Richard North, 16/08/2021  

I am sure that the beleaguered peoples of Afghanistan are rejoicing at the news that prime minister Johnson is to hold a COBRA meeting on the Taleban take-over of Kabul, and that the Westminster parliament is to be recalled.

And once British MPs are assembled in the House of Commons to debate recent events, one can imagine that million of Afghanis will be glued to the internet, watching the streamed coverage intently and hanging onto every word uttered by these gifted people.

On the other hand, it may be possible that, by the time the MPs assemble, there won't even be any internet in Afghanistan – just supposing that there is anyone in the Taleban who knows where the off switch is. But then, when the electricity runs out, most people won't be able to access the internet anyway – even if it is still working.

There's the interesting thing. Even in 1996, first time round, the Taleban showed themselves incapable of administering a modern (or any) state – witnessed by, amongst other things, the appalling child mortality rate.

Now, 25 years later, technology has made things even more complicated and it is extremely unlikely that the Taleban will have acquired the necessary skills to run the country's infrastructure – even if they wanted to. Moreover, the will be struggling to secure the necessary imports, as their economy collapses.

For these reasons, as in 1996, it is almost certain that Afghanistan will descend into civil war, leading to the Taleban losing control over more and more areas of the country. Rival factions, with their respective warlords, will exercise their power over their respective fiefdoms.

This time, though, there is unlikely to be a US-led invasion, as happened in five years later in 2001. That had the effect of releasing many (but not all) of the denizens of the country from the tyranny of the Taleban, even though it precipitated a 20-year-long insurgency which rendered parts of the country inaccessible to government forces.

The memories of current events – and those over the last 20 years – will reside for a lengthy period in the minds of Americans, and in the institutions of the American state. We know this from the impact the Vietnam war had on the nation, and things might struggle to be very different this time round.

Should – as is widely expected, despite the blathering of Johnson - Afghanistan become a "breeding ground for terror" once again, it is likely that any US intervention will be severely restricted – if only in form.

To that effect, the intervention of ground forces can almost certainly be ruled out, and even the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) will be severely circumscribed, without the ability to station these in neighbouring states.

Surveillance, therefore, will have to rely on satellite imagery, to supplement the limited (and largely unreliable) HUMINT. Direct intervention may be limited to the delivery of precision munitions from high-level strategic bombers, in the manner of the B-52 raids in 2001.

Undoubtedly, the priority will be detecting new atrocities in the making, along the lines of 9/11. But for the US (or any other nation, for that matter) this is problematical. Within the United States, prior to the 9/11 attacks, the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies failed to pick up the warning signs. We can only take it on trust that these agencies have improved their performances.

As for intelligence emanating from within Afghanistan, given that US agencies failed to predict Taliban moves even when they had substantial assets in-country, it is hard to be confident that external surveillance will be any better. The reality is that, when it comes to the internal workings of the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the US – and the rest of us – will be largely blind.

The best hope for the west, therefore, probably lies in the prospect of civil war, where the Taliban councils will be too busy dealing with internal enemies to be able to expend much time and effort on external adventures. And, along the lines of the fight against the Soviet occupation, the US could fund opposition groups, which could also supply vital intelligence.

However, there is nothing to stop the Taliban, once again, allowing the country to host dedicated terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, in one or other of its different iterations. With the experience of earlier years, such groups may be more skilled in evading remote detection, either camouflaging their camps better, or integrating them in existing habitations, making them difficult to spot.

According to the Guardian, citing a recent UN report, al-Qaida is already present in at least 15 Afghan provinces. Furthermore, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, an affiliate of the group, "operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces". The group's media celebrate its fighters' apparently frequent operations in Afghanistan.

Here, the one thing which may come to the rescue of the west is the possibility of an existential threat to Pakistan, the nature of which we discussed yesterday. This might help focus the minds of Pakistani intelligence agencies, and spur them into repeating the level of cooperation enjoyed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Given the presence of Chinese enterprises within Afghanistan, and their close economic links with Pakistan – and that they gave support to the Mujahideen in their battles against the Soviets – there is a possibility that the Chinese government might become a useful source of intelligence. That possibility might be enhanced by early Chinese diplomatic recognition of the Taleban regimes, which is reported as being likely.

In fact, China's Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi has met with Taleban commander, Ghani Baradar, in late July. Following that meeting, Wang affirmed that Taleban was expected to play "an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction in Afghanistan" – diplomatic-speak, telling the Taleban to tone down its aggression.

Whether the Chinese would permit the flow of any intelligence to western powers – in view of tensions elsewhere – is debatable, and we could never be sure of the motivation or accuracy.

And if it ever comes to the point where we are reliant on Chinese intelligence sources to protect the vital interests of the west, all that will do is underline the parlous state in which recent events have placed us. In many respects, the repercussions could be far more serious than many will have imagined.

However, with the Taleban now ensconced in the presidential palace in Kabul, Reuters reports that the spokesman for the Taleban's political office, Mohammad Naeem, has told Al Jazeera that they did not want to live in isolation from the international community.

This, of course, has to be taken with a pinch of salt Back in the 1996-2001 period, though, the Taleban was extremely suspicious of western agencies and a series of repressive measures had most of the aid NGOs quitting the country.

But, if the new Taleban government really does want to retain external relations, that might give western powers some leverage and the possibility of exercising some, albeit, limited influence. One could even see the possibility of US aid to Afghanistan resuming, and the opening of formal diplomatic contacts.

Much of this will be determined over the next few days and weeks. I suspect the Taleban attitude to the continued US evacuation might be pivotal. If the Taleban actively interferes, and there is open fighting between US and Taleban forces, this might rule out even a slight warming of relations.

But, given that the US has very few cards to play, and an isolationist Afghanistan could be a very dangerous beast, the US might just swallow its pride and start the process of international recognition of the Taleban government. This is something that the Biden administration could, actually, pull off.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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