The future of Afghanistan is still ambiguous and uncertain. External interference has not brought peace and stability, and even the gains that have been achieved at a high price are still being studied and evaluated. Nevertheless, the world has an opportunity, or in a more precise sense, it bears a great responsibility, and the balance between the returns of intervention, such as stopping the wave of poverty, political instability and violence, and between disengagement that may lead to counterproductive results.
The US withdrawal came after spending some two trillion dollars and sacrificing more than two thousand troops, America’s twenty-year war is finally over.
Over the last month Taliban militant group —who still have close ties to al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups— took control of Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of the US and other troops has left the country without a government or political system, its population without protection, as well as an ingrained economic and humanitarian crisis. When combined with dire socioeconomic conditions and a gaping power vacuum, the recent Kabul airport attack created conditions that are ripe for insurgency.
Nilofar Sakhi is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and the director of policy and diplomacy at McColm & Company said “There is no guarantee that Afghanistan won’t revert to its status as a safe haven for terrorists aiming to harm the United States and its global partners.”
He explained that the Taliban craves recognition and money and that the administration of US President Joe Biden should strategically exert pressure on the group so that it ensures the protection of minorities and women’s rights. With China, Russia, and Iran poised to build closer relationships with the Taliban, Washington must start a new phase in its relationship with Afghanistan.
The Afghan people find themselves in the face of the confluence of multiple crises following the withdrawal of the American forces.
The coronavirus pandemic, drought, and economy in shambles are the main challenges facing Afghanistan as a resurgent Taliban movement that controls the country.
Afghans find themselves in a very hard position, as the world largely closed its doors to them. The future of the country is uncertain, many experts and analysts are studying how will Taliban interact with its neighbours as they reestablish its “Islamic Emirate.”
Central Asia in Danger
According to Temur Umarov, an expert on China and Central Asia, and a research consultant at Carnegie Moscow Center, the crisis in Afghanistan will create new risks for the Central Asia region.
He explained that Central Asia has long lived with chaos on its borders, and already has twenty years of experience in dealing with the Taliban.
Umarov argued in an Oped that since the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal, there has been increasing speculation over what that will mean for the neighbouring countries of Central Asia.
Concerns have been expressed that the region will be flooded with refugees and drugs, that it will suffer a constant stream of terrorist attacks, and that the ruling regimes will be defeated by Islamists inspired by the victory of their Afghan counterparts.
Moreover, Umarov explained that the future depends on the actions of the Taliban, but it’s already clear that such catastrophic forecasts are generally based on false perceptions of the fragility of the Central Asian states.
“After all, the region lived with the Taliban on its borders last time they ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s and began to prepare for their return long ago. Even in the worst-case scenario, the situation in Central Asia will therefore be far less dire than some are predicting. That does not change the fact, however, that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could transform both the Central Asian regimes and their attitudes to the outside world,” he explained.
The fall of Kabul may have come quicker than everyone expected—including the Taliban themselves—but the region has had plenty of time to prepare for the Taliban returning to power, and those preparations included shoring up borders and holding military exercises, including joint drills with each other, with Russia, and with the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
New reality of Afghanistan under Taliban
According to the Atlantic Council’s Alex Zerden, the Taliban taking over the levers of the Afghan government can rapidly expand its war chest and armoury—with disastrous implications for the Afghan people and regional security.
He explained that as the Taliban controls customs and border crossings, along with central and commercial bank branches, it can also exert greater oversight over—and squeeze taxes from—the vast hawala money transfer industry that serves as Afghanistan’s de facto banking system.
Furthermore, Zerden indicated that the Taliban is now free to consolidate its taxation of the opium and heroin trade, along with booming methamphetamine production. On top of all that, it benefits from a windfall of surrendered and captured weaponry constituting part of America’s eighty-three billion dollars in support to Afghan government forces.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has done little to distance itself from international terrorist organizations, a relationship that will likely only accelerate in the near term. According to a recent Treasury Department assessment, the group “maintained a strong relationship” with al-Qaeda and “continued to meet regularly.” The report also found that “al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under Taliban’s protection.”
The reality of a strengthened Taliban running the Afghan government creates substantial and imminent economic policy challenges for the United States and the international community. In particular, the amount of assistance money potentially at their disposal is staggering.
For instance, Congress appropriated billions of dollars for the fiscal year 2021 to the Afghan government—including more than three billion dollars for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (albeit with conditionality) along with more modest civilian funding. Also available is up to $370 million from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in disbursements through 2024, but only if certain conditions are met. That’s in addition to the nearly $430 million equivalent in Special Drawing Rights, an international reserve asset maintained by the IMF, that was scheduled to be delivered to Afghanistan next week but has since been put on hold.
How will regional states respond?
International Institute for Strategic Studies analysts explored how would regional governments carefully recalibrating relationships after Taliban control.
Meia Nouwens, Senior Fellow for Chinese Defence Policy and Military Modernisation argued that in China’s case, Beijing will be cautiously watching what Taliban rule means for Chinese security, political and economic interests.
She explained that Beijing has maintained communication with the Taliban over the years – though it has yet to formalise relations. Since the announcement of the US’ planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, Beijing has sought assurances in meetings with Taliban delegations on security matters, as well as offered to assist with rebuilding the country economically. Despite the potential for economic gains through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments or mining, the security risk within the country might be a stumbling block, as it has been in the past.
China’s leadership will be squarely focused on the risk that recent developments will impact regional security. Beijing continues to seek guarantees from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven for terrorist organisations – such as the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement. An acute fear for China is that Afghanistan could be used as a launchpad for attacks on its western province of Xinjiang. How China’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang factors into the Taliban’s relationship with Beijing is also a point to watch.
Meanwhile, IISS Senior Adviser for Geopolitical Due Diligence John Raine said that although Iran and the Taliban were adversaries in 2001, now the Taliban is back, and that’s better news than it might once have been for Tehran.
In the intervening two decades, the Iranian regime has steadily and stealthily moved into strategic alignment with the Taliban. They may not share the same creed, but for the moment they share strategic interests. At the very least, neither side has an interest now in alienating the other.