The “Agreement for bringing peace in Afghanistan”, signed by the Taliban and the US on 29 February 2020, paved the way for a ceasefire between conflicting parties in Afghanistan and opened the door for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghan soil. As part of the agreement, the Taliban pledged to undertake a number of steps “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies”.
Given that this agreement between former President Trump and the Taliban was concluded some 18 months ago, we could be forgiven for thinking that appropriate planning and proper procedures would take place before any withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan. And yet the evacuation of the troops, western citizens and Afghans who have assisted the allies and Afghan government over the last 20 years has been nothing short of chaotic. The operation has been poorly thought through and unorganised.
In the event, the scenes shocked the world as thousands of people scrambled to leave Kabul as the Taliban advanced into the city. A week later, the situation has not improved and indeed promises to worsen as the Taliban exercises its own controls. Despite promises made by President Biden that all US citizens would be removed from the country, it is by no means certain that this can be achieved. As the New York Times said: “The Biden administration was right to bring the war to a close. Yet there was no need for it to end in such chaos.” Time is running out.
The UK has also come under sustained criticism for its lack of action and preparation for the withdrawal of military units. During an emergency debate in the House of Commons, MPs on both sides of the political spectrum angrily accused the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, of failing to take the situation seriously enough. Labour leader Keir Starmer accused him of “staggering complacency”, while former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May claimed that the debacle served only to demonstrate an over-reliance on the US, marking a “major setback” in Britain’s foreign policy.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was met with calls for his resignation when it emerged that he had elected to continue his holiday in the Mediterranean rather than return to the UK as the advance on Kabul unfolded: his failure to participate in a phone call to his direct counterpart in the Afghan government only exacerbated the resentment felt by many.
Debates in the media have also focused on the perception that the last 20 years of western occupation in Afghanistan have served little purpose, while so many military personnel and Afghans have lost their lives. It has, however, been generally accepted that Afghan women and girls, in particular, have benefited from the presence of the western allies and the attempt to implement a lasting system of democratic governance.
The Taliban has claimed that the advances made in human rights will remain; women will be allowed to go to school and university; members of the LGBT+ community will not be persecuted; Afghan citizens will not be targeted for their work with the allied forces.
Dr M.Naeem, Spokesman of the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name by which the Taliban refers to itself, tweeted:
We assure all embassies, diplomatic missions, institutions and residences of foreign nationals in Kabul that there is no danger to them. Everyone in Kabul must be in complete confidence, and the forces of the Islamic Emirate are tasked with maintaining security in Kabul and other cities in the country
Nevertheless, the suspicion remains that the Taliban will quickly revert to its roots: it was only in May this year that car bombs outside a school in Kabul killed at least 55 people and wounded over 150, mostly female students – an attack which President Ashraf Ghani blamed on Taliban insurgents. Journalists and political activists and academics have also been targeted in recent months.
Looking to the future
Following the Taliban’s advance into Kabul, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) quickly announced that it would no longer be advancing $370 million (£268m) – resources that had been due to arrive in Afghanistan on 23 August. An IMF spokesperson said the decision had been taken due to “lack of clarity within the international community” over recognising a government in Afghanistan. Other funds held in the UK and US are also being withheld from Taliban access.
These decisions are unsurprising: in June this year the UN published a report stating that the “primary sources of Taliban financing remain criminal activities,” including “drug trafficking and opium poppy production, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, mineral exploitation and revenues from tax collection in areas under Taliban control or influence.”
The report further noted: “The Taliban derived income from mining directly under their control and are assessed to derive further revenues from at least some of the mining areas controlled by the warlords. No information exists to indicate how many actual mines are operating in each zone not under government control, nor is there any reliable method to gauge quantities being extracted from individual mines on a daily basis”.
As the Taliban will be only too well aware of their need for financial assistance, there are hopes that the withdrawal of these funds might encourage them to honour their statements about women and girls, and to generally refrain from the human rights abuses which they have been guilty of in the past.
The Taliban are also aware that they will need the support of their neighbouring states if they are to be allowed to benefit from international aid from the IMF or the World Bank or other agencies. A largely benign or even positive relationship with the regional superpowers of Russia and China is vital.
China is perhaps the most important player in this regard. With an eye on capitalising on the vast mineral resources available in Afghanistan, Beijing will be eager to provide financing for improvements in infrastructure, transportation links, as well the opportunity to develop profitable trading links.
China has already been investing heavily in Afghanistan for some years: for example, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a $400 million bid to develop three oilfields for 25 years in 2011. A Brookings Institute report commented: “Chinese government officials and experts on Afghanistan have confessed that China sought those bids simply to pre-empt other countries from gaining the concessions, while expecting full well it would not start developing its concessions for years to come due to insecurity and the corruption of the Afghan government.”
More importantly, however, is the opportunity for China to benefit from Afghanistan’s huge mineral reserves. The Diplomat noted: “Afghanistan may hold 60 million metric tons of copper, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements (REEs) such as lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and veins of aluminium, gold, silver, zinc, mercury…”
Lithium is the vital component in lithium-ion batteries that are used in any number of products, from mobile phones to electric cars and submarines. China leads the world in this market; the ability to control access to such a resource will allow it to dominate still further the global manufacturing and military industries.
This issue was raised in February this year when the Financial Times reported that China was considering limiting the export of RREs. “The government wants to know if the US may have trouble making F-35 fighter jets if China imposes an export ban,” said a Chinese government adviser who asked not to be identified. Industry executives added that Beijing wanted to better understand how quickly the US could secure alternative sources of rare earths and increase its own production capacity.” The Taliban, meanwhile, will also receive a regular income from Chinese companies exploiting the resources.
One issue which could cloud the relationship between the two countries concerns the 12 million Uyghur Muslims resident in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which borders the Afghan Badakhshan province.
China has been accused of mistreating the Uyghurs in recent years and banning religious practices in the region. The Taliban had already sought to reassure Beijing in July this year that it had no intention of getting involved in any disputes. A spokesman said: “We care about the oppression of Muslims, be it in Palestine, in Myanmar, or in China, and we care about the oppression of non-Muslims anywhere in the world. But what we are not going to do is interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
The withdrawal of the US and allied forces raises different problems for Russia, the other superpower in the region. These challenges mainly concern security issues and can be traced back to the activities of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979-89. As with their western counterparts all these years later, the withdrawal of the Soviet troops in 1989 resulted in disorder and chaos. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, civil war erupted in Tajikistan, and in Russia itself, Islamic militants launched devastating campaigns in Chechnya, Dagestan and other republics, as well as terrorist attacks in Moscow.
Russia has sought to maintain and strengthen its traditional sphere of influence in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia and carries out military exercises with them along the Afghan border. Moscow’s major concern focuses on preventing the country from becoming a base for newly invigorated terrorist forces, something which they acknowledge the US and allied forces had played a major part in preventing over the last 20 years.
The Russian government – no doubt with an eye on the Soviet experiences in the late 20th century – has been aware for some years that the western allies would eventually be forced to concede defeat and withdraw from Afghanistan. Putin’s team had already established a relationship with the Taliban, and remained in Kabul even as the US military left.
The current situation is certainly a win for Russia, at least in old Cold War terms: Moscow can justifiably point to a growing insularity and decline in global leadership on the part of the US. On the other hand, it has been left with serious security problems and the threat of renewed Islamic terrorism in the region.
As with their promises to China, Taliban officials have reportedly assured the Russian government that it will not become involved in the separatist campaigns currently being fought in Chechnya and other republics within the Russian Federation.
Pakistan is another major player in the region. During the Afghan War of the 1980s, around three million Pashtun refugees left Afghanistan for Pakistan, and this is where fighters for the Taliban were recruited. Though not traditional allies, Islamabad is anxious to ensure that the Taliban does not assist with any future Pashtun Islamist rebellion within Pakistan.
The country’s government also has high hopes that China will continue to invest heavily in infrastructure projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs the length of Pakistan from Chinese Sinkiang to the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar: this is another reason for it to ensure there is no resurgence of Islamic militancy on its territory.
In addition, ISIS has ambitions in Afghanistan: membership there mostly comprises insurgents from the Pakistani Taliban who left for Afghanistan after Islamabad launched military campaigns against them in 2014. ISIS is therefore a common enemy for both Pakistan and the Taliban.
Pakistan’s current Prime Minister, Imran Khan, greeted the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan warmly, claiming the Taliban’s victory to be “breaking the shackles of [American] slavery”.
For some years, western officials have suspected that Iran has been “providing Taliban forces along its border with money and small amounts of relatively low-grade weaponry like machine guns, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades.” The UN report published in June this year also noted that the Taliban has remained “closely aligned” with Al Qaeda.
It can be argued, then, that Iran’s Shiite regime takes little notice of any ideological qualms about supporting Sunni extremists groups – if that aligns with the aims of Tehran’s leaders. This apparent truce between the Shiites of Iran and the Sunni Taliban is, however, unlikely to last long. Violence between the two factions resulted in thousands of deaths in the 1990s.
But for now, the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan has been described by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as a prime opportunity to “revive life, security and lasting peace.”
The cyber issue
And what of the consequences for cybersecurity in Afghanistan? The country’s cyber-ecosystem is not particularly advanced. Their cybersecurity practices are generally poor and the legal framework surrounding them is underdeveloped. Nevertheless, there has been a rapid expansion in the use of the internet, particularly with mobile broadband; this, in turn, has led to Afghans being exposed to global events and differing political ideologies, something which the Taliban may well seek to change, whether through placing restrictions on internet access or cutting it altogether.
However, assuming that the population continues to be permitted to go online, sustained investment in telecommunications infrastructure continues to be a priority. This is of interest when one considers that in recent years the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE have both been involved in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and mobile market. Further, in April this year, it was reported that the UAE’s Etisalat is to build a cloud-native open radio access network (open RAN) service in Afghanistan. Etisalat was confirmed to be a user of Huawei equipment in 2019, and both are working together to roll out 5G services in the UAE.
In recent years, Huawei and ZTE have both been viewed with increasing suspicion by western countries and are now barred from participating in the 5G market in many, including the UK and the US. Concerns have focused on security issues, with intelligence agencies claiming China could sneak malware into networks, among other things, thus providing Beijing with access for espionage and surveillance activities.
Whether or not the allegations are true, it is interesting to note that China has been investing heavily in the telecommunications infrastructure in a wide range of developing countries across the world, allowing Beijing an extremely useful foothold in these markets, both politically and economically; their interest and donations of technical equipment have been met enthusiastically and gratefully by governments in poorer nations. The future activities of Huawei and ZTE in Afghanistan are certainly worth watching.
A particular area of concern regarding cybersecurity, in general, relates to government and military data in Afghanistan; given that the planning for the troop withdrawal was so poor, there must be questions over whether protocol was followed and about the type of data that has been left in the hands of the Taliban. Even if classified data has been safely removed or disposed of, a great deal of less sensitive information previously shared with the Afghan government and relevant organisations could now be at risk.
This could include specific details about the US or other western governments that states such as China or Russia could find extremely useful. Worryingly, the data could also provide the Taliban with the names and other personal data of private citizens who helped the US and its allies.
As a report in The Intercept notes: “THE TALIBAN HAVE seized U.S. military biometrics devices that could aid in the identification of Afghans who assisted coalition forces, current and former military officials have told The Intercept. The devices, known as HIIDE, for Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment, were seized last week during the Taliban’s offensive, according to a Joint Special Operations Command official and three former U.S. military personnel, all of whom worried that sensitive data they contain could be used by the Taliban. HIIDE devices contain identifying biometric data such as iris scans and fingerprints, as well as biographical information, and are used to access large centralized databases. It’s unclear how much of the U.S. military’s biometric database on the Afghan population has been compromised.”
Both Russia and China are renowned for the activities of their state-sponsored threat groups: both governments will now be directing their attentions towards enhancing their cyber-espionage programmes in Afghanistan and across the wider region. It is, however, unlikely that they will work together on these campaigns, despite their common interest in maintaining a cordial relationship with the Taliban and preventing any resurgence in terrorist attacks. China and Russia have different aims and aspirations: while Beijing focuses on economic dominance in the region – and possibly worldwide – Moscow has its own concerns over security and maintaining its traditional spheres of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Cyber-espionage operations will, therefore, be tailored accordingly.
Pakistan and Iran will also instruct their own threat groups to increase their activities, particularly with an eye on new terrorist activities in both Afghanistan and on their own soil.
We also expect to see ‘run-of-the-mill’ cybercriminals using the current chaos in Afghanistan to launch a range of phishing campaigns hoping to dupe people into clicking on malicious links or inadvertently providing data that can be sold later on the darknet. However, at this point, the more serious focus must fall on the activities of the extremely sophisticated and successful state-sponsored groups.
This paper has provided a general overview of the current situation in Afghanistan, as well as a brief assessment of the challenges facing the country and neighbouring states. It has not been the intention here to focus too heavily on the actions of the US or other allied forces: that is being covered thoroughly elsewhere and debates about the policy decisions will continue for some time.
The events unfolding in Afghanistan are of huge political and historical significance: it is entirely possible that the withdrawal of the US and allied forces has led to a seismic shift in power geopolitically, with both Russia and China seeking to capitalise on the new opportunities which this offers them both in the region and on a wider global scale.