roads lead to the Battle for Kabul
City after city have fallen from government to
Taliban control but Afghanistan's end-game is still
By Pepe Escobar
August 13, 2021"Information
Clearing House" - "Asia
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
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 –
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.
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
New Delhi for its part refuses to sit on the same
table with the Taliban, which it sees as a terrorist
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad
Zarif, left, and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam
Jaishankar in Tehran. Photo: AFP / Iranian Foreign
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
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
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.
is correspondent-at-large at
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