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Taliban’s Afghanistan-South Asian perspective

11 January 2022 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • The Taliban have been urging Washington to unfreeze roughly $9.4 billion in Afghanistan’s central bank assets
  • The US had also promised to provide three million doses of the Johnson vaccine
  • Beijing is pleased at the abject US failure in Afghanistan
  • Pakistan has the most to gain from peace in its neighbors and the most to lose from strife and instability
  • Former PM Wickremesinghe advocated the snapping of diplomatic relations with Afghanistan

 

“Our democracy may have fallen for now. Ideas do not disappear so easily. One cannot kill whispers on the wind. The Taliban cannot crush a dream. We will prevail, even if it takes longer than we wanted it to.” — Sakena Yacoobi, founder and chief executive of the Afghan Institute of Learning, in a letter pleading for international help and promising to defy the Taliban and continue the institute’s work of educating girls so they can earn independent incomes. (Darpan Magazine)

Taliban entered Kabul on 15th August 2021, leading to the collapse of the US-backed government. On September 7, the  Taliban announced the composition of an all-male interim  caretaker government headed by Mohammad Hasan Akhund,  who served as a foreign minister during the first Taliban rule and has been under UN sanctions since 2001.


 The US and other Western partners, as well as financial institutions, have suspended billions of dollars in monetary aid to Afghanistan since the Taliban returned to power. Since then five months have lapsed and the politics of Afghanistan takes place within the framework of Taliban rule.


In a bid to control the level of U.S. engagement in the Middle East, the President Biden administration keeps stressing that it was moving “back to basics.” However, the U.S. failed adventure in Afghanistan, featured by its haphazard military withdrawal, caused a crisis of confidence among America’s partners in the region.

 


“We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” — President Joe Biden, defending his decision to remove U.S. troops from Afghanistan after the Taliban gained control of the capital. (Whitehouse.gov)


The Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid walk in triumph has now caused the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to be defunct and brings with it yet another shock to the long-suffering Afghan people and the country’s weak economy. Insecurity, COVID, corruption, government over-centralization and mismanagement, declining revenues, and drought already plague Afghanistan. The Afghan economy now faces a host of new challenges with the international community cracking down on assistance. As the new Afghan government takes shape, the actions of the Taliban and the response of the international community could greatly exacerbate or at the most modestly ameliorate the current economic and humanitarian crises.


Cooperation

 

 

The suspension of aid and the imposition of sanctions have caused the economy to nosedive into a crisis, increasing humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, As per the United Nations estimates; 23 million people in Afghanistan face  hunger due to years of war, drought, and poverty. The Taliban have been urging Washington to unfreeze roughly $9.4 billion in Afghanistan’s central bank assets and remove financial restrictions, maintaining that their new government is representative of all Afghans and is committed to respect the human rights of all the citizens in line with Islamic laws.


With the withdrawal of the U.S/NATO and a lack of support from Russia, key actors in the region are taking steps to deescalate tensions and build or rebuild working relationships on their own. When most aid was frozen, China pledged $37 million worth of humanitarian assistance, promised to provide emergency aid to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and planned an initial delivery of three million doses of vaccine to Afghanistan. China has stated its willingness to work with all countries to promote cooperation mainly in three areas; further synergy of their development strategies, better integration of their resource markets, and exchange of experiences on governance. This approach could provide Afghanistan with a new window of opportunity. Nevertheless, it may have its own pitfalls.

 

On the one hand, Beijing has legitimate worries that Afghanistan could again become a staging ground for terrorists because of the Taliban’s historical links with extremists including the East

 

In December 2021, Afghanistan’s caretaker government began to distribute China-aided humanitarian supplies to the country’s 34 provinces. Acting Minister for Refugees has stated at a distribution ceremony that, “China is our good neighbour and the assistance for us is very important.”


Further, the government has made available Covid-19 vaccination in all residential areas and mosques, but people are less interested in receiving the doses. This comes as the Covid-19 vaccine is about to expire and the Ministry of Public Health is requesting the public to get the shots without further delay. 


The Afghan layman’s common perception is that Covid-19 had vanished with the Taliban marching into Kabul. The current estimated population of Afghanistan is 40,226,866 as of 16 December 2021, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest UN data. However, as per the record of worldomerters.info, it is evident that only 825,047 have been tested so far which means only 20,556 per one million of the population has been tested. Therefore, the public belief in eliminating the infection of Covid-19 could be far from factual reality. The US had also promised to provide three million doses of the Johnson vaccine to the Afghan people after the spread of the Delta variant of the virus in Afghanistan. The US later provided only 1.5 million doses of the vaccine. As per the official figures from the Ministry of Public Health since the outbreak of the pandemic in Afghanistan corona virus has infects more than 158,290 people and 7,368 others have died. 


Dissolving of State Ministries


On the political front according to the Afghan sources, the Taliban have dissolved the State Ministry for Peace, the State Ministry for Parliamentary Affairs, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), as well as the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC). The parliamentary affairs ministry has had over 400 employees; the ministry for peace has had nearly 40 employees, while the IEC has had more than 1,000 workers, according to Tolo News (https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-176035). In addition, the  Taliban have also reportedly based the new Afghan Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in the building of the Ministry of Women Affairs. It is difficult to comprehend the rationale of these developments in the accepted normal circumstances of Democracy, good governance.


“There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country. We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Shariah law and that is it.” — Waheedullah Hashimi, a Taliban leader who has access to the group’s decision?making. (Reuters)


Challenges

 

 

It is a known fact that Afghanistan remains to have a weak economy in the global context, further their economy will now have to deal with the fall-out from the fall of Kabul. Several immediate challenges include:


The previous Afghan government and its core institutions are in disarray, and suffering from a severe “brain drain” of experienced top managers as well as qualified technical and professional staff, many of whom have fled the country or are trying to do so.

  •  Already dealing with a large displacement crisis, there is a risk of widespread dislocation and refugee dilemma and spillover.
  • The disruption to Afghan government revenue and aid means that the coffers are empty, and the Finance  Ministry is facing problems in meeting basic expenses such as salaries of government employees, etc.
  • Basic social services-a success stories over the past two decades, are consequently in danger, even before potential Taliban restrictions.
  • Though the Taliban’s rhetoric generally has been pro-private sector, the uncertainty associated with their takeover will further depress already an extremely low private investment and will stall major  projects at least for the time being until the situation stabilizes.
  • Uncertainty extends to the financial sector, including not least what kind of “Islamic banking” approach the Taliban regime  may take.

Further, if the Taliban decides to continue to impose sudden, harsh changes in the urban areas, which have had a very different ethos and way of life for the past 20 years, it will further stimulate panic and plight of people and would exacerbate the shock to Afghanistan’s already reeling urban economy. Stopping females  from working, either by formal edict or by Taliban actions on  would harm livelihoods and increase poverty. Wholesale changes to the government administration similarly could be disruptive and destabilizing. Basic social services, already at risk due to lack of funding, could be devastated by Taliban actions including formal or de facto restrictions on girls’ education. Moreover, haphazard or irresponsible macroeconomic management in the current situation could easily precipitate hyperinflation and supply shortages, with knock-on effects on the economy and poverty.

 

 

New developments 


On 26th Dec 2021, the ruling Taliban issued new travel restrictions for the country’s women, an action criticized by the U.S. as further mistreatment of Afghan women by the terror outfit. The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice directive limits a woman’s ability to travel beyond 72 kilometers unless accompanied by a close male relative. It also advised the taxi drivers to offer rides only to women wearing an Islamic hijab or a headscarf. Ministry spokesperson defended these restrictions, stating that they are in line with Sharia, or Islamic law. The decree 


also requires drivers of the male-only transport sector in Afghanistan to grow beards, break for prayers and refrain from playing music in their vehicles.


(https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59800113)

 

 

The latest restrictions come weeks after the Taliban asked Afghan television channels to stop showing dramas and soap operas featuring female actors, it also required female news anchors to wear hijabs while on the air.


It is amply clear that the Post-Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would reset the US re-engagement strategy with Pakistan than in earlier times when Pakistan had always played a pivotal role. In addition, India loosing US as its partner/ally in Afghanistan affairs’ would thus have to fall back on its guaranteed and lifelong ally Russia, although now, Russia may have its constraints. Nevertheless, India should also be prepared to shift its policies, which are not against the ruling dispensation in Afghanistan and need to accommodate the strategic calculus of China, Iran, and Russia rethinking on the regional geopolitical reality. In fact, both Russia and Iran are very important for the regional stability in context of the present afghan issue. It is also important to note Russia has a common border with China and Iran has a common border with Pakistan and Afghanistan. This geographical poisoning could be leveraged to make inroads to Afghanistan.


Fall of Panjshir

 

 

First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, a Panjshiri,


retreated to the Valley where he joined hands with Ahmad  The National Massoud, the son of Ahmed Shah Massoud.


Resistance Front (NRF) of Afghanistan vowed to continue fighting against the Taliban, reliving the memories of the past. However, this time, the odds were against the resistance from the very beginning. When both of them started the resistance against the Taliban from an isolated Panjshir after the fall of Kabul, they were on their own. They did not have any direct access to a friendly border or direct military assistance from regional players come. They remain calling for resistance, perhaps to extract concessions from the Taliban before the new government was formed. The Taliban held talks with Panjshir representatives but did not make any concessions. The Taliban wanted a total surrender. Immediately after the U.S/NATO withdrawal out of the country on 31st August 2021, the Taliban launched the Panjshir offensive to take over the Valley in order to prove their superiority/strength. The Taliban now control of the entire Panjshir province. Their supporters have posted photos of the Taliban’s white flag raised at the provincial headquarters at Bazarak, Panjshir’s capital. It has been reported that Pakistan made a significant contribution for the flush out operation. Nevertheless, the NRF claims that their guerrillas are in the strategic locations and that the fight is not over, while the whereabouts of First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, and Ahmad Massoud remains unknown. It is presumed that the NRF has retreated to the mountains, allowing the Taliban to take over the provincial capital and the main artery to the Valley. However, any NRF plan to regroup and counter-attack the Taliban would depend on regional support, which in turn, depends on whether the Taliban could establish a stable government with the pledge, given to the world and regional powers. (https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2021/9/7/photos-afghanistan-panjshir-the-last-pocket-of-resistance?falls-to-taliban)

 

 

India


India anxiously watching at a new Taliban regime in Afghanistan, early indications are that its worries are set to multiply, especially in the troubled Jammu & Kashmir region. The Taliban had said that it had, “the right to raise our voice for Muslims in Kashmir, India and any other country”. While spokesperson Suhail Shaheen added that it was not the group’s policy to “raise arms” against any other country, such a statement is bound to concern India. It came just days after al-Qaeda celebrated the “victory” in Afghanistan and said it might turn its attention to Kashmir next, asking followers to “liberate” it “from the enemies of Islam”.


From Pakistan, they too, have indicated that there may be fresh instability. Last month, Neelam Irshad Sheikh, a leader of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, has stated that the Taliban leaders had told them they were “with” Pakistan and that “they will help us in Kashmir”. As regards to this thorny Kashmir issue, India may have to take cognizance of these volatile developments.

 

 

India’s concerns are clear. It needs to protect its interest and investments in Afghanistan, which will be in trouble under a Pakistan-backed Taliban regime and prevent the neighbourhood from becoming a haven of terrorism. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar enunciated as much in the UN. Chairing a high-level United Nations Security Council briefing on ‘threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts’ held under India’s current presidency of the UNSC, said the heightened activities of the proscribed Haqqani Network justifies this growing anxiety. Haqqani network top leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, will play a major role in the Taliban administration. 


“In our own immediate neighborhood, ISIL-Khorasan (ISIL-K) has become more energetic and is constantly seeking to expand its footprint. Events unfolding in Afghanistan have naturally enhanced global concerns about their implications for both regional and international security,” External Affairs Minister said.


“Whether it is in Afghanistan or against India, groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) continue to operate with both impunity and encouragement,” Jaishankar said. “It is therefore vital that the Security Council does not take a selective, tactical or complacent view of the problems we face,” the External Affairs Minister said. “We must never countenance sanctuaries for terrorists or overlook their raising of resources,” he said. (https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3147535/india?faces-fresh-kashmir-concerns-after-taliban-takeover)

 


What Taliban rule means for China Pakistan and Sri Lanka


Beijing is pleased at the abject US failure in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the so called American debacle in Afghanistan has given China’s massive propaganda machine a field day, allowing it to pour scorn on American decline, but questions remain on the Chinese side vis-a-vis Taliban. From a Chinese point of view, having US troops bogged down in Afghanistan has far greater geopolitical benefits. Now the American withdrawal will not only create uncertainties and risks in regional stability and the balance of power but will also allow Washington to focus more attention and resources on countering China. US President Joe Biden made that sentiment clear in his speech he said our true strategic competitors, China and Russia would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.


On the one hand, Beijing has legitimate worries that Afghanistan could again become a staging ground for terrorists because of the Taliban’s historical links with extremists including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group of Uygur militants blamed by China for terror attacks in Xinjiang. However,  Beijing remains unconvinced and Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the pre-takeover meeting in China to stress that the Taliban must take concrete actions to make a clean break with all terrorist forces including the ETIM.

 


The Pakistani’s believes that they have struck gold in Afghanistan, seeing the Taliban’s victory as a strategic win over India. Within hours of Kabul’s fall, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said the Afghan people had broken the shackles of slavery to the West. Pakistan has lobbied the international community, close allies China and Russia in particular, to garner support for a collective diplomatic engagement with the Taliban as a means of ensuring that the group keeps its promises to form an inclusiveadministration, prevent terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, and allow women access to education and employment.


Pakistan has the most to gain from peace in its neighbors and the most to lose from strife and instability. 


Pakistan only stands to gain in terms of stability on its western border if the Taliban were able to govern effectively, accommodate other ethnic groups and establish a lasting peace. Conversely, if they are unable to do so, Afghanistan could face an uncertain and unstable future, which will not be in the best interest of  Pakistan. Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, has viewed that the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban is a marriage of convenience based on tactical divergences in Afghanistan. “For Pakistan, it was to keep India out of Afghanistan by helping the Taliban. For the Taliban, it was to resist the US presence and eventually force it out of Afghanistan by availing itself of sanctuaries in Pakistan,” as reported in The Washington Post. 
“Beyond this marriage of convenience, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban had its own ups and downs, disagreements, and divergences”, Basit claimed. In addition, the analysts say both Pakistan and China will face a strong push back from the US, which may feel more liberated after withdrawing its troops as it could focus its attention more on China and the region.

 

 

(https://www.dailynews.lk/2021/08/25/features/257479/taliban-rule-implications-south-asia)

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Hon Mahinda Rajapaksa on 18th August 2021, reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s continued support to the people of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover. On Twitter, PM Rajapaksa informed that he spoke to former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a bid to inquire about the ongoing developments unfolding in the war-torn country and further reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s support for Afghans.In addition, former Prime Minister Hon Ranil Wickremesinghe has cautioned the government against recognizing the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan and advocated snapping ties with Kabul, saying one should rethink if the country should be a “party to help terrorism” raise its head in the region. In a statement issued on Thursday, the four-time former prime minister said: Everyone fears that Afghanistan would become a centre of jihadi terrorist groups under the Taliban rule.”


“No one could condone their action to threaten states and people. Their ideology based on a wrong interpretation of the Quran is a threat to conventional Islamic states and other nations,” Wickremesinghe said. “There are no justifiable reasons for us to recognize a Taliban rule,” he added. Former PM Wickremesinghe advocated the snapping of diplomatic relations with Afghanistan by recalling the Lankan embassy presence there. “We need an embassy in a Central Asian state, this could be located elsewhere.” 


Further former PM Wickremesinghe recalled that the Taliban had destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhist sculpture in Afghanistan.

The Buddha statues of Bamiyan were two 6th?century monumental statues, which were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan valley of central Afghanistan, 130 KM northwest of Kabul. Carbon dating of the structural components of the Buddha statue has determined that the smaller 38 m (125 ft.) “Eastern Buddha statue” was built around 570 AD, and the larger 55 m (180 ft.) “Western Buddha statue” was built around 618 AD.

 


These statues were blown up and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from the leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared that they were idols. International and local opinion strongly condemned the destruction of the Buddha statues. These statues were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the site is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, along with the surrounding cultural landscape and archaeological remains of the Bamiyan Valley. The destruction of the giant statues by the Taliban in 2001 provoked widespread international condemnation, including in Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is the major religion.

 

With this chronology, the global community is yet to recognize the Taliban government. Further, the global community has refused direct engagement, (with a few exceptions who have other focused interests) with the Taliban over human rights, especially those of women, and terrorism concerns. Taliban is yet to demonstrate and prove that their ideology has changed as pledged. What Taliban rule means for the immediate neighborhood, is fluid as at now, and will stay so for a considerable period. The younger generation of Afghans are at crossroads with a bleak future full of uncertainties.


With the ongoing Taliban power consolidation in Afghanistan, the major nations in South Asia have one of two possibilities: recognize the government and make peace with them, or snap ties completely. I am certain that each nation will factor the pluses vs minuses when the call is made. The option of positive 


influence of Pakistan as a major regional stakeholder, shaping the Taliban ideology could be a key decisive factor for resolve. However, for all nations, including China, India and Pakistan, there are clear dangers posed by the ascension of the extreme militant groups. It is presumptuous that a cautious synergy could be the optimum way forward to usher stability.
Let us wish that a prosperous era would dawn soon to Afghanistan’s population who awaits the much?desired long overdue peace, stability, enriched with prosperity in the immediate forthcoming!


(Air Chief Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala RWP, RSP, VSV, USP, MPhil, MSc, FIM ndc, psc. Former Commander Sri Lanka Air Force and Ambassador to Afghanistan)

 

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