The 31st August, 2021 marked the day of the US endgame in Afghanistan and the country’s power transfer to the Taliban at a speed faster than expected, indeed in a week’s time, than months together as was wrongly estimated by the US. It followed a protracted 20 year conflict between the two unequal powers: one state and another non-state; one powerful and another almost powerless and one fighting for ego and might and another, avowedly, for liberating the land from alien troops.
The transition left behind volleys of lessons, questions and challenges to the contesting parties. The US had entered Afghanistan with a big bang in October 2001, but retreated unceremoniously from there in August 2021 at a huge financial and human cost, its bruised image and dented geopolitical design in Afghanistan apart. For its mission failure, it opted for the ‘botched exit’ amid the dreadful terror attacks of Daesh-Khorasan, an ISIL affiliate, on its outgoing troops, diplomats and the Afghan allies at the Kabul international airport.
Its abrupt exit denoted its perpetual foreign policy failure, continuation of its back-to-back defeats in Vietnam and Middle East and its inconsistency in relations with its own allies, per se, the NATO, which it dragged into the Afghan conflict in 2001, but consulted it least while drawing down from Afghanistan in 2021. At one time, it idealized the Taliban as the ‘Mujahideen’ for their holy war against the ‘godless’ Soviet state, and, at another, demonized them as the terrorists for their resistance to the US overstay in Afghanistan. Once it owned Pakistan as a ‘strategic asset’ for the counter insurgency in Afghanistan and, later, demeaned it allegedly for its ‘double role’ during the Afghan insurgency. In one breath, it assured security to the nascent Afghans from the Taliban reprisal and, in another, pushed them straightway into their lap.
By all means, therefore, the manner in which the US pulled out from Afghanistan was doubtlessly humiliating to the US. It attributes the reason of its ‘mission failure’ to the factors of the low morale, desertions, ghost soldiers in the ANDSF and the extremely corrupt Afghan establishment. But, that does not deny its miserable defeat at the hands of the ununiformed group of the Taliban. It must be a crude learning for the US, to shun armed conflict and opt for cooperation with its enemies in the Afghan context.
The Taliban too has a number of daunting challenges ahead of its second regime. The transition, though peaceful, is yet incomplete. The country is polarized and dotted with the complex issues of governance failure, institutional deficit, endemic corruption, poverty, unemployment, and economic and humanitarian crises.
Potentially strong security threat from the Daesh-K, an ISIS affiliate, exists there. Former Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, and Ahmad Massoud, the son of legendary commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, defeated though in the last holed out Panjsher valley, could anytime and anywhere pose problem to the Taliban with support from the countries inimical to the Taliban. Newly-created local chiefs by the US and the surviving mafia groups, drug and arms smugglers, and women and children traffickers, could equally be worrisome to the Taliban’s second regime. This is not the end of it.
Economically, the country is cash crunched to meet expenses of various sorts. Its 80% foreign funding on security has since stopped. Its $9.5 billion central bank assets are frozen in the US. IMF and World Bank aid is not forthcoming. Its import and export trade options are stalled. The faltering economy is hard to revive without international funding. China may bail out the Taliban given its coveted eyes on country’s worth trillions of dollars of untapped mineral treasure. But, it is conditioned by the country’s peace and stability and the resolve of the world community to engage than to isolate Afghanistan.
The civil society, women and the minorities, the Shiite ethnic Hazaras in particular, are uncomfortable with the Taliban despite its repeated assurances regarding their rights. Yet, thousands are fleeing the country for the Taliban’s nemesis. The women are scared of their Sharia law for being ‘anti-women’ and their traditional educational system for being un-scientific. The ethnic Shiite Hazaras apprehend the relapse of the Taliban reprisal since they profess a ‘crude’ form of Sunni Islam. The Hazaras pin their hope on their fellow Shiite country Iran for safeguards from the Taliban. The 7th September, 2021, huge Kabul protests are revealing in that the new Taliban regime is readying itself to entertain the dissent and that the dissident groups have now less fearful of the Taliban.
No formal government is in place since Ashraf Ghani’s exit from the country. The Taliban is constituting a caretaker government with leaders from all ethnicities and tribal backgrounds, may be, including Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah like liberal and progressive former state heads, denoting a prelude to the formation of a formal government in the country. The task is quite hilarious for the incompatibility between the Taliban’s own vision of Islamic Republic and the surging international demand for a democratic set up in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s perception is that new government will not be a democracy by western definition, but, “will protect everyone’s rights”.
The Taliban’s tough time would come over the adoption of an appropriate Islamic model for its people. By themselves, Taliban are devotedly monotheistic believing in that “there is no god but God” and “Muhammed (SAW) is Allah’s Messenger”. Their belief revolves round the Quran and Hadith than culture and tradition. In contrast, is a large chunk of the Afghans following the Sufi or traditional Islam, encompassing certain pre-Islamic rites, rituals and practices. Even some of them subscribe to both the strands of Islam, a midway of sorts. Would, for the sake of change, the Taliban blend their ‘ultra-hardline’ Islam with its moderate version, and stop the spillover of Islamism to the neighbouring countries for the regime change and relocation of an “Emirate” in the greater Eurasian landscape?
However, the Taliban has certain promising opportunities offered by various regional economic integration projects, TAPI, CASA-1000, NSR (New Silk Route project) etc. These were periodically conceived for Afghanistan’s trans-border and intra-regional trade, transport, and connectivity with South and Central Asia. One would be curious to know about the Taliban’s response to these projects in relation to the CPEC like Chinese OBOR flagship. Similarly, Afghanistan is found to contain unproven mineral wealth, worth $trillions, in silver, gold, copper, iron, zinc, lead, lithium, oil and uranium. China has already won in 2008 the international tendering for a 30 year contract, at $2.9 billion, to extract, smelt and process raw copper at the Mes Aynak copper mine towards the southeast of capital Kabul. Such transnational economic initiatives are perceived to change the face of Afghanistan and the fate of its peoples. Would the Taliban allow foreign investment in the country and to what extent and on what terms, would be interesting to see in the foreseeable future? Pertinently, the given process conference by the Taliban spokesperson on the 31st August, 2021, exhibits a great deal optimism towards the aforesaid issues. Would they reconcile their rhetoric with reality, only time will tell?
Prof. Mushta A. Kaw, Former Director Centre of Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, J&K, India