Afghanistan is teetering towards famine under Taliban rule. Image: Facebook

While famine looms large over Afghanistan, external powers appear to be weighing options to advance their own interests, both vis-à-vis the Taliban and their regional and extra-regional rivals.

The Taliban, since coming to power in August, has failed to satisfy external powers – including the US, China and Russia, about severing all ties with al-Qaeda, the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other militant and terror outfits.

The US withdrawal also closed the inflow of foreign aid, leaving the cash-strapped country’s economic situation hanging in the balance. The UN predicts that the country will be hit by one of its worst-ever humanitarian crises in the coming winter.

While some 23 million Afghans, in a country of 38 million, face acute hunger, 8.7 million are in a state of emergency, the second-highest category in the UN World Food Program’s (WFP) hierarchy of calamity. The latter figure is up from 3 million last year.

With fuel and food prices already sky-high, the UN says Afghanistan needs almost US$7 billion to avert a full-blown famine.

Multiple droughts have combined with economic meltdown to produce the crisis. But its effective and timely resolution is closely tied with the relevant players’ specific and mutually conflicting geopolitical considerations and interests.

Overcoming Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis will not only require massive external aid, but it mainly needs a minimum common ground for regional and extra-regional players to minimize conflicts of interest and maximize cooperation. These players have so far failed to take either step.

On the contrary, while China, Russia, Pakistan, the US and the EU have an interest in not recognizing the Taliban regime unless it uproots and eliminates transnational jihadi networks, the looming food crisis appears to have created another weakness for these states to exploit to their advantage.

US military equipment is sold for scrap outside Bagram Airbase north of Kabul. Photo: AFP / Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency

The Taliban regime’s struggle to win international recognition has combined with the looming food crisis to allow external powers to exert pressure on Kabul to fulfill their specific interests.

Even though the US and China are apparently cooperating to stave off the crisis, different and even conflicting geopolitical considerations underpin their positions, which explains why no concrete steps have so far been taken.

The November 11 meeting of the ‘Troika Plus’ – a grouping that includes Pakistan, the US, China and Russia – in Pakistan brought a joint statement asking for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan while expecting the Taliban to sever their ties with terrorist groups and implement a moderate constitutional system.

However, the Troika still failed to announce an immediate release of aid for the Taliban regime.

The conspicuous lack of meaningful action not only highlights the underlying disagreements within the Troika but also signifies how external states – in particular the US and China and Russia – view the situation differently through the prism of their specific interests.

For instance, US officials have been quoted saying that the likelihood of staving off a food and economic crisis in Afghanistan is not high.

Washington’s low priority, or “wait and see”, approach shows that it is specifically seeking to use the scenario to weaken the Taliban regime politically and economically before providing any aid and/or releasing Afghanistan’s financial assets worth over US$9 billion now frozen in the US.

The US can safely stall on providing aid or unfreezing the assets because it no longer faces a direct terrorist threat from Afghanistan. Although Washington continues to stress that the continuing presence and growth of transnational jihadis in Afghanistan could threaten the wider world, there is as yet no sense of urgency in Washington.

On the contrary, as UN officials recently pointed out, the US sanctions on Afghanistan, although they do not apply to humanitarian aid, continue to prevent significant aid from reaching Afghanistan.

Children in Budhak village near Kabul. Some families in the village find it hard to find food for their children. Photo: AFP / Bilal Guler / Anadolu Agency

For China and Russia, as well as Pakistan, the scenario is different. Moscow and Beijing not only blame the US for creating the present crisis situation by withdrawing “irresponsibly” from Afghanistan, they also think that the US must shoulder the primary financial responsibility.

On top of their claims sits the demand that the US unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets.

For over two months, the Chinese foreign ministry has been repeatedly urging the US to unfreeze Afghanistan’s “legitimate assets”, adding that the path of sanctions will only exacerbate the situation in Afghanistan, putting regional states directly in the line of fire.

A Moscow conference of ten regional powers in October called for a UN-backed donor conference to provide aid to Afghanistan while emphasizing “the main burden…should be borne by the forces whose military contingents have been present in this country over the past 20 years.”

An economic breakdown in Afghanistan, as Chinese officials have repeatedly warned, could allow transnational jihadis to find fresh recruits from within unemployed and disgruntled youth – a situation that, first and foremost, will hurt Afghanistan and then its immediate territorial neighbors.

At the same time, Russia and China have not yet provided substantial aid to Afghanistan to prevent a famine. On the contrary, they appear to see merit in not providing direct aid to the Taliban immediately.

There appear to be two underlying reasons for this realpolitik tactic.

First, Russia and China do not want to let Washington to escape responsibility for the present crisis that its abrupt and complete military and economic disengagement with Afghanistan has created after 20 years of military occupation and the failure to establish a sound economic foundation.

A high level Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Maulvi Amir Khan Mottaki. Taliban leaders are playing down the seriousness of the famine. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

Indeed, Afghanistan’s disaster has become an essential reference point for China and Russia to denote what Global Times, the official mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, recently called “the failure of Western civilization.”

In other words, in Afghanistan’s disaster lies a “moral victory” for the US’ rivals, a victory that feeds into the Russian and Chinese narratives of establishing a new, post-US international or least regional order.

Secondly, Russia and China have an interest in pushing the Taliban regime to its limits not only vis-à-vis the regime’s ties with terrorists but also with regards to including Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities into an “inclusive” political set-up.

For Russia and China, there are strategic reasons for this demand. It is directly tied to the other demand of severing ties with transnational terrorist outfits.

With the Taliban regime being of a predominantly Pashtun dispensation, inclusion of Afghanistan’s minority (non-Pashtun and non-Taliban political groups) ethnic groups is seen as necessary for liquidating the influence of pro-jihad Pashtun factions.

However, while the US, Russia and China are pulling different strings, they continue to face an intransigent regime in Kabul that is not willing to break with or take firm action against these jihadi outfits.

At the same time, the Taliban continues to downplay the severity of the looming famine crisis. As a senior Taliban leader recently said, the crisis is the price that the Afghans must pay for their victory in taking control of their country after 20 years of foreign occupation.