After the American exodus

Amina Khan
Tuesday 16 Aug 2022

Amina Khan reviews a year of the Taliban in power


On 15 August, 2021, the world looked on with trepidation as the situation in Afghanistan reached a critical juncture and the Afghan Taliban took over. It was swift and relatively peaceful process, with little resistance from the masses, followed by the abrupt withdrawal of US forces leading to a new set of questions. Was this the same Taliban or a different version? What was to be the future of Afghan women? What would be the fate of political opponents who had been seen as advocates of foreign occupation?

A year later to the day, the answers remain unclear. There had been little doubt about a Taliban resurgence with the US exit, and in the absence of a negotiated settlement. In fact, a military takeover by the group was predictable. But the manner and speed with which Afghanistan fell to the Taliban was shocking and unprecedented.

Afghanistan is currently going through one of its most important and critical phases, even when one considers the violence and instability of the last two decades. Since the Taliban takeover, there have been unaddressed questions about changes in domestic governance, political freedoms, human rights and especially women’s rights, counterterrorism assurances, and the overall commitment to regional peace and stability.

While, initially, there were uncertainties about the Taliban’s rule, the past year has set the tone and is an indication of how the group intends to govern the country. Even within the confines of the current interim setup, the real test for the Taliban is by no means limited to securing power, but revolves around legitimacy, acceptance, performance and of course recognition. The group has been engaging independently as well as through Doha with the international community and regional countries, and while it seeks recognition, present engagement does entail that.

Domestically, the group’s performance is debatable, though one has seen an overall improvement in security with the exception of attacks by transnational terrorist groups like the ISKP. The group is still trying to consolidate its position and power within its ranks as well as within Afghanistan. Governance without a doubt continues to remain a huge challenge as the Taliban do not seem to have the expertise or manpower to run the ministries, primarily because the majority of the educated Afghans have left the country.

Financial sanctions on the Taliban, have played a large part in paralysing the banking system which in turn affects all aspects of the economy. While the provision of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan by certain  countries (including the US, which has provided $775 million) is reassuring, it is not enough to stabilise the economy let alone sustain the Afghan population of which some 95 per cent are suffering from food insecurity.

Despite grave economic challenges, the Taliban have in their limited capacity taken measures to clamp down on corruption, and generate domestic revenue through custom and tariff duties. For example, between September and December in 2021, they collected around $400 million in taxes and increased export of natural resources like coal. Moreover, the group has kept official revenues flowing, and a “handful of holdovers from the former government are maintaining sophisticated financial-management software set up by the American-backed regime to run their revenue-collection systems,” as a USIP report puts it.

The Taliban also published a three-month budget, which has given some cause for optimism. The report noted, “the Taliban budget is nearly balanced – and realistically projects no aid flows directly into the budget. Though the revenue projections may be somewhat optimistic, in general the budget seems relatively prudent, and compares well in this regard against past Afghan budgets.” However, any optimism is also necessarily circumscribed. There are plenty of other considerations such as the group’s inability or unwillingness to fulfil their pledges of reform pertaining to very basic yet fundamental rights, such as women’s education and their role in public life, keeping the international community at bay. Moreover, while the group has allowed private media channels to operate and often engage in public debates and discourse, many journalists have been at risk.

Children have been returning to schools, but the Taliban reversed their previous decision to allow Afghan girls to return to high schools: a major issue of concern for regional countries including Pakistan. It is imperative for the Taliban to realise that although Afghanistan has been at war with itself and the international community the masses have evolved, and require women’s rights among others. If the Taliban do not honour their pledges of reform, they will lose what little support and engagement they currently enjoy from the international community and it will become extremely challenging for regional countries to engage with them, let alone formally recognise them.

The biggest threats to Afghanistan are domestic constraints such as the economy and a possible humanitarian crisis and, just as importantly, concern that the country will fall prey to transnational terrorist elements. At the same time there has been some resistance shown in the north where the National Resistance Front (NRF) headed by Ahmed Masoud has remained strident in its opposition to the group, trying to muster up support for its cause, and lobby against international recognition of the Taliban government as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

However, if the Taliban are not able to consolidate their position, and ensure some semblance of stability, the fear is not so much of a civil war with groups such as the NRF but of transnational terrorist elements taking advantage of the situation and filling the vacuum. This sentiment has been echoed by the former UN special representative for Afghanistan, who also noted that “Afghanistan’s collapsing economy is heightening the risk of extremism.” After all, since the Taliban assumed power in August 2021, there has been a major spike in attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) domestically and against Afghanistan’s neighbours, primarily Pakistan, followed by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Pakistan’s case, the rise in Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) activity and attacks against Pakistani security personnel independently as well as in collaboration with the ISKP has been of particular concern, not only raises doubts about the Taliban’s ability to honour their commitments regarding counterterrorism assurances but also their capability to deal with transnational terrorist groups operating within the country.

While Afghanistan is being viewed as a regional issue – particularly in terms of the ongoing crises in different parts of the world – this is a gross miscalculation because as the past has proved, Afghan affairs have always had global ramifications and the threat of transnational terrorist groups like the ISKP will not remain a concern for the region alone as IS has global aspirations and believes in a global caliphate, so no conflict should take precedence over the other. Afghanistan should not be abandoned nor ignored since that would not bode well for any stakeholder. This is a time to remain engaged with Afghanistan, where the onus is on all sides to deliver. However, to achieve this, all sides need to learn to compromise and accommodate each other and, instead of viewing Afghanistan as a regional issue, see it as a shared responsibility. Afghanistan is a global issue that warrants a collective and dedicated response.

While the Taliban are certainly not ideal, it must be asked whether there are any viable alternatives at this stage. Perhaps a clearer question is whether the international community desires the Taliban to fail or succeed – the answer, it appears at this point, will mean the failure or success of Afghanistan. While the Taliban face several understandable challenges be they limitations regarding governance, differences within the group’s leadership over policies or the full use of Afghanistan’s resources, the fact remains that they are now in power and have to shoulder the responsibility of being a viable government that serves the Afghan people – and this can only happen once they attain legitimacy from the masses themselves. However, despite the grave challenges, this is still a unique, unprecedented opportunity for Afghans to come together and focus on a state and a government that is inclusive, responsible, accountable and, lastly, one that serves the Afghan people, because Afghanistan’s future greatly shapes the security architecture of the region.

The writer is a Pakistani researcher

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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