Dr Huma Baqai

23rd Dec, 2021. 02:39 pm

Afghanistan and the Great Game

A winter of hunger, misery, and death awaits the vulnerable Afghans. “The Afghan people now feel abandoned, forgotten, and indeed punished by circumstances that are not their fault”, said Deborah Lyons, the UN Secretary General’s Special representative for Afghanistan in November 2021. Many such statements have been made by those who are familiar with the ground realities of the unfolding catastrophe.

This was the backdrop of the high profile one-day 17th Extraordinary Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation convened by Saudi Arabia and hosted by Pakistan. It had the making of a global summit where envoys from 57 Islamic nations as well as observer delegations, particularly the UN system, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), international and regional organisations, and non-OIC members including the P-5, European Union, and major countries like Germany and Japan, were among the attendees.

Many are hoping it would be more than just a talk-shop this time. Both the United States and China have appreciated the summit and acknowledged Pakistan’s role as a bridge in bringing global leadership to Islamabad to address the pressing issue of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

What came as a result of the summit was expected, a grim warning that the economic collapse of Afghanistan already teetering dangerously on the edge, would have a “horrendous” impact on the region and the world. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his opening remarks, issued a clear warning to the global community, stating that Afghanistan could potentially become the biggest “man-made crisis in the world” if the community did not act now.

Time is of the essence, and the Afghan people cannot wait for the resource mobilisation to happen. The catastrophe is preventable only if timely action is taken. The catastrophe is not the making of the Taliban. The international community led by the US, is squarely responsible for the mess unfolding now. Afghanistan’s economy for years was on steroids, and now the instant withdrawal instead of a gradual one is showing its impact. 75 percent of the country’s budget was supported by foreign aid which has come to a complete stop. This has triggered both a governance and an institutional collapse. Adding insult to injury was how an incompetent and corrupt government that did nothing for Afghanistan or its people stayed in power because of US support.

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What hangs in the balance is the lives of 40 million Afghan citizens; ordinary, vulnerable human beings with no hope for tomorrow. They neither have an option to get out of Afghanistan like the many privileged who have already quit the country, some with the assistance of those who they assisted for twenty years and some who had the foresight to abandon the country before the collapse. Tens of thousands of Afghans are still trying to leave the country following the footsteps of more than 123,000 civilians who were evacuated from the Kabul airport by US forces and their coalition partners in August. In mid-November, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that about 300,000 have fled to the neighbouring Iran since August and up to 5000 people illegally cross the border every day.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, while directly addressing the United States and its Western allies, asked for a delink of the Taliban government from the 40 million Afghan citizens and requested for collaborative action to prevent chaos which he says suits none.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West told the participants in the closed door session of the Extraordinary Meeting of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers that Washington was working with partners to address the liquidity problem of Afghanistan. He also clarified that the US did not want to attach any conditions with the humanitarian assistance. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s head of humanitarian affairs, said that “the need for liquidity and stabilisation of the banking system is now urgent, not only to save the lives of the Afghan people but also to enable humanitarian organisations to respond.” The extraordinary meeting also urged the US to unfreeze the $ 9.5 billion assets of the Afghan Central Bank. The US official responded that there was “no magic button” that would release the funds, citing technical lacunas as an impediment and added that, “the public narrative is not in line with reality.” One wonders if the US can’t do the magic, who can? The Afghan economy is facing a cash crunch because of the sanctions imposed by the US and the other Western countries since the Taliban take over in August: the same Taliban they handed over Afghanistan to and chose to engage with when they wanted a safe exit from the country.

The OIC summit was convened by Saudi Arabia and hosted by Pakistan, however it had a distinct US ring to it. Many also see it as the US getting back into the game. In August 2021, when Taliban forces recaptured Kabul, and all of Afghanistan, China seized the opportunity to criticize the United States. Hua Chunying, of China’s Foreign Ministry department, compared the US style of democracy to “Chilled Milk”, something of an anathema to the Chinese people, condemning the US’ coercion of other countries to adopt its democratic systems. The Afghan issue has been added to the list of China-US disputes. However, the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong congratulated Pakistan on successfully hosting the 17th Extraordinary Session of the OIC. The Ambassador said the OIC serves as an important bridge for cooperation between China and the Islamic world.

China had come on strong in the beginning, but has little appetite to get sucked into stabilising Afghanistan. It is in no mood to substantiate for the US sanctions and frozen assets. This was in so many words spelled out at the OIC summit. Moreover, it appears that although humanitarian assistance may be possible, but recognition and legitimacy is not even on the table and may not happen for a long time.

Taliban will have to walk their talk and show the requisite pragmatism required to become a part of the international community. Just demanding the end of international isolation and financial strangulation is not working, and last but not the least, it is the US that’s calling the shots and will continue to do so.

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China is playing the wait and see game for now. However, it did block UN resolution of humanitarian exemption to Afghan sanction. China, backed by Russia, blocked a US draft resolution in the UN Security Council that would have provided a system for humanitarian exceptions to economic sanctions imposed on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. “Humanitarian aid and life-saving assistance must be able to reach the Afghan people without any hindrance,” China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said in a tweet. “Artificially created conditions or restrictions are not acceptable.”

China is open to expanding its activities and influence in the war-torn country;however, it is not ready to step into the void, neither is Beijing interested in being the Taliban’s main partner. China has essentially adopted a wait and see approach. The Communist Party is intimately familiar with the challenges of governing a sprawling and populous country. They are also well aware of the difficult process of transforming an insurgent movement into an administrative apparatus capable of maintaining order and national economic prosperity. Its leadership is familiar with the tortured history of successive great powers in Afghanistan and cognizant of the fact that the United States is the most recent wounded interloper. Hence, they are in no mood whatsoever to join the club.

While this great game goes on it is the lives of poor, vulnerable Afghan men, women, and children that hang in the balance. The powerful will find a way out or a way in.

 

 

Dr. Huma Baqai is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences & Liberal Arts, IBA Karachi. She is also a reviewer, author, and co-editor of two books.

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