Throughout August 2021, it seemed as though the Taliban were rapidly taking over two things: Afghanistan, and the news. Fast forward to December, and whilst they have very much retained their hold on the former, they are not to be found anywhere in the latter. However, that is not to say that the Taliban have not been busy since taking over Kabul, the country’s capital, on August 16. The ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ was, until recently, a name associated with the turbulent period of Afghan history before the US invasion of 2001, when the Taliban controlled up to 90% of the country and fostered al-Qaeda. However, it has once again emerged as an active modern-day country, once again associated with a dire record of women’s rights, a harbourer of the illegal opium trade, a suspicious attitude towards education and free thinking, a growth in terror group activity, and a decline in the state of regional relations. Despite this, the case for replacing the current government is incredibly weak.
Several weeks after the fall of Kabul, US Senator for South Carolina Lindsay Graham stated his belief in the inevitability of US forces “going back to Afghanistan” in the future following their withdrawal after twenty years of operations there. Whilst it is not a commonly held view at the moment, it is nonetheless one that should be refuted. The best thing other nations, particularly Western nations, can do right now is to provide examples of well-functioning, rights-respecting democracies. If the last 20 years in the MENA region has proven anything, it is that external attempts to impose laws, ideologies and systems of government on a country have a very low chance of working. Interventions by the West in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria have yielded few results, with all four being classed as ‘authoritarian regimes’ by The Economist’s Democracy Index in 2020. By contrast, western military intervention has only served to increase resentment towards its governments and its peoples, and has smeared its core ideals of democracy, the rule of law and individual rights. Therefore, tempting as it may seem when an image of a homeless 6-year old boy or a young girl kicked out of education by the Taliban appears on television, advocating military intervention once more is a naïve path to walk down.
Undoubtedly, the Taliban government has been disastrous for Afghanistan; by almost all measures of effective and representative government, it scores incredibly low. Whilst the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan - the official name for the internationally-supported government that ruled the country between 2004 and 2021 - was deeply flawed, it can at least be said to have been working towards the institution of democracy. After just four months of Taliban rule, the impact on women’s rights, for instance, is clear to see. Whilst women can still go out and do shopping, those who worked for universities, NGOs, newspapers or in government can no longer do so, and girls are prevented from going to school. 60 of the country’s 69 female MPs fled the country as the Taliban engulfed more and more regions, while the other 9 who didn’t remain in hiding and fear for their lives in the face of ever-growing Taliban radicalisation.
The Taliban’s impact on life in Afghanistan is not limited to its consequences for women. Production of opium, the raw material used to make prescription drugs and heroin, has increased since August 2021, despite the Taliban assuring the world that they would crack down on the trade. They have little incentive to do so, given that opium accounts for around one-tenth of Afghanistan’s economic output and the industry employs 590,000 Afghans. It is a lucrative market, as 80% of opium produced globally comes from Afghanistan. In this case, sheer ideological conviction is not sufficient reason for the Taliban for a crackdown. Their promise that in Afghanistan “nobody can be involved in drug smuggling” rings as hollow as their pledge to respect media freedom and human rights.
More general economic issues are endemic under the Taliban. US-led sanctions have harmed the country, freezing almost $10bn of Afghanistan’s assets in August. This caused a banking crisis that led to queues outside many banks in the country, and the Taliban imposing a $200 weekly withdrawal limit on all customers. Further, many Afghan businessmen have fled the country, and are currently waiting in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to see what action the Taliban take to enact their ‘business-friendly’ messaging. The IMF predicts that formal business will shrink by 30% in the next few months, and concrete business-friendly policies are in short supply in Afghanistan at the moment - alongside many staple goods and fundamental supplies.
Indeed, an article in The Economist from November indiciates the extremely worrying humanitarian situation in the country; 23m Afghans out of a population of 38m face acute hunger, a number that has already increased by 3m since earlier this year and will undoubtedly be exacerbated by Taliban governance. This includes 3m malnourished children, with reports of 11 year olds weighing just 13kg. However, Afghanistan’s dire situation is not solely down to the Taliban. Afghanistan’s economy has not had firm foundations in a long time, with three-quarters of government spending under the Islamic Republic prior to 2021 coming from foreign aid. Half the country was already living on less than $1.90 per day before the takeover, and UN estimates that this will increase to 97% by the summer of next year are principally down to the denial of funds the Taliban government faces from abroad.
The previous government had access to such funds despite the extensive corruption that existed at its every level; from the New Kabul Bank scandal in 2010 to it being ranked the 165th worst country in the world for corruption out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index, the evidence was clear. It would be undesirable to try and reimpose such a notorious government on Afghanistan, and the Taliban are currently the only viable alternative. Issues such as the lack of pay for civil servants and the mass unemployment of former policemen and soldiers could be helped, if not solved, by some international assistance to the government.
However chaotic and poorly-governed Afghanistan may seem, international military intervention would do nothing to remedy the situation. The takeover has led to multiple changes in the country’s political situation with regards to regional and international relations. When the Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, the Islamic Emirate received limited recognition from a small minority of the world’s countries, notably neighbouring Pakistan who was the strongest diplomatic ally of the country until 9/11 and the fall of the first Taliban regime. Whilst as of yet the Emirate has not received official recognition from any other country, it appears likely that such a formality will soon be granted by old allies. Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan described the Taliban takeover as having “broken the shackles of slavery” for the Afghan people, whilst the Saudi embassy in Kabul reopened on November 30. The United States’ old enemies Russia and China have also shown favourable attitudes towards the new government, with the former removing the Taliban from its list of banned organisations in October and the latter hoping for “friendship and cooperation” with the new authorities. Regional power Iran is willing to tolerate the Taliban despite ideological differences and reported border clashes; in the words of a former Iranian diplomat, “Iran is worried that if it does not tolerate the Taliban's undiplomatic behaviour, Afghanistan will fall into the hands of Iran's enemies”.
There is little appetite for replacing the Taliban regime once again. Multiple regional and international powers stand in the way, and throughout the West citizens and politicians alike have grown tired of the drain on time, money and resources that Afghanistan has turned into. The understandable consensus is that it is better left to soft power institutions, such as the United Nations, negotiations and donor funds, to make change. It is potent to remember the reason the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the first place; to get rid of the threat of al-Qaeda. There are some indiciations that al-Qaeda has been growing again slightly since August and the Taliban are unlikely to follow through on their pledge to entirely separate from the group; however, this does not necessarily presuppose an immediate increased risk of international terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Further, there has been no intelligence of a spike in attacks being planned on the West from inside Afghanistan. Whatever the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan and however shocking its economic figures look, poor government has never been - including in 2001 - the reason for invading another country, and offers little legitimacy in the world of today.
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