Taliban’s Influence on Afghanistan’s Future
By Lakshman I. Keerthisinghe
A victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for the world – particularly for South Asia, for Central Asia, and for the Middle East
– Manmohan Singh, Indian Statesman
On 31 August 2021, the US completed its twenty-year war on terror in Afghanistan. Soon after, the Taliban and its allies established full control over Afghanistan. As the days pass, observers, both within and outside the country, are wondering what the future holds for a Taliban-led Afghanistan. It is evident that the Taliban of 2021 are different from the Taliban of 1996, at least in terms of their media messaging, propaganda and political manoeuvring.
However, even with this evolution, the situation for gender and media rights presents a grim future for Afghanistan under the Taiiban. It is important that the US and international partners should navigate carefully but proactively or risk making a dire economic, humanitarian situation worse.
Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid and complete victory
It is significant to note that the Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid and complete victory over the now defunct Islamic Republic of Afghanistan brings with it yet another shock to the long-suffering Afghan people and the country’s very weak economy. Already plagued by insecurity, COVID, corruption, Government over-centralisation and mismanagement, declining revenues and drought, the Afghan economy will now face a host of challenges in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover and the international community cracking down on aid and assistance.
As a new Afghan Government takes shape, the actions of the Taliban and the response of the international community could greatly exacerbate or modestly ameliorate the current economic and humanitarian crises.
Though the Taliban’s rhetoric generally has been pro-private sector, the uncertainty associated with their takeover will further depress already extremely low private investment, and will stall major projects at least for a time; Such uncertainty extends to the financial sector, including not least what kind of ‘Islamic banking’ approach the Taliban regime may take; and the dissolution of the Afghan national security forces will impose a significant economic shock because hundreds of thousands of army and police personnel are losing their incomes, affecting many more people in their households.
While it is fully understandable that the United States and other long-time Afghanistan supporters are trying to exert financial leverage to incentivise the new Taliban regime to preserve rights and gains, the economic situation is going downhill rapidly. The Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid and complete takeover does have one silver lining. Military and civilian casualties, conflict-related displacement of people and destruction of cities and infrastructure have been far less than would have been the case if there had been a longer period of civil war. Such an extended conflict could have stretched out for months, perhaps even a year or longer, with cycles of escalation and burgeoning bloodshed.
While things could have been worse from a humanitarian and economic standpoint, what happens now will depend in large part on actions by the Taliban themselves in coming days, but also on the response of the United States and the rest of the international community. In this extremely challenging and fluid context, the United States and other international partners will need to navigate carefully and nimbly to make the best of the situation and follow as much as possible the ‘Do no harm’ imperative.
Demarcate clearly between the Taliban regime and the Afghan people. Sanctions often are harmful to the people of a country but less damaging to the country’s Government if it is non-democratic and/or unresponsive to people’s pain. This dilemma has no easy answers, but it will be particularly acute in the case of Afghanistan given its extreme economic and fiscal dependency on aid and relationships with international financial institutions. Afghanistan would benefit by alleviating sanctions’ impacts on private businesses and low to mid-level Government staff.
These groups need to be included in the broader category of the Afghan people who should be shielded as much as possible from the damage of sanctions. The bulk of them don’t have ties to the Taliban. Afghan private businesses need to be kept afloat to the extent possible in the face of all the other headwinds, and civil servants – by far the largest number of whom are teachers – need to be kept employed and paid.
In conclusion, economic implosion and a humanitarian catastrophe are a clear and present danger for Afghanistan. While much depends on what the Taliban do next, the United States and other international partners have a responsibility to not make the situation a whole lot worse through total economic disengagement and excessively punitive knee-jerk sanctions or other measures, which would further adversely affect Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s best interests can be served by adopting a joint approach including Afghanistan’s traditional allies and donors as well as the regional countries with all playing responsible roles which would work best if at all that is possible.
The writer is an Attorney-at-Law with LL.BL, LL.M and M.Phil.(Colombo)