August 15th 2021 marks the end of the 20-year American era in Afghanistan, as the Taliban seized the capital Kabul. In little more than a week, Taliban fighters overran more than a dozen provincial capitals. Thanks to a series of negotiated surrenders by government forces, they entered Kabul with no resistance. This triggered the departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, resulting in the collapse of his government.
The Taliban first arose in 1994 in the turmoil and unrest of the civil war that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union forces from Afghanistan in 1989. With their promise to prioritise Islamic values and extirpate corruption, the Taliban quickly took over most of the country. In 1996 the Taliban declared an Islamic Emirate and ruled under a harsh interpretation of the Sharia, imposing brutal punishments such as amputations and mass executions. They also curtailed women’s freedoms, keeping them out of jobs and schools.
At the moment, the Taliban control more of Afghanistan than in 2001, when America stepped in to remove them from power in response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington (see Figure 1). Since 9/11, the U.S. has led efforts to democratise the country as part of its many objectives. In 2004 a new constitution was adopted, and Hamid Karzai was declared the first-ever democratically elected head of state in Afghanistan. Early successes include the opening of new schools and hospitals, as well as the emergence of independent news media. Women, primarily confined to their households previously by the Taliban, finally had the chance to go to school and college. Many joined the workforce and served in Parliament and government.
Unfortunately, the government proved unable to meet the most basic needs of its citizens. Corruption soared, with hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction money stolen or misappropriated. Despite the presence of American and NATO troops and air forces, the Taliban rebuilt their fighting capabilities, forcing negotiated surrenders and seizing roadways and weapons. As the fragility of the Afghan government heightened, it paved the way for a rapid takeover by the Taliban. Within just nine days, 15 major provincial capitals collapsed.
So far, there is no international recognition of the Taliban. Western countries face a dilemma. On the one hand, the West does not wish to support the Taliban government financially. Yet on the other, some governments are open to recognise the new rulers if they meet certain conditions around terrorism and human rights.
The European Union has indicated that its political and financial support for Afghanistan will be contingent upon compliance with fundamental principles, including safeguarding democratic and human rights values. However, Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan and supporter of the group, has already welcomed the Taliban’s victory. Similarly, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that the international community should encourage Afghanistan and that China shall not interfere with the country’s internal affairs. In exchange, China seeks support from Taliban officials on China’s policies on ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
A United Nations report revealed that around 10,000 jihadi fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang region in western China poured into Afghanistan in the months before the US withdrawal. Many now worry that Al Qaeda and other radical groups will find safe haven in Afghanistan again. As supporters of the global jihadist movement celebrate the victory, some fear that the country will become a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism. The devastating power of these terrorist groups to inflict mass causalities was demonstrated on August 26 with the deadly explosions outside Afghanistan’s main airport claimed by the Islamic State. These attacks highlight the challenge ahead for the Taliban’s promise of delivering security and stability to the country, as well as convincing the world that they will deter terrorism.
What are the economic and social implications for Afghans?
As one of the world’s poorest countries, many argue the Taliban takeover will exacerbate the multiple existing crises in Afghanistan. Currently, around 90% of Afghanistan’s population lives on less than 2$ a day. According to the U.N., the country is now undergoing a devastating drought, which has left half of all Afghan children malnourished. The effects of the drought, together with the high poverty rates and a broken healthcare system due to Covid-19, will make it almost impossible for the Taliban to maintain infrastructure and economic growth.
Afghanistan’s healthcare system has long been underfunded and understaffed, with many rural districts lacking essential healthcare services. The terrible Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled the healthcare crisis further, disproportionally harming people with disabilities, as well as women and girls, who already face discrimination and restricted access to adequate healthcare and social services.
On top of this, according to the World Bank, about 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP is composed of international aid, making it a largely aid-dependent economy. Since the Taliban gained control of Kabul, Western nations, including the U.S. and Germany, have suspended foreign aid to the country. In a similar manner, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have also halted payments. What is most worrying is that if Western aid is cut off, Afghans stand to lose even the most minor economic and social gains, such as girl’s access to education.
A wake-up call for Europe
The failed Afghanistan mission confronts many Europeans with the question of whether military interventions make any sense at all. Many now wonder what was achieved by the years of training the Afghan armed forces, deploying European soldiers, and investing vast amounts of money. UN reports indicate that over 50,000 civilian casualties have been recorded since 2009. But the human cost of the 20-year war is unimaginable, as the fighting and suffering displaced millions of people struggling to find safety.
After the United States decided to end its presence in the country, all Europe could do was watch helplessly, as Afghanistan rapidly fell into the hands of the Taliban. Altogether, the E.U. spends about as much on defence as Russia and China. Yet it lacks the surveillance and military capabilities to sustain combat operations abroad without the help of the U.S. Standing up for European interests and achieving strategic autonomy is not about Europe diverging from the U.S. Rather, it is about Europe being able to act when the U.S. is uninterested in doing so. Given the migration and terrorism challenges that loom over Europe, a stable Middle East is an absolute imperative for policymakers. Essentially, Europeans will have to come to a decision on how to proceed without the same degree of U.S. leadership. So far, European discussions have focused on offering E.U. support for countries neighbouring Afghanistan.
The long view for Afghanistan
When the Taliban last ruled in Kabul, from 1996 to 2001, they established a theocratic tyranny that cut off female education and crushed minorities. So far, officials have promised an open, inclusive Islamic government. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, says that media outlets can remain open as long as they align with Islamic values.
This leaves the country with little hope. Recent actions indicate that the ideological core of the movement has not changed much. Earlier this month, the Taliban announced an all-male interim government without a single member of Afghanistan’s minorities, contrary to their earlier pledges on inclusivity. In Herat, where around 60% of students at the university are women, female students have been ordered to get back to their homes. Similarly, women at work in the northern city of Kunduz have been told to abandon their jobs and never return. The barbarity of these actions further undermines the Taliban’s legitimacy and the multitude of empty promises made by their leaders.
The question remains, how will the Taliban govern from now on? Will they return to the gruesome rule that dominated Afghanistan in the late 90s? Or will they keep their promise of an open-minded and pacifist ruling of the proclaimed caliphate? Only time will tell.