Afghanistan: time to make our move


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Just a few days ago the media refocused on Afghanistan as it marked 100 days since the Taliban captured Kabul on 15 August and the last United States and NATO soldiers flew out of the country. It was a useful glimpse into the new Afghan reality as, since NATO abruptly terminated its 20-year mission in Afghanistan, the allies have been intensively involved in lessons learned exercises. The US Congress has summoned senior State Department and Pentagon officials to testify on the chaotic circumstances surrounding the evacuation of international forces and local Afghans who worked for them. Meanwhile, NATO has been looking more broadly at what went wrong during the 20 years of its stabilisation and training mission in Afghanistan, the most ambitious undertaking in the history of the alliance beyond its territorial borders. The NATO Secretary General has promised that the results will be made public, something which the taxpayers, who funded the mission, and the families who mourn the 3,500 soldiers killed have every right to expect.

The NATO lessons learned exercise has some weighty issues to ponder. Was there an absence of strategic planning at the outset of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in 2003? How much time and how many opportunities were lost after many allies, notably the US and United Kingdom, switched their attention to Iraq? Should not more have been done to ramp up the civilian reconstruction effort in line with the massive military security deployment? Why was not more pressure put on the Afghan political elites to crack down on corruption or on Pakistan to stop its covert support for the Taliban and terrorist groups like the Haqqani network? What was the point of training and equipping an Afghan national army with Western contractors and technology if that support was then suddenly taken away, leaving the army unable to operate? It is important that NATO learns all these lessons if it is to embark on other ‘out-of-area’ missions in the future.

Yet the 100-day media focus has underscored that the allies need urgently to pay attention to the present and future of Afghanistan rather than the past. The country is in a dire situation with an economy on the verge of collapse and half the population faced with acute food shortages, displacement by drought from their home villages into the major cities, violence or poverty. The government has no money, as $9bn of the country’s reserves have been frozen in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the foreign funding that covered 80% of the former government’s budget has been suddenly withdrawn. The Taliban are clearly finding it difficult to transition from an insurgency into a functioning government after 20 years of guerrilla warfare. They are faced with a very different Afghan society from the one they knew from 1994 to 2001, one that instead has given a new role and place to civil society and enterprise culture.

The Taliban also have been sending conflicting signals. They declared a general amnesty for former government officials and commanders of the now defunct Afghan national army. Yet Human Rights Watch has reported that 100 such officials were executed in the last month alone. This suggests that either the Taliban are being deliberately deceptive or that they are having trouble controlling their local forces in what has always been a decentralised and heterogeneous movement.

The Taliban have resisted international demands to open the government to people outside their ranks and to appoint women to senior positions. They have shuttered the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and replaced it with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in a sinister reminder of the dark period of the 1990s. All this is costing the new regime the benefits of international recognition that could open up the purse strings of foreign aid and budgetary support. The Taliban claim that they have ended violence, something that gained them support among many war-weary Afghans, but now that claim is looking hollow as ISIL-Khorasan goes on the rampage in a series of terror attacks and assassinations, including a large explosion outside the mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif just a few days ago. Moreover, the number of Afghans attempting to leave the country remains high. On average 5,000 people queue at the Torkham crossing point into Pakistan every day. TV interviews reveal that many of them are doctors, teachers, engineers and civil servants, the lifeblood of the country’s economy and future, and all complain that they haven’t been paid for months.

The international community will need to learn to live with the Taliban

Some Western observers may feel a guilty sense of Schadenfreude that the Taliban are doing an even worse job of governing the country than the Western-supported regime of former president Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban’s inability or unwillingness to implement many of their commitments has certainly made it harder for them to put all the blame on the US and the West for the current dire predicament of Afghanistan. Yet this is not the moment for the geopolitics of wounded pride and self-vindication. It is not the time either for an all-or-nothing strategy where the West retrenches behind a high wall of conditionality and states that  Afghanistan will get everything if the Taliban comply and nothing at all if they do not.

The number of Afghans pushed into hunger has grown by 35% since the beginning of the year with many Afghans subsisting on raw flour. According to Save The Children, 14mn Afghan children are at risk of starvation. Rampant inflation, given the supply bottlenecks, is forcing thousands of Afghan families out of their homes as they cannot afford rent, nor buy food to feed themselves. David Beasley, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme, recently visited Afghanistan and has pulled the alarm cord, appealing for an immediate increase in funding for humanitarian relief. Afghanistan will feature prominently in the $41bn of aid funding that the UN has now called for to save an estimated 274mn people across the globe who are facing extreme hunger – an all-time record.

Beyond politics, the UN has now placed the imperative on saving the lives of ordinary Afghans. I am reminded of a phrase that the great British liberal prime minister, William Gladstone, also an early advocate of humanitarian intervention, used during his Midlothian campaign of 1884 when he declared that “the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own”.

Certainly, providing humanitarian relief is in line with the promise made by the US and its NATO allies, when they left the country in August, not to abandon the people of Afghanistan. This has to go beyond calls on the Taliban to open the borders or facilitate evacuation flights out of the country. Not every Afghan will be able to flee and Europe certainly has no interest in seeing another massive wave of desperate Afghan migrants head through Iran, Central Asia and Turkey towards its borders. Yet there are other reasons to step up engagement with Afghanistan too.

One is the obvious divisions within the Taliban between the realists, who have been abroad, negotiated with the West and understand something about economics, and the fundamentalists led by ideology, who seek to close Afghanistan off from the world behind a veil of ideological purity. So the international community has an obvious interest in trying to split the movement by reinforcing the camp of the pragmatists.

Moreover, the Taliban, for better and for worse, are likely to be the government of Afghanistan for some years to come. As long as they do not ally with jihadist terrorist groups – and surely they have learned from the pre-9/11 period here – the US or other countries will have little inclination to intervene in a country that has justifiably earned the moniker of ‘the graveyard of empires’. An anti-Taliban resistance movement briefly flickered in the Panjshir Valley, led by the son of the legendary leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Yet the Taliban quickly gained control of the valley, co-opted the remaining warlords, and the remnants of the National Resistance Front decamped to Turkmenistan. Consequently, the international community will need to learn to live with the Taliban. Indeed, the US and the European Union are negotiating with their representatives every day in Doha. In this respect, it is encouraging that the EU is to establish a diplomatic representation in Kabul and many Western countries are planning to reopen their embassies soon. This is a key step in gaining a better sense of what is happening on the ground and injecting a Western perspective into the Taliban’s internal debates.

Everything hinges on the sincerity of the Taliban in fighting domestic terrorism and jihadist groups

There is nothing to be gained by the collapse of Afghanistan into another failed state. This would become a haven for extremists and take us back to the situation prior to the 9/11 attacks against the US. It would also make a mockery of the claim of the Western allies that 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan at least succeeded in tamping down the terrorist threat.

The challenge, therefore, is to develop international strategies that can directly address the four key challenges facing Afghanistan: the collapsing economy, security, education and healthcare.

First is the need to deliver emergency food aid, shelter and basic services to Afghans to get them through a bleak winter. It is encouraging that this week the US struck a deal with the World Bank to release £240mn in humanitarian funding. The condition is that this aid money is delivered directly to the UN relief agencies on the ground and NGOs operating in local communities. We have seen recently in the civil war in Tigray province in Ethiopia what happens when governments try to gain control of international aid flows, obstruct them or manipulate them for political ends.

The Taliban have been talking to the EU to obtain its help in reopening Afghanistan’s airports to normal commercial traffic after turning initially to Turkey and Qatar. They should go further and seek the EU’s help in repairing vital road and rail infrastructure, as well as supply chains and distribution systems, to expedite aid deliveries to the far-flung rural corners of Afghanistan where the bulk of the population lives. Beyond the immediate humanitarian assistance, improved infrastructure can help to kick-start inter-provincial trade and economic activity. Routes leading to and from international borders are particularly important, as are effective but smooth customs procedures to allow vital imports to come in and exports to go out. EU technical help can at least get this process going before multilateral financing and loans kick in at a later date.

On security, everything hinges on the sincerity of the Taliban in fighting domestic terrorism and jihadist groups. They have an existential interest in doing this to assert the monopoly over the use of force that is essential for all governments. They also need to stop ISIL-Khorasan from becoming an attractive destination for dissident Taliban factions that might be tempted to break away from the Kabul government. It is clear that the Taliban have a closer relationship with Al Qaeda, which has integrated into their ranks in many cases, than with ISIL. Yet ISIL is the more immediate threat both to the Taliban and to the West.

There is thus a common interest in fighting it. This could take the form of an exchange of intelligence and cooperation on the flows of weapons, explosives, funding and individuals. This may seem improbable in view of the extreme suspicion with which the Taliban and the West are now facing each other. Yet Iran and the US have exchanged intelligence on Al-Qaeda in the past and diplomats are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to identifying common interests, even if short-term and tactical. Russia and the Central Asian countries also are keen to engage Kabul to stop Uzbek and Tadjik jihadist groups, closely allied to the Taliban in the past, from moving north of the border into their former strongholds in the Ferghana Valley.

After years of enmity, neither the NATO allies nor the Taliban will find it easy to swallow their pride

On education, the Taliban have indicated a shift in their old position of not allowing women to be educated beyond the most elementary levels. It is not only the international community that finds the forced exclusion of women from education and economic and social life repugnant and unacceptable. Afghan women are determined to make their voices heard as well. Once again, we are facing a mixed bag. The new regime in Kabul has allowed girls to return to some high schools, albeit in strictly segregated classes. It has spoken of allowing women to return to university although being very vague about when this will happen. Every month that goes by with no action is a month’s worth of education for girls lost. It is not only morally unacceptable; it also makes no sense economically given the contribution that Afghan women were making to the workforce under the previous regime. In recognition of this reality, the Taliban have allowed women civil servants to return to many posts in the public administration although again not at senior levels.

So education is a domain where the international community has to be intransigent in demanding that the Taliban allow full access of women to participate in every level of education, including the STEM skill areas, and do not attempt to confine women to a sub-standard or overly religious Madrassa type of instruction. Usefully, the new US envoy for Afghanistan, Thomas West, has proposed a benchmarking system to assess regularly and nationwide the access of women and girls to education.

When it comes to health, Afghan hospitals and community health centres were in a dire state, lacking basic medicines and medical equipment, even before the Ghani government collapsed. The best and state-of-the-art medical care was provided by the military field hospitals set up by the NATO ISAF forces, but these were dismantled as the withdrawing forces closed their bases. The Western allies need to work urgently with the WHO to address the crisis in Afghan public health. Medicines and equipment need to be flown in and the many hospitals damaged in the fighting must be repaired and returned to normal operations. Given the brain drain of doctors and nurses from Afghanistan, the international community needs to jump-start a programme to send volunteer doctors and nurses to the country. Telemedicine can be used in the meantime to help perform surgery and deliver basic care. As the international community pays more attention to COVID-19 vaccine distribution to developing countries in the wake of the new Omicron variant using COVAX and other schemes, Afghanistan, which has an alarmingly low level of vaccination, needs to be a priority.

Finally, a word about regional cooperation. Last week the Economic Cooperation Organization met in Turkmenistan. This body, largely inspired by Pakistan, discussed a range of regional infrastructure projects from railways, oil and gas pipelines, energy grids, transport corridors to airline routes and trade facilitation. Given the reluctance of the major development banks to invest in fossil fuel projects, some of these initiatives may never see the light of day. Yet Afghanistan’s neighbours and the major financial donors have every interest in pushing Kabul to participate in these regional groupings. Being able to use Afghanistan as a transit country is key to the viability of many of these interconnector projects. That is why China has also shown an interest in the country as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

At the same time, if Afghanistan is going to exploit its considerable mineral resources, such as copper and bauxite, it needs to be integrated in a regional economic framework with modern transport links and trade liberalisation. This has the potential added value that the Taliban can avoid becoming overdependent on a single protector country, constantly interfering in its domestic affairs, as was the case with Pakistan in the 1990s. This risks becoming the case in the future with China, which has invested in Afghan resources such as the Mes Aynak copper mine.

Re-engaging with Afghanistan will not be easy. After years of enmity, neither the NATO allies nor the Taliban will find it easy to swallow their pride or change narratives that have served them so well for decades. Both sides will expect the other to make the first move. In the long run, the West can help Afghanistan develop only if the Taliban take a more inclusive approach to governing and are prepared to cooperate with their former adversaries. Extolling military victories in endless parades or blaming the US and its allies for all the problems of Afghanistan will not put food on the table of the average Afghan. At the same time, if the Western allies allow a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe to take place in Afghanistan, they will only further tarnish their own record over 20 years in that country. So there is space for some creative diplomacy on both sides. Now all we need are the diplomats to drive it forward.

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