A group of Afghan officials led by the chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, have made their way to Moscow for a one-day conference that will also include delegates from Russia, Pakistan, China, and the United States. But the conference, which is being marketed as a supplement to the Doha peace talks and a necessary step in the path forward for Afghanistan, is in fact, a kind of international auction. The sought-after prize? Access to the resource-rich regions of the war-torn country. The only question is who will be the highest bidder.
Overhanging the conference is the U.S. Peace Deal signed by former president Donald Trump which dictates that all U.S. troops must be removed from Afghanistan by May 1. Now, President Joe Biden has said that meeting the deadline is “tough” and suggested that an extension may be needed.
“That was not a very solidly negotiated deal that the president, the former president, worked out,” POTUS said in an interview with ABC News.
But the truth of the matter is that after 20 years of U.S. investment in the country, Biden isn’t ready to cut bait and watch Pakistan, China, and Russia profit from it. That is likely why he has sent special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to participate in the Moscow Conference.
Of course, the Moscow Conference is being touted as a necessary political measure. Internal squabbling over control of the country has left Afghanistan — and Afghans — in a precarious purgatory akin to what transpired in the late 1990s when key warlords pitted against one another jousted for control of major cities including the capital Kabul. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed in the ensuing violence.
The old tensions are still very real. Nowhere is this more obvious than with Gulbuddin Hekmaytar, also known as the Butcher of Kabul. Hekmaytar is the leader of the eponymous Hezb al-Islami Gulbuddin, a gaggle of Afghan commandos who fought for control of the country after the Soviet withdrawal in the 1980s. These fighters, spurred on by Hekmatyar, were largely responsible for the extensive bloody barrage of Kabul in the 1990s. But his fighters never acquired control of the country, and despite throwing in with al-Qaeda and sharing tactics and resources with Osama bin Laden, Hekmatyar never achieved his aspirations to rule over the country.
It was Hekmatyar’s foot soldiers who attacked Combat Outpost Keating near Kamdesh in Nuristan province in 2009 that led to one of the bloodiest battles with insurgent forces in the history of Operation Enduring Freedom and resulted in the death of eight American soldiers.
On March 5, members of Hezb al-Islami Gulbuddin protested on the streets of Kabul with a list of demands. They threatened that if their demands weren’t met within 10 days, the protests would shift into direct action to remove the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Now, Hekmatyar is part of the delegation heading to Moscow to discuss the future of Afghanistan.
In fact, the delegation is unified in its mission to remove Ghani. Abdullah Abdullah and Ghani have wrestled for political control of the country for years while others — former warlords, ousted politicians, and Taliban members— feed on the table scraps. Over the past year, a wave of targeted killings has plagued the country; politicians, military members, and journalists have been murdered on city streets in broad daylight.
For years, Pakistan and China have been eyeing Afghanistan. The country is vastly rich in valuable natural resources including gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, aluminum, uranium, and lithium as well as precious stones. A study conducted by the United States Geological Survey of the country concluded that Afghanistan may hold as much as 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements, or REEs. Ghazni Province alone is said to contain lithium deposits comparable to those in Bolivia, the world’s largest lithium reserve. REEs are a critical part of modern technology and are used in cell phones, TVs, computers, batteries, and hybrid engines.
The Trump administration knew this and sought to reap some of these resources as part of the peace process. Its approach was to appease the warring parties by removing the costly U.S. military presence and allowing the Afghans to sort out their own form of government without overt U.S. involvement. The problem was Ashraf Ghani, a man that many power-hungry Afghan elites have painted as a U.S. puppet.
Ghani has long voiced his support for open elections and has built a platform on what he describes as “national sovereignty, a republic system, national unity, neutrality, connection, and a ‘lasting and just peace.'” He is now saying that he will not support decisions “imposed” on the Afghan people.
But open elections are good for neither the warlords nor the Taliban. They would also complicate relationships with Pakistan and Russia, the two countries which would gain the most from unrestricted access to the country’s valuable natural resources. For decades, Russia has eyed the vast natural gas reserves in the northern parts of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has worked covertly to support the Taliban insurgency and even ISIS, permitting insurgents to cross the porous eastern border region with impunity. For its part, Russia has applied pressure on the United States politically and incentivized the killing of U.S. servicemembers through bounties.
China, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of computers, phones, and other electronic devices, is racing to own the market. A 2020 report showed that the South Korean company Samsung surpassed China’s Huawei as the leading producer of smartphones. Apple, by contrast, is number three on the list (and of course, the majority of Apple’s iPhones are manufactured in China). China currently holds positions two, four, and five on the top five list of smartphone manufacturers. Access to the lithium reserves and other REEs in Afghanistan is crucial to preserving its position at the top of the heap.
The coup de grâce is the laughable length of the Moscow Conference: it’s slated to last only one day. One would think that it would take more than 24 hours to untangle the last four decades of bloodshed in the country.
Though, if it’s simply divvying up the country to the highest bidder, I suppose a day is more than enough time.