This piece was first published by RUSI in London. The views do not represent those of RUSI.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE –The international community is coming under increasing pressure to recognise the Taliban and to unfreeze Afghan funds held by the IMF or to risk a humanitarian crisis over the winter and a resurgence of international terrorism.
As Afghanistan heads deeper into winter the desperate need is to avoid a humanitarian crisis. The World Food Programme has launched an appeal to feed up to 23 million people and Médecins sans Frontières have followed suit in the healthcare field. Fortunately, the distribution mechanisms are in place inside Afghanistan; what is needed is for the international community to ensure that UN humanitarian programmes are fully funded. This will require Western capitals to get over the shock of their recent defeat. It goes without saying that hunger and health should not be used as instruments of political leverage.
Meanwhile, it is becoming ever more apparent that the Taliban do not have the skills to administer a country which is far more complex than the Afghanistan of 1996 – when they began their previous and disastrous spell in office. They will need international assistance to stabilise the economy, get people back to work and, in time, continue the gradual infrastructure improvements which have been underway since 2002. China will doubtless be willing to assist in some areas but Beijing has already made clear that it is adopting a cautious, gradualist approach. However, there are emerging indications that the Taliban’s intransigent views are beginning to relax; such as their approval of the polio vaccination scheme and their willingness to work with UN humanitarian agencies.
The Taliban will also need outside help in defeating the threat from the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISK). Already the Taliban are finding it difficult to counter similar asymmetric tactics which they used so successfully against Western forces. This is likely one of the subjects which CIA Director William Burns discussed with the Taliban during his visit on 24 August and where there is a mutual interest.
What can the international community (not just the West) realistically expect from the Taliban, following the militant group’s stunning victory? Maximalist demands will inevitably get short shrift.
First, the Taliban should form a more inclusive government. According to multiple sources, the Taliban were intending to form such an administration had Ashraf Ghani not fled the country on 15 August. I am sceptical that this was ever their intention but former president Hamid Karzai and former reconciliation chief Abdullah Abdullah may have remained in Kabul on this understanding and Fatima Gailani, a former negotiator, insists this was the Taliban’s intention.
An inclusive government would need to include women and non-Taliban representatives from the Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik communities. It need not comprise the failed politicians and bloodstained warlords of the past, least of all Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rashid Dostum. It is surely time for a new generation of more technocratic Afghans to become involved in government. Some may be persuaded to return from abroad but they will need assurances for their safety.
Second, the international community should insist on female education at all levels be restored and for women to play a fuller role in society. The Taliban will baulk at this but they only need to look at Pakistan where women play an important role in an avowedly Islamic, if not Islamist, society.
Third, all neighbouring countries, as well as the wider world, want Afghanistan to commit to removing all terrorist bases and terrorists from its soil; not just ISK and Al-Qa’ida but also the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), anti-Iranian and anti-Indian groups, and Central Asian militant movements including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Fourth, the Taliban should commit to allow people to join their families in exile if they wish and also cease the continuing search for and punishment of those Afghans who served the Afghan government and Western allies since 2001.
In an ideal world there would also be a fifth request: to remove Haqqani network members from the Taliban administration. However, that pass was sold when the US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad engaged with the Haqqanis in Doha – another result of that calamitous dialogue. Furthermore, the current reality is that the Haqqanis control both Kabul and its airport and Sirajuddin Haqqani holds the key position of interior minister.
Instead, the Haqqanis need to be persuaded to prevent Al-Qa’ida regrouping in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin’s father was close to Osama bin Laden and the group retains its Al-Qa’ida connections. Pakistan is already using the Haqqanis to bring the TTP to the negotiating table. It remains to be seen how successful this will be. It is doubtful that the Haqqanis would be willing to take military action against a group from a similar area in the tribal borderlands. However, the Haqqanis could be useful as intermediaries, if not as enforcers.
Meanwhile, the wider Taliban, usually referred to as the ‘Kandaharis’, are increasingly exasperated by the entryist Haqqanis. Although they have worked together, there was never much love lost between the two. The Kandaharis have always distrusted the Haqqanis’ proximity to the Pakistani military. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul-Ghani Baradar, whose willingness to negotiate with the Kabul government in 2008 and 2010 earned him eight years in a Pakistani prison, has been sidelined. There will doubtless be a reckoning
A lasting regret of the US’s careless withdrawal is that Washington did not conclude a broader settlement for Afghanistan involving China, Iran, Russia, India and the Central Asian Republics. From now on it is essential to include all the neighbours in the discussion of recognition and the conditions required. But first the Afghans must be helped to survive the winter.
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