February of 2017 to be involved in academic studies. He was accepted to the position of Assistant Professor in Gaziantep Hasan Kalyoncu University after he gave lectures in Başkent and Hasan Kalyoncu Universities. He focused on power, intelligence and propaganda conceptualizations and practices in the fields of defence and security studies. He is currently teaching in Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University and Researcher at SETA.

What exactly is happening in Afghanistan? Could you make a general assessment? 

The Afghanistan subject has frequently been brought up in many television programs and news outlets, however, there are only a few people working on it. They usually discuss the historical process through general arguments and tend to analyse the shifts in power by focusing on the side where the most power is accumulating. I believe, to understand the current change in Afghanistan, one should first understand the societal structure, the historical process, and the dynamics along with the ideological tendencies which are often the results of neighbouring states’ activities. Afghanistan has also experienced the emergence of a strong leftist ideology; for instance, populists and Parcham supporters are two fractions that emerged as a consequence of the Soviet support. There are still officers and generals who were once trained by the Soviets. All of these are issues that should be considered. In addition, the ideology which makes Taliban what “it is” and the roots of the rising radicalism worldwide should also be paid attention to. All this put together, one should seek to answer the question of “whether the conflict in Afghanistan is the result of an ill fate or not?

As it is known, at least 32 different languages are spoken in Afghanistan, although according to some ethnographic sources, this number is claimed to be 47. Nevertheless, it should be noted that some of these languages are adaptations of a single language and some are shared by more than one ethnicity, however, there are still ethnicities that speak entirely separate languages. The Immigration waves that hit the region and the expeditions of empires/states have left bulks of people spread around which has led to a demographic amalgam. If you closely look into the factor of identity in this amalgam, you can see an up-growth in the Afghan identity; however, at the micro-level, you see an embracement of “ethnicity”. Tajiks call themselves Tajiks and Nuristanis call themselves Nuristanis, yet they consider themselves as descendants of Alexander the Great. Hazaras are aware that they are Mongols and are usually considered as Turks by the Taliban. Concurrently, Hazaras define themselves by putting their Shia identity forward. After the toppling of the Taliban by the United States, the Taliban had gone underground in Pakistan and continued its recruitment operations in the madrasas (unofficial schools) within this demographic amalgam. After gaining the capability of conducting attacks from any desired position in an independent manner in 2005-2006, Taliban has started to increase its unconventional warfare at the border of Afghanistan. 

How the Afghan people perceive the tactical and sometimes strategical mistakes made by the U.S and its coalition partners is a highly important matter. Therefore, when analysing Afghanistan, the echoes of this perception should also be analysed. For example, in 2012, American soldiers had burned Koran in Bagram and this had resulted in public protests against the Americans. These protests indicate that the Afghan people who were already critical of the American presence, found a way to become radicalised, and the ones who were in the middle became inclined towards agreeing with the arguments of the radical organisations.

Hence, when analysing how Afghanistan has reached this stage, aside from Afghanistan’s internal dynamics, we should also look at NATO’s or more specifically, U.S’ mistakes. As a response to these mistakes, the Taliban and other opposing entities have invented quite clever methods in their unconventional warfare. When I investigated the Taliban’s methods of propaganda for my doctorate thesis, I have realized that while the U.S, NATO, and the coalition forces did not have a Twitter account or any other platforms of conducting conscious propaganda, “the Taliban had a Twitter account”. When the Taliban first started its fight, they had broadcast transmitters tied to the backs of donkeys broadcasting propaganda. Similar broadcasts were made by the American Commando Solo planes in the airspace of Afghanistan by distributing radios to the Afghan people. Taliban used those radios provided by the Americans to reach the Afghan people. They printed magazines on high-quality papers and distributed them in Afghanistan and Pakistan. When you pay attention to the centralised structure of the Taliban and their communication strategies, you can easily see that they blatantly exploited the mistakes made by the U.S. 

Besides all these, the Afghan government should also be analysed because when the Afghan army were being trained and equipped, the appointments were based on ethnic relations, not on merit. For instance, before the Taliban has entered Kabul, a 30-year-old officer was made the chief of general staff (he would be a first lieutenant in the Turkish Armed Forces at this age.) It would be highly unlikely that other officers accept such an appointment. After all, belief and commitment are what keep an army on its feet; however, these traits were not well-built in the Afghan military due to ethnic discrimination and corruption. This situation has eased the Taliban’s advancement as the U.S withdrew. 

The Taliban and other opposing entities have invented quite clever methods in their unconventional warfare.

Was the withdrawal of NATO Allies the only option left in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is called ‘The Vietnam of the 21st Century’, do you agree with this comparison between Afghanistan and Vietnam?  

Let me first answer the second question; Afghanistan still lives in the 16th – 17th century while utilizing the technology and the equipment of the 20th – 21st century. When you visit an Afghan village, you can see that the customs of the 16th century is kept alive, yet you see highly developed mobile phones in the hands of people. What kind of contradiction would this situation lead to? This is a topic for a different debate and research. Nevertheless, a society with such fabric can swing between far sides of conservatism and liberalism which leads to loyalties shifting swiftly. Nonetheless, when I ask the question of whether the current social structure and system can continue stay functional even under the present Taliban rule, I cannot come up with a certain answer. Because the Taliban, even after gaining total authority, is going to wear out. The same conservative understanding is going to be critical of the Taliban. 

As a matter of fact, the Taliban has made a grave mistake; during a press briefing, Zabiullah has stated that “the Taliban, just like they did before, is going to forbid the planting of opium.” This was the first and perhaps the gravest mistake because the villagers are earning their keep with the opium trade and their land is not suitable for other common agricultural vegetable plants like tomatoes and such. This press release would push the power centre towards the existing opposition in the Panjshir Valley. 

To answer the first question, the withdrawal was expected, however, its regulation is highly important. I have the agreement that was signed between the U.S and the Taliban in my possession. The United States’ refusal to recognize the Taliban as a state is frequently repeated in the agreement document, so much so that approximately a third of it is filled with expressions that lead to this conclusion. The other third of the document is filled with statements about preventing Afghanistan from becoming a hub for radicals and groups that would pose a threat to the US and its allies. In summary, it states that the U.S does not recognize the Taliban and the Taliban is not going to preserve anyone who is a threat to the U.S - because the fundamental gaol after the 9/11 attacks was to eradicate Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan - and the U.S wants to be able to say that the mission was accomplished. 

In the other articles, the U.S gives the promise of all the foreign powers withdrawal -This statement is problematic- If this is a withdrawal, one that should be regulated, then how come the U.S can decide for all its allies in a meeting that was solely between the U.S government and the Taliban? This would be more understandable if the agreement was made by the NATO mission, however, there seems to be a technical mistake in this case.  

Furthermore, the agreement emphasizes a political process but does not talk, in any way, about when it is going to start and how it is going to be conducted. It states that the Taliban is going to make the domestic negotiations with the Afghan political parties. Since the document was signed during Trump’s administration, the negotiations were set to happen on March 10, 2020. Nonetheless, a question emerges; If the legitimate Afghan government is supposed to be the party that should be negotiating with the Taliban, then why were they not invited to the talks in Doha? The sensible answer would be; because the Afghan government was not open to having talks with the Taliban. 

In addition to this, the agreement states that “the entire military personnel, non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security personnel, consultants, and other logistics personnel from both the U.S along with the other allies should leave within 14 months.” This is another promise given by the U.S on behalf of the allied states and as a consequence of this promise, a large movement/transportation area was given to the Taliban which made impossible to regulate the withdrawal. The Taliban did not want the Turkish soldiers to stay in the airfield due to a strong agreement and the control of Kabul airport by foreign powers is considered by Taliban as a “continuation of the Afghan government.” However, the conditions on the ground have now changed. 

Furthermore, the “release of prisoners” is also mentioned in the agreement-  If there is a legitimate government in Afghanistan and their jurisdiction has decided on a punishment, is the U.S government entitled to decide on the release of these prisoners through an agreement that is signed with the Taliban? More similar examples can be presented; For example, the agreement states that “the UN sanctions are going to be lifted.” This means that the U.S is signing an agreement on behalf of the UN, but is the U.S entitled to do such thing? -Such a poorly designed agreement can never render the regulation of the process to be possible. If there are open-ended articles in an agreement, the signatories would most definitely exploit them. 

How compatible is the US withdrawal from Afghanistan with the "Pivot to Asia" strategy? Doesn't withdrawing from a region so open to Chinese influence mean opening up a powerful sphere of influence for China?

The biggest mistake made by the Americans is their lack of seeing the strategic future, not strategic depth, let’s not confuse these; The strategic depth concept, even though it was put forth, is a concept with shortfalls. The U.S hastily withdrew from the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains without a decent agreement after the failure of the system that they have once established. Under these circumstances, of course, China and Russia are going to exploit the situation. Although it is not in the international literature at the moment, there is a concept called 'gap filling', which I mentioned in an article I wrote as well as in a conference statement; It basically states that if a state does not take any action required by the International Law or leaves it idle, another state is going to fulfil that gap. Russia has fulfilled the gap in Syria, explored a blurred side of the International Law, and entered Libya via private military companies. Today, Afghanistan is the new gap of international politics and it is going to be filled somehow. 

Firstly, they had talks with the Taliban. Their focus is on East Turkistan, because they do not want radical thoughts reaching there. Currently, approximately fifteen thousand Uyghur Turks are fighting against Russians with their families in Syria. Therefore, the possibility that some of them might pay homage to the Taliban and go to Afghanistan is worrying China. Secondly, Afghanistan’s 2.2 billion dollar worth of raw richness comes from valuable gems, not from oil or natural gas. Due to the volcanic landform, Afghanistan possesses a variety of valuable gems. Let’s just remember the diamond trade in Africa and imagine how China would conduct gem trade in Afghanistan. Furthermore, for China, having an influence over Afghanistan means reaching Iran, However, they are already on good terms with Iran and reaching Iran means reaching the Persian Gulf. 

While the Taliban Administration and Beijing are sending messages that they look forward to cooperation, what could be the effects of this on the Belt-Road project?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I visited China and went to the city of Quanzhou which is the starting point of the Belt and Road Initiative. The railroad starts from there and it hosts a substantial free trade zone that has a 600-billion-dollar trading volume. The manager of the trade zone has informed me about what they were doing. For instance, I asked them the reason Why China does not consider Iran when planning on the trade route;

  • The first reason is, of course, Afghanistan; Such a route necessitates a presence in Afghanistan,
  • The second reason is security,
  • The third and the most important one for China is their commitment to Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy legacy “not startling major foreign powers”

So, if the new government of Afghanistan turns out to be supportive of China, then China might start to have a vision that would ease the establishment of the Belt and Road Initiative. 

The ‘Lapis Lazuli’ corridor which starts from Afghanistan and reaches Europe through Turkmenistan and Turkey, was opened not only to let Afghan products reach markets via railroads and highways, but also to bring goods from the West in order to decrease dependency on Pakistan and China. This is highly important for Afghanistan; There is no gas tube production in Afghanistan and since there is no wood and coal, their only source of heating is gas tube. When I was working in Afghanistan, a gas tube’s price was 70 Afghan Afghanis and a police officer’s wage was 450. Today, the gas tube in Afghanistan costs 220 Afghan Afghanis and the wages have not increased. This indicates that it is highly expensive to depend on one source of imports. Consequently, the Taliban administration is currently a way for China to fill Afghanistan with cheap Chinese productions and in the absence of the U.S, China can invade Afghanistan with its low-quality products, hence a new market is emerging.

How do you expect the relations of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan, which are actors in the region, with the Taliban to be shaped in the future?

Firstly, Pakistan is an old friend of Turkey’s and so are its people. Divided by the Durand Line, the situation of “Pashtuns” has always been a nuisance between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, all ethnic groups in Afghanistan are critical of Pakistan. Although I have not come across a Pashtun who voiced such thing as “Pashtunistan dream”, for Pashtuns, a “Pashtunistan dream” can be put forward. However, the federal administration zone in the north of Pakistan, also known as the tribal region, is an autonomous region in which mainly Pashtuns live. There are a considerable number of madrasahs in this region and these madrasas cannot be under state control. Since The Taliban was born in this region and in these madrasas, this is where the radicalism comes from.  If Pakistan does not tolerate the Taliban, then the Taliban may take action, especially around border areas as it did in Afghanistan and may threaten Pakistan's integrity and internal security. There is a Pakistan that is not in control of the Taliban but worried about it, and I believe this is Pakistan's main concern. 

On the other hand, there is Pakistani Taliban targeting Pakistan itself, and If Pakistan fails to manage these developments, the disorder in Afghanistan along with the aggressive Taliban leadership can pose a threat to the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Therefore, the steps that Pakistan will take must be designed meticulously. There are currently tensions between Pakistan and the U.S, they have problems with India due to the Kashmir dispute, they have a strategic partnership with China, and they perceive China’s strategic partnership with Afghanistan positively. However, when I visited the camp, it suggested that Pakistan has developed an Afghan strategy that depends totally on China as well as on its own capacity, because one cannot depend on China’s recognition of a state as a strategic partner. This comes back to the saying of Deng Xiaoping regarding China’s foreign policy understanding “As long as the cat catches the mouse, it does not matter whether it is white or black”. In other words, the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan does not make a difference and a political shift in Pakistan in the future is not a matter of concern for China. Hence, Pakistan cannot forecast its future based on China.

Secondly, Iran’s situation is quite interesting. Iran was totally against the Taliban during their reign. Nevertheless, it is mentioned in some analysis that Iran indented on some activities at the border between Iran and Afghanistan to prevent the U.S from deployment bases close to Iran. This cannot be proven but such activities did occur in the region. Iran’s current approach goes back and forth between cooperating with and opposing the Taliban. The reason for this uncertainty is as follows: Taliban shaking hands with the U.S in Doha has caused concerns within Iran and the Fatemiyoun Division which is composed of Shia Hazaras that were offered to the Afghan government to fight against the Taliban. After the toppling of the Afghan government, Iran was left in the open with this offer. They have two options right now, just like the case of Hezbollah, they can either organise and equip Hazaras and make them fight the Taliban or, they can start having talks with the Taliban in the case of a total Taliban in Afghanistan. I belong to the camp which believes that Iran is going to implement both of these options. Because, the Iranian foreign policy, I would say possesses the qualities of a fox; meaning that Iranian foreign policy is cunning and vigilant. On one hand, they show cooperation, but on the other hand, they could even try to create a fifth column. Therefore, İt should not be expected to see an Iran with a decided upon foreign policy yet, but it should be kept in mind that they can implement any scenario. 

Turkey, without differentiating between the sides, can play the role of an arbiter, but only with the approval/consent of all sides, including the Taliban.

While Afghanistan is poised to become the centre of a new migration crisis, the US and EU countries seem far from taking any significant responsibility. What could be the effects of this migration crisis on world politics and the international community? 

Nowadays, we see that states are more concerned about soft threats than they are about hard threats. Wildfires, earthquakes, and migrations are some examples of these soft threats. Migration is not only about people openly or secretly walking from one place to another. There are possibilities for people to become citizens of other countries by fulfilling certain conditions such as paying a certain amount of money, buying real estate and abiding by the law for a certain period of time. Therefore, it is a mistake to think of migrations only as the result of conflicts; however, conflicts trigger irregular, in other words, unmanageable migrations. Regardless of the region, civilians escape from conflicts.

States have signed an agreement in 1959 to decide on what to do in the case of such circumstances. The International law is clear on this matter. For this matter, instead of isolating or preventing the migration wave, we should resort to international law or we rewrite these laws and invent new ways of problem-solving. The reality on the ground in Afghanistan shows us that not only Taliban, but living conditions, welfare rates, and lack of freedom have been triggering the Afghan migration waves for many years. The Afghans who are today in Ankara, Gölbaşı or in Haymana are not newcomers. The situation is also the same in Europe but when a mass migration is the matter at hand, Europe, Turkey, North Europe, Russia and Central Asia should hold talks, because a single state cannot put up with such a migration wave. 

This mass migration is going to continue at an increasing pace and I believe there are two solutions; firstly, a migration prevention mission should be carried out by the source state. If that state fails to accomplish this, then sanctions could be imposed for the failure. Secondly, every state should keep illegal gangs in their territories under control as these people are passing borders with the help of someone. 

What will be the Taliban's stance on Afghan refugees? Do you think the Taliban will allow refugees to leave Afghan territory?

Their first press release indicated that anyone who wants to leave could leave. Later on, they stated that they would not pressurize anybody in the future to alleviate people’s concern to prevent migration. However, we should think about what kind of demographic composition the Taliban is going to prefer in the future. It is already a home for a variety of ethnicities. In such a country along with Taliban’s ideology being opposed to ethnic and nationalism identities and seeking the “unification of the ummah” there wouldn’t be an ousting of a certain ethnic group. 

How do you evaluate the possibility of the Taliban to form a truly inclusive and moderate coalition? 

I usually look at similar events that have previously occurred and make a comparison. The most obvious example is the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The revolution, unlike the takeover of the Taliban, was conducted by all ideological groups in a unified manner. However, after two years of toleration, the supporters of Humeyni have suppressed and ousted many contrarians. Taliban might represent an image of cooperation with other factions; however, it is not quite clear how effective these factions are going to be. After all, the one with the arms in the field decides on the political decisions and can oust other factions from the centre. Furthermore, Taliban’s decision mechanism “the Quetta Shura” is quite relevant. Akhundzada is their religious leader, and interestingly, this is actually the Sunni application of the system in Iran; they have a political leader along with a religious leader. Nonetheless, it is not foreseeable within the future for Afghanistan to have a democratic system by Western standards. 

How likely is it to ensure the political survival of the Taliban? Is there a ground for the Taliban to find a response and support in the Afghan people? What are the chances of any anti-Taliban movement coming into existence? 

The existence of armed young Taliban supporters in the streets indicates that the Taliban has legitimacy. The invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S occurred in 2001. These kids were not born or were at very young ages at the time. This shows that the Taliban has applied successful recruitment methods. We should acknowledge this fact; however, I am not sure if we can generalize this legitimacy of the Taliban for the whole country. 

The Afghan people are fed up with the corruption right now. Economic problems are at the forefront and the country’s GDP is equivalent to a ridiculous figure of 20 billion dollars, and 2 billion of it is from opium cultivation. The population was equal to 32 million while I was working there. Today, it is considered to be 40 million, but this number is most likely wrong. In Afghanistan, the census is made by the authorities as such; the bureaucrat goes to the doorstep of a household and asks the number of the residents. The person who answers the question does not include the women in the home while counting, because “this is the folkway” Therefore, this number of 40 million most probably consists of mainly men while women are not even recorded. 

In such a state, can the Taliban have a certain reputation in the eyes of people? First of all, they can’t have any favourable reputation in the eyes of Afghan women. They are the most delicate crowd in Afghanistan and their population can exceed the men’s due to the deaths previous and ongoing conflicts. I believe that the Afghan women would oppose the Taliban; when you look at the protest videos on social media, you indeed see Afghan women at the front. Secondly, the educated people in Afghanistan are against the Taliban. Although there are some members of the Taliban who were educated and graduated from universities, most of the educated ones are against them. Therefore, asserting that the Taliban would have a reputation in the eyes of the whole Afghan people would be fanciful. The feeling of belonging might occur via the ethnic identity, though Afghan identity is a supra-identity. Taliban has a middle place in this and it seems challenging for the Taliban to gain a reputation in the eyes of everyone. 

How likely is it that the international community's point-of-view of the Taliban will change after the moderate messages given by the Taliban leaders? Will the Taliban continue to be considered a radical terrorist organization or will it be accepted as a new political actor? 

International community consists of states. If we include transnational groups, non-state organisations and international organisations into the international community, we might see some of them choosing different approaches. Depending on ideology, their approach can vary between being with the Taliban, standing against them or being indifferent to them. However, states are what matters. I believe that the realist approach is crucial in this situation. States can only be motivated by interest. If the Taliban’s existence in Afghanistan does not bring any harm on a state’s interests, then that state would be indifferent towards the Taliban. 

Afghanistan, a far and non-intriguing state, would not make headlines unless it would not bring any harm on interests. The immigration wave can be a source of concern and would push the international community to take preventive actions, however, I don’t believe in seeing a tendency towards active measures, only discourses.  

It has already been recognised as one. With time, the number of UN member states that recognise the Taliban as a political actor can reach twenty and this would be a significant development. 

How do you assess the future of relations between Turkey and Afghanistan under the Taliban?

The establishment of Turkey’s relationship with Afghanistan dates back to the 1920s, and actually even before that. For example, there were Afghan soldiers who fought and died in the Ottoman military during the Great War. There were also Afghan soldiers taking part in Mustafa Kemal’s army in the War of Independence and fought against the British and Greece forces. I found these people’s records when I visited the archive of the Turkish Armed Forces for an article I was writing. 

The interaction between sides have first occurred via the Ottoman Caliphate and then through a common struggle against the West. The relationship was formed with the agreement of 1921. Basically, a letter was sent to Turkey before this agreement by Amanullah, but the paper reached Turkey after the agreement. As a consequence of this development, Turkey sent a diplomatic mission containing imams, soldiers, academics and teachers to Afghanistan. The soldiers were sent during the Battle of the Sakarya. This relationship has led to a positive reputation in Afghanistan about Turkey. For instance, there is martyrdom in Kabul for the Turks who have passed away due to malaria and other contagious diseases. 

Turkey, without differentiating between the sides, can play the role of an arbiter, but only with the approval/consent of all sides, including the Taliban. The protection of the Kabul airport is not the only issue, but actually a detail which the Taliban is in need of. China, Pakistan and Central Asian republics cannot play a role in bringing peace to Afghanistan and Russia would never be desired by the Afghans. The U.S and Europe have already lost all their credibility in the region. Therefore, the most reasonable route is having Turkey play the role of arbiter and come up with a plan to manage the process.  

*The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of Terrorism Analysis Platform.

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