Afghanistan has been in the news for all the wrong reasons ever since the Taliban overran Kabul on August 15, 2021. The Taliban formed a government that still remains unrecognized by the international community. Attacks continue on people, schools, and establishments unabated and there seems to be no immediate hope for peace and progress.
At least 15 people were killed in a bomb blast at a madrassa (religious school) in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, on November 30. On September 28, a suicide bomb attack killed at least 30 people, mostly young women students, preparing for exams in the Kaaj Higher Educational Centre, Kabul. Earlier, in April this year, six people were killed in an explosion at a secondary school in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood.
The Taliban claim that these attacks, especially on schools, have been perpetrated by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) which is in an ideological fight with the Taliban to establish a Caliphate in the region. However, in a fight between two groups with terrorist ideologies, it is the Afghan people who continue to suffer and die.
The root cause of Afghanistan’s current chaos lies in the hasty and poorly executed U.S. withdrawal from Kabul in August last year. The resulting mayhem is still fresh, at least in the memories of Afghan people, who feel abandoned and betrayed by the United States and the world. Scenes of desperate Afghans trying to board airplanes taking off and falling off to their deaths are testimony to the horribly planned and executed withdrawal.
There may be some merit in what the U.S. President Joe Biden had to say on August 16, a day after the Taliban took over Kabul: “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.” Still, the sudden withdrawal and the panic created thereafter cannot be condoned. On August 26, 2021, when two suicide bombers attacked Kabul’s airport killing at least 95 Afghans and 13 US soldiers, it was immediately blamed on the chaos accompanying the U.S. withdrawal. Although the U.N. Security Council was quick to condemn the deplorable attack during its emergency meeting on August 27, the damage had already been done.
Ever since those chaotic days, attacks and atrocities on Afghans have continued while the world continues to grapple with this political and security quagmire.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit on September 17, 2021, and its Dushanbe Declaration stated that the most important factors in preserving and strengthening security and stability in the SCO region is the early settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. At the 3rd Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, hosted by India on November 10, 2021, the strongly worded Delhi Declaration expressed deep concern over the suffering of the Afghan people, condemned all terrorist activities, and reaffirmed the firm commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms, to ensure that Afghanistan would never become a safe haven for global terrorism.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made a surprise one-day visit to Afghanistan on March 24, 2022, where he held wide-ranging talks with Taliban leadership. The talks included a senior delegation from Russia led by Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Afghanistan. On March 31, the Extended Troika consisting of the United States, Pakistan, China, and Russia held a meeting on Afghan issues in China’s Anhui province.
The 4th Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on May 26 Speaking at the dialogue, India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval called on all his counterparts to help enhance Afghanistan’s capability to counter terrorism and terrorist groups which pose a threat to regional peace and security.
Within the region, the Afghan Taliban’s relations with Pakistan have been conflict prone. The Taliban’s support to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), refusal to accept the Durand Line as the Afghan-Pakistan border, and anger over Pakistan not allowing a land route for aid from India lie at the heart of tensions. In the context of relations with Pakistan, Taliban Acting Information Minister Zabihullah Mujahid, in an interview in February 2022, had stated, “the issue of the Durand Line is still an unresolved one, while the construction of fencing itself creates rifts within a nation spread across both sides of the border. It amounts to dividing a nation” (referring to the Pashtun ethnic-linguistic group).
As for the Taliban-TTP nexus, Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, met Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Kabul on November 29, amid tension over cross-border violence. The TTP ended a months-long ceasefire with Pakistan on November 28, raising security concerns once again across the fragile and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Khar failed to get any concrete assurances and an alleged assassination attempt on Pakistan’s envoy in Kabul on December 2 by ISKP put to rest any hopes Pakistan may have had of the Taliban government ensuring the security of its assets in Afghanistan.
India, for its part has continued to remain positively engaged with Afghanistan, especially its people. It has supplied free COVID-19 vaccines to the Afghan people and has provided 50,000 tons of wheat to the starving Afghan population. It has also extended the stay of Afghan students in India, providing them financial and medical aid.
Despite withdrawing and closing its embassy in Kabul in August 2021, New Delhi kept channels of communications open. A delegation from India travelled to Kabul and held its first meeting with the Taliban leadership on June 2. As a show of trust and on assurances from the Taliban government, the Indian embassy has started basic functions with limited staff again in Kabul.
India has voiced its concerns over the humanitarian situation at all major global forums. It also joined the “Moscow format consultations on Afghanistan” held on November 16 in Moscow. The Moscow format, one of several dialogue platforms on Afghanistan, consists of Russia, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The discussion focused on the ongoing efforts of various stakeholders to provide assistance, intra-Afghan talks, formation of an inclusive and representative government, efforts to counter threats of terrorism and ensuring regional security. India also hosted the inaugural meeting of NSAs of Central Asian republics on December 6, in Delhi, once again with the Afghanistan security situation in focus.
China and the U.S.
Although China has been vocal in its support for the Taliban government, it is yet to recognize it. Still, China was one of the few countries that kept its embassy functional after August 2021. In September 2021, it offered $31 million in emergency aid to Afghanistan. Yet despite owning the rights to major projects in Afghanistan, notably the Mes Aynak copper mine, China has not pushed any of these projects forward.
The visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Afghanistan on March 24 did not result in anything concrete. The Afghans are frustrated at the lack of tangible support from China despite large announcements. As Khan Jan Alokozay, vice president of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce said in October this year, “there has not even been a penny of investment by China.”
The United States is yet to find a common ground with the Taliban government. The Doha Agreement of February 2020 has yet to be fully implemented. Washington has also failed to provide the humanitarian aid so desperately needed by the Afghan people. Of the $7 billion in Afghan funds frozen by the United States, Biden has committed that his administration will unfreeze only $3.5 billion of those funds for humanitarian aid, keeping the other half in reserve for the families of 9/11 victims. The move drew protests from the Taliban and Afghan people.
The United States and the Taliban have held a number of talks since the withdrawal, including the first one in Doha (where the U.S. shifted its embassy to Afghanistan last year) in October 2021, led by Deputy CIA Director David Cohen and the Taliban acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. In July this year, the two sides met again in Dushanbe to discuss using the frozen central bank reserves of Afghanistan. There have been other talks at different levels too, however, the stalemate still continues.
Meanwhile, Washington has been attempting to coordinate its approach with India. The U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, visited India on December 5 as a part of his Asia tour, for consultations on the continuing humanitarian crisis affecting the Afghan people and shared security concerns. This was his third visit to India in the past year.
The Taliban Dilemma
Although the Taliban is still basking in glory of having forced the U.S. out of Afghanistan, it is struggling to come up with a globally acceptable model of government. Multiple strains within the Taliban and other stake holders in the country are pulling in divergent directions. Also, the Taliban have not been able to revive the Afghan economy and make people’s lives better.
As per the World Bank, the political crisis that began in August 2021 led to a significant economic contraction in Afghanistan, increasing food insecurity and widespread deprivation. The economy shrank by 20.7 percent in 2021. The Central Bank (Da Afghanistan Bank – DAB) has lost its ability to manage payment systems and conduct monetary policy as its offshore assets remain frozen. It is also unable to print new afghani currency notes. While the global community’s humanitarian and off-budget support may mitigate some negative impacts of economic contraction, it won’t be sufficient to bring about economic recovery.
The treatment of women has been another contentious issue. Immediately after taking over Kabul, the Taliban announced shutdown of secondary schools for girls, banned women from anchoring TV shows, and imposed strict restrictions for women in social life. On March 21, 2022, the Taliban promised to reopen all schools in Afghanistan, ending their seven-month de facto ban on girls attending secondary school. Two days later, the Taliban reversed this decision, announcing that girls’ secondary schools were to remain closed – indefinitely – until the Taliban put in place policies they say are compliant with “principles of Islamic law and Afghan culture,” including further restrictions on schoolgirls’ dress. The isolation of Afghan women continues.
Another Cold and Despairing Winter
It has been 16 months since the Taliban overran Kabul and promised an inclusive government that would work for the people. The wait for it continues, mostly in vain. The Taliban government in Kabul has been condemned and isolated on the world stage, but it is the people of Afghanistan who have to suffer.
As another winter sets in, it is not only the freezing cold that bites but also the inability of the global community to find a viable solution. The people are caught between an insensitive and unrecognized Taliban regime and a biting cold winter. The painful human tragedy continuing in Afghanistan is gut-wrenching and demanded better thought out global solutions.
As India takes over the G-20 presidency for a year, if it can rally support and consensus on Afghanistan, especially for its people, it will add another chapter in the goodwill it shares with the very friendly Afghan people.