How Long the “Wait and See” to Judge the Taliban

September 20, 2021

The world is waiting to see whether the Taliban has changed or not, if so to what extent. Countries involved in Afghan affairs know that they would not witness  fundamental change but hope for a move towards minimum moderation. The question is for how long they would wait and see.

Last week, in remarks to the High-level Ministerial Meeting on the Humanitarian Situation in Afghanistan, UN Secretary General Guterres said:

“Even before the dramatic events of the last weeks, Afghans were experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.”

He then underlined the urgency of the need for funding, improved humanitarian access, including the airbridge with Kabul and other hubs in Afghanistan, the safeguarding the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan – including through access to education and other essential services.  He urged the international community to find ways to make cash available to allow the Afghan economy to breathe since a total collapse would have devastating consequences to the people and risk to destabilize the neighboring countries with a massive outflow.

Finally, he added, “Time is short, and events move quickly in Afghanistan.”

Also last week Secretary Blinken announced that the US is providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance to the people affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.  He said that the assistance from the US, consistent with sanctions, will not flow through the government, but rather through independent organizations like NGOs and UN agencies. It appears that the Biden administration wishes to avoid being accused of leaving behind a humanitarian disaster after a chaotic withdrawal. Nonetheless,  as Mr. Blinken underlined in remarks before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, “the legitimacy and support the Taliban seeks from the international community will depend on its conduct.”

China and Russia were delighted to see the US remain bogged down in Afghanistan for two decades. Nonetheless, as argued in a recent Foreign Affairs article, China’s leaders should be worried about the emerging order in Afghanistan which could threaten the region’s stability and enable jihadi terror to spill over into China’s restive western regions, which are home to large Muslim populations.[i] Along with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, China also has to depend on the Taliban, at least for now,  to stabilize a fractured and violent country.

Russia and India have similar worries. Taliban spokesmen have recently made some confusing remarks on Kashmir and New Delhi must be keeping Afghanistan developments under focus.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have created a challenge for China, but also an opportunity to consolidate its position as Asia’s leading power. Because, it has the diplomatic experience and the economic means to make a difference. It is likely that Peking would extend the Taliban a helping hand while keeping the Taliban’s behavior under close scrutiny. And if the Taliban were to prove a new disappointment, this approach could turn into a carrot and stick policy with emphasis on the latter. For now, China has pledged to give $30 million in food and other aid to the new government. Russia is likely to take a similar attitude towards the Taliban but would remain mindful of the past.

Iran no doubt celebrated the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. And again, like Russia and China, Tehran would also wait and see how the internal situation in Afghanistan develops. The Taliban’s ideology is Sunni extremist, anti-Shiite, and thus anti-Iranian in its orientation. In 1998 the Taliban killed thousands of civilians including 11 Iranian diplomats in a “killing frenzy” which Human Rights Watch called the  “Mazar-i Sharif massacre”.[ii]

Like Turkey’s 911 km. border with Syria, Iran shares a 921 km. border with Afghanistan and is strongly impacted by developments there. The refugee influx is a huge problem for Iran under economic sanctions. But if the situation in Afghanistan were to stabilize, China to invest there, and economic cooperation to gain momentum, Iran may benefit from that.

Some see the return of the Taliban to power as a strategic victory for Pakistan. Only time would tell whether this indeed is a real victory or a pyrrhic one. Pakistan shares  a 2,670 km border with Afghanistan and has existential interest in its neighbor’s restoring some semblance of stability. Taliban’s failure to achieve that and new waves of refugees would aggravate Islamabad’s already daunting domestic challenges. So, Pakistan would have to use whatever influence over the Taliban to encourage them towards moderation.

To conclude, countries with close interest in the evolution of Afghanistan under Taliban rule would have to balance their tendency to “wait and see” against the likely consequences of  a humanitarian disaster. Understandably so far, the assurances offered by the Taliban have been received with skepticism. The Taliban now have the choice of extending or shortening external powers’ time frame to “wait and see”.

On September 17, 2021, the UN Security Council, through it unanimously adopted Resolution 2596 (2021) extending the mandate of Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) until 17 March 2022.[iii] In one of the Resolution’s “preambular” but not “operative” paragraphs, the Security Council called for the establishment of an inclusive and representative government and “full, equal and meaningful participation of women, and upholding human rights, including for women, children and minorities.”

So far, Afghan girls have returned to primary schools, but older girls face an anxious wait whether or not they would be able to resume their studies at secondary schools. And yesterday, the Guardian reported that female employees in the Kabul city government were told to stay home, with work only allowed for those who cannot be replaced by men. Women who cannot be replaced by men?  In Taliban’s ideology, it is women who cannot replace men in anything. They cannot come even close. The Taliban should be furious with the Guardian.

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[i] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-09-13/chinas-afghanistan-dilemma?utm_medium=newsletters&utm_source=fatoday&utm_campaign=Strategies%20of%20Restraint&utm_content=20210913&utm_term=FA%20Today%20-%20112017

[ii] https://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports98/afghan/Afrepor0.htm

[iii] https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/res_2596_2021_e.pdf

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