The arrival of the Taliban in Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021 was seen as the beginning of the end of the issues and concerns facing the war-ridden Afghanistan. Earlier the ills plaguing the Afghan nation were attributed to the Western backed government — which fell to the Taliban’s tide of triumph — and less to the civil war waging for about nineteen years in the backdrop of US-led military presence in the country; on Sept. 7, the Taliban fighters announced the interim caretaker government headed by Mohammad Hassan Akhund.
America, other Western powers and financial institutions have suspended billions of dollars as monetary assistance to Afghanistan since the Taliban‘s takeover of Kabul. Although the new government has promised to work to the satisfaction of all Afghans and the international community — monitoring the evolving situation in the country — the monetary aid is yet awaiting approval. In view of the financial crisis, Afghanistan is liable to suffer severe social and political upheavals. To control the US presence in the Middle Eastern region, Washington is chanting “back to basics” mantra. “We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” Said President Joe Biden, defending his decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the Taliban gained control of the capital.
One dimension of the Taliban fighters’ sweeping victory has been that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has virtually gone defunct, the bitter pill hard to swallow for the common Afghans having experienced a long night of hardships and miseries for over two decades; their sacrifices notwithstanding. Add to it the fragile economy of the impoverished country. Rampant corruption, COVID-19, lack of or inadequate expertize to harness resources, mismanagement, low revenues, financial crisis — all are the woes eating into the social and political fabric of Afghanistan. To top it, the international community’s cautious and close monitoring of the Taliban conduct and the imposing of sanctions on the monetary aid are threatening to aggravate the ongoing financial and humanitarian crises. Is the new Afghan administration not living up to the expectations of the global community? The question is not easy to answer.
Keeping in view the heavy sanctions and the suspension of the aid, it is noteworthy that Afghanistan’s economy is taking a severe beating at the expense of Afghan peoples’ progress and prosperity. According to the United Nations, about 23 million Afghan people are undergoing hunger because of the year-long war, drought and poverty. Notably, the Taliban have been asking the United States to unfreeze nearly $9.4 billion and lift the financial sanctions. All the while the new Afghanistan government has been saying that it is representative of all Afghans and will protect their human rights under Islamic laws. That, it seems, is enough for the Taliban government to see the international community recognizing and backing it. But as of today, the response is not encouraging.
Pertinently, the departure of the US-led NATO and the lack of backing at the hands of Russia, key regional players are working to build relations at their own level. China pledged $37 million as assistance when a large portion of the aid was frozen. It also displayed willingness to provide emergency aid in a fight against COVID-19 in addition to the supply of three million doses of vaccines to Afghanistan. Moreover, China promised to join hands with all countries for prompting cooperation in three areas: synergy of their development strategies, better integration of their resource markets and exchange of experiences on governance. This position by Beijing can improve Afghnaistan’s situation; yet it has its downside as well. The caretaker goverenmnt in December 2021 began to deliver China-provided supplies to the Afghan people. Additionally, it has made avaialbe the COVID-19 vaccination . The official figures from the Ministery of public Health hold that the global pandemic has infected over 158,290 people in Afghanistan and killed 7,368 since its outbreak.
Further, Afghanistan of today is facing challenges on many a front, including huge brain drain of expert top managers, technical and professional personnel. The declining revenues and aid suspension signal that the country’s economy is facing a crunch, causing the government hinderances in providing salaries to the goverenmnt employees apart from meeting other expenses .
At the social level, if the Taliban rule enforces sudden changes in the urban areas — having lived different life for the last twenty years, disruption and panic cannot be ruled out. A blow to the struggling urban economy is bound to happen. Stopping women folk from working is likely to increase poverty. And not allowing girls’ education or laying restrictions on it may prove destabilizing for the country.
Most importantly, following the Talibans’ return to power, the US engagement with Pakistan will shift. Besides, India losing US as its ally in connection with Afghanistan, would likely to seek support from its lifelong ally Russia. Contrarily, New Delhi could also be prepared to put its policies in line with the new government in Kabul; the geopolitical realities in relation with Iran, China and Russia should not miss India’s new approach. The point to note is that Tehran and Moscow are very important for the regional stability in light of the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. That Russia‘s border touches China and Iran‘s with Pakistan and Afghanistan is a geographical entity the significance of which can not be underestimated and overlooked.
Pakistan sees the Taliban’s victory as a strategic gain over India. Immediately after Kabul’s fall, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that the Afghan people had broken the shackles of slavery to the West. Pakistan has lobbied the international community, China and Russia in particular to gain support for a collective diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as a means of ensuring that the group keeps its promises to form an inclusive government and prevent attacks, if any, from Afghanistan soil against it.
Islamabad only stands to gain in terms of stability on its western border if the Taliban manages to govern effectively, accommodate other ethnic groups and ensure lasting peace. But if they are unable to do so, Pakistan’s interests could be at stake.
China views favorably the US failure in Afghanistan. From Beijing’s perspective having US troops preoccupied in Afghanistan has multiple geopolitical benefits. Now the American withdrawal will give birth to uncertainties and risks in the regional stability and the balance of power . Further, the exit will allow Biden’s America to use more attention and resources on balancing China.
Conversely, Beijing has apprehensions that Afghanistan could become a starting point for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group of Uygur fighters China views as responsible for the attacks in Xinjiang province.
Despite all odds and uncertainties facing Afghanistan, the caretaker government needs to win international support and confidence to open the door for the opportunities in all walks of life of the century for the country.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sheikh Shabir Kulgami is a Kashmiri (Indian) political commentator, analyst and columnist. He writes extensively on South Asia.