So, what the future looks like for Afghanistan? In one word: hopeless, writes Anondeeta Chakraborty for South Asia Monitor
Unidimensional predictions or conclusions have always been considered misleading and deceptive in the literature of International Relations, and rightly so. One cannot possibly fathom how a unilateral event might transpose the course of history, without getting to observe the multifarious branching of the event. But the recent Afghan crisis might just turn out to be the first exception to that norm. The bleak future for Afghanistan is now strikingly visible to everybody, seer or not!
It’s safe to assert that the 'celebrated' "War on Terror" did not see its intended culmination. The US saw the worst outcome of its foreign policy in Afghanistan, severer than North Vietnam. Unlike the Vietnam crisis, the world lukewarmly supported the US-led invasion of Afghanistan as radical terrorism was perceived to be way more perilous than foreign intervention. Moreover, the first Taliban regime (1996- 2001), was not exactly a model of self-rule, but very rapidly took on a dystopian character, giving the world another reason to oust them.
The heated debate around NATO’s exit, internal squabbles among its leaders on the Afghan issue, or the ambiguous, contradicting response of the US on its decamping from Afghanistan, have tangled up the Afghan crisis into a Gordian Knot, where the delusional vision of a democratic, 'liberated' Afghanistan, is being briskly obliterated. What remains crystal clear to all foreign policy analysts, irrespective of their political leanings, is the journey of Afghanistan into a 'failed state'.
While a foremost seat at the Doha negotiation table has provided the Taliban with some sort of half-baked political legitimacy, how far that leads to the highly desired international recognition of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan remains murky. The fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021, followed by an extremely hectic evacuation of mission staff and local allies, closing down of embassies, proves the international perception of the Taliban remains as a terrorist outfit, not as radical political actors who took over the reins of government.
Since taking power in Afghanistan, the Taliban have broken numerous conditions of the Doha deal that called for power-sharing between the Taliban and the then incumbent Afghan government, which has been blatantly ignored by the Taliban. There also remain a lot of valid apprehensions as to how much the Taliban is going to keep their end of the bargain of not providing any terrorist organization haven in Afghanistan. Although condemned by the Taliban, the recent suicide bombing in Hamid Karzai International Airport by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, (ISIS K) further fuels distrust.
Terror outfits, Sharia laws
Already there have been reports by the Indian intelligence that the notorious Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar has met the Taliban leadership, to seek “help” in the Kashmir issue. Many ultra-radical Islamists from Bangladesh were stopped by the Indian Border Security Force, who were reportedly on their way to Afghanistan. Based on reports, the Taliban on the day it seized Kabul had to scamper hard to keep affiliates from other terrorist organizations from joining their victory march.
The US already is dreading a revival of the Islamic State (IS), even though it is a sworn enemy of the Taliban as well (ISIS-K). It’s only a matter of time before the Taliban fails to keep its promise of keeping the soil of Afghanistan free of terror groups.
One of the most fundamental goals of the Taliban has remained the strict interpretative rule of Sharia in Afghanistan. In 1996, the idea of an “Islamic rule”, devoid of any foreign influence, found a strong support base among the devout Afghan population, who backed the Taliban on this very claim - until the real implementation happened.
The horrific violation of human rights, the unimaginable maltreatment of women, and most importantly the metamorphosis of their homeland into a breeding ground of ultra-radical Islamist terrorism, made the Afghans detest the Taliban. This time the Taliban has been cautious to not associate itself with the earlier monstrous image. Time and again it is reiterating its new 'reformed' disposition and has vowed to provide rights within the ambit of the Sharia.
But as reality speaks, it is starkly different from what is being preached. The disappearance of women from the public arena within a day, the dismissal of women workforce, violence and intimidation again women protesters, issuing of death warrants, lashing women for wearing “tight burkha", abducting underage girls into forced marriage and sexual slavery, are all reminiscent of the first Taliban regime. (1996-2001).
Taliban going back on promises
As time progresses and the Taliban consolidates its grip, its true face and empty assurances are becoming more obvious. While coming to power, the organization promised to provide a blanket amnesty to all Afghans that have worked with foreign governments, but the witchhunt against them contradicts that guarantee.
As a reminder of the earlier Taliban regime, public music has been banned in Afghanistan. Renowned Afghan folk singer Fawad Andarabi has been barbarously killed. A video that went viral on the internet in the last few weeks showed comedian Fazal Mohammad, popularly known as “Khasa Zawan” being thrashed and later killed brutally by the Taliban fighters. With this second revival of the Taliban, Afghanistan has virtually been pushed 200 years back, and every tiny development that was made in the last two decades by way of social progess was undone.
Some time back a video surfaced in social media where CNN Chief International Correspondent Clarissa Ward, while interviewing a Taliban member, asked about the possibility of a democratic Afghanistan, following the hardline militia’s victory. The question was met with howling laughter from the interviewee and his fellow members. This shows the apathy with which the accepted modern values of democracy and liberty are perceived by this group of ultra radicals.
During the first Taliban regime of 1996-2001, governance was strictly based on Sharia. Its goal was to return to the order of the Iron Emir (Abdur Rahman). A ruling council was set up headed by the supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar. There was no coherent legislative system, judicial system, or executive on modern lines. 'Justice' was delivered by local Taliban leaders, literally on their own interpretation and whims.
There was not even the slightest attempt to organize administration and governance on modern ethos. The country then was haphazardly administered by several militias and warlords imposing their own incoherent system of administration under their jurisdictions. Decision-making was ambiguous and straight-up bizarre, and administration was linked up with “military duties”. Even the military wing of the Taliban during that period was constituted by local militias and warlords, sometimes instead of money. Russian analyst Andreev rightly called Afghanistan under Taliban as “a country without a state”.
The military, economy
What remains starkly different from 1996 is the way the military force has been organized. The Taliban now boasts of a world-class arsenal with modern ammunition. The propaganda videos of the Taliban that are now being hugely circulated in social media portray the “military might” of the organization, with elite factions like Badri 313 battalion equipped with combat gear and modern weapons.
Already, the security functions of the new “emirate “have been given to the age-old ally of the Taliban, the notorious Haqqani network, who are more than ready to do all the “dirty work” for the Taliban. Therefore, the burning question persists: How will the Taliban with no experience in modern administration whatsoever, with no credible merit-based bureaucracy at their disposal, with a restive population to administer, with no international recognition (yet) is going to undertake the mammoth task of governing an entire nation?
In the period 1996-2001, like every other social aspect, the economic side of Afghanistan was also 'medievalized'. The phrase “bazaar economy”, as Conrad Schetter puts it, captures best the essence of the economy under the Taliban. Smuggling of timber, opium and drugs is what kept the economy moving sluggishly. The prolonged Afghan civil war also destroyed the pastoral economy. As consolidation of power became the main goal of the Taliban, the economy was accordingly steered to suit that goal. Economic power was vested to the “military entrepreneurs” who went on to become the main actor of the Afghan “bazaar economy”.
After the fall of Kabul on 15 August 2021, the Afghan economy did not take much time to spiral downwards. The Afghan banking system has already collapsed. International aids have been suspended. The IMF froze over USD 460 million of access to Afghan funds. The US administration also blocked about USD 9.5 billion of Afghan reserves, to shield them from the reach of the Taliban. As many analysts are forecasting, the Taliban will be forced to resort to their signature money-making tactics of opium trade and terror smuggling.
Despite sitting on a one trillion dollar worth of resources, the Taliban has no means at their disposal to utilize those. While many countries are wary of a possible Chinese entrapment of these resources by providing financial assistance and political recognition to the Taliban, these conclusions, although premature, have enough substance to be weighed on.
So, what the future looks like for Afghanistan? In one word: hopeless! Any speculation of an Afghanistan that can be sustained by the Taliban regime is illusory. While the public assurances being made by the body might foster a sense of a changed demeanor of Taliban to the international community, in reality, it still harbors its base nature; only more powerful and independent.
The international community is really out of options this time and is mulling recognition of the Taliban regime. But the ground situation in Afghanistan is going to act as a stumbling block. Thanks to social media, the international public narrative remains strongly against the Taliban, and any sort of appeasement strategy would not go down well. How the Taliban behaves, how much it keeps its promise of keeping Afghanistan “terror-free” will go on to decide its political future as it struggles to form a government and give a semblance of governance to this war-weary, cash-strapped nation.
Even if it succeeds in doing so, the internal problems within Afghanistan will debilitate the Taliban consolidation. Resistance had begun against the Taliban regime under Ahmad Massoud from Panjshir valley, but the guerilla force seemed too premature and disjointed to take on the now mighty Taliban, while Pakistan reportedly played a decisive role by unleashing drone air-strikes, which has not gone down well with the Afghan rank and file.
Unfortunately, after yet another debacle of the American foreign policy, it won’t be any time soon that the US would want to get involved in the mess of its creation. The rest of the world would naturally want to follow that line of disengagement from Afghanistan. Thus, the military option to the Afghan issue remains completely out of consideration, until and unless the Taliban repeat their mistake of harboring and abetting terrorism directed at other nations.
The internal rifts within the Taliban are also becoming noticeable. Despite projecting itself as a strong, unified body, the Taliban could not have gained prominence without the help of local militias. An article written by Hollie Mckay for the New York Post confirmed the emerging differences between the Taliban factions. The gradual re-emergence of other terrorist outfits like ISIS (K) is also further inflaming the situation. A divided Taliban might seem advantageous but on the other hand it creates the perfect environment of a proxy war which, as history shows, does irreparable damage to a state and its international reputation.
As of now, the common, helpless Afghans have to shelve their dreams and aspirations and instead be prepared for the worst. Reality has been so unkind and cruel to them, that any talk of hope is, to say the least, sadistic. All the international community can do at this point is to stand in solidarity and sympathy with the Afghans and open their borders and hearts!
(The writer is a student of International Relations at St Xavier's College, Kolkata. The views expressed are personal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)