The scenes of tens of thousands of families displaced by the battles across the country who fled to the few remaining public parks in Kabul, along with the images of overcrowded airports, are stark reminders of the harrowing costs of war to civilians.
US president Joe Biden defended the decision to end what was increasingly portrayed in the US as a ‘forever war’, but the Taliban – emboldened and legitimized by the Doha Agreement in February 2020 with the Donald Trump administration – opted to push for more territorial gains immediately after Biden’s announcement of a full and unconditional withdrawal in April.
This is now a moment of retrospection for political analysts to question long-held judgements and assessments on Afghanistan, looking at administrative maps of provincial boundaries and geographic terrains. But the Taliban have the advantage of reading deeper than maps, they understand the societal and individual bonds which dictate everyday life and the social fabric which regulates and leverages loyalty.
This social contract lies beyond the tribal or ethnic binaries often imposed on places like Afghanistan by a Western lens, and is premised on one golden rule, that survival takes precedence. Western intervention initially ignored this fact and then became weary of trying to learn the lesson.
But no-one predicted the events of the last 48 hours, not even the Taliban according to Maulavi Mati-ul-Haqq, a senior member of the Doha Office. With most of Afghanistan captured, they stopped at the gates of Kabul and the Taliban leadership issued a statement to reassure they wanted only a political handover, not fighting in the dense city streets.
Despite issuing a brief statement about security arrangements in the capital city, Ashraf Ghani, the last president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan once celebrated as a global thinker and someone who could ‘fix a failed state’, escaped the country and the same day Taliban fighters were behind the desk where he sat.
Civilians say they are relieved Kabul was spared the dreaded urban warfare which would have led to unimaginable bloodshed, and that Taliban fighters are patrolling the city but have not been bothering anyone. But people are largely preferring to stay at home, fearing there is still a vacuum, and amid uncertainty after the collapse of the Afghan government with a vast majority of shops – excluding some essential grocery stores – and businesses remaining shut in Kabul, along with all government and non-government offices.
Schools and universities are also closed and female students are understandably anxious to know if they are allowed to resume classes. Video clips circulating on local social media accounts show young girls walking in what appears to be school uniform, but more time is needed to make conclusive observations on these and other aspects of life for ordinary Afghans.
As the Taliban resurrect the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and its spokesman Mohammad Naeem declares ‘the war is over in Afghanistan’, there are three immediate and substantial challenges the country faces.
1. Fill the political, security and economic void
Suhail Shaheen of the Taliban’s Doha office repeatedly claims to the media the Taliban are keen to re-establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with an ‘Afghan inclusive Islamic government in which all Afghans have participation’. Certainly the new political system in Afghanistan is not going to be the ‘glorified’ transitional administration talked of during the discussions with the Taliban in recent years.
However the Taliban are inheriting a collapsed state with initial indications that a ‘coordination committee’ to prevent chaos and ensure an orderly transfer of power to the Taliban seems to have been scrapped as soon as it was clear Ghani had left Afghanistan. Taliban forces are in control of Kabul and all the provinces captured but the longer a political vacuum lingers, the harder it will be for the Taliban to restore a semblance of normality and create confidence in their claim to have capacity for managing a functioning state. They still need to engage with the anti-Taliban former Mujahideen elements who are currently holding in the northern Panjshir province.
Since 2001, the government has been the country’s biggest employer, in addition to employing the security forces. Although data is scant, estimates put the number of government school teachers at approximately 220,000, and approximately 450,000 work directly as government employees across different departments, with more than 20 per cent women. The salaries and livelihoods of these individuals and their families depend on a functioning political and administrative system.
Deputy Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund instructed members of his group to ‘remain humble’ and to avoid behaving arrogantly as ‘the responsibilities of serving people’ are greater priorities. He was clear the Taliban should focus on providing security, livelihoods, and confidence to the Afghan people about the future and living in the country.
But the Taliban know cameras are watching around the globe and that the world of hyperconnected social media – and the impact of visuals – is an ongoing battle. So far, they have run a successful communication strategy especially via social media channels and messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, and Signal.
The messaging is aimed at mobilizing fighters but also appeasing populations, creating empathy, and undermining enemies. They must work with not only the traditional, largely rural, constituencies but also with cosmopolitan urbanites used to freedom of speech, political satire, an endless number of local media channels, and a burgeoning entertainment industry.
Taliban fighters visited the offices of Tolo News, Afghanistan’s largest and most successful news channel, but simply promised to secure its compound and reportedly all staff were treated politely. A female journalist was reporting from the streets of Kabul today for the Tolo News channel, arguably a sign for cautious optimism.
2. Displacement and a humanitarian catastrophe
Caroline Van Buren, UNHCR country representative in Afghanistan, has underscored the ‘dire situation’ for the 400,000 Afghans displaced internally since January 2021, mostly inside Afghanistan with some figures suggesting 120,000 of them moved to Kabul with communities and relatives.
But a large number have occupied public parks in Kabul with no security while, at the height of the most recent spate of violence as the Taliban ploughed through the country, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that – excluding those legally migrating – approximately 20-30,000 Afghan nationals and 600-700 families were undertaking outward migration journeys every week, mostly westward towards Iran.
If this continues, IOM estimates at least 1.5 million Afghans will have left Afghanistan by the end of 2021 so, add this to the more than 3.5 million IDPs currently known and it is glaringly obvious there is a humanitarian emergency.
Afghanistan’s neighbours with accessible border crossings – Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan – have no desire to host Afghans fleeing the violence. Turkey, both as a major transit country and a host country for Afghan refugees, is already building a wall along its border with Iran to stop a potential Afghan ‘refugee crisis’ reaching its towns and cities. Afghanistan is already at a critical juncture with its deepening humanitarian crisis while remaining one of the world’s most protracted source countries for refugees.
As the dust of insurgency settles and the Taliban grapple with how to govern, anxieties among ordinary Afghan populations will swell. Every regime change since 1978 led to a ‘brain drain’ which then encourages more Afghans to seek safety and prosperity abroad. The success of a future administration depends on retaining human capital to support governance and the reconstruction Afghanistan desperately needs.
3. Restoring international relations
Anti-international rhetoric has been a rallying call in the past but the Taliban leadership knows its chance of making any success of government depends on international donors. Despite a stunning success in one of the most sophisticated resurgent insurgencies in the world, and morale being high among Taliban fighters and field commanders, Afghanistan’s economic woes are extensive.
United Nations (UN) estimates more than 18 million Afghans – more than half the total population – are ‘in humanitarian need’ and, in 2019, Afghanistan ranked 169 out of 189 countries and territories on the UN Human Development Index (HDI). Even before the collapse of the Ghani administration, Afghanistan was one of the most aid-dependent countries with aid an ‘existential need’ of the state for its existence and delivery of services.
Any government in Afghanistan needs foreign donors to sustain the education system and other essential services and a Taliban administration is no exception. But the US departure from Afghanistan could not have been more dramatically negative, so a full American disengagement and a lukewarm attitude in responding to humanitarian needs in Afghanistan will both deepen the crisis and open up space for other countries in the region.
At this critical moment for Afghanistan, with chaos engulfing US plans for evacuation, most diplomatic missions have either completely suspended operations in Afghanistan – such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – or are relocating with minimum staff to Kabul international airport – such as the US, UK, and France. But China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan appear likely continue operations with some logistical adjustments, and the possibility to recognize or at least work with the Taliban.
For Afghanistan to emerge from these multi-layered crises and an ostensible state failure, the Taliban administration has to find a way to work with the US-led international donor community. Much depends on who leads the new administration and how much of the previous human capital can be preserved. For the UK and other international donors, whose financial assistance has contributed to whatever positive achievements were made in the last two decades, there is an urgent need to focus on helping ordinary civilians.
For the Taliban, and whoever among other Afghan political figures join them, the biggest challenge is to convince Afghans – and the international community – that an insurgency group can successfully transform into a government. There needs to be concrete action and delivery on the ground and an avoidance of the temptation to infringe on people’s lives which drove so many away from the Taliban prior to 2001.