The days and nights following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government have been remarkably calm. Most shops and businesses are closed. Ordinary Afghans are hiding in their homes. The Taliban are acting as a police force, protecting the city from marauders. And yet, in this moment of relative stillness, Afghans are facing a monumental realization: they now live in a completely new country.
In defending his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden acknowledged that events unfolded “more quickly” than US officials had anticipated. According to Biden, that is because Afghanistan’s political leaders, including President Ashraf Ghani, “gave up and fled the country,” and “the Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” Afghanistan’s acting defense minister, General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, defended the military, tweeting, “They tied our hands from behind and sold the country. Curse Ghani and his gang.”
Whatever happened in Kabul’s corridors of power last week, now it is the Taliban that occupies them. But who are the Taliban, which the world’s mightiest country spent more than $2 trillion attempting to defeat, and what will their return to power mean for Afghans and their neighbors?
The Taliban are not a unified force, but rather a motley collection of groups with conflicting interests. There are significant differences between the “civilized” political wing represented by the political office in Doha, influential clergy, and the numerous warlords on the ground. Afghans’ prospects depend crucially on which elements of the Taliban prove dominant. That is why it is essential to identify and support the more moderate Taliban leaders.
Here, there might be good news. The latest information suggests that Taliban co-founder and political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will become Afghanistan’s new leader. He has positioned himself as a pragmatic, experienced, and thoughtful leader, capable of uniting influential Taliban groupings around him and negotiating effectively with international actors. On August 17, Baradar arrived in Afghanistan.
Moreover, Taliban leaders have also pledged to create an “inclusive Islamic government.” According to Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesperson, such a government would include non-Taliban Afghans, including some “well-known figures.” One such figure could be former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has formed a coordination council to manage a peaceful transfer of power. That council – which is now in Doha to meet with Taliban leadership – also includes Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Ironically, this sort of “inclusivity” would exclude many of the Taliban’s more radical segments, raising the risk that the extremists will seek partnerships with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But the bigger risk would arise from efforts to turn Afghanistan into a mono-ethnic (Pashtun) state, based on a winner-take-all mindset. This would almost certainly reignite civil war.
Beyond building an inclusive government, the Taliban will need to strengthen its army and police force, and establish diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Among the group’s fastest friends are likely to be Russia and China. Zamir Kabulov, a Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, says that the Kremlin maintains good relations with the Taliban, so Russia is not worried about what is happening in the country. On a recent phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that they should “protect the legitimate interests” of their respective countries in Afghanistan, “report on the situation, and support each other.”
The Taliban might also find willing partners in Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors. The leaders of Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek and Tajik communities – the warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad Noor – did flee the country after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif, which they had been defending. Many commentators viewed this as a rejection of the Taliban. But I believe that it reflects an unwillingness to continue fighting, and expect both men to return to Afghanistan soon.
More broadly, Central Asian countries seem to be cautiously optimistic about the potential for cooperation with a Taliban-led Afghanistan. After all, Baradar has pledged not to “allow the emergence of a threat and danger from Afghanistan” to Central Asian countries, and has welcomed the Uzbek-initiated plan to construct the “Kabul Corridor” railway from Termez in Uzbekistan to Peshawar in Pakistan via Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul. In fact, with the United States gone, the vision of a “Greater Central Asia” with more open trade and improved infrastructure among the countries of the region could gradually become a reality.
Afghanistan’s future will also be shaped by the policy of the US and its allies. America’s humiliating defeat and chaotic retreat has severely undermined its international standing. The question now is how much responsibility, if any, the US will take for ensuring the Afghan people’s well-being, given the leading role it played in destroying their country.
For now, the Biden administration says it is waiting for the Taliban to demonstrate their commitment to governing inclusively and preventing terrorism. But the US and its allies must do more to help ordinary Afghans. Given the people’s lack of confidence in Western partners, independent Western-led initiatives are unlikely to work. Afghanistan’s neighbors and Russia must be involved.
The first step should be to convene a special international conference on Afghanistan involving all interested parties, with China and Russia central players. Donor countries must be united under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council, and with the involvement of the UN system and multilateral development banks, they should create a special fund to assist in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
On the diplomatic level, whether one likes it or not, Russia, with its deep influence in Central Asia, holds the key to rebuilding Afghanistan. If the West embraces this process, perhaps its relations with Russia can improve as well.
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