Gabriel Danci: Afghani geopolitics continues to be interwoven with war on terror

The Afghan humanitarian and geopolitical situation after one year of Taliban rule – an interview with a Romanian geopolitical expert

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat, Vladimir Mitev

Gabriel Danci is a Romanian expert on Afghanistan, who currently does a Ph.D. research on Afghan geopolitics at the University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He provides custom-tailored geopolitical insights for senior executives and related advisors from the private and public sectors. He researches and reports on practices, military capabilities, and strategies of governments and other relevant non-state actors shaping the political landscape of West, Central and South Asia.

In this episode he discussed the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the various geopolitical interests – regional and global, around the country, the situation of Afghan refugees and other issues.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks. We will have a look to a more distant place, which, however, remains important geopolitically and also in humanitarian terms. Given that Afghanistan has been torn by a lot of developments in the recent months of last year since the Western withdrawal, it has some kind of humanitarian catastrophe. And as well, it remains an important battlefield in international international politics. So today we are having a PhD candidate at the University of Cluj-napoca dealing with Afghan issues, and he has had military background being deployed some time ago in Afghanistan. Welcome to the program, Gabriel. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. Thank you. For now, on to our first question, which will be put by Malgorzata.

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Hi. Before I ask this question, I ask everybody who is now watching us to subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel and not to miss any videos we post. 

Let’s start with a kind of basic question that I think could be important to raise awareness of what is going on in Afghanistan. When nine months ago the US troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan, there was a heated discussion among the experts. What kind of government is now coming to power? Is this the old Taliban coming back, offering a kind of return to the return to the past, to Afghani? Or had the Taliban changed, modernized, understood something perhaps? So what can we say now after almost a year having passed – who are the people ruling Afghanistan? And what is their vision of the state of the society and of getting out of the immense crisis?

Gabriel Danci: Like every question is about Afghanistan, there is never an easy answer. I can say for sure that most of the international community, if we can call it like that expected inclusive government, might or might not include some of the other minorities except Pashtuns. To some extent, those expectations were not met because the government that was announced first didn’t have any Tajiks and Uzbeks. Afterwards, there were a few appointments in senior positions, but not with any relevant implication in how the government, how the business of the government will be conducted. 

What we can say for sure is that the Taliban are going back to what we know, what we knew about them between 1996 or 1994 and 2001. It’s actually just the inner situation or the interim movement between the factions that are composing the Taliban. So with that being said, this is easily explaining what is happening right now. In other words, the Taliban-led government, the government led by the Taliban is addressing Afghan needs right now. And somehow it’s correlating this with the Afghans’ own power situation. For example, in some places they organized local elections for municipality representatives. This should be definitely mentioned. 

On the other hand, they also right now have around half a million or this is what they are claiming, that they have half a million from the former republic, half a million of people who are still employed in the civil service. And they only appointed around 4000 people, usually in management positions of those institutions. Now, the main idea that needs to be raised here, it’s that Afghanistan has the size of France. And France has an extensive civil servant apparatus, but they employ around 5 million people.

 With these numbers in mind, we can say for sure that governance right now for the Taliban is not able to push forward as we know or as we define, to be a well governed territory. If we count that the number of Taliban are not also taking care of the security, meaning the army, because that 5 million we can add also I think half a million that represents the French army to defend the country. So to this number and the core, exactly core of the Taliban militias are composed depending on. This is an estimate of the clear number between 40 and 70 thousand. So you can easily see that they still need to have a bigger apparatus. Now, the problem in this is that while they are still trying to find the solution between the militias that are composing this force from the roughly 38 million people that represents the Afghan population around 24 million are facing famine. This was averted for the winter because of the know, because of the donors and because of the US government as well.

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan was the topic of a Human Rights Watch report. And the authors wrote in the month of May 2022 that the US suspension of recognition of Afghanistan’s central bank has virtually strangled the state’s economy.If drought and difficult climatic conditions are the first cause of the problems with food shortages, then the US actions are the second and perhaps the more important reason in the long perspective. So why has Joe Biden done this and can we expect the United States to reverse the decision now when we see that the result is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time?

Indeed. So the winter was somehow a crisis time, because Afghans faced not only famine, that means that people would die of malnutrition and simply they won’t have any food within days. This was averted during the winter, but the problem is that right now there were no seeds. So most probably the level of crops would not be what is expected or what needs to be to cover the needs of the population right now. 

Another thing is that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they don’t have any fertilizers as well, at least high quality. This will also impact whatever crops they already planted in March now. While everyone was busy in Europe to face the Russians in different ways, the US actually issued a so-called general license 20. That means that actually private donors, private or state donors can send money, send aid, financial aid to ministries or to organizations within Afghanistan. The sanctions are regarded or the sanctions are only towards people. even though those people actually should be regarded as high officials of Afghanistan and de facto rulers now. Private business is hard to conduct first because even if a company were to engage in an economic activity in Afghanistan, it will not be targeted by the US. 

At the same time, it implies and it’s self-explanatory that any sanctions towards a person implies an economical risk. So that in fact most of the companies from the West, companies that can invest and with a lot of capital are not able to do so. What is happening with the Central Bank of Afghanistan actually means that they are not able to make any transaction to the banks.

For example, most of the wheat flour was imported from Central Asia, and usually it was going like this: communities or companies were sending a transfer via a bank and then the flour would come in. Now the same trade is actually made by dealers. We’re either going with the cash on hand there. And sometimes they get robbed. But most of the time, even if they succeed, the inflation will rise. The costs of getting wheat flour and wheat flour into Afghanistan, that means that all these costs that are mounting will be transferred to the consumers, which are the population of Afghanistan. Now, while the sanctions are normal, let’s call it a normal reaction against these kinds of situations. It’s true that right now those who are suffering are not those who are targeted by the sanctions, but the population, the common Afghan. 

It’s worth mentioning that most visitors, even Westerners, visitors that were in Kabul and other commentators and journalists who have been there, are saying that there is a sense of relief that the war has ended. And while we don’t have any comprehensive view of what is happening right now in Afghanistan, we can say for sure that at least the numbers of civilian deaths that were declared so far or were monitored so far is smaller. The Western media throw a number around 400 since August. Before 2021, there were days on which 400 people would die only on one day due to the conflict.

You mentioned it’s not known what is going on in Afghanistan, but we need to remember that the coming of the Taliban was prepared for some time, including by the USA, which signed an agreement with Afghanistan even before they were coming to power. And they had an office in Qatar as well. Iran facilitated some negotiations between the previous Afghani government and the Taliban, so practically every major regional or international player had some interests to do with something, to do something with the Taliban. So what is now the Western strategy with regards to Afghanistan? What is the vision for Afghanistan’s future now that the West somehow changed the game?

Well, for sure. In the near future or on a long term or long term perspective, it’s almost impossible to make a prediction. You are right.

 In 2020, the Afghans and the Taliban signed an agreement with the US representative there in Qatar. A large part of that document is actually classified. So we don’t know exactly until those will be made public. We don’t know exactly what was the agreement between them. 

What we can say for sure from those pages that were made public is that they didn’t recognize them as a state and it didn’t recognize them as being the future government. The agreement was presented as a roadmap to achieve peace, peace in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Ghani government was encouraged to speak with the Taliban. But in a way which some of the. Which made some of the officials from Afghanistan to feel betrayed by the US government. So right now we don’t have any clear indication to what extent the US has prepared the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan. 

We can say for sure that this was a morale boost for the Taliban and at the same time for the militias that helped the Taliban to gain control of the country. We can say for sure that this was a great hit to the morale of the soldiers of the republic, because, as I said, they felt betrayed. Their leadership was changed every few months. And there was no certainty in the chain of command. They lost their power. They couldn’t do surveillance. They couldn’t make aerial surveillance. They couldn’t put logistics back together because some of the most important regions were supplied by air, not by terrestrial routes, because those were controlled by the Taliban before. So that was not a direct consequence of the agreement. 

And by the way, I wanted to mention about Iran. Iran has been in this game since. Early 2013, maybe even sooner. But we have evidence that the personal secretary of Mullah Omar visited Tehran. They didn’t choose to open an office, although there is certainty that they had an offer to open an office there in Iran. But they chose Qatar because they wanted to be neutral in the game between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Now it’s almost clear as day that Pakistan was involved in what happened with the insurgency. Imran Khan is no longer the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but I think overall the same perspective about the Taliban will remain in place forever in Islamabad. 

What this means is that Pakistan is defending its defining its foreign policy. To the view of an existential threat, which is India. They both have nuclear weapons. Both. Both have attacked each other. And they consider themselves at war. Maybe not publicly, but both armies are preparing in case of an invasion or to invade another country. So this is definitely true. It cannot be clearer than that. Now, what Pakistan needs is strategic depth. This has not been mentioned. It’s not any more mentioned. And when a military official is asked about this, they are saying that this is an. Maybe in our imagination, but it’s clear that. Pakistan cannot organize defense lines in case of a full invasion of India. That means that they need some space in the bag that can be easily defended. That is the eastern border with Afghanistan, and that is also a mountainous region where they can actually do the same thing that the Taliban did to the US army or to every nation that was there. 

Another interesting point is we have never known in modern history Afghanistan as we know it right now. Afghanistan, after Pakistan was formed in 1947, they didn’t recognize their border with Pakistan. So this is another issue that is linked to the security of Pakistan, meaning that it’s called the Durand Line. On both sides of this border or that border is actually a frontier because it doesn’t have clear boundary lines. The Pashtun tribal groups for Pakistan are very important, as it is easy to take young people who are defining success right now financially means having a piece of real estate and so forth. They are not able to get it because they are coming from a poor area of Pakistan and they don’t have quality education there and they don’t even have the infrastructure to get them somewhere else. I mean, the only way they can get an education is at the madrassa. And from there, it’s easy for them, for Pakistan, if they want to encourage them to choose to go to fill the ranks of the Taliban. It happened before the period 1994-2001. Some of the analysts are considering that they. Young people from Pakistan were more than 10,000 volunteers that joined the Taliban army then. So definitely they would employ at all times this kind of instrument to secure. That border and to have. Someone who is not friendly in Kabul, is not friendly towards Islamabad, at least it is neutral.

But if we try to understand what is going on in Afghanistan now, maybe we have to look at it also through the prism of this conflict, mutual conflict between USA and Russia and USA and China. So what does this put in this context? What does it show the Afghan situation?

China is an important player. And in this equation for sure. Now, as soon as the US Army withdraws from Afghanistan, the media throw some articles about the trillion dollars worth of mineral deposits in Afghanistan. Afghanistan also has the second world’s biggest copper deposit. At around 40 kilometers south east of Kabul. Um. But I don’t think that China in the long term is aiming for that, at least not now. But for sure, China is looking at its Uyghur problem. Because for sure, if they would have the option, the Uyghurs would take refuge in Afghanistan. So right now, most of the important players are worried about Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for other organizations. At the current moment, there are at least, let’s call them four main actors in Afghanistan. 

The first is the Taliban as we know them with some internal movement. It. We will have a clearer picture when times goes by, not who is the most important. Players within the Taliban’s because the Taliban are would rather take into consideration even minor actors within their ranks. There is no clear picture about that right now. 

The other actors that we can name are Al-Qaeda in all its forms. Usually this is combined with the elements that are there and also with the Pakistan organizations. The so called Lashkar is, which not only are concerned about Afghanistan, but also about the Kashmir problem and so forth. They’re also actively recruiting in all the. Areas from Pakistan. So they actually have a large number and they are present in Afghanistan. 

The third one is at least claiming that they are active. The former representatives of the republic are saying that they are conducting an active insurgency in the north. There is little information about what they are doing. Actually, they are saying that they are attacking Taliban patrols and that in some small rural areas, they are not able to go outside during the night. But again, there is no clear picture of what is going on there. 

The fourth actor is the Islamic State of Khorasan, which, by the way, it seems that they are responsible for 80% of that 400 civilian deaths. Most of the attacks are carried out against Hazara minorities. They are usually also composed not only by Pashtuns or. They also have Tajiks and other minorities, Uzbeks as well. An ethnic component in what they’re doing is less important than religious because they are targeting Hazara due to their religion, due to their confession, which is Shia muslims. 

At the time that the US signed the Doha Agreement with the Taliban, the IS was  perceived as the most significant actor that was engaging the Taliban. The Taliban are engaging the Islamic State militarily. Right now, they are still maintaining that role. They are conducting counterinsurgency operations against the Islamic State.Well, the financial aid is somehow not not necessarily clear, but it’s coming from the Gulf area. And from other parts, it’s actually so we can put a label on it if you’d like to. 

There are two factions. I’m not agreeing with this, but I’m just stating with how the Indian analysts are portraying what is happening between the Taliban, that there is a faction that is trained and supported by the Pakistani and there is a faction that is supported by the Qatari. I’m saying that it’s a bit of a danger to put just two sides. And the Taliban will look at the Taliban as a monolithic organization. But it’s not. It’s composed of multiple generations. It’s composed by multiple thinkers and by a lot of leaders. Not only that, those who are seeing them, but also local people, who are important.

 One thing that must be mentioned here as well is the fact that the amnesty that they declared when they captured the country, it’s still ongoing. Amnesty is preached almost as a religious obligation. For example, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister, said that in a meeting he met with his brother’s killer. But he restrained himself due to the amnesty. We don’t know if that story is true or not, but it’s a good illustration to see how much this amnesty is looked at. 

However, on the same page, we must mention that in some cases, especially in the case of local police. Not the police, but the local police. It was formed by local people who engaged and captured the Taliban after 2000. 14. And special forces that had amnesty were not respected all the time. And in both cases, there is a local element, meaning that these were the sharp and sharpest instruments of the government against the Taliban.

We need to mention also the role of the EU in all that, because we are all Europeans in a way. And also because all that intervention in Afghanistan started with the Bonn conference. Supposedly Germany or the EU countries had an important role in the previous setup of the political and geopolitical game in Afghanistan. What is the European role now?

Well, across Europe, there are some governments who are trying to engage with the Taliban. And they are continuing to meet them. At least the needs of the population regarding financial aid. As for the negotiations, there are definitely some important European actors that were present since the beginning, for example, Germany. Not only the European Union. The European Union has a fund that is targeting this kind of problem in the area. The Swiss Confederation also is involved in this process. But right now I think most of the negotiations are limited by I would not say ideology, but a conflict of views, meaning the human rights and especially against the education of girls, especially after the second secondary. After a certain age, they are not able to pursue their education. And with the recent imposing of burqa. 

So regarding this, I don’t think the donors would go ahead if they didn’t have at least an indication that at some point the Taliban will change their perspective. And as I said, the Taliban councils would have whatever they would, whatever decision they would take, they would take into consideration all the even a minority, even a small group that is opposing this. Because this is how the distribution of power is structured. So I’m not seeing any clear path forward between the involvement of the European Union and the politics of Afghanistan. 

If we get to work… Let’s give an example. Could we work on remaking the irrigation system? I think all involved will agree from the local population, from the Taliban government, from the European donors. Everyone would like that. Why? Because It’s important. Because this could produce crops that could sustain the population.There is a perpetual state of famine in Afghanistan. Improving agriculture means that most likely Afghanistan will not become self-sufficient, but at least to respond to some of the needs of the population. That would be one point to advance the talks and advance the presence of the West there. Even though there are some things that we are not yet agreeing with, at least not to make a condition of them. 

Now it’s important to say that there is a powerful diaspora here in Europe that is supporting sanctions against the Taliban leadership. And they are condemning them for all the crimes, the war crimes they might or might have not committed. There is no judge or jury that yet convicted them for this. Their own military operations are obvious what they did, how they conducted it. But so also the international force that was present there. There are concerns on both parts. We need to consider right now that while we cannot ignore the famine in Afghanistan, we cannot ignore the diaspora here as well. I think, as you mentioned, the bone the bone conference. I think the most important thing where we failed as Europeans, although we knew this from our world wars, is that everyone needs to get a chair at the table. We didn’t buy the Taliban then. And right now, the Taliban are doing the same thing. We are not inviting other groups. Um, to find something in common and push forward. What I can say for sure is the following, that right now there are some former republic employees. Employees that worked with the Taliban. To find a better future for Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean that they will succeed. But there are some branches of the government that are trying to work it out.

I think you mentioned that there is a migration, a community of Afghans who left the country and live in Europe now. And you have been researching or discussing with them. You have had some interviews with them and maybe that is something to ask more about.

Well, before I ask about the refugees I have, I wanted to ask about Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for because we are talking at the beginning of June, we are recording this this conversation at the beginning of June, just days after the publication of a UN report, namely on Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State being active in Afghanistan. And this report went as far as to predict another wave of international terrorism having a starting point there in Afghanistan. And while the authors credited the Taliban indeed for having contained Al-Qaida so far, it also contains a kind of sensational claims that some of the Al-Qaeda leaders may be actually living in a forum not far in the diplomatic quarter of Kabul, not far from the foreign ministry building, that they may even get access to foreign ministry meetings, and that this campaign against the al Qaeda that is now led by the Taliban may like end soon. And thus this terrorist the terrorist wave can start again from Afghanistan. Could you comment on these claims? Are they just sensational information or some ungrounded claims by the intelligence community, or is there indeed something we can be afraid of?

Well, it’s true that al Qaeda was at all times present in Afghanistan. And right now for sure, they are present there. But to understand the dynamic between the Taliban and al Qaeda, I would frame it like this: they definitely have connections, personal connections between. And this dates back into history… Even though the Taliban did not exist in the eighties, these people know each other. They are friends, old friends. They visited each other. They performed Hajj together. This was arranged together. They have a history, an old history together. So those will not go away. Their children play together. These kinds of connections are not going away. 

Al-Quaeda is a good source of financial aid. So with the continuing sanctions, we are pushing the Taliban to go to Al-Qaeda consultants because definitely they are there to offer consultancy against several issues, especially in security. I wouldn’t say as you definitely noticed and the report as well that the Taliban did do it. They engaged with all the militias that work that are composing right now, al Qaeda, and have them signed an agreement and that they will give them all the names of their operatives who are deployed in Afghanistan and as well, a promise that they will not launch any attacks against any Western country or any other country from Afghanistan. So some of them signed that agreement, but very few of them said that as soon as the Taliban will fulfill their call for holy war, they will sign it, but they never did. There is little information about what is going on, not what is going on right now. But the main idea is that the Taliban will go where they can find help. Ultimately. And these international organizations do have access to vast reserves of sometimes money or other other means that can make the government work into some sort of capacity. 

This is how I would put it there. It’s rather that if we don’t offer enough or we don’t engage with the Taliban enough. That doesn’t mean that we are building legitimacy for them. But the main issue should be how to keep them engaged. And how to help the population as well, because otherwise they will look for other partners, that’s for sure.

When we were watching the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, we definitely saw some dramatic pictures of people trying to get on the planes, people falling off the starting planes. And then in Poland, we also watched Afghani refugees trying to cross into the European Union from Belarus. Most of those refugees actually eventually made their way to Germany, some of them being pushed back, back and forth through the Polish Belarusian border. Now, when the Ukrainian refugees became the key topic in Europe, we kind of forgot about the Afghanis, which does not mean that these refugees disappeared. Could you tell us what is going on with them right now?

Well, a large part was evacuated from Afghanistan. They are still in Qatar right now, although the US promised, I think, five flights per week against or per month. I think per week they have done so 45 flights in total since August last year. The processing of visas and the background checking, all those procedures they need to do to obtain the permit – it takes a lot of time because they also lost part of the equipment and part of the data from Afghanistan. Actually, there are some clear indicators that the Taliban brought some of the data that they captured, including biometric equipment, and just handed it over to the US soldiers. So for them to speed up the process, that is one part. 

A large part of young people were educated in schools that had a very modern view of how life should be. Maybe it was that was the case in some of the cities, mainly maybe in Kabul. Mostly in Kabul. And for sure, for those people there was a great anxiety of what the Taliban might do. I’m sure that you and the viewers are remembering that there were some attacks then, but they were not perpetrated by the Taliban. 

The problem with the refugees is that they will still come. It’s about the famine. Even if they are working due to the inflation and the lack of food, they won’t be able to sustain their life, their own life, or the life of their family.The agriculture system is not improving and we actually see that there is an incoming food crisis, and I’m sure that will impact the donors and it will impact the population directly. So we are looking at an increasing number of refugees due to this circumstance. This is one thing that the people who already left, they are still stranded because of the war. And in the camps that they are right now, they will feel the same thing, the food insecurity and the increase of prices. So they will definitely see another wave of refugees from Turkey, from Iran and so forth. 

Most media papers did observe that we receive the Ukrainians with open arms, while the Afghani… we put them into camps. Now, it’s true that there was a fear of the non-white refugees who could be terrorists. But to be honest, they are fleeing from something that they fought. They are most likely to be like us. They would rather be a diaspora that is right now here in Europe, once you integrate into the economy, once to integrate into the way we are schooling our kids. They’re trying to be like us and they are advocating for what they are saying that we are interested in. 

For example, if they want to draw attention to Afghanistan, they are not speaking more about the famine and the fact that more than 20 million might die because of this. They’re speaking, rather, of human rights, because this is drawing our attention. So it’s a cry for help, if you’d like. But on our own terms now, if you because I spoke about the education system, if you put this into perspective, Afghanistan has maybe a tradition of what we are calling formal education of 100 years. It was not fully implemented. It was never fully implemented. When we were brought to Afghanistan, it was our own view of schooling. And this was rather perceived as a westernization of education. On. It was seen as a current against the madrassa. Against the right education. There were girls that were attending madrassas. It was not only for boys. But no one understood exactly what that means for the common Afghani people. 

A research that was made by the World Bank recently: there are more girls now under the Taliban that are going to school. More  girls that were going to school when the international forces were there. There is a limit, an age limit, which is true. But we need to look at what is going on and not necessarily what we are perceiving that is most important. For me, existential threats and what is happening right now is more important that any,. I don’t know, portrayal of who’s bad or who’s good.

20 years ago, the U.S. and its allies started the intervention in Afghanistan under the banner of implementing Western style democracy. As of today, we don’t see Western style democracy in Afghanistan. We see a humanitarian crisis. We see people dying of hunger. And we also see the indifference of the international community, which not only did not manage to solve the problems Afghanistan had, but even did not manage to understand the Afghani society. This is a thing, a thing that comes to my mind after this talk. And I would be really happy if this talk helped the viewers as it I think it helped me also to understand what is now going on in this almost 40-million country in the very heart of Asia. It was Gabriel, a Romanian expert on Afghanistan, who was with us today. Thank you, Gabriel, for coming. Thank you, everybody, for viewing. Don’t forget to subscribe to Cross-Border Talks – and see you again.

Photo: Gabriel Danci is to the left against the background of Taliban representatives (source: Cross-border Talks)

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