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Afghanistan: One Year Forth, Twenty Years Back

Afghanistan: One Year Forth, Twenty Years Back
 Dr. Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh
Researcher, University Lecturer and Consultant

In mid-August 2021, the US withdrew from Afghanistan resulting in the Taliban taking control. A year later, we asked Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, Sciences Po professor and Afghanistan/Central Asia expert, to clarify the situation on the ground. Afghanistan is the first country of Institut Montaigne’s series Unresolved Crises. Every month, we take you to conflict zones for a detailed overview of a country still entangled in war, political upheaval, or humanitarian distress or experiencing all three at once. Our aim is to better understand the factors behind crisis situations and offer additional steps that could be taken to secure sustainable peace. 

What is the state on the ground one year after the Taliban took control over Afghanistan? How are the Taliban ruling? 

The Taliban may have won the war, but they have not been able to keep the peace. Nor have they been able to create a viable alternative state to the Republic of Afghanistan, which they dismantled. A year into their rule, Afghanistan faces spiraling humanitarian, economic, and human rights crises. One Afghan analyst characterized his country as a humanitarian catastrophe, a gender apartheid regime, a regional black hole, and a deep scar on Western credibility. 

While the Taliban aspire to run their Emirate on Islamic laws, they have not clarified whether and how they propose to revise Afghanistan’s Constitution adopted in 2004. They initially did not give in to the demands of international donors to appoint an inclusive government but instead built consensus and avoided factionalism from within their movement. Portfolios were distributed among followers of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, responsible for leading negotiations in Doha, and associates of the Haqqani Network, closer to Pakistan, who fought the Americans in the field. But they have come to realize that they do not have the capacity to run a government on their own and have to rely on the ancient regime's technocrats. As a result, they have created a hybrid administration, appointing a number of other non-Pasthuns and non-Taliban men in mostly lower echelons of the government. The hybrid administration now consists of eight dissolved departments and six new ones, and 440,000 personnel of the old institution kept on the payroll to which were added some 4,000 new appointees. Inflating heavy bureaucracy on a depleted budget shows the lack of experience or wishful thinking of the new rulers. 

Women have decidedly been removed from decision-making positions, and the few technical female staff retained in the health, education and security sectors are there for direct interaction with other women exclusively. The previous Ministry of Women's Affairs has been replaced by the Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice. Despite periodic promises of opening girls' schools, like Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani's ones, the decision gets postponed because of dress code debates. An early December decree by the Taliban’s top leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, enumerated some basic rights of women that the government’s ministries should respect (pertaining to marriage and inheritance) but it did not include any pronouncements on rights to education or work. Women who peacefully protest against these restrictions have been harassed, threatened, arrested, disappeared, detained and tortured. 

The appalling human rights record of the Taliban has triggered a UN alert about their descent into authoritarianism. 

The appalling human rights record of the Taliban has triggered a UN alert about their descent into authoritarianism. Despite public commitments to protect human rights, and despite a policy of amnesty, there have been revenge killings of previous government members. Amnesty notes the return of arbitrary detentions, torture, disappearances and summary executions. The targeted killings of Hazara men, including those committed with impunity by members of the militant group Islamic State - Khorasan Province (ISKP), are proof that ethnic and religious minorities remain at particular risk under Taliban rule.

They have tightened their grip on independent media and digital platforms, persecuting journalists, all the while projecting a moderate face through their savvy use of social media.

As far as security is concerned, many observers find the country more peaceful than a year ago. By January 2022, the UN reported a 91 percent decrease in violence from the previous year. This comes as no big surprise: as instigators of insecurity in the first place, and responsible for a bloody insurgency, the victory of the Taliban de facto ended the war and their terror campaign. The Taliban are infamously known for instigating strong capital punishments as a deterrence strategy, which may explain the decline in crime. But daunting security challenges remain. The regime faces opposition from the National Resistance Front (NRF) which has sprung up in five provinces in northern Afghanistan (Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kapisa, Panjshir, and Takhar) and one province in the east (Nangarhar). Former Afghan military officials are also promising further anti-Taliban attacks. To this list should be added the civil society movement led by fearless women who have put up the most resistance to Taliban rule through vocal protests. The real test for the Taliban however rests on how they will be able to tackle their most serious foe, the ISKP which has claimed responsibility for numerous terror acts during the past few years. The Taliban will also have a difficult time reigning in other transnational terror groups or severing ties with al Qaeda (AQ) given their history of loyalty. 

If security provision is uncertain, running the economy has already proven to be an insurmountable task. When the Taliban took power, public institutions hollowed out of experts and bureaucrats, capital and brains fled the country, cross-border flows came to a halt or slowed down considerably, and the economy collapsed. In the first six months of Taliban rule, it was estimated that more than half a million people lost or were pushed out of their jobs and the UNDP predicted that by mid-2022, 98% of Afghans could plunge into poverty. The fact that the Taliban are not accepting the international community's conditionalities for continued support partly explains the collapse of the economy. There are however other structural problems. Afghanistan has been heavily dependent on international aid for the past fifty years, and even more during the past twenty years. Foreign aid is used to finance between 40-45% of the GDP and 75% of public expenditures. A national economy built on national resources was never achieved in the past two decades. Aid was massive but not effectively coordinated; a large share was spent on security infrastructure and its management was plagued with corruption. Aid - then and now - cannot be the answer. 

The current financial and humanitarian crisis cannot be divorced from the decisions of the Biden administration and its European partners to freeze US$7 billion of Afghanistan's national reserves held in the US Federal Reserve bank and some US$2.1 billion in European banks and elsewhere. This move has cut off Afghanistan's Central Bank from the international banking system, which in turn has led to a massive liquidity crisis and nationwide shortages of banknotes in both USD and in Afghani (the Afghan currency). 

The fact that the Taliban are not accepting the international community's conditionalities for continued support partly explains the collapse of the economy. 

Trade, payment of salaries, international payments for imports, and all interactions requiring banking payments are paralyzed due to foreign banks’ fears that they may be violating UN and US sanctions on the Taliban. 

The Taliban could rely on the narcotics trade which used to form the lion's share of their resources in the past but that would feed the black and informal economy. They can now also count on controlling the legal and illegal movement of ordinary goods, like fuel and consumer imports. That explains why they took control of trade routes, highways, bridges, footpaths, and the border crossing with Iran, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan to gain access to informal taxation even before they took over Kabul. They have also started to press businesses and farmers to pay the Usher (Islamic tax on certain harvests) and Zakat (Islamic tax on personal income). It remains to be seen, however, if the Taliban can turn the economy around, transform the war economy from which they had greatly profited in the past into a licit and lucrative one, and gather enough domestic sources from legal means. Afghanistan faces a budget deficit of 44 billion Afghanis (US$501 million) this financial year. 

Why is this important to the international community? 

First, Afghanistan deserves global attention because of the looming humanitarian catastrophe. Economic sanctions are unlikely to change the Taliban's behavior but will hurt the most vulnerable Afghans. The WFP estimates that nearly 23 million Afghans - about half of the country's population - face extreme levels of hunger, with nearly 9 million at risk of starvation, despite a significant amount of Humanitarian Food Assistance (HFA) provided in 2022. The humanitarian crisis is exacerbated by a combination of rapid economic decline, successive series of droughts, further increase in food, fuel, and fertilizer prices linked to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the reduction of remittances, among other factors. 

Second, Afghanistan should be of concern because Afghans are not the only ones who suffer if the debacle continues. The vacuum created is a bad déjà vu: Afghanistan is at risk of, once again, becoming a militancy breeding ground, a lawless transit country and a safe haven for extremists in the region.

Afghanistan is at risk of, once again, becoming a militancy breeding ground, a lawless transit country and a safe haven for extremists in the region. 

This threat should remind the international community of why it intervened back in 2001 and left the job undone. The US government spent US$145 billion for state-building and stabilization while the Department of Defense (DOD) spent US$837 billion on warfighting. Brown University's Cost of War project estimates the cost of the Afghanistan war between 2001 and 2022 (including interest in war borrowing and veterans' care for Afghan vets) at US$2.313 trillion dollars. More than 176,000 people died in what came to be America's longest military engagement. 

Despite tremendous losses, we are back to square one in terms of global security. The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by a US drone demonstrated that the Taliban cannot be trusted to commit to the Doha Agreement benchmarks to break their relations with transnational militants. Most importantly, they cannot be trusted to contain the local activities of the ISKP. This does not inspire confidence in neighboring countries that have their own extremist enemies on Afghan territory. Iran is concerned about the presence of the Sunni separatist Baluchistan liberation Army; Tajikistan worries about Jamaat Ansarullah; Russia is monitoring closely the growth of ISKP on the borders of Central Asian countries; China fears the Taliban's rapprochement with the Uyghur organization Turkistan Islamic Movement; Pakistan is weary about the Tehrik-i-Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistani border. 

Third, the booming drug trade is another pressing and unresolved problem. Ironically, despite investments, the drug economy dramatically expanded after the US and NATO-led invasion. The amount of land under poppy cultivation nearly tripled between 2002 and 2020, and the country also started to produce cheap methamphetamine. Soon after taking power last August, the Taliban vowed to crack down on narcotics, issuing a decree banning the production and sale of illicit drugs, but it has been inadequately enforced. There are many reasons behind this rationale. The collapse of the economy deprived farmers of viable alternatives and left the Taliban with little resources to fight drugs. Drought made opium cultivation more appealing to farmers, as successful opium yields do not require irrigation. What's more, the global demand is still rising and Afghanistan cannot easily shake its existing connections to regional and global drug markets. 

Finally, Afghanistan matters because of shifts in geopolitical power plays. The fall of Kabul and the swift withdrawal of US troops revealed how the US might not have the staying power for lasting peace. The message was that the US easily abandons its former allies, leaving them and others in the region to deal with the mess left behind. Moscow interpreted the US pivot to Asia as abandoning marginal countries.

Afghanistan matters because of shifts in geopolitical power plays.

This gave Russian troops carte blanche to make their move toward the Ukrainian border within weeks of the fall of Kabul. Shortly after the Taliban takeover, top officials at the Russian National Security Council noted that Ukrainians could not rely on American support in the long-term, that the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries should not count on NATO, and that Afghanistan's fate awaits Ukraine. China and Russia also see the Taliban's ascension as an opportunity to boost regional interests. These nevertheless differ, leaving the Taliban with leeway to maneuver between potentially contradictory fallouts from the geo-strategic interests of Russia (trying to regain influence by insulating countries from instability through a cordon sanitaire), or the geo-economic interests of China (trying to open up to more connections) to tap into economic, political resources and security guarantees. China would want to include Afghanistan in its "Belt and Road Initiative" (BRI) by promoting it as a central hub for the Silk Road Economic Belt (the BRI's land component) connecting Central Asia with South Asia, thereby creating the shortest route between China and the Middle East. But China is unlikely to provide unconditional support to the Taliban, worried as it is about the prospect of Taliban ideology spreading to separatist groups from Xinjiang. Russia, under sanctions, may not be a viable economic partner for Afghanistan but it has security concerns that may bring it to cooperate directly with the Taliban should they be able to curb the influence of ISKP. Russia would like to check the advancement of the vehemently anti-Russian Islamic state, which not only targeted the Russian embassy in Kabul but also poses a long-term threat to Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan which Russia considers part of its sphere of strategic interest. 

What additional steps could the international community take to make more of a difference?

Afghanistan, first, should serve as a lesson for Western imperial hubris. The international community should also learn to distinguish between the current rulers of Afghanistan and its people, whose punishment by proxy is an immoral imperative. The current Western strategy is a combination of confrontation and conditionalities. Both however are not effective. Sanctions hurt people more than regimes and violence call for more violence. 

Western donors could fund specific state functions that directly address the livelihoods and wellbeing of the populations, including through the UN, by keeping the public sector afloat, as it is also the country's largest employer. Support for rural development, health, agriculture, electricity, local governance, education, and the public sector is needed to avoid the total collapse of essential services. This is actually being gradually done using the World Bank's Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) as well as the UN Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan which goes beyond emergency relief. 

At the same time, external donor support is not the long-term solution. The freezing of Afghanistan's assets abroad means that the Da Afghanistan Bank - the central bank - cannot undertake currency auctions and ensure liquidity. This limits the possibility to pay salaries in the public sector, which in turn has resulted in massive unemployment, loss of livelihood and inability of most Afghans to afford food, fuel, shelter, and medicine. One option is for Western governments to release the frozen funds, and help restore central banking functions to revive economic activity while establishing robust monitoring mechanisms to address concerns that the Taliban could divert aid. International financial institutions (IFIs) could mandate and fund reputable third-party monitoring and auditing services for Afghan banks. 

The current US strategy is to look at Afghanistan through a counter-terrorism lens.

The current US strategy is to look at Afghanistan through a counter-terrorism lens: disengaging with state-building, continuing the sanction-and-isolate policy towards the Taliban, and employing "over-the-horizon" counterterrorism capability, what President Biden described as the ability to "strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground". 

But drones are not a straightforward easy solution and should be a last resort. Striking enemies within Afghanistan, especially given the moving nature of the target (senior members of the Taliban itself, their friends in al Qaeda, or their foes in ISKP?), and without proper intelligence, early warning and follow-up capabilities, runs the risk of alienation, blowback reactions, and potential increased support for the Taliban. 

Another option is to work with the Taliban for them to tackle transnational extremist groups, but this assumes a clear understanding of the strategic objective of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan, and whether, in the final analysis, the subtext of division between "good terrorist" Taliban and "bad terrorist" ISKP is viable. In any case, the Taliban may be intent on conducting operations against ISKP, but they do not have the capability and control of the entire territory, nor the will to go after other groups such as Al Qaeda. The alternative of supporting proxies, in this case increasing the military capacities of opposition groups, is also a dangerous strategy that can draw in different regional powers. Meddling in this theater can only inflame further violence in Afghanistan and sacrifice more generations of Afghan people. 

The necessity to engage to some extent with the Taliban without recognition remains, an option most probably considered by the US government, which refuses to include the Taliban under the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) designation. Within the Taliban movement, there may be an internal struggle or at least discord between those bent on the past ideology and those willing to make some concessions, exemplified in the ongoing debates among senior members representing different factions on issues related to girls' education. This in itself is an invitation to more dialogue. Some experts also recommend engaging in religious diplomacy and engaging ideologues within the Taliban clergy in order to influence, shape, or at least understand the group’s choices and actions.

Civil society, finally, should not be neglected. Whether from within the country or from outside, Afghans of all genders, ages, ethnicities and professions should be supported in their non-violent paths toward national dialogues, including, why not, by involving the Taliban who are keen to be heard. The role of the United Nations is key in all these processes; it should establish more robust mechanisms for monitoring funds and human rights and be able to better represent the interests of all regional partners, and certainly those of all Afghans.

Copyright: Javed TANVEER

Whether from within the country or from outside, Afghans of all genders, ages, ethnicities and professions should be supported in their non-violent paths toward national dialogues.

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