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What is the future of TAPI after Taliban’s return?

Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst responds to Kit Klarenberg and explains why TAPI has nothing to do with the Taliban's return. He laments that the massive US military machine had already set its withdrawal into motion by the time Biden entered office and the progress of the TAPI project would largely depend on the outcome of negotiations between the US and the Taliban.

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Kit Klarenberg, an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions, published a piece for RT on 31 August titled “Pipeline proposals brought the Taliban to power first time round – could the same be true again now?” The gist of his article is that since US oil major Unocal might have helped the Taliban come to power back in 1996 in order to facilitate the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline, and the group was invited to a US-brokered meeting between those three countries’ representatives and India’s earlier this spring regarding the project’s modern-day expansion (now known as TAPI) to that last-mentioned South Asian state, then it supposedly stands to reason that the US might have also been responsible for it returning to power last month. With all due respect to Mr. Klarenberg, this is a completely inaccurate interpretation of recent events which overlooks many more relevant factors.

Read more: Freed Taliban have returned to battlefield: Abdullah Abdullah

Understanding the actual matter

His article can be divided into several sections that will be summarized now and subsequently responded to prior to elaborating more on why the overall thesis that he shared is so inaccurate. Mr. Klarenberg begins by citing a British report claiming that the Taliban will likely approve of some Western special forces remaining behind in Afghanistan in order to fight ISIS-K. He uses this as the basis to investigate what might be behind this “volte face” that he describes as “unprecedented”.

This segues into the part where he brings up the Taliban’s participation in spring’s meeting, which then naturally leads to his investigative reporting about Unocal’s prior ties to the Taliban’s 1996-2001 brief time in power. Mr. Klarenberg’s claim that the company was behind the group’s rise to power back then is an archived report quoting a former US secret agent who in turn relayed the pure speculation of former Northern Resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. It, therefore, isn’t reliable at all.

Somewhat more convincing is the information that Klarenberg shares about US-Taliban ties at the time, which were clearly motivated by energy geopolitics. He also does an excellent job digging into the lobbyist background of Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan and incumbent Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. This part of Mr. Klarenberg’s work is indisputable, but then he abruptly fast-forwards approximately two decades to conclude that all of this might suggest that energy geopolitics once again played a role in the Taliban’s return to power last month.

In his final words, “the facts are what they are, and more than speak for themselves”, but Mr. Klarenberg’s conclusion overlooks many more relevant facts that weren’t included in his article and which I contend would probably have resulted in him arriving at a different conclusion. I’ll now explain everything of pertinence that’s missing from his article.

Read more: Taliban return: What do Afghanis think?

What is the strategy behind US withdrawal?

The most conspicuous omission is any commentary on the Taliban’s recent return to power. I’ve argued over the past two months that this was attributable to several factors. First, US President Joe Biden unexpectedly decided to remain committed to his predecessor’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban to withdraw by 1 May but extended the deadline until 31 August. Former US President Trump made this decision because he realized what a waste of resources the entire war had become after deciding to prioritize what his administration described as the US’ “Great Power competition” with China and Russia (with a heavy emphasis on the People’s Republic).

The US also failed in its unstated goal of exporting regime changes throughout the broader region via Color Revolutions and Unconventional Warfare (together known as Hybrid War) from its geostrategically positioned base in Afghanistan at the crossroads of Central-South-West Asia.

The massive US military machine had already set its withdrawal into motion by the time Biden entered the office and was laser-focused on more actively containing China in the Indo-Pacific so the momentum was likely impossible to reverse without throwing America’s new grand strategy into sudden disarray. The plan for Afghanistan then became to facilitate the creation of a transitional government partially comprised of Taliban representatives in order to retain some degree of influence thereafter the withdrawal.

Its success was conditional on two factors that failed to transpire: former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani resigning as the Taliban’s primary political precondition, and the Afghan National Army (ANA) relying on its cutting-edge military equipment and much larger numbers to resist any conventional Taliban offensives for the coming future. Neither happened due to the US’ faulty human intelligence, which ultimately served as its Achilles’ heel.

America didn’t realize that the Taliban had successfully rebranded itself as a national liberation movement in the eyes of average Afghans by taking advantage of the US and its allies’ reckless collateral damage against civilians over the years to present itself as the so-called “lesser evil”. The group promised to cut ties with terrorists as part of the February 2020 deal with the US, pledged to stridently fight against corruption, and also began incorporating more minorities into its ranks, especially its leadership ones.

With time, the Taliban won so many hearts and minds that its ideological influence began to infiltrate the ANA, which resulted in many of its sympathetic members surrendering en masse once the group appeared at the gates of their cities. Quite understandably, few in the ANA wanted to risk their lives fighting for a puppet government. The Taliban’s swift seizure of Afghanistan’s border crossings also preempted an externally backed proxy war scenario.

The US hadn’t foreseen any of this due to a combination of its faulty human intelligence and the self-sustaining ecosystem of lies propagated by members of its permanent military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies (“deep state”) that eventually misled even their own policymakers. This explains the series of disasters that unfolded all across August.

They weren’t stage-managed or part of a secret behind-the-scenes deal with the Taliban like I extensively explained in my answers to Kit Knightly’s six thought-provoking questions last month which hinted at that possibility, but an unprecedentedly humiliating defeat for the US that influential Resistance representatives like Hezbollah General Secretary Sayed Hassan Nasrallah and Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad thought worthy to draw their audience’s attention to. Even if Mr. Klarenberg has a different view of events, his article would have benefited had he shared some explanation for them instead of none at all.

Instead, his article simply relies on the British report about stay-behind anti-ISIS-K special forces that the Taliban is supposedly likely to approve of, unsubstantiated speculative hearsay about Unocal purportedly being behind the Taliban’s prior rise to power, the US government’s energy geopolitics-driven engagement with it during their prior period of rule, that group’s participation in this spring’s US-brokered TAPI meeting, and Khalilzad’s lobbying background to conclude that the US might have brought the Taliban back into power this summer in order to protect that expanded pipeline project.

Read more: Taliban face dire challenges in reviving ailing Afghan economy

This overall thesis gives too much credit to geo-energy determinants from nearly three decades prior that have largely become outdated due to the “green energy” and LNG revolutions of recent years but which remain seared in the minds of many who were influenced by the populist narrative that the War on Iraq was because of energy (I argue that it was about reshaping the region).

Does the US have ulterior motives?

Having pointed out my personal interpretation of his thesis, I also don’t believe that Mr. Klarenberg is entirely wrong either, at least insofar as it relates to the US have ulterior motives for pragmatically engaging with the Taliban after its withdrawal. America isn’t driven by mostly outdated geo-energy determinants nowadays but by contemporary geo-economic ones connected to its desire to utilize the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway that was agreed to in February for the purpose of expanding its economic influence into Central Asia.

This perfectly aligns with its Central Asian policy as promulgated under the former Trump Administration and which presently remains unchanged under the Biden one. Its ultimate goal is to leverage economic means in order to bolster those countries’ balancing acts between China and Russia with an aim of reducing their potential disproportionate dependence on the US’ top two “Great Power competitors”.

I explained this much more at length in the analysis that I published in late July at Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper about “How The US, China, India, Pakistan, And Russia Are Reshaping South Asia”. I observed how four of these primary stakeholders in Afghanistan’s post-withdrawal future intriguingly have a convergence of geo-economic interests there, with India being the only exception and thus the potential spoiler though the prospects of that scenario transpiring are increasingly unlikely by the day after it held its first formal talks with the Taliban in Qatar earlier this week.

The US can still sabotage its competitors’ plans by relying on ISIS-K as its “Plan B” since it doesn’t need PAKAFUZ as much as Russia does, which is expected to utilize it for the purpose of reaching the Indian Ocean like it’s aspired to do for centuries. The US might also use proxy means to undermine China’s possible “Persian Corridor” to its new 25-year strategic partners in Iran via Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, mid-July’s establishment of the “New Quad” between the US and the three PAKAFUZ countries shows that this new corridor is a priority for American grand strategy in Central & South Asia. According to the State Department’s official announcement at the time, this new platform is explicitly “focused on enhancing regional connectivity.” It added that “Recognizing the historic opportunity to open flourishing interregional trade routes, the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties.” This can only realistically be achieved via PAKAFUZ even though that project isn’t named in the announcement.

Read more: Rise of Taliban: An era of new security challenges?

The US is not responsible for the Taliban’s return

Back to Mr. Klarenberg’s article, it can therefore be concluded that PAKAFUZ is a much more influential determinant for explaining the US’ pragmatic ties with the Taliban than TAPI is, with that second-mentioned project arguably being secondary in contemporary strategic significance to the first-mentioned one.

With all of this in mind, the reader should hopefully have greater clarity about US-Taliban relations. America didn’t help the Taliban come to power, not last time and especially not this one, with the latter having been due to a chain reaction of circumstances largely attributable to its faulty human intelligence over the years instead of some secret plan.

The group was regarded as a legitimate political stakeholder in the country a full year before it attended this spring’s US-backed TAPI meeting as evidenced by the US’ February 2020 peace deal with it. As such, there’s nothing strange about the Taliban participating in that meeting, especially since the US was already hoping to incorporate it into Afghanistan’s envisioned transitional government that only failed to materialize because its proxy leader refused to resign due to his ego. America flexibly adapted to the Taliban’s unexpected return to power last month but certainly would have preferred for that not to have happened.

In conclusion, while Mr. Klarenberg’s article is interesting and all readers would benefit by learning more about how geo-energy determinants influenced the US’ policy towards the Taliban from 1996-2001, his overall thesis of TAPI supposedly resulting in the US secretly facilitating its return to power last month is completely inaccurate. It overlooks everything that happened on the ground from March-August and makes no mention of PAKAFUZ or the “New Quad”, which are arguably much more influential determinants nowadays than TAPI is.

Read more: Afghan photographer warns of Taliban threat to media

Geo-economic determinants are what observers should pay the most attention to going forward, much more than geo-energy ones. Relying on largely outdated perspectives from approximately two and a half decades ago will naturally lead to inaccurate conclusions in the present. The geostrategic situation has tremendously changed across the world since then, and this should be reflected in all analyses about Afghanistan.

Andrew Korybko is a Moscow-based American political analyst, radio host, and regular contributor to several online outlets. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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