Nobody can claim to have an answer about what is next for Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Afghan situation is in flux, and any assessment is essentially tentative. The pictures coming from what is now the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ are not really good. The most debated question is whether the Taliban rule will be a throwback to the reign of terror they had unleashed during 1996 to 2001. We don’t know the answer, notwithstanding the Taliban’s public statements meant to dispel the impression that the future of Afghanistan will resemble its past.
The Taliban’s charm offensive is partly in recognition of the reality that their regime cannot survive without support from the international community. The Taliban have claimed they would behave differently, vowing to set up inclusive governance and to respect basic human rights. They have also given assurance that the Afghan soil will not be used against any country. However the international community remains anxious and skeptical as there are some indications of relapse into the Taliban’s old and notorious ways.
The international community is keen to witness the formation of a broad-based government which also incorporates elements of the Taliban’s former political foes. Many countries including India are in a wait-and-watch mode. It would be too early to believe that the Taliban are working under pressure from the global community as the Taliban’s reassuring statements are primarily aimed at getting international legitimacy. International engagement, through diplomacy and humanitarian assistance, should be designed to prompt the Taliban to implement what they are promising.
Afghanistan’s fragile economic situation should weigh significantly in the Taliban’s calculations, particularly when the IMF has suspended funding. Without global financial assistance, the Afghan economy would crumble in no time. The United States may have left Afghanistan in an inexplicable, indefensible, and disgraceful manner, but it still retains the financial leverage because of its control over the international financial system.
President Joe Biden is already facing relentless condemnation over potentially tragic aftermath of a messy exit and gross mismanagement of extrication of Americans and their Afghan allies. He will be under immense pressure from the US Congress and human rights groups to use economic leverage to force the Taliban to fulfill its commitments. And if the Taliban have become more astute and smart than their predecessor, they would not miss the fact that the US will not give up the cause of democracy promotion when it is locked in a big power competition with China that will define the trajectory of international politics in the decades to come.
Similarly, the European Union is expected to put pressure on the Taliban if they are keen to receive humanitarian aid. The main reason is reluctance of many European governments to give shelter to Afghan refugees as they want to prevent a repeat of 2011, when 6 million refugees fled the war in Syria and found safety in various European Countries. In early August, a joint letter signed by the interior ministers from Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, and Denmark asked the European Commission to continue the policy of deportations to Afghanistan for rejected asylum applicants. This may seem ethnically repugnant conduct on the part of European countries, but geopolitics demands realism.
Even Pakistan has refrained from recognizing the Taliban rule, as Islamabad is probably waiting for the announcement of government formation and the response from major powers including the United States. This reality is also not lost on Rawalpindi that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would make the US less of a hostage to Pakistan. Islamabad’s strategic duplicity in Afghanistan reflects the inherent tension between Pakistan’s strategic interests and the internal security challenges over creeping Talibanisation of the country. Continued socio-political instability also increases the likelihood of Afghan refugee flows and drug exports to Pakistan. However, irrespective of the domestic consequences of an unstable Afghanistan, Pakistan still prefers Taliban-led disorder. Whatever may be Pakistan’s objectives now, China will be wary of stirring up trouble in Afghanistan as Beijing’s approach has been largely defensive.
As reflected in the UN Security Council statement on August 16, the international community wants the Taliban to focus on an inclusive government, respect for human rights and combating terrorism. This must be seen as a strong collective voice against attempts to impose a unilateral government that is committed to terrorism. But if the international community gets pided over the issue of recognition, the Taliban would use these cracks as a pretext to renege on its promises. In view of this challenge, the international community should continue to maintain collective pressure on the Taliban while holding out diplomatic inducements. Much will also depend on whether the Afghan crisis persists or abates in global consciousness.
Indian policymakers face difficult choices as they consider how best to interact with the Taliban-led government. New Delhi’s inability to shape the regional environment, and lack of success in addressing India’s geographic isolation from Afghanistan has made it a passive bystander in Afghanistan. For now, India should actively but cautiously engage with the Taliban while continuing to work closely with its international partners. What that engagement will look like remains an open-ended question, but the focus must be on the need to prevent the strengthening of terrorist groups on Afghanistan’s soil. The unfortunate reality is that this requires a deft combination of global diplomacy and Taliban’s cooperation.
(The author is assistant professor, Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jodhpur, Rajasthan.)