Afghanistan, the U.S., NATO, and Current Regional Politics
On August 30, the war in Afghanistan officially ended. America had managed to evacuate some 123,000 civilians from Kabul, including 6,000 Americans. The twenty-year war had a high cost. Some 2,372 U.S. soldiers and countless civilians were killed because of the conflict. On August 26, a terrorist bombing killed 13 U.S. soldiers in Kabul.
Meanwhile, thousands of people who were eligible to be evacuated were left behind. On August 30, the UN Security Council passed a resolution asking the Taliban to let people freely leave.
Earlier in July, President Joe Biden had assured the American people that it was “highly unlikely” that the Taliban would take control of Afghanistan. However, on August 15, the Taliban took control over most of the country except for a few pockets of resistance. Their victory has diminished Biden’s credibility. Notwithstanding the botched exit, Biden was only carrying through on the wishes of the American people who wanted the war to end.
Afghanistan’s new government, now called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, was officially established on September 7, and a cabinet was announced. As expected, the new Emirate’s interim government is composed exclusively of male Taliban loyalists. The government formally began work on September 8, with known hardliners in all key posts. Earlier, the Taliban had promised to form an inclusive government.
The Biden administration has expressed concern that the new cabinet included only men, and persons with disturbing track records. However, it did not just outrightly blast the Emirate, saying that the new Emirate would be judged by its actions.
The Biden administration also noted that the cabinet was an interim one. It said the Taliban would be held to their promise to give safe passage to foreign nationals and Afghans and ensure the country’s soil won’t be used as a safe harbor for groups like Al Qaeda.
The EU also condemned the new government for its lack of inclusion. It maintained that the government had failed to honor earlier promises from the new rulers to include different groups.
Meanwhile, Germany, China, and Japan also offered a lukewarm reception to the Taliban’s provisional government.
Most likely, the issue of women’s rights shall dominate how the new Taliban government is assessed by the global community.
So far, no government has recognized the new Afghan government. It is very likely that China and Pakistan will be the first to recognize it followed by Russia, Qatar, and Iran.
A de facto recognition of the new Afghan government by the EU and NATO has already happened but not de jure because of conditions on the ground. This is a mistake as a minimalist approach is required.
Perceptions matter in the conduct of international relations. The world has changed, and America has lost its standing in the world. It has declined relative to China. Therefore, undue pressure on the Taliban could backfire as they will go on a defiance mode. The Taliban will stick to their legacy, no matter what the U.S. and NATO desire.
Afghanistan has changed in the last twenty years. The Taliban need to take into consideration that things are very different now than in 1996 when they first took control of Afghanistan. They need to exhibit a minimum action to be recognized by the world community. These actions include general amnesty for all, including Afghans who worked for coalition forces, and some minimum women’s rights like the right to work and education. The Taliban have indicated that they will do so. The world will be watching. Some concessions to the global community will be forthcoming soon as the Taliban must show greater pragmatism.
To make matters more complicated for the Taliban, the country has a shaky economy. Out of Afghanistan’s $9 billion in gold and foreign currency reserves, some $7 billion is held in America. The U.S. had swiftly blocked the Taliban from accessing these funds.
Before August 15, grants to Afghanistan totaled around $8.5 billion per year, some 43% of GDP. They funded 75% of public expenditures. Taliban leaders are already subject to U.S. and UN sanctions that effectively ban their access to the U.S. financial system. Afghanistan also depends heavily on remittances, with such payments from migrant workers abroad accounting for about 4% of GDP. Meanwhile, Western Union and Moneygram have both banned such services, ending the flow of funds that many Afghans count on. Reopening these services requires an easing of U.S. financial sanctions.
If recognition is withheld, the Afghan government may collapse which will have a spillover effect on the region. For this reason alone, it is advisable that the new Afghan government be recognized.
Afghanistan’s bankruptcy is in no one’s national interest. Therefore, pragmatic action is required. Much depends on Biden’s promise to chart a new global reset of American power. Given the de facto recognition of the Emirate, the Biden administration wants to work with it to pursue its national interests. The short-term plan is to stabilize Afghanistan so that it doesn’t become a haven for terrorists. The United States is still concerned about any terror threat emanating from the country. The Biden administration faces internal pressure from Republicans, and even from members of his own party, to eliminate threats from Al Qaeda and ISIS-K.
Only a stable and peaceful Afghanistan can possibly create the conditions for the elimination of terrorism threats that can emanate from the country. There is a strong consensus that ungoverned spaces, like in Africa, create the conditions in which terrorism can flourish. Therefore, the Biden administration will inevitably support the Taliban to establish its governance in Afghanistan.
The key to securing Afghanistan is for the U.S. to mend its strained relations with Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s support to the Taliban, the trust deficit between the two countries is remarkably high. However, the two countries are most likely to cooperate at a certain level to bring stability to Afghanistan. Pakistan has gained the most from developments in Afghanistan. Also, its rival, India, has lost considerably because it wrongly supported Ghani’s corrupt and ineffective government, and vehemently opposed the Taliban.
Afghanistan has made the U.S. much more reliant on Pakistan than ever before. The Biden administration has praised Pakistan’s efforts in the special assistance in evacuation operations.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham said on August 28 that any “sustainable solution” in Afghanistan must include Pakistan. He appreciated Pakistan’s assistance with the Kabul evacuations. Earlier, Graham had expressed his surprise at Biden’s decision of not including Pakistan in the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Recently, Pakistan’s foreign minister said that Pakistan wanted to forge closer linkages with America. There is now a convergence of national interest in making sure that Afghanistan remains peaceful, secure, and stable. Therefore, both countries will cooperate to ensure that it happens. Today, there is a convergence of national interest between Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, and the United States to partner against Al Qaeda and ISIS-K threats.
Remember, the U.S. partnered with the Taliban to end the war. The Biden administration shouldn’t sabotage the new working relationship with the Taliban. Most importantly, the jihadist mindset of ISIS-K cannot be easily ended. Given the powerful jihadist legacy, this shall remain a big challenge for the entire region.
Most troubling is ISIS-K’s caliphate project which stretches beyond West Asia. The Taliban were never a global jihadist threat, not even a regional one. They are solely a domestic actor with few regional ambitions. The Taliban are no angels although they are considerably more moderate now.
The U.S. and NATO must now establish a regional comprehensive security arrangement for Afghanistan, and they must also recognize the Afghan government. Only regional cooperation can bring needed stability to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China has announced humanitarian assistance to the Emirate.
Among NATO countries, the UK and Germany have already announced humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The U.S. will follow suit. Meanwhile, Biden’s opponents are vehemently blasting him. On August 29, Senator Graham condemned Biden and said: “For the next 20 years, American presidents will be dealing with this catastrophe in Afghanistan…Biden should be impeached for ‘dereliction of duty.’”
Such unwarranted attacks portray the politics of a divided America in which partisan politics is a permanent affair, largely because of the continuous cycle of elections.
A bipartisan commission must now be formed, like the 9/11 commission, to ascertain the mistakes of the Afghan war. Arguably, the whole Afghan war project was a colossal mistake. Certainly, Biden was right in partnering with the Taliban to end the war without much loss of American or Afghan lives. Overall, the strategy was successful. A rethink of America’s West Asia policy must now happen.