PESHAWAR – The Taliban now controls more Afghan border crossings than the government in Kabul, the latest sign the militant outfit is winning a strategic upper hand in the country. In many areas where the Taliban has seized control border trade has come to a halt, a strangulation strategy that will cut Kabul’s revenues and supplies.
The Taliban has taken control over as many as seven big and small freight transport routes with a combined import-export volume of US$2.9 billion in Herat, Farha, Kandahar, Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces linking Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, according to recent reports.
President Ashraf Ghani’s embattled government still holds strategic border crossings with Pakistan and Iran in Afghan Nangarhar, Paktya, Paktika, Khost and Nimroz provinces. The value of the business from these routes is a little over $2 billion, the reports said.
For the remaining two border crossings with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, government and Taliban forces are now reportedly engaged in fierce fighting in Jowzjan and Balkh provinces where border trade is worth an estimated $1.7 billion.
Land-locked Afghanistan borders Iran on the west, Pakistan on the east and south, and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan on the north. These neighbors provide maritime transport and handle most of Afghan’s transit trade.
A narrow Wakhan strip in the northeast region along Pakistan’s northern areas links Afghanistan to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.
Afghan experts believe the Taliban is strategically focused on choking the Afghan government’s resources used for administration, war, energy and even food.
Jan Achakzai, ex-adviser to Pakistan’s Balochistan provincial government, told Asia Times that the Ghani government will not survive long as the Taliban chokes strategic supply lines, controls borders and disrupts food supplies.
“The balance of power has tipped in favor of the Taliban and the regional countries can not alter this fait accompli. Love or hate them, the Taliban have got Afghanistan on a plate, thanks to the US messy withdrawal,” he said.
Analysts believe that if the Taliban continues the offensive and cuts off more land routes, the capital and other government-controlled areas may soon face acute food and energy shortages. They say that “skilled brains” seem to be working behind this strategy, which aims at forcing the government’s de facto surrender.
They believe that the Taliban will soon start to collect heavy duties and taxes on export and import goods, as they did in the late 1990s, to augment their revenues and foot their war bill.
David Mansfield, an independent consultant on Afghanistan and author of a book titled A State Built on Sand: How opium undermined Afghanistan, told Asia Times that the Taliban’s aims in taking these border crossings still needs to be evaluated.
“To me, they aim to deprive the central government of a substantial part of its domestic tax base, rendering it even more reliant on dwindling donor funds,” he said.
“Secondly, the Taliban’s goal might be sabotaging the arrangements between the government in Kabul and those with power and influence at key chokepoints – the bargains that hold the republic together.”
Another consideration for choking borders, he said, could be controlling the goods entering cities in a bid to undermine their economies and mitigate the need to mount attacks that have proven costly in the past.
Mansfield recently tweeted in a thread, “The Taliban appear to be using the country’s reliance on cross border trade to hold Kabul to ransom. A strategy that cannot sustain in the long term. Now it is a question of who will blink first: Will the neighbors resume trade and give the Taliban the legitimacy of running a border post?
Or will Taliban victories be pyrrhic, denying themselves a source of revenue and funneling trade through crossings still in government hands? A lot depends on regional countries at this point.”
The Taliban leadership claim that they will not take the war inside cities. In a message tweeted by Taliban spokesperson and former Taliban minister of information and culture Amir Khan Muttaqi said, “Now that the fighting from mountains and deserts has reached the doors of the cities, Mujahidin (religious fighters) don’t want fighting inside the city. It is better to reach a logical agreement to prevent Afghan cities from getting damaged.”
The Taliban made strides in the northern part of Afghanistan in early July without much resistance from government forces. Taliban fighters pushed back 300 Afghan troops into Tajikistan and now control the border, which also connects China, Turkmenistan and Pakistan in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province.
This is a traditional stronghold of the Northern Alliance, which defeated the Taliban in 2001 with the help of US and British forces.
Taliban fighters have also seized a key district in western Afghanistan and taken control of the strategic Islam Qala border crossing with Iran in Herat province, which is the main artery for Afghan oil and transit trade.
Last week, the Taliban swept over the Spin Boldak crossing with the Pakistani city of Chaman following heavy fighting with official forces in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. The Spin Boldak border crossing linking Pakistan’s Balochistan province is the second biggest border post with Afghanistan.
The border crossing at Torkham, which joins the Afghan province of Nangarhar with Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is still under the control of official forces along with three smaller crossings at Angur Adda, Ghulam Khan and Dande Patan.
Taliban and government forces are currently fighting in Balkh and Faryab provinces for the remaining crossings bordering Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan exports goods including gold, fruits, animal skins, insect resins and nuts recently worth $2.24 billion while importing $6.92 billion worth of food, petroleum products, machinery, metals and related articles. All this trade runs through its borders with China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan exports to the United Arab Emirates are worth $1 billion, Pakistan $544 million, India $485 million, the US $35.6 million, and China $29.1 million.
Major imports come from Pakistan (14% of total imports), Russia (13%), Uzbekistan (11%), Iran (9.1%) and China (9%). Afghanistan also imports goods from Turkmenistan, Japan and Kazakhstan.