The undeniable fact is that the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan. However, the international community still deals with the country like a pariah state, adding to the vows of ordinary Afghans suffering from acute poverty. The US withdrew from the country under an agreement with the Taliban on the condition that the latter would reduce violence, start intra-Afghan negotiations and guarantee that Afghanistan would not again become a refuge for terrorists. Surprisingly, the Taliban captured Kabul without firing a single bullet. The intra-Afghan negotiations became meaningless when the Ashraf Ghani government fizzled out without offering resistance to the religious militia. This leaves the Taliban with only one condition to fulfil – they will not allow Afghanistan to become a refuge for terrorists.
Does the question arise how much the Taliban have been adhering to the condition that Afghanistan would not offer sanctuaries to terrorists? Over a dozen transnational militant and terrorist groups are now present in Afghanistan, several under the auspices of the Taliban. Given the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri in the posh locality of Kabul by an American drone, and the existence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorists from the Xingjiang province of China, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) from Uzbekistan and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from Pakistan, the Taliban have failed to honour their promises or failed to prove their credentials as an effective force against terrorist groups posing a threat to other countries. In fact, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) has emerged as a veritable threat to the Taliban and the neighbouring countries.
Despite some positive vibes from the Pakistani establishment to maintain a workable relationship with the Taliban, the ideological differences between the two countries have created a formidable barrier making the relationship edgy. The presence of the TTP in significant numbers in Afghanistan is a case in point; the Taliban would not sacrifice their ideological cousins for Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan would be reluctant to give concessions to the TTP when the latter has explicitly targeted the law enforcement agencies’ personnel. Secondly, Swat and Malakand districts, once a bastion of the TTP, are in a rebellious mood towards the latter forcing the authorities to rethink a compromise or rehabilitate the religious militants. More importantly, the overwhelming majority of the country is opposed to the Taliban way of life in Pakistan. Hence, a working relationship because of the geographical compulsion is the viable way to conduct bilateral relations with the Taliban.
The Taliban have been trying hard to gain recognition internationally. However, human rights, especially women’s rights, have been a stumbling block for the Taliban’s recognition. Ironically, the US entered into talks with the Taliban, a terrorist organisation listed by the 1267 Committee of the US Security Council. Still, over a hundred Taliban leaders are on the 1267 list, supposed to be arrested and tried for various crimes. However, since the US was in a hurry to leave Afghanistan, it negotiated its withdrawal on nominal conditions, as listed above. The US, prima facie, condoned the Taliban’s ‘terror’ activities and shook hands with the religious militia at Doha.
The US displayed its vengeance against the Taliban after the withdrawal by freezing Afghanistan’s accounts, estimated to be $9.6 billion. It also sanctions Afghan banks from doing business with the rest of the world. Consequently, the Afghan economy, which was already on life support from the US/EU assistance, has been crippled, pushing it to the verge of total collapse. Afghanistan, under the Taliban, has to conduct its trade, mainly with its neighbours, under a currency swap arrangement. However, such an arrangement is insufficient to create substantive employment inside Afghanistan.
What is to be done in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan? If the idea is to depose the Taliban, then there has to be an alternate mechanism that may stabilize Afghanistan. In the absence of such a mechanism, especially when other opposition groups are in disarray and revolve around warlords, the Taliban are the viable option even if they do not fit the international criteria of governance or human rights norms. If the past two decades’ experience is a guide, the US-led coalition tried to implant democratic order in the country. Still, it failed to encourage the democratic process to grow following the Afghan culture and capacity. Consequently, the ministers in Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s cabinets, or the elected members of the Ulasi Jirga (Lower House), failed to make an impact and fled the country even before the Taliban could enter Kabul.
The immediate neighbours of Afghanistan seem convinced that an unstable Afghanistan is more dangerous to the region and the world. While the Taliban may have brought a modicum of normalcy, economic uplifting can sustain the country. In the immediate run, ready-to-implement connectivity and economic development projects can be undertaken in Afghanistan. The international community can pour resources into developing, negotiating and implementing connectivity initiatives, including, from north-to-south, the USA’s New Silk Road initiative; the CASA-100 electricity project connecting Central Asia to Pakistan; Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline project; and a Trans-Afghanistan railway stretching from Uzbekistan down to Pakistan’s seaports. From east to west, a transit route stretching from Afghanistan into Türkiye called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor was agreed upon in 2018. China has long-held ambitions to bring Afghanistan formally into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
While the above seems to be an ambitious list of projects, those can substantially contribute to the Afghan economy. Economic cooperation and private-sector development suited to Afghan economic conditions can make a difference and benefit Afghan society through public service provision. Such an approach would require a three-pronged strategy.
Firstly, a limited and qualified engagement with the Taliban through regional initiatives can keep the pressure on the Taliban to listen to the international community’s demands. Human rights and women’s rights to work and employment must remain on the agenda of interlocutors that may engage the Taliban.
Secondly, the US and other permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) may propose establishing a monitoring mechanism under the 1267 Committee to observe the activities of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. The Taliban should be told in no uncertain terms that their practical steps towards curbing terrorist organizations would determine the international community’s response towards the Taliban regime’s recognition and full-scale assistance to redress Afghanistan’s socio-economic challenges.
Finally, Pakistan and India have been wasting their resources in Afghanistan, primarily to establish their influence either with the ruling party or the opposition. These tactics, applied ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, have had inconsistent results; both gained favours of the winning sides, but could not sustain their grip over the volatile situation in the war-ravaged country. Both countries should not expect different results if they continue to apply the same tactics in future. For a change, India and Pakistan can evolve a modus vivendi to promote peace and stability in Afghanistan. They can undertake joint projects concerning connectivity, infrastructure and energy transfer from Central Asia. Given the relationship between the two adversaries, such cooperation may appear far-fetched, but a change of mindset can make it a reality. However, such an ‘adventure’ would require statesmen, not politicians.
The writer is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Iran and UAE and is currently the Senior Research Fellow at IPRI