In a column for Marianne published on September 18, 2021, Alain Boinet takes stock of the future challenges that the new situation in Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul on August 15 implies, both domestically and geopolitically.
While informed observers expected a final Taliban victory after the American and NATO withdrawal, no one seemed to have anticipated the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government, army and police. There are lessons to be learned for the future.
If the American military intervention under a UN mandate was fully justified and necessary after the destruction of the World Trade Center, several mistakes with serious consequences were made. First of all, it was a mistake to believe that the Taliban had been definitively defeated. Second, not inviting them to the Bonn Conference on December 5, 2001, when all Afghan factions were participating except them. Let us remember that the objective was to put an end to the conflict and to promote reconciliation.
Then, that of having imposed a Western model on a country that is not, forgetting its fierce tradition of independence, its reputation as the “graveyard of empires” and thus taking the risk that the Taliban would become the patriots fighting against the foreign occupation. Gérard Araud, former French ambassador to the United States, made this observation in Le Point: “The Taliban are undoubtedly closer to the mores, beliefs and practices of the majority of the country than the Kabul elites. The question now is what relationship to have with this country of 38 million people with the Taliban in power.
Six challenges for Afghanistan
Afghanistan presents us with six major challenges, both for Afghans and for ourselves: humanitarian aid, human rights, migration, terrorism, drugs and geopolitics.
The humanitarian challenge. Since the time of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, humanitarian aid has never stopped despite the vicissitudes. It is never negotiable when it comes to saving lives. Today, one in three Afghans is hungry, a million children are at risk of severe malnutrition, medicines are in short supply, salaries are no longer paid, public and community services are collapsing and the country is as good as closed. The UN has just sounded the alarm to mobilize aid.
The migration challenge. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that it fears the departure of 500,000 Afghans this year in a “worst case scenario”. It is therefore necessary to act quickly, as winter is approaching and a humanitarian and economic collapse would throw many Afghans onto the roads of forced exile.
“Only the Taliban will have the power to ban opium.”
The drug challenge. Afghan poppy production, from which opium and then heroin are derived, is estimated to account for 84% of opiate drugs sold worldwide, particularly in Europe. By 2020, opium production will reach 6,300 tons. Drugs are a serious threat to public health and the spread of corruption. Bernard Frahi, former UN drug control director in Afghanistan and Pakistan, calls for “renewed dialogue” to achieve a “total ban on opium cultivation”. This will require offering effective and profitable alternative crops to Afghan farmers. But only the Taliban will have the power to ban opium!
The geopolitical challenge. After the Western withdrawal, who will take over? While no army will venture into Afghanistan from now on, there is plenty of room for cooperation. Even before the American retreat, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban’s number two, Mullah Baradar, while castigating the United States. Qatar is now the antechamber for the new masters of Kabul. Pakistan, a staunch supporter of the Taliban, intends to take advantage of this. Turkey has announced its intention to cooperate, while Iran and Russia are taking a pragmatic position. The world has changed since 2001! For the Western countries, the question is whether they will give way to these countries and thus lose all influence in this region.
The challenge of terrorism. Afghanistan is currently home to fighters from Al-Qaeda and Daech, known as the Islamic State in Khorassan (EIK). While the Taliban have pledged to the Americans and Chinese that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for terrorist attacks against them, the challenge now is to prove it. Especially since this does not include the countries of the European Union, including France, which have not yet obtained any assurance.
“Either seek to isolate the Taliban, even punish them, or engage in a difficult and demanding dialogue.”
However, the Aug. 26 Daech attack at Kabul airport that killed more than 300 people can be seen as a declaration of war against the Taliban. But Afghanistan is big with its valleys and mountains and terrorists can easily move across the Pakistani border! The mistake not to make would be to push the Taliban into the arms of the jihadists.
The human rights challenge. This will be the stumbling block. What about ethnic minorities, government and representative bodies, education, the status of women in education and employment, the media? UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in recent days, “If we want to advance human rights for the Afghan people, the best way is to move forward with humanitarian assistance, to engage with the Taliban and to take advantage of that humanitarian assistance to push for the implementation of those rights.”
Basically, there are two main choices. Either seek to isolate the Taliban, even punish them, or engage in a difficult and demanding dialogue based on the six challenges we face together. Is this really the end of the war? Can the Afghans gradually move toward peace? The path is narrow, but it is being decided now. It will certainly not be easy after twenty years of war and division.
It also depends on the Taliban’s policy towards their opponents, towards women and towards Western countries. They must prove themselves, especially since Afghanistan is experiencing a dramatic humanitarian situation. Let’s also be realistic, everyone has now understood that the Taliban are resistant and that we will not go back to the previous situation! Discussions are underway in Doha with former President Hamid Karzai and former Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Even Ahmad Massoud, the son of the famous commander Massoud, is ready to negotiate, but not to surrender.
Lakhdar Brahimi, former Algerian foreign minister and former UN special representative for Afghanistan, said recently: “Peace was possible with the Taliban, but we would have had to talk to them.