What to expect from Taliban 2.0

September 08, 2021

What to expect from Taliban 2.0

A wiser, better-traveled and social media-savvy Taliban will strive to avoid the many dire mistakes of its 1996-2001 rule

By Pepe Escobar posted with permission and first posted at Asia Times

The announcement by Taliban spokesman Zahibullah Mujahid in Kabul of the acting cabinet ministers in the new caretaker government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan already produced a big bang: it managed to enrage both woke NATOstan and the US Deep State.

This is an all-male, overwhelmingly Pashtun (there’s one Uzbek and one Tajik) cabinet essentially rewarding the Taliban old guard. All 33 appointees are Taliban members.

Mohammad Hasan Akhund – the head of the Taliban Rehbari Shura, or leadership council, for 20 years – will be the Acting Prime Minister. For all practical purposes, Akhund is branded a terrorist by the UN and the EU, and under sanctions by the UN Security Council. It’s no secret Washington brands some Taliban factions as Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and sanctions the whole of the Taliban as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” organization.

It’s crucial to stress Himatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban Supreme Leader since 2016, is Amir al-Momineen (“Commander of the Faithful”). He can’t be a Prime Minister; his role is that of a supreme spiritual leader, setting the guidelines for the Islamic Emirate and mediating disputes – politics included.

Akhunzada has released a statement, noting that the new government “will work hard towards upholding Islamic rules and sharia law in the country” and will ensure “lasting peace, prosperity and development”. He added, “people should not try to leave the country”.

Spokesman Mujahid took pains to stress this new cabinet is just an “acting” government. This implies one of the next big steps will be to set up a new constitution. The Taliban will “try to take people from other parts of the country” – implying positions for women and Shi’ites may still be open, but not at top level.

Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar, who so far had been very busy diplomatically as the head of the political office in Doha, will be deputy Prime Minister. He was a Taliban co-founder in 1994 and close friend of Mullah Omar, who called him “Baradar” (“brother”) in the first place.

A predictable torrent of hysteria greeted the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as Acting Minister of Interior. After all the son of Haqqani founder Jalaluddin, one of three deputy emirs and the Taliban military commander, with a fierce reputation, has a $5 million FBI bounty on his head. His FBI “wanted” page is not exactly a prodigy of intel: they don’t know when he was born, and where, and that he speaks Pashto and Arabic.

This may be the new government’s top challenge: to prevent Sirajuddin and his wild boys from acting medieval in non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, and most of all to make sure the Haqqanis cut off any connections with jihadi outfits. That’s a sine qua non condition established by the China-Russia strategic partnership for political, diplomatic and economic development support.

Foreign policy will be much more accommodating. Amir Khan Muttaqi, also a member of the political office in Doha, will be the Acting Foreign Minister, and his deputy will be Abas Stanikzai, who’s in favor of cordial relations with Washington and the rights of Afghan religious minorities.

Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the son of Mullah Omar, will be the Acting Defense Minister.

So far, the only non-Pashtuns are Abdul Salam Hanafi, an Uzbek, appointed as second deputy to the Prime Minister, and Qari Muhammad Hanif, a Tajik, the acting Minister of Economic Affairs, a very important post.

The Tao of staying patient

The Taliban Revolution has already hit the Walls of Kabul – who are fast being painted white with Kufic letter inscriptions. One of these reads, “For an Islamic system and independence, you have to go through tests and stay patient.”

That’s quite a Taoist statement: striving for balance towards a real “Islamic system”. It offers a crucial glimpse of what the Taliban leadership may be after: as Islamic theory allows for evolution, the new Afghanistan system will be necessarily unique, quite different from Qatar’s or Iran’s, for instance.

In the Islamic legal tradition, followed directly or indirectly by rulers of Turko-Persian states for centuries, to rebel against a Muslim ruler is illegitimate because it creates fitna (sedition, conflict). That was already the rationale behind the crushing of the fake “resistance” in the Panjshir – led by former Vice-President and CIA asset Amrullah Saleh. The Taliban even tried serious negotiations, sending a delegation of 40 Islamic scholars to the Panjshir.

But then Taliban intel established that Ahmad Masoud – son of the legendary Lion of the Panjshir, assassinated two days before 9/11 – was operating under orders of French and Israeli intel. And that sealed his fate: not only he was creating fitna, he was a foreign agent. His partner Saleh, the “resistance” de facto leader, fled by helicopter to Tajikistan.

It’s fascinating to note a parallel between Islamic legal tradition and Hobbes’s Leviathan, which justifies absolute rulers. The Hobbesian Taliban: here’s a hefty research topic for US Think Tankland.

The Taliban also follow the rule that a war victory – and nothing more spectacular than defeating combined NATO power – allows for undisputed political power, although that does not discard strategic alliances. We’ve already seen it in terms of how the moderate, Doha-based political Taliban are accommodating the Haqqanis – an extremely sensitive business.

Abdul Haqqani will be the Acting Minister for Higher Education; Najibullah Haqqani will be Minister of Communications; and Khalil Haqqani, so far ultra-active as interim head of security in Kabul, will be Minister for Refugees.

The next step will be much harder: to convince the urban, educated populations in the big cities – Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif – not only of their legitimacy, acquired in the frontlines, but that they will crush the corrupt urban elite that plundered the nation for the past 20 years. All that while engaging in a credible, national interest process of improving the lives of average Afghans under a new Islamic system. It will be crucial to watch what kind of practical and financial help the emir of Qatar will offer.

The new cabinet has elements of a Pashtun jirga (tribal assembly). I’ve been to a few, and it’s fascinating to see how it works. Everyone sits on a circle to avoid a hierarchy – even if symbolic. Everyone is entitled to express their opinion. This leads to alliances necessarily being forged.

The negotiations to form a government were being conducted in Kabul by former President Hamid Karzai – crucially, a Pashtun from a minor Durrani clan, the Popalzai – and Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik, and former head of the Council for National Reconciliation. The Taliban did listen to them, but in the end they de facto chose what their own jirga had decided.

Pashtuns are extremely fierce when it comes to defending their Islamic credentials. They believe their legendary founding ancestor, Qais Abdul Rasheed, converted to Islam in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad, and then Pashtuns became the strongest defender of the faith anywhere.

Yet that’s not exactly how it played out in history. From the 7th century onwards, Islam was predominant only from Herat in the west to legendary Balkh in the north all the way to Central Asia, and south between Sistan and Kandahar. The mountains of the Hindu Kush and the corridor from Kabul to Peshawar resisted Islam for centuries. Kabul in fact was a Hindu kingdom as late as the 11th century. It took as many as five centuries for the core Pashtun lands to convert to Islam.

Islam with Afghan characteristics

To cut an immensely complex story short, the Taliban was born in 1994 across the – artificial – border of Afghanistan and Pakistani Balochistan as a movement by Pashtuns who studied in Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan.

All the Afghan Taliban leaders had very close connections with Pakistani religious parties. During the 1980s anti-USSR jihad, many of these Taliban (“students”) in several madrassas worked side by side with the mujahideen to defend Islam in Afghanistan against the infidel. The whole process was channeled through the Peshawar political establishment: -overseen by the Pakistani ISI, with enormous CIA input, and a tsunami of cash and would-be jihadis flowing from Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world.

When they finally seized power in 1994 in Kandahar and 1996 in Kabul, the Taliban emerged as a motley crew of minor clerics and refugees invested in a sort of wacky Afghan reformation – religious and cultural – as they set up what they saw as a pure Salafist Islamic Emirate.

I saw how it worked on the spot, and as demented as it was, it amounted to a new political force in Afghanistan. The Taliban were very popular in the south because they promised security after the bloody 1992-1995 civil war. The totally radical Islamist ideology came later – with disastrous results, especially in the big cities. But not in the subsistence agriculture countryside, because the Taliban social outlook merely reflected rural Afghan practice.

The Taliban installed a 7th century-style Salafi Islam crisscrossed with the Pashtunwali code. A huge mistake was their aversion to Sufism and the veneration of shrines – something extremely popular in Islamic Afghanistan for centuries.

It’s too early to tell how Taliban 2.0 will play out in the dizzyingly complex, emerging Eurasian integration chessboard. But internally, a wiser, more traveled, social media-savvy Taliban seem aware they cannot allow themselves to repeat the dire 1996-2001 mistakes.

Deng Xiaoping set the framework for socialism with Chinese characteristics . One of the greatest geopolitical challenges ahead will be whether Taliban 2.0 are able to shape a sustainable development Islam with Afghan characteristics.

Why the Taliban still can’t form a government

September 03, 2021

Why the Taliban still can’t form a government

Internal Taliban divisions come to the fore as squabbling hinders the formation of Afghanistan’s new Islamic Emirate

By Pepe Escobar, posted with permission and first posted at Asia Times

It looked like everything was set for the Taliban to announce the new government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after this Friday’s afternoon prayers. But then internal dissent prevailed.

That was compounded by the adverse optics of a ragtag “resistance” in the Panjshir Valley that is still not subdued. The “resistance” is de facto led by a CIA asset, former vice president Amrullah Saleh.

The Taliban maintain they have captured several districts and at least four checkpoints at the Panjshir, controlling 20% of its territory. Still, there’s no endgame in sight.

Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, a Kandahar religious scholar, is expected to be the new power of the Islamic Emirate when it’s finally formed. Mullah Baradar will likely preside just below him as a presidential figure along with a 12-member governing council known as a “shura.”

If that’s the case, there would be certain similarities between the institutional role of Akhundzada and Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran, even though the theocratic frameworks, Sunni and Shiite, are completely different.

Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada posing for a photograph at an undisclosed location in 2016. Photo: Afghan Taliban via AFP

Mullah Baradar, co-founder of the Taliban with Mullah Omar in 1994 and imprisoned in Guantanamo then Pakistan, has served as the Taliban’s top diplomat as the head of its political office in Doha.

He has also been a key interlocutor in the protracted negotiations with the now-extinct Kabul government and the expanded troika of Russia, China, the US and Pakistan.

To call the negotiations to form a new Afghan government fractious would be a spectacular understatement. They have been managed, in practice, by former president Hamid Karzai and ex-head of the Reconciliation Council Abdullah Abdullah: a Pashtun and a Tajik who have vast international experience.

Both Karzai and Abdullah are shoo-ins to be part of the 12-member shura.

As the negotiations seemed to advance, a frontal clash developed between the Taliban political office in Doha and the Haqqani network regarding the distribution of key government posts.

Add to it the role of Mullah Yakoob, son of Mullah Omar, and the head of the powerful Taliban military commission overseeing a massive network of field commanders, among which he’s extremely well-respected.

Recently Yakoob had let it leak that those “living in luxury in Doha” cannot dictate terms to those involved in fighting on the ground. As if this was not contentious enough, Yakoob also has serious problems with the Haqqanis – who are now in charge of a key post: security of Kabul via the so far ultra-diplomatic Khalil Haqqani.

Mullah Yakoob in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Apart from the fact that the Taliban amount to a complex collection of tribal and regional warlords, the dissent illustrates the abyss between what could roughly be explained as more Afghan nationalist-centered and more Pakistani-centered factions.

In the latter case, the key protagonists are the Haqqanis, who operate very close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

It’s a Sisyphean task, to say the least, to create political legitimacy even in an Afghanistan that is bound to be ruled by Afghans who rid the nation of a foreign occupation.

Since 2002, both with Karzai and then Ashraf Ghani, the regime in power for most Afghans was regarded as an imposition by foreign occupiers validated by dodgy elections.

In Afghanistan, everything is about tribe, kin and clan. The Pashtuns are a vast tribe with myriad subtribes that all adhere to the common pashtunwali, a code of conduct that blends self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance.

They will be in power again, as during Taliban 1.0 from 1996 to 2001. The Dari-speaking Tajiks, on the other hand, are non-tribal and form the majority of urban residents of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Assuming it will peacefully solve its internal Pashtun squabbles, a Taliban-led government will necessarily need to conquer Tajik hearts and minds among the nation’s traders, bureaucrats and educated clergy.

Dari, derived from Persian, has long been the language of government administration, high culture and foreign relations in Afghanistan. Now it will all be switched to Pashto again. This is the schism the new government will have to bridge.

Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Photo: AFP

There are already surprises on the horizon. The extremely well-connected Russian ambassador in Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, revealed that he is discussing the Panjshir stalemate with the Taliban.

Zhirnov noted that the Taliban considered some of the demands of the Panjshiris as “excessive” – as in they wanted too many seats in the government and autonomy for some non-Pashtun provinces, Panjshir included.

It’s not far-fetched to consider the widely-trusted Zhirnov could become a mediator not only between Pashtuns and Panjshiris but even between opposed Pashtun factions.

The delightful historical irony will not be lost on those who remember the 1980s jihad of the unified mujahideen against the USSR.

Back to the future: Talibanistan, Year 2000

Back to the future: Talibanistan, Year 2000

August 31, 2021

by Pepe Escobar for The Saker Blog and friends

Dear reader: this is very special, a trip down memory lane like no other: back to prehistoric times – the pre-9/11, pre-YouTube, pre-social network world.

Welcome to Taliban Afghanistan – Talibanistan – in the Year 2000. This is when photographer Jason Florio and myself slowly crossed it overland from east to west, from the Pakistani border at Torkham to the Iranian border at Islam qillah. As Afghan ONG workers acknowledged, we were the first Westerners to pull this off in years.

Fatima, Maliha and Nouria, at home in Kabul

Those were the days. Bill Clinton was enjoying his last stretch at the White House. Osama bin Laden was a discreet guest of Mullah Omar – hitting the front pages only occasionally. There was no hint of 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the “war on terror”, the perpetual financial crisis, the Russia-China strategic partnership. Globalization ruled, and the US was the undisputed global top dog. The Clinton administration and the Taliban were deep into Pipelineistan territory – arguing over the tortuous, proposed Trans-Afghan gas pipeline.

We tried everything, but we couldn’t even get a glimpse of Mullah Omar. Osama bin Laden was also nowhere to be seen. But we did experience Talibanistan in action, in close detail.

Today is a special day to revisit it. The Forever War in Afghanistan is over; from now on it will be a Hybrid mongrel, against the integration of Afghanistan into the New Silk Roads and Greater Eurasia.

In 2000 I wrote a Talibanistan road trip special for a Japanese political magazine, now extinct, and ten years later a 3-part mini-series revisiting it for Asia Times.

Part 2 of this series can be found here, and part 3 here.

Yet this particular essay – part 1 – had completely disappeared from the internet (that’s a long story): I found it recently, by accident, in a hard drive. The images come from the footage I shot at the time with a Sony mini-DV: I just received the file today from Paris.

This is a glimpse of a long-lost world; call it a historical register from a time when no one would even dream of a “Saigon moment” remixed – as a rebranded umbrella of warriors conveniently labeled “Taliban”, after biding their time, Pashtun-style, for two decades, praises Allah for eventually handing them victory over yet another foreign invader.

Now let’s hit the road.

KABUL, GHAZNI – Fatima, Maliha and Nouria, who I used to call The Three Graces, must be by now 40, 39 and 35 years old, respectively. In the year 2000 they lived in an empty, bombed house next to a bullet-ridden mosque in a half-destroyed, apocalyptic theme park Kabul – by then the world capital of the discarded container (or reconstituted by a missile and reconverted into a shop); a city where 70% of the population were refugees, legions of homeless kids carried bags of cash on their backs ($1 was worth more than 60,000 Afghanis) and sheep outnumbered rattling 1960s Mercedes buses.

Under the merciless Taliban theocracy, the Three Graces suffered triple discrimination – as women, Hazaras and Shi’ites. They lived in Kardechar, a neighborhood totally destroyed in the 1990s by the war between Commander Masoud, The Lion of the Panjshir, and the Hazaras (the descendants of mixed marriages between Genghis Khan’s Mongol warriors and Turkish and Tajik peoples) before the Taliban took power in 1996. The Hazaras were always the weakest link in the Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara alliance – supported by Iran, Russia and China – confronting the Taliban.

Every dejected Kabuli intellectual I had met invariably defined the Taliban as “an occupation force of religious fanatics” – their rural medievalism totally absurd for urban Tajiks, used to a tolerant form of Islam. According to a university professor, “their jihad is not against kafirs; it’s against other Muslims who follow Islam”.

I spent a long time talking to the Dari-speaking Three Graces inside their bombed-out home – with translation provided by their brother Aloyuz, who had spent a few years in Iran supporting the family long-distance. This simple fact in itself would assure that if caught, we would all be shot dead by the Taliban V & V – the notorious Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban religious police.

This is how bombed-out Kabul looked like in 2000

The Three Graces’ dream was to live “free, not under pressure”. They had never been to a restaurant, a bar or a cinema. Fatima liked “rock” music, which in her case meant Afghan singer Natasha. She said she “liked” the Taliban, but most of all she wanted to get back to school. They never mentioned any discrimination between Sunnis and Shi’ites; they actually wanted to leave for Pakistan.

Their definition of “human rights” included priority for education, the right to work, and to get a job in the state sector; Fatima and Maliha wanted to be doctors. Perhaps they are, today, in Hazara land; 21 years ago they spent their days weaving beautiful silk shawls.

Education was terminally forbidden for girls over 12. The literacy rate among women was only 4%. Outside the Three Graces’ house, almost every woman was a “widow of war”, enveloped in dusty light blue burqas, begging to support their children. Not only this was an unbearable humiliation in the context of an ultra-rigid Islamic society, it contradicted the Taliban obsession of preserving the “honor and purity” of their women.

Kabul’s population was then 2 million; less than 10%, concentrated in the periphery, supported the Taliban. True Kabulis regarded them as barbarians. For the Taliban, Kabul was more remote than Mars. Every day at sunset the Intercontinental Hotel, by then an archeological ruin, received an inevitable Taliban sightseeing group. They’d come to ride the lift (the only one in town) and walk around the empty swimming pool and tennis court. They’d be taking a break from cruising around town in their fleet of imported-from-Dubai Toyota Hi-Lux, complete with Islamic homilies painted in the windows, Kalashnikovs on show and little whips on hand to impose on the infidels the appropriate, Islamically correct, behavior. But at least the Three Graces were safe; they never left their bombed-out shelter.

Doubt is sin, debate is heresy

Few things were more thrilling in Talibanistan 21 years ago than to alight at Pul-e-Khisshti – the fabled Blue Mosque, the largest in Afghanistan – on a Friday afternoon after Jumma prayers and confront the One Thousand and One Nights assembled cast. Any image of this apotheosis of thousands of black or white-turbaned rustic warriors, kohl in their eyes and the requisite macho-sexy stare, would be all the rage on the cover of Uomo Vogue. To even think of taking a photo was anathema; the entrance to the mosque was always swarming with V & V informants.

Finally, in one of those eventful Friday afternoons, I managed to be introduced into the Holy Grail – the secluded quarters of maulvi (priest) Noor Muhamad Qureishi, by then the Taliban Prophet in Kabul. He had never exchanged views with a Westerner. It was certainly one of the most surrealist interviews of my life.

Qureishi, like all Taliban religious leaders, was educated in a Pakistani madrassa. At first, he was your typical hardcore deobandi; the deobandis, as the West would later find out, were an initially progressive movement born in India in the mid-19th century to revive Islamic values vis-à-vis the sprawling British Empire. But they soon derailed into megalomania, discrimination against women and Shi’ite-hatred.

Most of all, Quereishi was the quintessential product of a boom – the connection between the ISI and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad, when thousands of madrassas were built in Pakistan’s Pashtun belt. Afghan refugees had the right to free education, a roof over their heads, three meals a day and military training. Their “educators” were semi-illiterate maulvis who had never known the reformist agenda of the original deobandi movement.

On the Afghanistan-Iran border at Islam qilla

Reclined on a tattered cushion over one of the mosque’s ragged carpets, Qureishi laid down the deobandi law in Pashto for hours. Among other things he said the movement was “the most popular” because its ideologues dreamed that Prophet Muhammad ordered them to build a madrassa in Deoband, India. So this was Islam’s purest form “because it came directly from Muhammad”. Despite the formidable catalogue of Taliban atrocities, he insisted on their “purity”.

Qureishi dabbled on the inferiority of Hindus because of their sacred cows (“why not dogs, at least they are faithful to their owners”). As for Buddhism, it was positively depraved (“Buddha is an idol”). He would have had a multiple heart attack with Thailand’s Buddhist go-go girls, dancing topless at night and offering incense at the temple the morning after.

Doubt is sin. Debate is heresy. “The only true knowledge is the Koran”. He insisted that all “forms of modern scientific knowledge came from the Koran”. As an example, he quoted – what else – a Koranic verse (the Koran, by the way, in its neo-deobandi, Talibanized version, forbade women to write, and allowed education only up to 10 years old). I could not help being reminded of that 18th century French anonymous – a typical product of the Enlightenment – who had written the Treaty of the Three Impostors – Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; but if I tried to insert the European Enlightenment into (his) monologue I would probably be shot dead. Basically, Qureishi finally managed to convince me that all this religious shadow play was about proving that “my sect is purer than yours”.

Village elders in Herat

Play it again, infidel

Talibanistan lived under a strict Kalashnikov culture. But the supreme anti-Taliban lethal weapon was not a gun, or even a mortar or RPG. It was a camera. I knew inevitably that day would come, and it came on Kabul stadium, built by the former USSR to extol proletarian internationalism; another Friday, at 5 pm, the weekly soccer hour – the only form of entertainment absent from the Taliban’s Index Prohibitorum apart from public executions and mango ice cream.

Jason and me were lodged at the VIP tribune – less than 10 US cents for the ticket. The stadium was packed – but silent as a mosque. Two teams, the red and the blue, were playing the Islamically correct way – with extra skirts under their trunks. At half time the whole stadium – to the sound of “Allah Akbar” – run to pray by the pitch; those who didn’t were spanked or thrown in jail.

Jason had his cameras hanging from his neck but he was not using them. Yet that was more than enough for a hysteric V & V teenage informant. We are escorted out of the stands by a small army of smiling, homoerotic brotherhood, those who were then referred to as “soldiers of Allah”. Finally we are presented to a white-turbaned Talib with assassin’s eyes; he’s no one other than mullah Salimi, the vice-Minister of the religious police in Kabul – the reincarnation of The Great Inquisitor. We are finally escorted out of the stadium and thrown into a Hi-Lux, destination unknown. Suddenly we are more popular with the crowd than the soccer match itself.

At a Taliban “office” – a towel on the grass in front of a bombed-out building, decorated with a mute sat-phone – we are charged with espionage. Our backpacks are thoroughly searched. Salimi inspects two rolls of film from Jason’s cameras; no incriminating photo. It’s now the turn of my Sony mini-DV camera. We press “play”; Salimi recoils in horror. We explain nothing is recorded on the blue screen. What was really recorded – he just needed to press “rewind” – would be enough to send us to the gallows, including a lot of stuff with the Three Graces. Once again we noticed the Taliban badly needed not only art directors and PR agents but also info-tech whiz kids.

Carpet-weaving at the Herat bazaar

In Taliban anti-iconography, video, in theory, might be allowed, because the screen is a mirror. Anyway, later we would know from the lion’s mouth, that is, the Ministry of Information and Culture in Kandahar: TV and video would remain perpetually banned.

At that time, a few photo-studios survived near one of the Kabul bazaars – only churning out 3X4 photos for documents. The owners paid their bills renting their Xerox machines. The Zahir Photo Studio still had on its walls a collection of black and white and sepia photos of Kabul, Herat, minarets, nomads and caravans. Among Leicas, superb Speed Graphic 8 X 10 and dusty Russian panoramic cameras, Mr. Zahir would lament, “photography is dead in Afghanistan”. At least, that wouldn’t be for long.

The 11th century Ghazni minaret with, on the foreground, a Taliban military base

So after an interminable debate in Pashto with some Urdu and English thrown in, we are “liberated”. Some Taliban – but certainly not Salimi, still piercing us with his assassin’s eyes – try a formal apology, saying this is incompatible with the Pashtun code of hospitality. All tribal Pashtun – like the Taliban – follow the pashtunwali, the rigid code that emphasizes, among other things, hospitality, vengeance and a pious Islamic life. According to the code, it’s a council of elders that arbitrates specific disputes, applying a compendium of laws and punishments. Most cases involve murders, land disputes and trouble with women. For the Pashtun, the line between pashtunwali and Sharia was always fuzzy.

A Kuchi nomad caravan going south towards Kandahar.

The V & V obviously was not a creation of Mullah Omar, the “Leader of the Faithful”; it was based on a Saudi Arabian original. In its heyday, in the second half of the 1990s, the V & V was a formidable intelligence agency – with informers infiltrated in the Army, ministries, hospitals, UN agencies, NGOs – evoking a bizarre memory of KHAD, the enormous intel agency of the 1980’s communist regime, during the anti-USSR jihad. The difference is that the V & V only answered to orders – issued on bits and pieces of paper – of Mullah Omar himself.

Rock the base

The verdict echoed like a dagger piercing the oppressive air of the desert near Ghazni. A 360-degree panoramic shot revealed a background of mountains where the mineral had expelled all the vegetal; the silhouette of two 11th century minarets; and a foreground of tanks, helicopters and rocket launchers. The verdict, issued in Pashto and mumbled by our scared official translator imposed by Kabul, was inexorable: “You will be denounced in a military court. The investigation will be long, six months; meanwhile you will await the decision in jail”.

Once again, we were being charged with espionage, but now this was the real deal. We could be executed with a shot on the back of the neck – Khmer Rouge style. Or stoned. Or thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive by a brick wall smashed by a tractor. Brilliant Taliban methods for the final solution were myriad. And to think this was all happening because of two minarets.

To walk over a supposedly mined field trying to reach two minarets was not exactly a brilliant idea in the first place. Red Army experts, during the 1980s, buried 12 million mines in Afghanistan. They diversified like crazy; more than 50 models, from Zimbabwe’s RAP-2s to Belgium’s NR-127s. UN officials had assured us that more than half the country was mined. Afghan officials at the Mine Detention Center in Herat, with their 50 highly trained German shepherds, would later tell us that it would take 22,000 years to demine the whole country.

My objects of desire in Ghazni were two “Towers of Victory”; two circular superstructures, isolated in the middle of the desert and built by the Sassanians as minarets – commemorative, not religious; there was never a mosque in the surroundings. In the mid-19th century scholars attributed the grand minaret to Mahmud, protector of Avicenna and the great Persian poet Ferdowsi. Today it is known that the small minaret dates from 1030, and the big one, from 1099. They are like two brick rockets pointing to the sheltering sky and claiming for the attention of those travelling the by then horrific Kabul-Kandahar highway, a Via Dolorosa of multinational flat tires – Russian, Chinese, Iranian.

The problem is that, 21 years ago, right adjacent to the minarets, there was an invisible Taliban military base. At first we could see only an enormous weapons depot. We asked a sentinel to take a few pictures; he agreed. Walking around the depot – between carcasses of Russian tanks and armored cars – we found some functioning artillery pieces. And a lone, white Taliban flag. And not a living soul. This did look like an abandoned depot. But then we hit on a destroyed Russian helicopter – a prodigy of conceptual art. Too late: soon we are intercepted by a Taliban out of nowhere.

The commander of the base wanted to know “under which law” we assumed we had the right to take photos. He wanted to know which was the punishment, “in our country”, for such an act. When the going was really getting tough, everything turned Monty Python. One of the Taliban had walked back to the road to fetch our driver, Fateh. They came back two hours later. The commander talked to Fateh in Pashto. And then we were “liberated”, out of “respect for Fateh’s white beard”. But we should “confess” to our crime – which we did right away, over and over again.

The fact of the matter is that we were freed because I was carrying a precious letter hand-signed by the all-powerful Samiul Haq, the leader of Haqqania, the factory-cum-academy, Harvard and M.I.T. of Taliban in Akhora Khatak, on the Grand Trunk Road between Islamabad and Peshawar in Pakistan. Legions of Taliban ministers, province governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats had studied in Haqqania.

Haqqania was founded in 1947 by deobandi religious scholar Abdul Haq, the father of maulvi and former senator Samiul Haq, a wily old hand fond of brothels and as engaging as a carpet vendor in the Peshawar bazaars. He was a key educator of the first detribalized, urbanized and literate Afghan generation; “literate”, of course, in Haqqania-branded, Deobandi-style Islam. In Haqqania – where I saw hundreds of students from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan indoctrinated to later export Talibanization to Central Asia – debate was heresy, the master was infallible and Samiul Haq was almost as perfect as Allah.

He had told me – no metaphor intended – that “Allah had chosen Mullah Omar to be the leader of the Taliban”. And he was sure that when the Islamic Revolution reached Pakistan, “it will be led by a unknown rising from the masses” – like Mullah Omar. At the time Haq was Omar’s consultant on international relations and Sharia-based decisions. He bundled up both Russia and the US as “enemies of our time”; blamed the US for the Afghan tragedy; but otherwise offered to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US if Bill Clinton guaranteed no interference in Afghan affairs.

Turn left for the Ministry of Foreign Relations – at the time only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Back in Ghazni, the Taliban commander even invited us for some green tea. Thanks but no thanks. We thanked Allah’s mercy by visiting the tomb of sultan Mahmud in Razah, less than one kilometer from the towers. The tomb is a work of art – translucid marble engraved with Kufic lettering. Islamic Kufic lettering, if observed as pure design, reveals itself as a transposition of the verb, from the audible to the visible. So the conclusion was inevitable; the Taliban had managed to totally ignore the history of their own land, building a military base over two architectural relics and incapable of recognizing even the design of their own Islamic lettering as a form of art.

All pictures taken from The Roving Eye Video Archives. Pepe Escobar, 2000

المهمة المستحيلة (2) أفغانستان

الأحد 22 آب 2021

 سعادة مصطفى أرشيد*

لا تزال المهمة الأفغانية المستحيلة تراوح في دائرة انعدام اليقين، حول مصير البلد الذي مثلت ثقافة الحرب والصراع مكوّنه النفسي ـ السياسي الأول من فجر تاريخه، ولا يزال من غير المعروف إذا كانت التحوّلات الأفغانية سوف تذهب باتجاه حداثي، أيّ أن تصبح إعادة بناء البلد على غرار الدولة العصرية الحديثة أم باتجاه أفغاني خاص مع الحفاظ على البلد وأمنه وشعبه وثرواته واعتبارها أولوية، أم باتجاه ارتباطات مع هذا المحور أو ذاك، دولياً وإقليمياً؟

من المؤكد أنّ السياسة الصينية تؤمن بالمثل القائل: السعيد من اتعظ بغيره، والشقي من اتعظ بنفسه، إذ أن الصين لن تجرّب حظها وتذهب بطريق إنجلترا وشركة الهند الشرقية في أربعينات القرن التاسع عشر، ولن تكرّر الخطأ السوفياتي عام 1979، ولن تتورّط كما تورّطت الولايات المتحدة عام 2002، وإنما ستعتمد على قوتها الناعمة، وعلى قدراتها التفاوضية في كسب أرباح الحرب التي لم ولن تخوضها، في الحصول على مواد أفغانستان الخام ـ الثمينة والقريبة مكانياً، وبأسعار تفضيلية، وسوف تجعل من بضائعها عماد السوق الأفغاني، المتعطش للبضائع والفقير مالياً والذي سيجد في بضائع الصين زهيدة الثمن ومستحيلة المنافسة، ما يشبع جوعه الاستهلاكي، لذلك لن تجد حاجة للتورّط في حروب هذا البلد فهي ستكون داخله دون مغامرات غيرها وحروبهم، الذي لا يزال لديه ما يكفيه من حروب مرشحة للاشتعال بين مكوّناته الداخلية.

حركة طالبان قاتلت طويلاً بالنار والدم، لكنها في النهاية انتصرت في هذه الحرب العالمية الطويلة دون قتال، ولم تضطر إلى استعمال النار والبارود في معركتها الأخيرة الحاسمة، إذ اكتفت بسلاح بالغ الخفة، ألا وهو الهاتف النقال، الذي كان كافياً لجعل الرئيس أشرف غني (آخر طبعة أميركية) يسارع إلى حمل كلّ ثمين خفيف، ويغادر البلاد دون إعلام من حوله من مستشارين ووزراء وقادة، وليلحق به هؤلاء، أو من تمكن. فيما تركوا جماعتهم من الصغار الذين أصبحوا من لزوم ما لا يلزم، وصاروا يتعلقون ويسحقون تحت عجلات الطائرات المغادرة، فيما يتولى الثائرون والغاضبون والرعاع التعامل بقسوة مع من بقي منهم. حركة طالبان، التي انطلقت من مدارس بيشاور الأفغانية، كحركة شباب يملؤهم الحماس ويشعلهم الإيمان قبل عقود، قد اختلفت اليوم بحكم الزمن وتراكم التجربة والنضج، أدخل بعض من قادتها ومنظروها إلى مدارس الحياة الجميلة والعصرية لسنوات في العاصمة القطرية ـ الدوحة، وعرفوا جنة الدنيا في فنادقها ومطاعمها ونواديها الرياضية (spa)، وخاضوا في نقاشات فكرية غنية وممتعة ولا بدّ، مع مفكرين وإعلاميين وأكاديميين من توجهات ومدارس مختلفة، وأدخل بعض آخر من قادتها ومناضليها قسراً إلى مدارس معتمة، بالغة القسوة، في غوانتانامو، فتعرّفوا على الصورة المناقضة تماماً، وعاينوا بين تلك الجدران والقضبان من عذابات الجحيم الأرضي، فيما بقي آخرون في الجبال والصحارى، وأصبح يفصل بينهم وبين رفقائهم على الأرض لا المسافة والجغرافية فحسب، وإنما خندق عميق من اختلاف التجربة، ففي حين عرف بعض منهم جنة الدنيا وذاقوا بعض فاكهتها في قطر، وعرف قسم آخر جحيم الدنيا وزقومها وسعيرها في غوانتانامو، لم ينل رفقاؤهم على الأرض مثل ذلك الحظ، ولا تلك القسوة، من أولئك الذين يعيشون في جليد الجبال وكهوفها، وقيظ الصحارى وشمسها، ويقتاتون من خبز الشعير ويتلقون السلاح وبعض القوت من إيران، إذ انه حصتهم ستكون في جنة الآخرة التي تدوم ولا تزول.

قد يكون جذر التفكير مشتركاً، ولكن ظروف الزمان والمكان لها دور في افتراق مذاهب العمل والتطبيق، فهذه الحركة الطلابية (طالبان)، قد فعلت بها التجارب أفاعيلها وأخذت مكانها في عقول قادتها، ومن هذه النقطة سوف تفترق طرائق العمل بين طالبان وطالبان، فقد أصبح لكلّ منهم جدليته، بعضهم سيعتمد على بناء أفغاني جديد، تخاطبه القوة الناعمة الجديدة، ومنظمات غير حكومية ستسارع لإيجاد دور لها، وعلى الوعود للشعب بحياة رغيدة وكماليات استهلاكية وافرة، واقتصاد سوق، ووسائل اتصال وتكنولوجيا عصرية، ولكن بعضاً آخر، لا يزال يحمل بإيمان ويتوارث ثقافة آلاف السنين ـ الثقافة الأفغانية، حيث يولد الطفل ليكون مقاتلاً، ويرى في القتال أسلوب حياة، وفي الجهاد فرض عين، وأنّ الله سوف يعطيهم ما يرضونه، وأنّ الآخرة خير لهم من الأولى.

خلاصة القول، إنّ حرباً قد انتهت في تلك البلاد، لتبدأ حرب أخرى، شيء يشابه العراق في مرحلة سيّئ السمعة بريمر ومن تلاه، سيكون في أفغانستان من ينفخ في نار الفتنة ويمارس فساداً في السياسة وفي الاقتصاد، والأهمّ أنّ الحزب المنتصر أيضاً سيكون عليه دفع ثمن السلطة وأعبائها، وثمن اختلاف وتباين الرؤى، ربما بما يؤثر على وحدته وتماسكه، ويعرّضه لحرب داخلية مع ذاته إضافة إلى حربه مع المكوّنات الأفغانية الأخرى.

الحرب الخارجية ـ العالمية انتهت في تلك البلاد، ولكن حروباً مقبلة على الطريق لن تجعل من أفغانستان بلداً مطمئناً في القريب، وها هو أحمد شاه مسعود الابن، قد أخذ يحشد ويعبّئ في وادي بنشير، معقل والده الشهير أثناء الحرب الأفغانية ـ السوفيتية، وهو ليس بقائد سهل وإنما لديه تجربته وخبرته وسلاحه ومصادر الدعم التي ورث بعض منها عن والده الراحل، وأستذكر هنا مقولة الجنرال حميد غول رئيس الاستخبارات العسكرية الباكستانية الأسبق: إنّ الشعب الأفغاني وخاصة البشتون لا يعيشون سلاماً داخلياً إلا في حالة الحرب الخارجية التي توحّدهم، ولكنهم فور انتهائها يعودون إلى قتالهم الداخلي.

تذكر الحالة الأفغانية الطالبانية، بملحمة الشاعر الإيطالي دانتي (الكوميديا الإلهية) إذ يتقاسم قادتها مراحل الملحمة الثلاث، منهم من كان نصيبه في الجحيم ومنهم من كانت له الجنة وأكثرهم من عاش في المطهر.


*سياسي فلسطيني مقيم في الكفير ـ جنين ـ فلسطين المحتلة

The Flight from Kabul and the Legacy of General Soleimani

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18 Aug 2021

Source: Al Mayadeen

Mohammad Marandi

Iran has strong reason to believe that the sudden withdrawal of western forces was designed to create instability and chaos in Afghanistan.

Roughly 20 years ago, after the Taliban’s crushing defeat in Afghanistan and the complete withdrawal of support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia under US pressure, the Quds Force began a dialogue with this seemingly diminished organization. At that time, many thought this to be a meaningless endeavor as the political landscape across the region was changing dramatically. The fact that the Taliban murdered 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist inside the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, would have made this new direction seem grossly inappropriate in the eyes of many in Tehran, if publicized.

The US invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequently Iraq, forced the Americans to stomach the presence and role of powerful Iranian allies in both countries. The US-led occupation forces lacked a coherent long-term strategy as well as allies, while important opposition leaders and military and political organizations were based in Tehran. In Afghanistan, the US had to turn to a coalition of political parties or the so-called Northern Alliance, which was struggling under tremendous pressure in their resistance against a foreign-backed brutal and ruthless Taliban.

Therefore, when the Taliban was defeated and remnant forces fled the country, Iranian allies took key positions in the Afghanistan government. There seemed to be no need or justification for dialogue with this seemingly spent force. However, General Qasem Soleimani believed that the Taliban continued to have popular support among a significant segment of the Pashtun tribes and populations in southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, and he felt that the only path to long-term regional stability was for all the parties to engage in dialogue.

General Soleimani also believed that under such circumstances, the only force that was prepared to significantly drive up the cost of the US-led occupation, a key strategic Iranian objective, was the Taliban. He knew that under such circumstances the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan would gradually become extremely problematic and unpopular in western countries and that ultimately, such a huge burden would hit western economies hard and force them to withdraw their forces from both countries.

The objective of the Quds Force was to create mutual understanding and to encourage the more moderate factions within the fragmented Taliban to gain the upper hand. General Soleimani believed it was inevitable that foreign forces would at some point be forced to leave the country, and that following the country’s liberation, it was essential that Afghanistan isn’t pushed by the withdrawing occupation forces into another devastating civil war.

2011 was a significant turning point in the relationship, and high-ranking delegations began visiting Tehran. As time went by, the relationships became warmer and even personal, so much so that when General Soleimani, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes and their companions were murdered at Baghdad International Airport by the Trump regime, a high ranking Taliban delegation traveled to Tehran and visited his house to pay condolences to his family.

While accusations of Iranian military support for the Taliban against Afghan government forces are completely baseless, there was one significant and revealing instance where the Taliban asked for Iranian assistance. Both Iranian intelligence and the Taliban knew that US-linked factions within the rapidly collapsing ISIS were extracted from Syria and inserted into Afghanistan. The Taliban asked the Quds Force to help it defeat what it saw to be an existential threat. Iran informed the Afghan government, which wasn’t particularly happy with such cooperation, but they didn’t object.

Ultimately, the Taliban made 4 commitments to the Quds Force. It would maintain stability on the border with Iran, it would not compromise on its opposition to the presence of any foreign forces, it would not target other ethnic groups or sects, and that “brothers wouldn’t kill brothers.” While there are differing factions with very different views within the Taliban, the Iranian have assessed that during these years the current Taliban leadership has been committed to its promises.

This relationship has helped the Islamic Republic of Iran become an effective mediator in recent weeks and months, to ensure that the withdrawal of occupation forces doesn’t lead to civil war, and to prod the new government to be inclusive of all Afghans. Iran has strong reason to believe that the sudden withdrawal of western forces was designed to create instability and chaos in Afghanistan. The US believes that if it can’t have Afghanistan, then the country should become a source of persistent trouble for Iran, China, Russia and even India. Meanwhile, significant sums of money are currently being sent by Saudi Arabia and 2 other regional counties to support extremist takfirist factions within the Taliban. Iran isn’t naive, but doing what it can to prevent tragedy is a responsibility. If that doesn’t work, the Quds Force will vehemently support those resisting extremism and terrorism.

Iran is constantly working and negotiating with the different parties inside Afghanistan as well with neighboring countries, plus China and Russia, to block the efforts of those who are pushing for a return to the dark past. Iran’s imminent membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will enhance its capability to coordinate international efforts in this regard.

General Soleimani is no longer among us, but his legacy continues to inflict blows on the dying US Empire.  

19 Aug, 2021

Source: Al Mayadeen

Seyed Mohammad Marandi

سقوط مدوّ لنظرية «خطة أميركية منسّقة وراء الانسحاب»

الاربعاء 18 آب 2021

ناصر قنديل

سادت نظرية لدى بعض المتابعين والمحللين للحدث الأفغاني مع بدايات الانسحاب الأميركي، تقوم على تقديم فرضية وجود خطة أميركية منسقة ومتفاهَم عليها مع حركة طالبان، تجعل الانسحاب الأميركي جزءاً من خطة تسليم وتسلّم لأفغانستان، وترتكز هذه النظرية على اعتبار أنّ الأميركي استبدل السعي للسيطرة على أفغانستان وموقعها الاستراتيجي، باستخدام هذا الموقع عبر تجييره لحركة طالبان لتتولى إرباك المشهد الإقليمي، وتحويل أفغانستان الى مشكلة لجيرانها وخصوصاً إيران وروسيا، وساق أصحاب نظرية الخطة الأميركية لتدعيم منطقهم التاريخ المشحون بين طالبان وموسكو منذ زمن الإتحاد السوفياتي، والتنابذ المذهبي الذي سيفجّر حرباً بينها وبين إيران، كما ساق هؤلاء لنظريتهم حججاً من نوع أن الإنهيار السريع للحكومة الموالية للأميركيين وجيشها جاء بقرار وبُني على عدم إبلاغ وتهيئة هذه الحكومة وقواتها لنوعية التحديات التي تنتظرهم، مقابل التسهيلات الممنوحة لطالبان لتحقيق تقدم سريع نحو العاصمة كابول، مستعيدين نظرية قوامها انّ واشنطن كانت وراء إنشاء طالبان.

كنا منذ البداية وقبلها نخالف هذه النظرية، ونرى فيها تعبيراً فكرياً عن فوبيا القدرة الأميركية، التي يعجز المصابون بها حتى من خصوم أميركا ومن مؤيدي مقاومتها، عن تقبّل فكرة انّ أميركا يمكن ان تهزم وتذلّ بهذه السهولة التي ظهرت بها مشاهد أفغانستان، خصوصاً انّ تداعيات الهزيمة كبيرة ولن يكون سهلاً حصرها في أفغانستان، واذا كان ممكناً لأصحاب النظرية إبقاءها في التداول مع الساعات الأولى للحدث فإنّ تطورات الساعات الماضية تجعله هلوسات سياسية غير قابلة للتفكير، فأمامنا وقائع تجعل هذه الفرضية ضرباً من التخيّل الأقرب الى فرضيات الخيال العلمي، فتداعيات الهزيمة المدوية بدأت تهزّ أميركا نفسها، وتضع حلف الأطلسي كله على المحك كما قال الأمين العام للحلف، والحديث عن أول هزيمة من نوعها في تاريخ الحلف، كما تلاقى كلّ شركاء واشنطن الذين تلاقوا على تحميلها مسؤولية المهانة التي لحقت بمكانة الحلف الدولية، وخرج الرئيس الأميركي جو بايدن يرسم عناوين وخلاصات للخبرة الأفغانية عنوانها، التخلي عن نظرية تعميم النموذج الأميركي للحكم بالقوة العسكرية، وهو ما كان عنوان الحروب الأميركية للعقدين الماضيين تحت شعار تعميم نموذج الديمقراطية وحقوق الإنسان، وكلّ هذا الانهيار الفكري والنفسي والسياسي، والانهزام الإعلامي، والإحباط الفلسفي لا يمكن ان يشكل فصولاً من مسرحية تمّ توزيع الأدوار فيها، إلا إذا افترضنا انّ أميركا وحلفاءها خططوا للانتحار؟

بالتوازي مع الإنهزام المسيطر على المقلب الأميركي، خرج قادة حركة طالبان، لتقديم خطاب تصالحي نحو الداخل الأفغاني والخارج الدولي وخصوصاً الجوار، وأعلنت موسكو وطهران إرتياحهما للضمانات التي تلقوها من قيادة طلبان، وبادر هؤلاء القادة الى تظهير خطوات إيجابية تجاه البعد المذهبي لعلاقتهم بشيعة أفغانستان عبر رفع رايات عاشوراء والمشاركة في إحياء لياليها، وهنا لا بدّ من تقديم بعض المعلومات التي تجعل تخيّلات البعض لمشهد دموي بعيدة عن الواقع، فطالبان حركة سياسية عسكرية ينحصر نفوذها وإمتدادها في قومية واحدة من قوميات أفغانستان، وهي قومية البشتون التي تمثل أكبر القوميات لكنها تقارب نصف السكان، والحركة تمثل القوة الأوسع نفوذاً في قبائل البشتون، لكنها محاطة بحضور تنافسي مع نخب وقيادات وزعماء قبائل، فأغلب قادة الإغانستان يتحدّرون من البشتون، وهم في كابول أقلّ من نصف السكان، ومثلما هناك الأوزبك والطاجيك، هناك الهزارة الذين يمثلون نصف نسبة تمثيل البشتون أيّ أقلّ بقليل من ربع سكان أفغانستان الأربعين مليون، وهم من الشيعة المقرّبين لإيران، ويشكلون ثلث سكان العاصمة، وفي إيران أربعة ملايين لاجئ أفغاني أغلبهم من أنصار طالبان، والتبادل التجاري بين أفغاستان وإيران يعادل ثلث التبادل التجاري لأفغانستان مع الخارج المقدّر بعشرة مليارات دولار سنوياً، وأفغانستان تعتمد على إيران بالمحروقات وجزء أساسي من الكهرباء واللوم والخضروات، وتخيّل المناخ التصادمي الدموي فيه الكثير من التجاهل لتعقيدات ضخمة تنتظر طالبان ستحتاج فيها لإيران سياسياً واقتصادياً وأمنياً، أكثر من العكس، ومهمّ أن نتذكر انّ قائد فيلق القدس الحالي الجنرال إسماعيل قآني كان مسؤولاً عن إدارة الملف الأفغاني قبل استشهاد الجنرال قاسم سليماني، وأنّ الأميركيين كانوا يتهمونه بالوقوف وراء تصعيد عمليات طالبان ضدّ القوات الأميركية بعد اغتيال سليماني، والبيان التنديدي باغتياله الذي أصدرته طالبان.

من الصحيح القول إنّ العلاقة بين طالبان والأميركيين كانت جيدة بين عامي 1979 و1989 خلال المواجهة مع القوات السوفياتية، لكن بشرطين، الأول إدراك أنها كانت تقاطع مصالح في مواجهة ما يسمّيانه عدواً مشتركاً، وهو ما يفسّر التصادم اللاحق بين الطرفين بعد الإنسحاب السوفياتي، والثاني انّ طالبان ليست القاعدة أو داعش، اللتين تمثلان حركات بلا أوطان، أسّسهما الأميركي وإستعملهما وقاتلهما عند الضرورة، لكن طالبان هي حركة قومية دينية أفغانية، مثلها طالبان باكستان، وهما حركتان تأسّستا من طلاب الشريعة الذين قرّروا الإنخراط في مشروع يقوم على قاعدتي رفض الإحتلال الأجنبي وإقامة حكم يستند الى الإسلام، والحركتان اللتان وقفتا ضدّ السوفيات حتى خروجهم من أفغانستان وقفتا ضدّ الأميركيين بسبب إحتلالهم لأفغانستان، ورغم الطابع المتطرف لفهم الشريعة الذي يؤمن به قادة طالبان، بسبب تأثرهم بالشراكة مع القاعدة خلال حقبة القتال ضدّ السوفيات، فإنّ الخلفية المختلفة لطالبان عن القاعدة وداعش ترتبط بكونها لا تنتمي للسلفية بفروعها المختلفة، فخلفيتها العقائدية المنطلقة من المذهب الحنفي تجلعها أقرب الى الواقعية السياسية، ورفض التكفير بين المذاهب، والتمسك بهويتها الوطنية والقومية، وتداخل مذهبها الحنفي مع الصوفية يفتح نوافذ كثيرة للعلاقة مع المذهب الشيعي وإيران، نظراً للمكانة الهامة للإئمة الشيعة عند الصوفية، ولرفض الحكم الأموي من قبل أصحاب الطرق الصوفية.

يمكن براحة ضمير وبعيون مغمضة الجهر بالقول انّ أميركا تلقت أبشع هزائمها التاريخية في أفغانستان، وان الأيام المقبلة ستحمل المزيد من الهزائم التي تحملها مسارات أفغانستان وعلاقتها بالجوار، وفي المقدمة مع إيران كدولة إسلامية مناهضة للهيمنة الأميركية، تملك حدوداً مشتركة لقرابة الألف كيلومتر، تشكل فرصة  لطالبان أكثر مما تشكل تحدياً، ولعلّ واحدة من الخبرات التي قدمتها تجربة حزب الله لبعض قادة طالبان كما يقولون هي الطريقة التي أرادوا دخول كابول عبرها بما يستعيد طريقة دخوله الى المناطق المحررة في جنوب لبنان عام 2000، بينما تقدّم تجربة طالبان خبرة جديدة لحركات المقاومة قوامها انه ليس ضروريا مطاردة العدو حتى الرحيل قتاليا ليتحقق النصر، بل أن  الصمود وحده يمكن ان يصنع نصرا عندما يزرع اليأس في عقول العدو عن امكانية تغيير الواقع، كما لخص بايدن المعادلة، لو بقينا عشرين عاما أخرى فانّ شيئاً لن يتغيّر.

سترتكب حركة طالبان الكثير من الأخطاء قبل ان تستقر على صورة نهائية لنمط الحكم وإدارة أفغانستان، لكن المخاض الذي بدأ للتو يجب ألا يسمح بالتسرع في إصدار الأحكام على المسار الذي سترسو عليه، وهذا يستدعي منح الفرصة للمراقبة والتفكير، والتقييم الهادئ كي لا نقع في فخ يصنعه التسرع عنوانه الحكم المسبق، والحكم الصحيح هو على كيف تقارب طالبان كأي حركة سياسية العلاقة بقضيتي الاستقلال والبناء، وقد فازت طالبان في إمتحان الإستقلال حتى الآن وهي رفضت بشدة أن يتسلم الأتراك مطار كابول، واعتبرتهم احتلالاً انْ فعلوا ذلك رغم التدخل القطري لتسويقهم بعدما كلفهم الأميركي بذلك كمكون في حلف الأطلسي، يبقى تحدي قضية البناء، وهو شائك ومعقد لكنه يستحق الإنتظار.

Taliban; a Fait Accompli and Prevailing Common Interests

Source: Al Mayadeen

By Abbass Al Zein

The analysis of the social structure of the Taliban Movement and linking that structure to its military expansion during the past months indicate that the Movement has, in fact, exited the cities it captured, rather than entering them.

Taliban has always been at the core of Afghan events

The truth is that the Taliban Movement has not returned to the forefront of the Afghan events recently; it has always been at the core, ever since the United States attacked this Asian country at the turn of the current millennium. So, it continued to be an influential factor in the country and in the ongoing events therein, over the past two decades.

That is why analyzing the Afghan scene from the perspective that the Taliban is an impromptu case that has emerged during the past months is primarily in the interest of the United States, by suggesting that the ongoing hectic situation in Afghanistan is the result of the US withdrawal from the country, and not of it being there to start with.

Taliban… A national-Islamic movement

The rapid expansion of the Taliban Movement in the Afghan provinces reflects the extent of the Movement’s penetration into the Afghan society, otherwise, it would have faced many difficulties in preserving its gains and maintaining its very existence for 20 years, despite its lack of influence in power in terms of sponsorship or relations.

Here, it is necessary to differentiate between the Taliban and other movements that have emerged in recent years regardless of their political and ideological stances, given that these movements did not emerge from a social status, which subjected them to rapid political and security setbacks, in a few years, and perhaps even in a few months in some cases. And perhaps the “al-Qaeda” organization in Afghanistan is the best example of this, not to mention other similar organizations at the international level.

Upon looking into its ideological and national backgrounds, the Taliban is defined as a “national-Islamic” movement. The Islamic dimension is understandable and clear, but it is necessary to understand the national dimension herein in order to understand the Movement’s positioning in the Afghan fabric, how rapidly its expansion is, and how stable it is at the social level, in spite of all the wars, battles, and strikes it has gone through.

The Movement’s militants, in their majority, belong to the Pashtun ethnicity, which represents about half of the Afghan population and is concentrated over a large area in the east and south. In this context, it is worth noting that Kandahar, south Afghanistan, which was controlled by the Taliban during the past two days, is the second-largest city in Afghanistan. Kandahar’s significance is derived from that time phase during which the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 90s of the last century, being the Movement’s stronghold. It is also considered the homeland of the “Pashtuns” since it was the capital of the “Pashtun” Kingdom during some time in the eighteenth century before the capital was moved to Kabul later.

The analysis of the social structure of the Taliban Movement and linking it to the military expansion during the past months indicates that the Movement has, in fact, exited the cities it has captured, rather than entering them. This means that it was there waiting for an opportunity and the right moment to take action, otherwise, there is not any other military and political explanation for its control of 17 provinces (out of 34) during that period until August 13, especially that it moved from the bordering provinces and cities towards the center; the location that ensures a logistical and security weight for the Movement’s militants.

Relations with neighboring countries

The Taliban is regarded, at different levels, internally and externally, politically and militarily, as a movement that is facing a government backed by the United States and the West in general. As for why the Movement is not facing the US forces directly, it is due to the fact that those forces are withdrawing from the country, otherwise, they would have undergone attacks, based on the statements of the Movement’s leaders and on the stage that preceded the February 2020 “Doha Agreement”, when the roadmap related to the withdrawal of foreign forces was announced.

Therefore, there are two routes that govern how the international powers deal with the Taliban and its course of action in Afghanistan. The first route has to do with how close the Movement is to their borders and the impact of its presence there. The second route has to do with the Movement’s political project in Afghanistan, in terms of its relations with the West and the East, amid heated international political “arm wrestling”.

The geographical location of Afghanistan grants the country a very important geopolitical role in this “arm wrestling”, as it is a country that has direct borders with China and Iran and with most of the Central Asian countries, which are within Russia’s orbit, in addition to the American-western interests in it. Based on this, the Russian-Chinese stances regarding the progress of the Taliban in the recent months are approached based on the Taliban’s confrontation with the US influence in the country and the Movement’s unwillingness (and rejection) to establish any political project that is against Moscow and Beijing. To this end, several Taliban delegations have arrived in China in recent months to meet with Chinese officials in order to reassure them about the future of the relations and to ensure that Afghanistan will not turn into a military or security base against China, contrary to what the United States had in mind. Most importantly, the two sides have drawn up a roadmap for Chinese projects and investments in the country.

As for Russia, which hastened military exercises with its allies in Central Asia, its Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, stated last July that the most active clashes are happening in the northern provinces bordering Central Asian states that are allies and partners of Russia. At the same time, he saw that Moscow’s steps are meant to prevent combat from spreading from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. Kabulov discussed this issue directly with the Taliban during their visit to Moscow, during which he confirmed that the Movement will not allow the presence of ISIS on Afghan territory, amid Russia’s continuous warnings that ISIS elements are moving from Syria and Libya to Afghanistan. In the meantime, the maneuvers it has conducted and is still conducting with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as other countries bordering Afghanistan, simulate the elimination of “terrorist groups that infiltrated the territory of one of these countries.”

These Russian statements and the accompanying practical steps indicate that Moscow’s concerns have nothing to do with the Taliban’s military expansion against the Kabul government, but are rather related to the resulting combat that other organizations and countries might exploit to expand towards the Central Asian regions, which have for so long been a US target in particular. The Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan expressed this by saying that “the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan should not turn into the relocation of US military infrastructure to neighboring countries,” while describing the Taliban’s control of areas in northern Afghanistan as “a positive factor that provides security for Russia’s partners in Central Asia.

The Taliban has been keen on reassuring Moscow and Beijing in recent months regarding its political project and military expansion, based on its desire to open new relations with them, which will mostly be focused on confronting the US project in Afghanistan and the region in general. Russia and China received these assurances and responded similarly by demonstrating their acceptance of an influential role for the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics and even offering support to this end. This came in parallel with caution related to fears of chaos that Washington could exploit against them, through terrorist organizations that can infiltrate into Chinese territory or Central Asia.

As for Iran, which has always been accused of having “hidden” ties with the Taliban, its stance is close to that of the Russians and Chinese, in terms of preventing chaos from spreading in the region, particularly near its borders. Iran has expressed, on more than one occasion, that Afghanistan’s security is part of its security while stressing that “the Taliban Movement is part of the Afghan fabric.” On its part, the Taliban expressed its “deep sadness”, in January 2020, over the martyrdom of the “Quds Force” Commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, emphasizing at the time the necessity of “fighting American brutality”. At the same time, it sent similar assurances to Iran during its repeated visits to Tehran, the most prominent of which took place last January, when a Taliban delegation met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. However, the process of ensuring the safety of Iran’s mission in the Afghan city of Herat, which was recently captured by the Taliban, 150 km away from the Iranian border, put these guarantees to test, at a time when the majority of the Afghan border area with Iran is under the Taliban’s control.

In addition to Tehran hosting several rounds of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, there are multiple indicators that a change has occurred in the relations between Iran and the “Taliban,” after the two had reached the brink of war in 1998 upon the killing of Iranian diplomats at the time. The change in the course of the relations is related to the changes in the Taliban’s structure, framework, and project, as well as the guarantees it can provide inside and outside Afghanistan, given that they are of equal importance to Iran.

It is worth noting that Western reports spoke of security cooperation that came into existence in the last few years between Taliban leaders and Iran, in the face of the United States. In 2016, Foreign Policy reported cooperation between Iran and the Taliban in order to establish a buffer zone on the border with Afghanistan to ward off the ISIS threat and to secure the 572-mile border. This area extends from Helmand Province in the south all the way to Kunduz along the border.

European tension

The United Kingdom was against the US withdrawal, and the European Union threatened the Taliban with “international isolation.” Those are the latest European statements regarding the Afghan developments. In contrast to the Russian-Chinese-Iranian calm in dealing with the situation, the Europeans appear tense and unable to deal with events in a manner that guarantees their interests and influence, as the pressure related to the Afghan refugees in European countries mounts. Therefore, the European stance remains vague, but without doubt, it does not welcome the ongoing contact between the Taliban, Beijing, and Moscow. Similarly, it is not in favor of the rapid collapse of the government forces it backs. While waiting for the last moments related to the political scene after the battles, it is evident that the European countries, being part of the NATO, were unable to impose their full agenda in Afghanistan. The issue is not whether or not they were defeated, but rather, it is related to the future of its presence in that part of Asia, starting with Afghanistan. It goes without saying, however, that the Taliban assuming power after more than 20 years of the invasion, is not what the European countries concerned with this file had in mind.

What does Washington want?

At home, the Taliban is a fait accompli that cannot be disregarded and whose spread cannot go unheeded socially, politically, and even culturally. Abroad, the Movement has been able to impose itself as a regional player, and it has paved the way for those who seek to establish an understanding with it in a way that guarantees its interests and the others’. In this particular instance, it is difficult to say that the US withdrawal came after the task was completed and that it was intended. The questions related to the future of Afghanistan’s political project in several aspects do not concern US opponents, but rather US allies. This is proven through the Afghan facts, statements, and ongoing events themselves. However, assuming that Washington is looking for loopholes to use the Afghan developments for its own advantage and that it has left the Afghan arena to the Taliban, its opponents are sparing no efforts ahead to fill those loopholes, from the northern borders of Russia’s allies to the eastern borders with China, all the way to the western border with Iran.

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A Saigon moment looms in Kabul

August 13, 2021

See the source image
Vietnam Civilians try to board a US helicopter at the US Embassy in Saigon, 1975

August 12, 2021 will go down as the day the Taliban avenged America’s invasion and struck the blow that brought down its man in Kabul

A Saigon moment looms in Kabul

by Pepe Escobar,  posted with permission and first posted at Asia Times

August 12, 2021. History will register it as the day the Taliban, nearly 20 years after 9/11 and the subsequent toppling of their 1996-2001 reign by American bombing, struck the decisive blow against the central government in Kabul.

In a coordinated blitzkrieg, the Taliban all but captured three crucial hubs: Ghazni and Kandahar in the center, and Herat in the west. They had already captured most of the north. As it stands, the Taliban control 14 (italics mine) provincial capitals and counting.

First thing in the morning, they took Ghazni, which is situated around 140 kilometers from Kabul. The repaved highway is in good condition. Not only are the Taliban moving closer and closer to Kabul: for all practical purposes they now control the nation’s top artery, Highway 1 from Kabul to Kandahar via Ghazni.

That in itself is a strategic game-changer. It will allow the Taliban to encircle and besiege Kabul simultaneously from north and south, in a pincer movement.

Kandahar fell by nightfall after the Taliban managed to breach the security belt around the city, attacking from several directions.

In Ghazni, provincial governor Daoud Laghmani cut a deal, fled and then was arrested. In Kandahar, provincial governor Rohullah Khanzada – who belongs to the powerful Popolzai tribe – left with only a few bodyguards.

He opted to engage in an elaborate deal, convincing the Taliban to allow the remaining military to retreat to Kandahar airport and be evacuated by helicopter. All their equipment, heavy weapons and ammunition should be transferred to the Taliban.

Afghan Special Forces represented the cream of the crop in Kandahar. Yet they were only protecting a few select locations. Now their next mission may be to protect Kabul. The final deal between the governor and the Taliban should be struck soon. Kandahar has indeed fallen.

In Herat, the Taliban attacked from the east while notorious former warlord Ismail Khan, leading his militia, put up a tremendous fight from the west. The Taliban progressively conquered the police HQ, “liberated” prison inmates and laid siege to the governor’s office.

Game over: Herat has also fallen with the Taliban now controlling the whole of Western Afghanistan, all the way to the borders with Iran.

Tet Offensive, remixed

Military analysts will have a ball deconstructing this Taliban equivalent to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Satellite intel may have been instrumental: it’s as if the whole battlefield progress had been coordinated from above.

Yet there are some quite prosaic reasons for the success of the onslaught apart from strategic acumen: corruption in the Afghan National Army (ANA); total disconnect between Kabul and battlefield commanders; lack of American air support; the deep political divide in Kabul itself.

In parallel, the Taliban had been secretly reaching out for months, through tribal connections and family ties, offering a deal: don’t fight us and you will be spared.

Add to it a deep sense of betrayal by the West felt by those connected with the Kabul government, mixed with fear of Taliban revenge against collaborationists.

A very sad subplot, from now on, concerns civilian helplessness – felt by those who consider themselves trapped in cities that are now controlled by the Taliban. Those that made it before the onslaught are the new Afghan IDPs, such as the ones who set up a refugee camp in the Sara-e-Shamali park in Kabul.

A new generation of IDPs in Afghanistan. Image: Supplied

Rumors were swirling in Kabul that Washington had suggested to President Ashraf Ghani to resign, clearing the way for a ceasefire and the establishment of a transitional government.

On the record, what’s established is that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin promised Ghani to “remain invested” in Afghan security.

Reports indicate the Pentagon plans to redeploy 3,000 troops and Marines to Afghanistan and another 4,000 to the region to evacuate the US Embassy and US citizens in Kabul.

The alleged offer to Ghani actually originated in Doha – and came from Ghani’s people, as I confirmed with diplomatic sources.

The Kabul delegation, led by Abdullah Abdullah, the chairman of something called the High Council for National Reconciliation, via Qatar mediation, offered the Taliban a power-sharing deal as long as they stop the onslaught. There’s been no mention of Ghani resigning, which is the Taliban’s number one condition for any negotiation.

The extended troika in Doha is working overtime. The US lines up immovable object Zalmay Khalilzad, widely mocked in the 2000s as “Bush’s Afghan.” The Pakistanis have special envoy Muhammad Sadiq and ambassador to Kabul Mansoor Khan.

The Russians have the Kremlin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. And the Chinese have a new Afghan envoy, Xiao Yong.

Russia-China-Pakistan are negotiating with a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) frame of mind: all three are permanent members. They emphasize a transition government, power-sharing, and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate political force.

Diplomats are already hinting that if the Taliban topple Ghani in Kabul, by whatever means, they will be recognized by Beijing as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan – something that will set up yet another incendiary geopolitical front in the confrontation against Washington.

As it stands, Beijing is just encouraging the Taliban to strike a peace agreement with Kabul.

The Pashtunistan riddle

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has minced no words as he stepped into the fray. He confirmed the Taliban leadership told him there’s no negotiation with Ghani in power – even as he tried to persuade them to reach for a peace deal.

Khan accused Washington of regarding Pakistan as “useful” only when it comes to pressing Islamabad to use its influence over the Taliban to broker a deal – without considering the “mess” the Americans left behind.

Khan once again said he “made it very clear” there will be no US military bases in Pakistan.

This is a very good analysis of how hard it is for Khan and Islamabad to explain Pakistan’s complex involvement with Afghanistan to the West and also the Global South.

The key issues are quite clear:

1. Pakistan wants a power-sharing deal and is doing what it can in Doha, along the extended troika, to reach it.

2. A Taliban takeover will lead to a new influx of refugees and may encourage jihadis of the al-Qaeda, TTP and ISIS-Khorasan kind to destabilize Pakistan.

3. It was the US that legitimized the Taliban by striking an agreement with them during the Donald Trump administration.

4. And because of the messy withdrawal, the Americans reduced their leverage – and Pakistan’s – over the Taliban.

The problem is Islamabad simply does not manage to get these messages across.

And then there are some bewildering decisions. Take the AfPak border between Chaman (in Pakistan’s Balochistan) and Spin Boldak (in Afghanistan).

The Pakistanis closed their side of the border. Every day tens of thousands of people, overwhelmingly Pashtun and Baloch, from both sides cross back and forth alongside a mega-convoy of trucks transporting merchandise from the port of Karachi to landlocked Afghanistan. To shut down such a vital commercial border is an unsustainable proposition.

All of the above leads to arguably the ultimate problem: what to do about Pashtunistan?

The absolute heart of the matter when it comes to Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan and Afghan interference in the Pakistani tribal areas is the completely artificial, British Empire-designed Durand Line. 

Islamabad’s definitive nightmare is another partition. Pashtuns are the largest tribe in the world and they live on both sides of the (artificial) border. Islamabad simply cannot admit a nationalist entity ruling Afghanistan because that will eventually foment a Pashtun insurrection in Pakistan.

And that explains why Islamabad prefers the Taliban compared to an Afghan nationalist government. Ideologically, conservative Pakistan is not that dissimilar from the Taliban positioning. And in foreign policy terms, the Taliban in power perfectly fit the unmovable “strategic depth” doctrine that opposes Pakistan to India.

In contrast, Afghanistan’s position is clear-cut. The Durand Line divides Pashtuns on both sides of an artificial border. So any nationalist government in Kabul will never abandon its desire for a larger, united Pashtunistan.

As the Taliban are de facto a collection of warlord militias, Islamabad has learned by experience how to deal with them. Virtually every warlord – and militia – in Afghanistan is Islamic.

Even the current Kabul arrangement is based on Islamic law and seeks advice from an Ulema council. Very few in the West know that Sharia law is the predominant trend in the current Afghan constitution.

Closing the circle, ultimately all members of the Kabul government, the military, as well as a great deal of civil society come from the same conservative tribal framework that gave birth to the Taliban.

Apart from the military onslaught, the Taliban seem to be winning the domestic PR battle because of a simple equation: they portray Ghani as a NATO and US puppet, the lackey of foreign invaders.

And to make that distinction in the graveyard of empires has always been a winning proposition.

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All roads lead to the Battle for Kabul

August 10, 2021

All roads lead to the Battle for Kabul

City after city have fallen from government to Taliban control but Afghanistan’s end-game is still unclear

by Pepe Escobar, posted with permission and first posted at Asia Times

The ever-elusive Afghan “peace” process negotiations re-start this Wednesday in Doha via the extended troika – the US, Russia, China and Pakistan. The contrast with the accumulated facts on the ground could not be starker.

In a coordinated blitzkrieg, the Taliban have subdued no less than six Afghan provincial capitals in only four days. The central administration in Kabul will have a hard time defending its stability in Doha.

It gets worse. Ominously, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has all but buried the Doha process. He’s already betting on civil war – from the weaponization of civilians in the main cities to widespread bribing of regional warlords, with the intent of building a “coalition of the willing” to fight the Taliban.

The capture of Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province, was a major Taliban coup. Zaranj is the gateway for India’s access to Afghanistan and further on to Central Asia via the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC).

India paid for the construction of the highway linking the port of Chabahar in Iran – the key hub of India’s faltering version of the New Silk Roads – to Zaranj.

At stake here is a vital Iran-Afghanistan border crossing cum Southwest/Central Asia transportation corridor. Yet now the Taliban control trade on the Afghan side. And Tehran has just closed the Iranian side. No one knows what happens next.

The Taliban are meticulously implementing a strategic master plan. There’s no smoking gun, yet – but highly informed outside help – Pakistani ISI intel? – is plausible.

First, they conquer the countryside – a virtually done deal in at least 85% of the territory. Then they control the key border checkpoints, as with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Spin Boldak with Balochistan in Pakistan. Finally, it’s all about encircling and methodically taking provincial capitals – that’s where we are now.

Taliban posing with military garb stolen from Dostum’s palace in Sheberghan. Photo: Supplied

The final act will be the Battle for Kabul. This may plausibly happen as early as September, in a warped “celebration” of the 20 years of 9/11 and the American bombing of 1996-2001 Talibanistan.

That strategic blitzkrieg

What’s going on across the north is even more astonishing than in the southwest.

The Taliban have conquered Sheberghan, a heavily Uzbek-influenced area, and took no time to spread images of fighters in stolen garb posing in front of the now-occupied Dostum Palace. Notoriously vicious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum happens to be the current Afghan vice-president.

The Taliban’s big splash was to enter Kunduz, which is still not completely subdued. Kunduz is very important strategically. With 370,000 people and quite close to the Tajik border, it’s the main hub of northeast Afghanistan.

Kabul government forces have simply fled. All prisoners were released from local jails. Roads are blocked. That’s significant because Kunduz is at the crossroads of two important corridors – to Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. And crucially, it’s also a crossroads of corridors used to export opium and heroin.

The Bundeswehr used to occupy a military base near Kunduz airport, now housing the 217th Afghan Army corps. That’s where the few remaining Afghan government forces have retreated.

The Taliban are now bent on besieging the historically legendary Mazar-i-Sharif, the big northern city, even more important than Kunduz. Mazar-i-Sharif is the capital of Balkh province. The top local warlord, for decades, has been Atta Mohammad Noor, who I met 20 years ago.

He’s now vowing to defend “his” city “until the last drop of my blood.” That, in itself, spells out a major civil war scenario.

The Taliban endgame here is to establish a west-east axis from Sheberghan to Kunduz and the also captured Taloqan, the capital of Takhar province, via Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province, and parallel to the northern borders with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

If that happens, we’re talking about an irreversible, logistical game-changer, with virtually the whole north escaping from the control of Kabul. No way the Taliban will “negotiate” this win – in Doha or anywhere else.

An extra astonishing fact is that all these areas do not feature a Pashtun majority, unlike Kandahar in the south and Lashkar Gah in the southwest, where the Taliban are still fighting to establish complete control.

The Taliban’s control over almost all international border crossings yielding customs revenue leads to serious questions about what happens next to the drug business.

Will the Taliban again interdict opium production – like the late Mullah Omar did in the early 2000s? A strong possibility is that distribution will not be allowed inside Afghanistan.

After all, export profits can only benefit Taliban weaponization – against future American and NATO “interference.” And Afghan farmers may earn much more with opium poppy cultivation than with other crops.

NATO’s abject failure in Afghanistan is visible in every aspect. In the past, Americans used military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The Bundeswehr used the base in Termez, Uzbekistan, for years.

Termez is now used for Russian and Uzbek joint maneuvers. And the Russians left their base in Kyrgzstan to conduct joint maneuvers in Tajikistan. The whole security apparatus in the neighboring Central Asian “stans” is being coordinated by Russia.

China’s main security priority, meanwhile, is to prevent future jihadi incursions in Xinjiang, which involve extremely hard mountain crossings from Afghanistan to Tajikistan and then to a no man’s land in the Wakhan corridor. Beijing’s electronic surveillance is tracking anything that moves in this part of the roof of the world.

This Chinese think tank analysis shows how the moving chessboard is being tracked. The Chinese are perfectly aware of the “military pressure on Kabul” running in parallel to the Taliban diplomatic offensive, but prefer to stress their “posing as an aggressive force ready to take over the regime.”

Chinese realpolitik also recognizes that “the United States and other countries will not easily give up the operation in Afghanistan for many years, and will not be willing to let Afghanistan become the sphere of influence of other countries.”

This leads to characteristic Chinese foreign policy caution, with practically an advice for the Taliban not to “be too big,” and try “to replace the Ghani government in one fell swoop.”

How to prevent a civil war

So is Doha DOA? Extended troika players are doing what they can to salvage it. There are rumors of feverish “consultations” with the members of the Taliban political office based in Qatar and with the Kabul negotiators.

The starter will be a meeting this Tuesday of the US, Russia, Afghanistan’s neighbors and the UN. Yet even before that, the Taliban political office spokesman, Naeem Wardak, has accused Washington of interfering in internal Afghan affairs.

Pakistan is part of the extended troika. Pakistani media is all-out involved in stressing how Islamabad’s leverage over the Taliban “is now limited.” An example is made of how the Taliban shut the key border crossing in Spin Boldak – actually a smuggling haven – demanding Pakistan ease visa restrictions for Afghans.

Now that is a real nest of vipers issue. Most old school Taliban leaders are based in Pakistan’s Balochistan and supervise what goes in and out of the border from a safe distance, in Quetta.

Extra trouble for the extended troika is the absence of Iran and India at the negotiating table. Both have key interests in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to its hopefully new peaceful role as a transit hub for Central-South Asia connectivity.

Moscow from the start wanted Tehran and New Delhi to be part of the extended troika. Impossible. Iran never sits on the same table with the US, and vice-versa. That’s the case now in Vienna, during the JCPOA negotiations, where they “communicate” via the Europeans.

New Delhi for its part refuses to sit on the same table with the Taliban, which it sees as a terrorist Pakistani proxy.

There’s a possibility that Iran and India may be getting their act together, and that would include even a closely connected position on the Afghan drama.

When Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attended President Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration last week in Tehran, they insisted on “close cooperation and coordination” also on Afghanistan.

What this would imply in the near future is increased Indian investment in the INSTC and the India-Iran-Afghanistan New Silk Road corridor. Yet that’s not going to happen with the Taliban controlling Zaranj.

Beijing for its part is focused on increasing its connectivity with Iran via what could be described as a Persian-colored corridor incorporating Tajikistan and Afghanistan. That will depend, once again, on the degree of Taliban control.

But Beijing can count on an embarrassment of riches: Plan A, after all, is an extended China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with Afghanistan annexed, whoever is in power in Kabul.

What’s clear is that the extended troika will not be shaping the most intricate details of the future of Eurasia integration. That will be up to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, China, Pakistan, India, the Central Asian “stans” and Iran and Afghanistan as current observers and future full-members.

So the time has come for the SCO’s ultimate test: how to pull off a near-impossible power-sharing deal in Kabul and prevent a devastating civil war, complete with imperial B-52 bombing.

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Today’s Taliban May Be Truly ‘New’, and the Shift Could Transform the Middle East

Today 20/07/2021

Source: Al Mayadeen

Most significantly, rather than having a tunnel vision limited to the narrow territory of Kandahar, the new young Taliban leaders want to play the strategic ‘Great Game’.

There is a subtle breeze blowing; it is too soon to call it ‘a wind’.  But a striking change has – and is – occurring.  Is it enough?  We should be rightly cautious; yet the Taliban that I knew, as it first coalesced – the brainchild of General Hamid Gul of Pakistan’s Intelligence service – is not the Taliban of today.  Perhaps we need, too, to avoid being locked into stale narratives. Suhail Shaheen, their spokesman, made this point when he lamented the “propaganda launched against us”, and by which he implied that the world should admit that the Taliban has indeed changed.

Several of these shifts are breathtaking: The Taliban were a narrow Pashtun revanchist movement, wholly Gulliverised by rigid tribal law, and influenced by intolerant Saudi Salafism and Pakistani Islamism.

What do we see today? The Taliban is engaging in extensive diplomacy with Iran. Tehran, it seems, is no longer apostate, no longer an ideological and theological foe.  The Taliban now seek to mesh Iran into their wider strategic interests. And more extraordinary, the Afghan Shi’i Hazaras – originally slaughtered and fearfully repressed by the Taliban – are now a component of the Taliban!  Then there is now also a ‘Tajik Taliban’, whereas before, the Taliban were a sworn enemy to the northern (mostly Tajik) forces of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Today’s Taliban is no longer a simple instrument of Pashtun hegemony – maybe up to 30% are Tajik, Uzbek, or Hazara. In other words, the kernel of inclusion is already in the soil.

Most significantly, rather than having a tunnel vision limited to the narrow territory of Kandahar, the new young Taliban leaders want to play the strategic ‘Great Game’. Their vision has broadened. They are saying as such, very forcibly to Moscow and Tehran: They will be inclusive; they will try to avoid major bloodshed, and they look to Moscow and Tehran as mediators for a new Afghan dispensation.  And there is something more: Saudi and Pakistan formerly controlled the money spigot. Now it is China.  For several years now, the Taliban has cultivated China – and China has cultivated the Taliban.

But we must keep our feet on the ground.  The Taliban is not autonomous. Both India and Pakistan wield weight in it, and the narco-gangs (the legacy of the CIA’s ill-considered earlier attempts to buy prominent Afghan warlords) may act as spoilers.

But the point here – aside from the caveats above – is, is this enough?  Enough for what? Enough to see the US out of the region, that is. There is here, a marked and unusual, constellation of interests.  All the principal actors want the US gone from the region.

It is not geo-strategic high science to understand that America’s withdrawal from Iraq and Syria will be contingent on what now happens in Afghanistan. If there is an unholy mess after August 31st, further US withdrawals from the region will become hugely more problematic in terms of domestic US opposition.  It is in the interest of the Taliban – as much as of Russia, Iran, and China – that Afghanistan does not now humiliate Biden through a descent into (very possible) bloody civil war.

A tough ‘ask’, but as Pepe Escobar points out, the SCO heavyweights, China and Russia, will be joined on July 14 in Dushanbe, by four Central Asian ‘stans’, plus India and Pakistan (Afghanistan and Iran attend as observers).

Wang Yi and Lavrov likely will tell Ghani’s FM, “in no uncertain terms, that there’s got to be a national reconciliation deal, with no American interference, and that the deal must include the end of the opium-heroin ratline”.  (Russia already has pocketed a firm promise from the Taliban that jihadism won’t be allowed to fester.  The endgame: loads of productive investment, Afghanistan is incorporated to Belt and Road and – later on – to the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU).

Why should the Taliban agree?  Well, they can be the facilitators of an American wider withdrawal (or, its’ spoiler). But, if they are patient – and agree to wait until US attention has moved on – they can allow Ghani to fall some months later – all in good time.  The Taliban might claim then to be the vanguard to a new more sophisticated, more inclusive Sunni Islamism that is aligned with a major Belt and Road infrastructure project.

How did this happen?  Professor Rabbani just might be smiling from his grave.  It seems the ‘new’ Taliban may have taken the Tajik leader’s political clothing.The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.

Say hello to the diplo-Taliban

Say hello to the diplo-Taliban

July 09, 2021

Deploying diplomatic skills refined from Doha to Moscow, the Taliban in 2021 has little to do with its 2001 incarnation

by Pepe Escobar with permission, and first posted at Asia Times

A very important meeting took place in Moscow last week, virtually hush-hush. Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, received Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security adviser.

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Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (center) and other members of the Taliban arrive to attend an international conference in Moscow on March 18, 2021. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko / AFP

There were no substantial leaks. A bland statement pointed to the obvious: They “focused on the security situation in Afghanistan during the pullout of Western military contingencies and the escalation of the military-political situation in the northern part of the country.”

The real story is way more nuanced. Mohib, representing embattled President Ashraf Ghani, did his best to convince Patrushev that the Kabul administration represents stability. It does not – as the subsequent Taliban advances proved.

Patrushev knew Moscow could not offer any substantial measure of support to the current Kabul arrangement because doing so would burn bridges the Russians would need to cross in the process of engaging the Taliban. Patrushev knows that the continuation of Team Ghani is absolutely unacceptable to the Taliban – whatever the configuration of any future power-sharing agreement.

So Patrushev, according to diplomatic sources, definitely was not impressed.

This week we can all see why. A delegation from the Taliban political office went to Moscow essentially to discuss with the Russians the fast-evolving mini-chessboard in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban had been to Moscow four months earlier, along with the extended troika (Russia, US, China, Pakistan) to debate the new Afghan power equation.

On this trip, they emphatically assured their interlocutors there’s no Taliban interest in invading any territory of their Central Asia neighbors.

It’s not excessive, in view of how cleverly they’ve been playing their hand, to call the Taliban desert foxes. They know well what Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been repeating: Any turbulence coming from Afghanistan will be met with a direct response from the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

In addition to stressing that the US withdrawal – actually, repositioning – represents the failure of its Afghan “mission,” Lavrov touched on the two really key points:

The Taliban is increasing its influence in the northern Afghanistan border areas; and Kabul’s refusal to form a transitional government is “promoting a belligerent solution” to the drama. This implies Lavrov expects much more flexibility from both Kabul and the Taliban in the Sisyphean power-sharing task ahead.

And then, relieving the tension, when asked by a Russian journalist if Moscow will send troops to Afghanistan, Lavrov reverted to Mr Cool: “The answer is obvious.”

Mohammad Suhail Shaheen is the quite articulate spokesman for the Taliban political office. He’s adamant that “taking Afghanistan by military force is not our policy. Our policy is to find a political solution to the Afghan issue, which is continuing in Doha.” Bottom line: “We confirmed our commitment to a political solution here in Moscow once more.”

That’s absolutely correct. The Taliban don’t want a bloodbath. They want to be embraced. As Shaheen has stressed, it would be easy to conquer major cities – but there would be blood. Meanwhile, the Taliban already control virtually the whole border with Tajikistan.

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New face of the Taliban: The insurgents’ spokesman Mohammad Suhail Shaheen speaks to media in Moscow on February 15, 2021.

The 2021 Taliban have little in common with their 2001 pre-war on terror incarnation. The movement has evolved from a largely Ghilzai Pashtun rural guerrilla insurgency to a more inter-ethnic arrangement, incorporating Tajiks, Uzbeks and even Shi’ite Hazaras – a group that was mercilessly persecuted during the 1996-2001 years of Taliban power.

Reliable figures are extremely hard to come by, but 30% of the Taliban today may be non-Pashtuns. One of the top commanders is ethnically Tajik – and that explains the lightning-flash “soft” blitzkrieg in northern Afghanistan across Tajik territory.

I visited a lot of these geologically spectacular places in the early 2000s. The inhabitants, all cousins, speaking Dari, are now turning over their villages and towns to Tajik Taliban as a matter of trust. Very few – if any – Pashtuns from Kandahar or Jalalabad are involved. That illustrates the absolute failure of the central government in Kabul.

Those who do not join the Taliban simply desert – as did the Kabul forces manning the checkpoint close to the bridge over the Pyanj river, off the Pamir highway; they escaped without a fight to Tajik territory, actually riding the Pamir highway. The Taliban hoisted their flag in this crucial intersection without firing a shot.

The Afghan National Army’s chief, General Wali Mohammad Ahmadza, fresh into his role by appointment from Ghani, is keeping a brave face: ANA’s priority is to protect the main cities (so far, so good, because the Taliban are not attacking them); border crossings (that’s not going so well), and highways (mixed results so far).

This interview with Suhail Shaheen is quite enlightening – as he feels compelled to stress that “we don’t have access to media” and laments the “baseless” barrage of “propaganda launched against us,” which implies that Western media should admit the Taliban have changed.

Shaheen points out that “it’s not possible to take 150 districts in just six weeks by fighting,” which connects to the fact that the security forces “do not trust the Kabul administration.” In all districts that have been conquered, he swears, “ the forces came to the Taliban voluntarily.”

A smoke plume rises from houses amid an ongoing fight between Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters in the western city of Qala-i- Naw, the capital of Badghis province, on July 7. The Taliban launched its first major assault on a provincial capital since the US military began its final drawdown of troops from the country.

Shaheen makes a statement that could have come straight from Ronald Reagan in the mid-1980s: The “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan are the real freedom fighters.” That may be the object of endless debate across the lands of Islam.

But one fact is indisputable: The Taliban are sticking by the agreement they signed with the Americans on February 29, 2020. And that implies a total American exit: “If they don’t abide by their commitments, we have a clear right of retaliation.”

Thinking ahead to “when an Islamic government is in place,” Shaheen insists there will be “good relations” with every nation, and embassies and consulates will not be targeted.

The Taliban “goal is clear: to end the occupation.” And that brings us to the tricky gambit of Turkish troops “protecting” Kabul airport. Shaheen is crystal clear. “No NATO forces – that means continuation of occupation,” he proclaims. “When we have an independent Islamic country, then we will sign any agreement with Turkey that is mutually beneficial.”

Shaheen is involved in the ongoing, very complicated negotiations in Doha, so he cannot allow himself to commit the Taliban to any future power-sharing agreement. What he does say, even though “progress is slow” in Doha, is that, contrary to what was previously reported by media in Qatar, the Taliban will not present a formal written proposal to Kabul by the end of the month, The talks will continue.

Going hybrid?

Whatever the “Mission Accomplished” non-denial denials emanating from the White House, a few things are already clear on the Eurasia front.

The Russians, for one thing, are already engaging the Taliban, in detail, and may soon strike their name off their terror list.

The Chinese, for another, are assured that if the Taliban commits Afghanistan to join the Belt and Road Initiative, connecting via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, ISIS-Khorasan will not then be permitted to go on overdrive in Afghanistan bolstered by Uyghur jihadis currently in Idlib.

And nothing is off the table for Washington when it comes to derailing BRI. Crucial silos scattered across the deep state must be already at work replacing a forever war in Afghanistan with hybrid war, Syria-style.

Lavrov is very much aware of Kabul power brokers who would not say “no” to a new hybrid war arrangement. But the Taliban for their part have been very effective – preventing assorted Afghan factions from supporting Team Ghani.

As for the Central Asian “stans,” not a single one of them wants any forever wars or hybrid wars down the road.

Fasten your seat belts: It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

The Bamiyan Buddhas: an Afghan tale

The Bamiyan Buddhas: an Afghan tale

March 03, 2021

by Pepe Escobar with permission and first posted at Asia Times

In the beginning, they were the Bamiyan Buddhas: the Western Buddha statue, 55 meters high, and the Eastern, 38 meters high, carved for decades since 550 A.D. from porous sandstone cliffs, the intricate details modeled in clay mixed with straw and coated with stucco.

Xuanzang, the legendary traveling monk of the early Tang dynasty who journeyed to India in search of Buddhist manuscripts, saw them in all their – colored – glory in the 7th century.

Then, with Islam taking over these high central lands of Afghanistan, local Hazara folklore slowly turned them into the Romeo and Juliet of the Hindu Kush.

They became “Solsol” (“year after year”, or, more colloquially, the prince of Bamiyan) and “Shahmana” (“the king’s Mother”, or colloquially a princess from a remote kingdom). As lovers, they could not be united as a couple in this world; so they chose to turn into statues and stand close to each other forever.

And then, twenty years ago, after a millennium and a half of living history, the Taliban blew them up.

Killing Romeo and Juliet

Solsol and Shahmana lived since their inception among the Hazaras, who speak Dari, a Persian dialect with numerous words of Mongol and Turk origin. The Hazaras are partly descendants of Genghis Khan’s troops who infiltrated these mountains in the 13th century. Hazaras – who I had the pleasure to meet mostly in Kabul in the early 2000s – remain essentially Mongols, but linguistically Persianized, having adopted the old agricultural tradition of the Iranian mountains.

The Hazaras are diametrically opposed by the Pashtuns – who had an extremely complex ethno-genesis before the early 18th century, when they coalesced into great federations of nomad tribes. Their code of conduct – the Pashtunwali – is straightforward, regulating most of all a mechanism of sanctions.

The number one sanction is death: this is a poor society, where sanctions are physical, not material. Islam added moral elements to pashtunwali. And then there are juridical norms imposed by hereditary noblemen – which function like the carpet tying the room together: these come from the Turk-Mongols.

The modern Afghan state was created in the late 19th century by Abd-ur-Rahman, the “Iron Emir”. He pulled that off via a “Pashtunization” of the region that was locally known as the north of Turkestan. Then he integrated the Hazaras in the central mountains via bloody military campaigns.

Hazara lands were opened to Pashtun nomad tribes – who featured not only shepherds but also merchants and caravan entrepreneurs. Increasingly plunged into debt, the Hazaras ended up becoming economic hostages of the Pashtuns. Their way out was to emigrate to Kabul – where they hold mostly menial jobs.

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. Hazaras are Shi’ites. Pashtuns are Sunni. Pashtuns consider themselves the owners of Afghanistan – even as there’s persistent, major infighting among Pashtun groups. Pashtuns simply detest the Westphalian concept of the nation-state: most of all they see themselves as an empire within an empire.

This implies that ethnic minorities are marginalized – if they can’t find some sort of accommodation. Hazaras, because they are Shi’ites, were extremely marginalized during Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban rolled out en masse from Pakistani madrassas in 1994: the overwhelming majority were Pashtuns from rural areas between Kandahar and Paktiya. They had spent many years in camps scattered along the Pakistani tribal areas and Balochistan.

The Taliban became instantly successful for three reasons:

1 – Implementation of Sharia law.

2 – Their fight against the lack of security after the 1980s jihad instrumentalized by the Americans to give the USSR its “own Vietnam” (Brzezinski’s definition), and the subsequent warlord anarchy.

3 – Because they incarnated the return of the Pashtuns as the leading Afghan force.

No reincarnation?

All of the above supplies the context for the inevitable destruction of Solsol and Shahmana in March 2001. They were the symbols of an “infidel” religion. And they were situated in Shi’ite Hazara land.

Months later, after 9/11, I would learn from Taliban officials close to ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef in Islamabad that first they blew up “the little one, which was a woman” then “her husband”; that implies the Taliban were very much aware of local folklore.

The destruction process started with the legs of the Great Buddha: one of them was already cut at the knee and the other at the femur. It took them four days – using mines, explosives and even artillery. The Taliban forced local Hazara youth to drill holes in the statues: those who refused were shot dead.

Yet that was not enough to kill oral tradition. Even the young Hazara generation, born after the smashing of the Buddhas, still delights in the tale of Solsol and Shahmana.

But will they ever reincarnate as living statues? Enter the usually messy “international community”. In 2003, Unesco declared the site of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the surrounding caves a “World Heritage Site in Danger.”

Still, Kabul and Unesco can’t seem to agree on a final decision. As it stands, Solsol will not be rebuilt; Shahmana, maybe. On and off, they resurrect as 3-D holograms.

What happened so far is “consolidation work at the Eastern Buddha niche”, finished in 2015. Work at the Western Buddha niche started in 2016. A Bamiyan Expert Working Group gets together every year, featuring the administration in Kabul, Unesco experts and donors, mostly German and Japanese.co

Ishaq Mawhidi, the head of the Culture and Information Department of Bamiyan, is sure that “90 percent of the statues can be rebuilt with the debris”, plus fragments of smaller statues currently preserved in two large warehouses on site.

The Afghan Ministry of Culture correctly argues that reconstruction work will require a formidable team, including Buddhism scholars, archeologists specialized in Gandhara art, historians, ethnographers, historiographers specialized in the first centuries of the first millennium in Afghanistan.

It will have to be eventually up to wealthy donors such as Berlin and Tokyo to willingly finance all this – and justify the costs, considering Hazara lands barely have been granted with working roads and electricity by the Kabul central government.

It’s always crucial to remember that the Bamiyan Buddhas blow up is a crucial case of deliberate destruction of world cultural heritage – alongside appalling instances in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Mali. They all connect, directly and indirectly, to the causes and consequences of imperial Forever Wars and their spin-offs (never forget that the Taliban initially were fully courted by the Clinton administration).

The Buddha of Dushanbe

In the end, I never managed to see Solsol and Shahmana. The Taliban would not issue a travel permit for foreigners under any circumstances. After 9/11 and the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul, I was negotiating a safe passage with Hazara fighters, but then something bigger came up: bribing a Pashtun commander to take a small group of us to Tora Bora to see the Empire B-52 Show against Osama bin Laden.

Instead of Solsol and Shahmana – either standing up in their niches, or blown up to smithereens – I finally managed to see the next best option: the reclining Buddha of Dushanbe.

Afghanistan may be the “graveyard of empires” – the last act being enacted as we speak. And, to a certain extent, a graveyard of Buddhas. But not neighboring Tajikistan.

The original Buddha of Dushanbe saga was published by Asia Times in those heady 9/11 days. It happened as my photographer Jason Florio and myself were waiting for days for a helicopter to take us to the Panjshir valley in Afghanistan.

Eighteen years later, like a Jorge Luis Borges short story, it all came down full circle before I traveled the Pamir highway in late 2019. I went to the same museum in Dushanbe and there he was: the 13 meter-long “sleeping lion”, found in the Buddhist monastery of Ajinateppa, resting on pillows, in glorious parinirvana, and fully restored, with help from an expert from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Somewhere in unknown spheres beyond space and time, Solsol and Shahmana will be benevolently smiling.

Recommended to open this Wikipedia page for existent photography of Pepe’s tale.


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