Afghan Disaster Likely to Spread
Calamity rushes into a vacuum
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Afghanistan today has been abandoned by all the major powers, with its impending economic crisis, famine, the rapidly tumbling currency, and the politics surrounding the cessation of foreign aid – which provided about 75 percent of Afghanistan’s budget – all combining to turn the country into the very definition of a total state collapse, with ruinous implications far beyond its borders.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, nearly 23 million people, or about half of the population, are facing starvation. The International Crisis Group warns that the crisis could kill more people than the war. According to other UN estimates, severe drought has destroyed nearly half of Afghanistan’s crops. Earlier this week, the currency lost more than 11 percent of its value against the US dollar in one day. Most foreign aid Kabul received before the Taliban’s ‘victory’ has stopped. The IMF, which was supposed to transfer US$450 million to Kabul in August, blocked it because of the “lack of clarity” about the prevailing situation.
Most mainstream media reports tend to hold the Taliban’s violent takeover of Kabul responsible for bringing Afghanistan to the brink of absolute disaster. This is historically wrong, for the Taliban’s victory became possible not only because of the collapse of western-funded, US-trained and equipped Afghan security forces, but also because the Taliban were directly invited by Washington to take over Kabul when the Trump administration, moved by its bid to end what the then-president called America’s “useless wars,” entered into an agreement with the militant group and granted it the very legitimacy for which it had been searching for years.
As many people working closely with, or observing, the Taliban’s politics confided, the agreement turned the Taliban from a militant group into an armed political party seeking to ‘liberate’ their country from a failed foreign occupation.
The US failed for multiple reasons. While it failed to eliminate the Taliban, the billions of dollars it pumped in as part of its ‘nation building’ program were, as numerous reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have revealed over the past few years, a complete waste of money.
This failure was a key factor that debilitated Kabul and allowed the Taliban to maintain their momentum.
“What would have been the scenario if the US money had succeeded in really building state institutions in Afghanistan?” asked a Kabul-based activist, who no longer has a job to feed his family, and who asked to remain unnamed. “The US just handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban because it had failed to rebuild it.”
While the Biden administration was quite emphatic, and even assured Ashraf Ghani, before the withdrawal that it would continue to support Kabul, the Afghan security forces’ collapse changed the whole scenario. “It compounded the magnitude of the US failure,” continued the former activist, as the Taliban’s rapid control of Afghanistan made it impossible for the administration to extend any help.
Even though the US was the country that legitimized the Taliban, the international embarrassment Washington continues to face over the disaster has become a key reason for it to neither recognize the Taliban government, nor provide any direct aid to them. The Taliban’s own victory, in other words, has contributed in many ways to the ongoing exacerbation of the situation.
According to Pakistani diplomatic sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the situation could have been different “if the Taliban had taken practical action against the ISIS-K, the ETIM, and al-Qaeda.”
The fact that the current regime is being dominated by the Haqqani Network, a Sunni Islamist militant organization founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who emerged as a top warlord. The network is under US sanctions and, according to the various UN reports, is known to have direct ties with the ISIS-K, al-Qaeda, and other transnational jihadi groups. That has made it impossible for the western states to establish ties with them. In fact, the Haqqanis’ domination became a key reason why the US sanctions on the group were automatically transferred to Kabul.
Therefore, even though Washington recently transferred US$144 million to Afghanistan, the aid will be distributed only via independent humanitarian organizations including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the World Health Organization (WHO). But it is clear that the aid is far from enough to prevent collapse.
Indeed, this aid is a major disappointment for Russia and China, which have been demanding that the US shoulder responsibility to provide financial aid to the country it kept under its occupation for 20 years.
Even though both Russia and China, because of their geographical proximity, could be in line of fire if the situation deteriorates in Afghanistan, they have themselves not provided any major aid. Very much like the US and EU, both are unsettled by the continuing presence of transnational jihadi networks in Afghanistan and their tendency to export their jihad to Central Asia and Xinjiang.
Both Russia and China hold the US responsible for this situation, as the “irresponsible” withdrawal did not allow for a complete elimination of these threats.
At the same time, the Taliban’s inability – and unwillingness – to eliminate these groups and alleviate the concerns that both Moscow and Beijing have long expressed has prevented them from recognizing the Taliban and providing aid. On the contrary, both countries are apparently bargaining aid and assistance in exchange for real action against the groups seeking jihad beyond Afghanistan.
But this wait-and-see approach is a gamble. While it is based on the assumption that a tough approach could humanize the Taliban, it is also possible that it could further strengthen the hardliners led by the Haqqanis, who are already in control of key portfolios.
Afghanistan’s economic strangulation is also a perfect situation for transnational jihadi groups to expand and explore opportunities beyond Afghanistan. Besides that, with more and more Afghan cultivators already turning to poppy cultivation – which is probably the only business left profitable – the danger of a torrential flow of narcotics from Afghanistan to the rest of the world, too, is very high.
It is by now crystal clear to all regional and international actors that Afghanistan’s collapse will have devastating consequences that could impact all of them in one way or the other. What they need to do is find a way to avert it in their own interest, for even though the Taliban’s inaction against transnational jihadis is a problem, economic collapse will only multiply this problem and raise its magnitude.
Indeed, it was an identical collapse in Iraq following the US withdrawal that gave birth to ISIS. Surely, no regional or international state wants that.