It’s been a glum welcome for the return of Taliban rule in Kabul: desperate crowds at the airport hoping to join the American-led airlift out, fearful women staying at home, men letting their beards grow, chaos as cash runs out.
Contrast that to the joy in the Western city of Herat in November-December 2011, after the city’s money-changers ousted the Taliban – perhaps the first case of armed bankers liberating a city – at a meeting of the local writers’ society.
Then, Mohammed Nasir Kafesh came out as the author of a satirical poem that had infuriated the Talibs, and Leila Razeqi told of how, after being expelled from university as a woman, she’d organized tutorials for herself and friends under the guise of a sewing circle.
After the United States, Canadians, Europeans and Antipodeans spent two decades trying to build up an alternative government of liberal Islamic persuasion, only to see it promptly collapse as the final military support was removed, should these powers have anything more to do with Afghanistan?
Two factors suggest they have little choice but to do so.
One is that even worse versions of militant Islam lurk in the wings. The August 26 suicide bombing at the gate of Kabul’s airport showed the Taliban and the Western allies have a common enemy, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the regional offshoot of the ISIS monster that grew out of the turmoil of Syria.
The bombing killed 13 American servicemen and women, but among about 160 Afghans dead were 28 Taliban fighters maintaining a cordon around the airport. While my enemy’s enemy may not exactly be my friend in this case, at least they have a common cause of wiping out this threat.
The other factor is that Afghanistan is on the brink of a massive famine.
A US congressional report on April 30 said that as a result of Covid-19 and rising urban poverty levels, 16.9 million people were facing a “crisis” of food insecurity, including 5.5 million people experiencing “emergency” levels – the second highest in the world after the Democratic Republic of Congo – with almost half of children under five years old projected to face acute malnutrition in 2021.
Reports say it’s worsened.
During a trip in 2001, this reporter went to a sprawling refugee camp called Maslakh between Herat and the Iran border. It contained about 150,000 people from the drought-stricken northwest of Afghanistan, with 1,500 arriving each day.
On the fringes, families who’d not yet managed to get rations from the administrators were watching their very young and very old die on the bare scrabble plain.
The Americans have already begun talking to the Taliban. Donald Trump’s administration started two years ago, skirting then-president Ashraf Ghani’s elected government in Kabul. It reached an exit deal by agreeing to release 5,000 hardcore Taliban prisoners and without getting the Taliban to talk directly to Ghani.
On August 23, Central Intelligence Agency chief William Burns flew into Kabul and met the Taliban’s political wing head Abdul Ghani Baradar, presumably to talk about problems in the evacuation operation, and perhaps longer-term issues.
It can’t have been warm – the outfit that rained Hellfire missile strikes from drones talking to the one that set off roadside bombs – but it showed some pragmatism.
Two days later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration was not abandoning Afghanistan, but was merely shifting its focus from military power to diplomacy, cybersecurity and financial pressure.
He said the administration has worked hard to build alliances and that the US would continue to work with allies both in Afghanistan and elsewhere. More recently, Blinken has said the US embassy would talk to the Talibs from Qatar. Britain said it would do the same.
By financial pressure, Blinken meant the US tap on money. Afghanistan has some US$9.4 billion on foreign reserves – held in US institutions. In addition, it has some $450 million in special drawing rights at the International Monetary Fund, also effectively controlled by US and European governments.
If the Taliban ask for funds to cover food and fuel imports to address famine, can they be refused?
Much depends on how the Taliban live up to their promises. One is not to let Afghanistan become a base for violent jihadism externally, and how firmly it tackles IS-Khorasan, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and al-Qaeda remnants.
At a meeting in Tianjin with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Baradar seemed to promise it would not allow Uighur jihadists to operate into Xinjiang. The Taliban told Iran they would not persecute Hazaras and other fellow Shiite minorities again.
So far the Taliban have stuck to their deal with the Americans. The last US evacuation aircraft flew out of Kabul without interference. General Kenneth McKenzie, the US Central Command chief supervising the airlift of some 122,000 people, said his dealings with the Taliban had been “pragmatic.”
There appears to have been some shared intelligence that averted other ISIS-K attacks. The Taliban did not protest all that strongly when US drones fired missiles at ISIS-K targets inside Afghanistan after the August 26 bombing.
It would help also if the Taliban showed themselves more inclusive of other forces. Some are willing to deal. Hamid Karzai, the president installed after the US helped oust the last Taliban regime in 2001 and like most of the Taliban leadership an ethnic Pashtun, is one figure back in Kabul talking to them.
Abdullah Abdullah, a veteran of the old Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban front in the 1990s, and a senior figure in the ousted Ashraf Ghani government, is another.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, the son of the legendary anti-Soviet mujahideen warlord of the same name killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in 2001, is negotiating from his Panjshir Valley home ground north of Kabul, joined by Amrullah Saleh, the vice-president in Ghani’s government.
It doesn’t look like Massoud has won any concessions. On Tuesday, senior Taliban leader Amir Khan Motaqi said the Taliban had made many efforts to negotiate with leaders of the opposition forces in Panjshir, “but unfortunately, unfortunately, without any result.”
Taliban forces have the valley surrounded, and clashes are already reported. “We are still trying to ensure that there is no war and that the issue in Panjshir is resolved calmly and peacefully,” Motaqi said.
Even without this challenge, the Taliban could suddenly find themselves stretched to hold the entire country. In Jalalabad and other cities, protesters have been waving the red, green and black flag of the fallen Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, risking Taliban gunfire.
Old warlords like Herat’s Ismail Khan and Mazar-i-Sharif’s Rashid Dostum are back in play.
It would also obviously reassure the outside world if Taliban leaders stick to their promises of an amnesty for former government soldiers and civil servants, allowing women to work and girls to study with only head-scarves or cowls rather than the full-body burqa shroud, that some music and journalism will be allowed.
Many with long knowledge of the Taliban will believe all this when they see it. Reports are starting to filter in of arrests, and women dismissed from their jobs.
Afghanistan is vastly changed from 2001. It then had very few telephone lines. Now 90% of the 40 million Afghans have access to mobile phones, with 12 million using data services.
Even illiterate people have smartphones and Facebook accounts set up by village phone shops. Journalism and entertainment television are thriving. Cities are full of young Afghans who returned from study and work experience overseas. Taliban leaders themselves are adept users of social media.
One example of this change comes from the story of Obaidullah Baheer, recounted in The Economist’s 1843 magazine. He is a grandson of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, founder of the fundamentalist Hezb-e-Islami group who fought against the Soviets, rained rockets on Kabul when it was held by the moderate Northern Alliance in the 1990s, then opposed the American presence after 2001.
For some time, well before the US withdrawal, Hekmatyar has been living quietly in Kabul. Baheer, his grandson, received a master’s degree in international relations in Sydney and has been teaching at Kabul’s American University.
Of course, all of this could be turned off. But now safely in power, would the leadership rob themselves of this channel to the population, as well as all its potential developmental leaps in e-commerce and banking?
On the other hand, as French terrorism specialist Wassim Nasr pointed out on France24, the Taliban will be wary of their young fighters being drawn off to ISIS-K.
“If the Taliban are deemed too soft on the strict application of Sharia law, or too inclusive with Shia and minorities, this could hollow out their ranks,” Nasr said. Nor can they be seen too close to the Americans in counter-insurgency.
But if only to head off a humanitarian disaster that could send them more waves of refugees, Western countries can’t ignore Afghanistan. Iran faces another human refugee wave and continuing floods of heroin.
The same goes for Pakistan – with the added fear of “blow-back” terrorism from the local allies of the Taliban its intelligence service fostered. Russia with its Chechens and China with its Uighurs have specific security worries.
The more India’s Narendra Modi bears down on his Muslim minority, the more of a tempting target his country becomes for Afghanistan-based terrorists.
The US and its allies are unlikely to go back into Kabul soon, as much as the Taliban are hanging out for recognition. Continuing drone strikes would make a US envoy’s position very difficult and dangerous.
China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan have kept their embassies open, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates will be there. It’s not a great lineup for political and social liberalism.
It looks like a time to boost UN agencies, and “good office” diplomacy from more detached powers like Japan and Muslim nations like Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh.