Even as the US completed the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan on Monday ahead of an Aug. 31 deadline, the double suicide bombing at Kabul airport and US drone strikes against ISIS-K hideouts have amply highlighted that the dawn of peace in the war-torn country is still far away.
Since 2016, the Taliban have fought the offshoot of the global terror group in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, where it had succeeded in setting up bases.
Over the years, in league with some local extremist element groups, ISIS-K has engaged the Pakistani army as well. In August alone, in six terrorism-related incidents, at least five Pakistani soldiers were killed along the Afghan border in the North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Bajaur, and Baluchistan regions in cross-border attacks.
In 2018, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov created a stir by accusing US-led forces of helping the dreaded ISIS fighters to set up base in northern Afghanistan. He claimed that his government had video evidence gathered from the ground to establish that ISIS fighters were being transported in helicopters to northern Afghanistan.
"We want to ask the US and also the Kabul government who provides those helicopters. It is Kabul that controls Afghan airspace," he said at a conference organized jointly by India’s Ministry of External Affairs and think-tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had also asked the US to explain the rise of ISIS-K in Afghanistan.
Observers worry that the sudden halt in inflows of aid by the West and an attempt to isolate the Taliban without giving them a chance will once again prove to be a recipe for the resurgence of terrorist groups in the region.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken amply highlighted this aspect by arguing that the Afghanistan situation has undergone fundamental changes and it is necessary for all parties to make contact with the Taliban and guide them actively.
“The US, in particular, needs to work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with urgently needed economic, livelihood and humanitarian assistance, help the new Afghan political structure maintain normal operation of government institutions, maintain social security and stability, curb currency depreciation and inflation and embark on the journey of peaceful reconstruction at an early date,” he said.
Wang urged the US to take concrete actions to help Afghanistan combat terrorism and violence on the premise of respecting its sovereignty and independence instead of practicing double standards or fighting terrorism selectively.
According to the Nikkei Asia Review, the financial uncertainties and lack of support from the international community could fuel reliance on the shadow economy.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2020, Afghanistan had 224,000 hectares of opium poppy fields stretched across the country.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund recently paused disbursement of economic aid, citing deep concerns over the prospects for women and non-recognition of the Taliban by the international community.
The US provided $145 billion over 20 years to rebuild a country that had a gross domestic product (GDP) of just $19 billion in 2019. As recently as 2018, nearly 80% of Afghan government spending came from Western donors.
Failure of counternarcotic program
Author and journalist James Risen has noted that despite the US spending $9 billion on the counternarcotic program, opium production and heroin smuggling skyrocketed under its wings.
“Each time American officials sought to make counternarcotics a priority, they ran into the reality that the drug lords of Afghanistan were also the warlords of Afghanistan who were on the CIA payroll and who the US military relied upon to battle the Taliban,” he wrote in The Intercept, an online American publication.
The reconstruction money, flow of dollars, and funding for combat operations created a conflict economy and a bubble that was bound to burst at some time.
According to Risen, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who was threatened imprisonment by the Barack Obama government for his 2006 book, this artificial economy created a new Western-style urban professional class in Kabul, many of whom are now fleeing the Taliban.
Instead of creating local and sustainable opportunities like investing in agriculture, services, and manufacturing, the money was used to create unsustainable sectors, which also triggered an epidemic of corruption discrediting both the Afghan government and the US.
Much of the money also enriched US contractors without ever entering the Afghan economy and also disappeared into secret bank accounts in Dubai held by Afghan government officials, warlords, and their families, according to a 2020 report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The local petty corruption also hit the common Afghan. In 2012, the UN estimated that Afghans were paying $3.9 billion in bribes per year.
Sustainable economy need of hour
The government-fueled bribery and corruption forced many Afghans into the arms of the Taliban, who gained a reputation for settling financial and other disputes using more straightforward — if far more brutal — methods.
“Trying to compete with the Taliban’s successful dispute resolution would have meant allowing sharia, and that’s not something we could do politically,” Barnett Rubin, a longtime Afghanistan expert who advised the State Department, told the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Therefore, for the sake of peace in Afghanistan and stability of the region, it is of utmost sense for the international community to engage with the new Afghan government instead of isolating it on a flimsy premise. All other kings, ministers, and soldiers on the chessboard have currently fallen or stand discredited. In the wake of another collapse, the Afghan landscape is a recipe for a much bigger disaster.
While the UN Security Council maintains a Taliban sanctions regime to promote the peace, stability, and security of Afghanistan, the group now ruling Afghanistan is no longer considered a terrorist organization after its involvement in political processes. However, sanctions continue to apply to persons and entities.
As many as 354 individuals from Afghanistan continue under sanctions. But in 2019, UNSC removed all 14 senior Taliban leaders from the list who were engaged in negotiating an agreement with the US in the Qatari capital of Doha.
There is also a need to prioritize requirements to ensure peace, stability, law and order, an inclusive government, building a real sustainable economy, ending corruption, and disarming warlords and their private armies.
Once these steps are achieved, the new rulers need to be encouraged to promote women's rights, protect human rights, ensure freedom of expression by giving space to media, and work towards establishing an inclusive democratic system. The Taliban also need to understand that besides the criminal justice system, social justice is as much important for society.
A genuine moderate, liberal opposition is also necessary for the country to keep the rulers accountable by using non-violent means and institutional processes. The Afghans have been suffering for more than four decades. Let there now be an end game, not the beginning of another game.