Tom Clonan: The Taliban’s power grab was spectacular but they can’t govern at gunpoint

NATO’s war in Afghanistan is over. Over the last three weeks, the US and her allies – including Ireland – have evacuated over 120,000 people from Kabul International Airport.

On Tuesday night, Major General Chris Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division became the last US soldier to quit Afghan soil. The NATO-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has been replaced by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

What happens next? The west’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a seismic event, one that has profoundly altered the geometry of international power relations in Central Asia and throughout the Islamic world.

In the immediate term, Afghanistan is on the precipice of a humanitarian catastrophe. The primary challenge for the Taliban will be to govern 38.4 million people – made up of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara groups. Whilst their seizure of power was spectacular, the Taliban will not be able to govern at gunpoint.

The most pressing concern is feeding the population. According to UNICEF and the World Food Programme, approximately one million Afghan children under the age of five are suffering from malnutrition. A further two million have no access to clean water.

In a perfect storm, the combination of the conflict, unprecedented drought and the ravages of Covid-19 have plunged the country into crisis. International organisations such as the UN and the WHO have urged donor nations and contributing nations not to withdraw their funding or personnel at this key moment for Afghanistan.

Many challenges

With approximately 40% of Afghanistan’s income and sustenance coming from this type of foreign aid, the Taliban will come under pressure to allow international aid agencies and NGOs to continue their work.

The coming weeks and months will demonstrate the bona fides of the Taliban in this regard – whether or not they will allow westerners to continue their work unmolested – among the civilian population.

Due to a deterioration in the Covid-19 situation, many schools throughout Afghanistan are closed with approximately 19 million girls – and boys – unable to avail of education. The Taliban will come under a lot of international pressure to return the population to school and to address the chronic skills-shortage that undermines their capacity to run their own critical infrastructure and administration.

A key component of kick-starting international aid and support will be the re-opening of Kabul International Airport. The Taliban showed themselves unable to secure the airport which came under missile attack from Islamic State (Khorasan) last week.

The Turkish government – which previously provided troops to secure the airport, prior to NATO’s withdrawal – is in negotiations with the Taliban get the airport up and running again. This will be vital to the restoration of vital aid – essentially life-support – for the Afghan population.

Interestingly, the security of key installations within Kabul – such as the Presidential Palace and Kabul Airport itself – has been entrusted to the Taliban’s ‘elite’ Badri squads. These troops – often armed with US assault rifles and equipped with US military equipment such as night vision equipment (NVE) and Humvees – are controlled by the powerful Haqqani network.

Competing agendas

Approximately 15% of Taliban forces consist of fighters loyal to the Haqqani network. An extremist Islamist organisation – represented at the highest levels of leadership within the Taliban – the Haqqani network is aligned with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is also aligned with and supportive of Al Qaeda networks throughout the Sahel in Africa – groups such as Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and groups such as Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in Mali. The Haqqani network also has links with Islamist extremist groups in Burkino Faso and Chad.

The centrality and prominence of the Haqqani network – and their Al Qaeda affiliates – at the centre of Taliban command and control in Kabul provides the international defence and intelligence community cause for grave concern. In the medium term, as the Taliban – presumably – consolidate their power and control in Afghanistan, the west will seek reassurances that the country will not become an international safe haven and training base for Islamist extremists from all over Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

To this end, Afghanistan’s neighbours – the de-facto regional powers in Central Asia – Pakistan, China and Russia have carefully prepared for the Taliban’s inexorable return to power. Over the two decades that the US and NATO were fighting in Afghanistan, China and Russia have quietly nurtured an ‘Anti-Islamic Fundamentalism Alliance’ in the region.

The so-called ‘Shanghai Five’ nations of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to coordinate their regional interests along the border with and within Afghanistan. Both the Russians and Chinese have engaged in extensive negotiations with the Taliban – including two China-Taliban Summits in 2018 and 2019 – to ensure that they do not export Islamist extremism and Islamist terror attacks into China or Russia or its satellite states.

In return for this cooperation, under China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) Xi Jinping’s administration has promised massive investment and infrastructural development in Afghanistan as part of the Chinese China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Trans-Himalayan Connectivity Network (THCN).

The United States Trump Administration sought similar assurances from the Taliban – that they would not facilitate the exportation of Islamist terror attacks to western targets – in the 2020 Doha Agreement. In exchange for this reassurance, the US agreed to withdrawal after their longest – and in financial terms, costliest – war in American history.

Failed foreign policy

In geopolitical terms, the first two decades of the 21st Century have amply demonstrated that international relations are not best conducted through crude and massive force projection – pre-emptive strikes or invasions. This strategy has failed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. Despite spending Trillions of Dollars – and losing thousands of young lives – the US and her allies have not achieved their political objectives in the Middle East or Central Asia. Instead, competing powers such as Russia and China have benefitted through the use of ethically dubious, canny diplomacy, judicious – but brutal – use of force and soft power in the form of dialogue and investment.

The immediate, short and long term ramifications of the end of NATO’s war in Afghanistan are profound. It remains to be seen how the Taliban will govern the civilian population – particularly women and girls. The omens are not good based on recent Taliban statements on the primacy of their version of Sharia Law. Their capacity to meet basic human needs, and willingness to respect basic human rights are in doubt.

In the medium term, it remains to be seen if Afghanistan will become a centre for international terrorism – with a resurgent Al Qaeda at the heart of Taliban power structures.

In the long term, the global world order appears to have shifted somewhat. NATO’s first war outside of Europe has ended in failure. The first two decades of the 21st century have seen the US and Europe – through debacles such as failed invasions and phenomena such as Brexit and the Trump Administration – lose a significant amount of political, diplomatic and moral capital.

The coming decades – with greater regional instability and the challenges of climate change – will require a great deal of creative thinking if we are to continue to prosper, or even survive the challenges that lie ahead. As Ireland assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council – we should ensure that our independent, neutral voice contributes to the re-assertion of common sense, humanity and decency in international affairs.

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