A new post-America Afghanistan is emerging. Governments around the world are adjusting to the new status. But what about technology firms? These global stakeholders, equal to some governments in their power over the world, have a big role to play.
In fact, many of the shock waves generated from US and allied forces leaving, like the fleeing of thousands of Afghans, will force technology firms to play a new role, and at times, clash with governments.
Take the Taliban.
The previous US-backed government has all but fled Afghanistan. Now, the Taliban are in charge. A group that many governments have labeled a terrorist organization is now running Afghanistan.
From Japan to Canada, many nations are refusing to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government. But social-media companies are striking a different tone.
Facebook and Twitter are not stopping the Taliban from taking over government-run accounts on their platforms. Facebook might be banning Taliban content across its platforms, but the Taliban might still be able to post content on government accounts.
How will governments deal with technology firms “enabling” the new Afghan government, going counter to what many nations want (rejecting Taliban rule)?
The many Afghan people who are fleeing for Europe and Asia will also create new headaches for technology firms, forcing them to pick sides.
The Indian government is allowing in Afghan refugees. If a large number of Afghan refugees settle in India, social-media platforms may become a vehicle for political action against the Taliban. The community of Afghan refugees in India might drive online movements to try to oust the Taliban from power.
That could create problems for India. In Afghanistan, India is one of the main powers, alongside China, Turkey and Russia. And New Delhi wants strong relations with the Taliban in order to ensure South Asia (especially Kashmir) is stable.
But can New Delhi build a strong relationship with the Taliban, if Afghans in India are trying to remove the Taliban from power via social-media platforms? The Indian government might go after the technology firms.
That would put those technology companies in a tricky position. Will they side with the Indian government, and take down anti-Taliban content? Or will they side with Afghan refugees, enabling anti-Taliban content? For the first time, the actions of technology firms might influence India’s relationship with Afghanistan.
The massive amounts of rare-earth minerals in Afghanistan will also become a new vector. According to one estimate, Afghanistan has between US$1 trillion and $3 trillion in rare-earth reserves. These resources are required to produce many of the world’s high-tech products.
As China’s control over Afghanistan grows, will it be Chinese technology firms, not Western firms, that develop Afghanistan’s rare-earth reserves? This would further expand the control that China has over these critical resources, and increase the risk that rare-earth metals could be weaponized against Western technology companies.
Last, the US global image is fundamentally changing because of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. All over the world, from Europe to Asia, many are questioning US defense commitments. It may fall to technology companies to “manage” the US image. Just as other governments have forced technology firms to remove content critical of the regime, Washington may do the same.
But even here, it is not clear-cut. Not all the world’s social-media firms are American. Will TikTok, the world’s most downloaded app, remove content that questions US power around the world? Already, on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, users have called the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan “smoother” than the transition of power in the US after the 2020 presidential election.
These kinds of comments and ideas may influence the psyche of tens of millions around the world, especially Gen Z.
What is taking place in Afghanistan is not only a humanitarian and political crisis. It also represents a new kind of geopolitics, where technology companies will play as big a role as governments in deciding the outcome.
If a group is established to solve the Afghan crisis, it should also involve technology companies, alongside governments. The big question now isn’t what decisions technology companies make. It’s whether these companies, stretching from Silicon Valley to Shenzhen, fully understand the awesome power they have to shape a new crisis in one of the world’s most ancient geographies.