Unidimensional predictions or conclusions have always been considered to be 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 multivarious branching of the event. But the recent Afghan crisis might just turn out to be the first exception to that norm. The bleak Afghani future 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 NATO invasion of Afghanistan as radical terrorism was perceived to be way more perilous than a 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 NATO 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 delusive 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”.
Assessing the Taliban “2.0”
While a foremost seat at the Doha negotiation table has provided the Taliban with some sort of half-baked political legitimacy, but how far that can be materialized into the “highly desired” international recognition of a Taliban ruled Afghanistan still remains murky. The fall of Kabul on 15th August, 2021, followed by an extremely hectic evacuation of Mission staffs and local allies, closing down of embassies, proves that the international perception of Taliban still remains as a “terrorist” organization, not as some political actor who took over the reins of government.
Since taking power in Afghanistan, the Taliban has broken numerous conditions of the Doha Deal. The deal laid down for a power sharing between the Taliban and the then incumbent Afghan Government, which has been blatantly ignored by the Taliban. There also remains 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 safe 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 fans the fuel of distrust. Already there have been reports by the Indian intelligence, that the notorious Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar has met with 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 on their way to Afghanistan. Based on reports, the Taliban on the day of it seize of Kabul had to scamper hard to keep affiliates from other terrorist organization 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 some time, before the Taliban fails to keep its promise of keeping the soils of Afghanistan free of terror groups.
One of the most fundamental goal 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 common Afghan population, who backed the Taliban on this very claim … until the real implementation happened. The horrific violation of human rights, the unimaginable treatment rendered to women, and most importantly the metamorphosis into a breeding ground of ultra-radical Islamic 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, its starkly different from what it is being preached. The disappearance of women from the public arena within a day, the dismissal of women work force, issuing death warrants, lashing women for wearing “tight bourka” , abducting underage girls into forced marriage and sexual slavery, are all reminiscent of the 1st Taliban regime. (1996- 2001). As time progresses and the Taliban consolidates its grip more, its true demeanor and empty assurances are becoming more and 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 witch hunt 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 which went viral on the internet in the last few weeks show, comic Fazal Mohammad, popularly known as “Khasa Zawan” being thrashed and later killed horrifically by the Taliban fighters. With this second revival of the Taliban, Afghanistan in one day has been pushed 200 years back and every tiny development that were made in the last two decades were undone.
Governance and Economy
Recently, 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 victory of Taliban. 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 1st Taliban regime of 1996-2001, the governance of country 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 were no coherent legislative system, judicial system or an executive on modern lines. “Justice” was delivered by local Taliban leaders, literally on their own interpretation and whim. There was not even any slightest attempt to organize administration and governance on modern
ethos. The country then was haphazardly administered by several militias and war lords 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 warlord, sometimes in lieu of money. Russian analyst Andreev rightly called Afghanistan under Taliban as “a country without a state”.
This time it remains ambiguous as to how the government would form in the new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. The Taliban has vouched for “inclusivity” in the government, but like all other assurances made by the group, this too seems hollow. What remains starkly different from 1996, is the way the military force has been organized. The Taliban now boast of a world class arsenal with modern ammunitions. The propaganda videos of Taliban that are now being hugely circulated in social media portrays 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 works” for the Taliban. Therefore, the burning question persist-
HOW will the Taliban with no experience in modern administration whatsoever, with no credible merit-based bureaucracy at their disposal, with a repulsive population to administer, with no international recognition (yet) is going to undertake the mammoth task of governing an entire nation?!
In the period of 1996-2001, like every other social aspects, the economic side of Afghanistan was also “medievalized” . The phrase “Bazaar Economy” as Conrad Schetter puts it, captures the essence of the economy under the Taliban best. Smuggling of timber, opium and drugs are 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 Taliban, the economy was accordingly steered to suit that goal. Economic power was vested to the “military entrepreneurs” who went on to became the main actor of the Afghan “Bazaar Economy”.
After the fall of Kabul on 15th 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 460 million dollars of access to Afghan funds. The US administration also blocked about 9.5 billion of Afghan reserves, to shield it away from the reach of Taliban. As many analysts are forecasting, the Taliban will be forced to adopt 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 are 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 harbours its vile nature; only more powerful and independent.
The international community is really out of options this time and is mulling recognition to Taliban. 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 well. How the Taliban behaves, how much it keeps it promise of keeping Afghanistan “terror free” will go on to decide its political future. Even if it succeeds in doing so, the internal problems within Afghanistan will debilitate the Taliban consolidation. Already, resistance has begun against the Taliban regime under Ahmad Massoud from Panjshir valley, but the guerilla force formed, is too premature and disjointed to take on the now mighty Taliban. While Afghanistan’s neighbour Tajikistan has openly supported the Northern Alliance under Massoud, it needs financial and logistic support to win any noticeable success. 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 it created. The rest of the world would naturally want to follow that line of disengagement from Afghanistan. Thus, military option to the Afghan issue remains completely out of consideration, until and unless the Taliban repeats its mistake of harboring and abetting terrorism! If the Northern Alliance manages to carve out a niche for itself in a Taliban ruled Afghanistan, it can expect indirect, covert assistance. But for now, it is on its own.
The internal riffs 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. Emergence of other terrorist outfits like the 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.
As of now, the common, helpless Afghans have to shelve away their dreams and aspirations and have to gear themselves up for the worst. Reality has been so unkind and cruel to them, that any talk of hope, is 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.
*Anondeeta Chakraborty is a Research Coordinator at Global Counter Terrorism Council