KABUL, Afghanistan — Reminiscent of their previous harsh rule in the 1990s, the Taliban have already begun to wipe out some of Afghanistan’s gains of 20 years. They’ve denied women a seat at the Cabinet, beaten journalists into silence and enforced their severe interpretation of Islam, on occasion violently.
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And yet there seems little the international community can do about it.
The world will need to engage with the Taliban to some extent, despite disappointment with the new all-Taliban Cabinet that defied earlier promises it would be inclusive.
The U.S. needs Taliban cooperation to evacuate the remaining Americans and to fight an increasingly brazen Islamic State affiliate, considered the greatest terrorist threat against America emanating from Afghanistan. In recent weeks, the IS flag has been seen flying from several districts of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
Meanwhile, a humanitarian disaster that threatens millions of Afghans has the world scrambling to respond. On most days, Qatar is flying in food and medical supplies. Pakistan has announced it is sending planeloads of aid to Afghanistan.
The United Nations has launched a $606 million emergency appeal to help nearly 11 million people in Afghanistan, or nearly one-third of the population. They are deemed to be in desperate need as a result of drought, displacement, chronic poverty and a sharp increase in hostilities as the Taliban swept to power last month.
Even before the Taliban takeover, nearly half the population needed some humanitarian aid and more than half of all children under the age of 5 were expected to face acute malnutrition, according to the U.N. report that accompanied the emergency appeal.
The economic challenges are steep. Most Afghans live on less than $2 a day, 80% of the country’s budget was covered by international funds over the past 20 years, and no industries of note have emerged to provide employment to a mostly young population. Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled, most of them members of the educated elite.
Yet despite such dependence on international support, the Taliban sent a message with their Cabinet lineup this week that they intend to run Afghanistan on their terms. They named a government filled with veterans of their 1990s rule and the subsequent insurgency against a U.S.-led military coalition. Their Cabinet includes former Guantanamo Bay prisoners and — perhaps one of the most eyebrow-raising appointments — Sirajuddin Haqqani, wanted by the FBI for questioning in several deadly attacks, as interior minister.
They also forbade protests without prior authorization in a new attempt to silence dissent and reportedly banned some women’s sports.
The Taliban would seem to want it both ways — to run Afghanistan according to their harsh interpretation of Islam, while maintaining some level of cooperation with the international community.
In portraying their Cabinet as a caretaker administration, the Taliban signaled there is still room for change and that other nations can do business with this government without recognizing it first.
In a three-page policy statement that accompanied the formation of the government, the Taliban also addressed concerns of the region and the larger world. They promised Afghanistan would not be used as a staging arena for attacks on other countries. They said they would not interfere in the affairs of other nations and demanded the same in return. And they pledged to allow Afghans to leave the country, provided they have the proper travel documents.
“I imagine the use of the term “caretaker” is very strategic,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the U.S.-based Wilson Center. “The idea is to create an impression that at some point the government will change and become more inclusive, and therefore more amenable to the West.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, directing his words at the Taliban, warned Wednesday that “any legitimacy, any support will have to be earned.” He spoke after hosting a virtual meeting of ministers from 22 countries as well as NATO and the European Union.
It’s unlikely, however, that the Taliban’s top leadership will change anytime soon. Its tens of thousands of fighters will have to be brought under a single Afghan National Security Force banner, even integrating some of the previous military personnel into the mix. But that won’t happen without the likes of Haqqani, the new interior minister, or the Taliban founder’s son Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the defense minister.
In time, economic necessity might prompt the Taliban to loosen their grip and allow women and non-Taliban into the administration, but likely in secondary roles. For women, this might mean work in the traditional fields of health and education.
The Taliban “need to open the door and trust non-Taliban in governance. They need to bring technocrats ASAP to get the economy going,” said Torek Farhadi, an adviser to previous Afghan governments.
The Taliban face a number of challenges to their rule.
Prolonged economic stagnation could lead to protests by the country’s growing poor who might eventually decide they have little to lose by openly challenging the hard-line rulers. Afghans of 2021 are not the compliant population of 1996 — a time when the Taliban had little trouble imposing their uncompromising edicts.
There are also debates and differences within the movement and no one among the Taliban has absolute authority, unlike in the past, under the late founder Mullah Mohammad Omar who had the final word.
The West and Afghanistan’s regional neighbors hope to use money and recognition as leverage to influence the Taliban.
Wednesday’s ministerial meeting signaled that the U.S. and Europe will be watching the Taliban closely.
Kugelman, from the Wilson Center, said others, such as Pakistan, China and Russia, might eventually set a lower bar for formal recognition of a new Afghan government. China has already promised to stay engaged and mine Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources while helping rebuild the war-ravaged nation. Still, Kugelman said, the Taliban badly need access to billions of dollars in foreign reserves that the West has denied them.
“The announcement of its very non-inclusive Cabinet will put those funds further out of reach,” he said.
SEPTEMBER 9, 2021
Gannon has covered Afghanistan for The Associated Press since 1988. She is the AP’s news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/kathygannon.
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