On Aug 1, a United States drone strike in Kabul killed Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was the biggest blow to the militants since Osama bin Laden was shot dead more than a decade ago, and put Afghanistan once more in the spotlight.
However, there are also other reasons for the world’s attention to be on Afghanistan this month. Aug 15 will mark one year since the Taliban swept back to power. For 20 years, the country had been under Western-backed rule.
With images of planes and helicopters evacuating foreigners, and people fleeing Kabul last year still vivid in memory, the country has been in the media glare mostly for wrong reasons. How has Afghanistan fared amid the turmoil since?
Afghanistan is in deep economic crisis. While the Islamist militant group seized power a year ago, foreign governments do not recognise it. This diplomatic isolation of the Taliban has multiple knock-on effects.
With direct foreign aid suspended, a major source of support for the economy was taken away. International humanitarian aid of nearly US$1.88 billion (S$2.57 billion) has not been distributed since August last year. The World Food Programme finds it difficult to get donors and the World Bank has suspended US$600 million investment in Afghan schools.
A survey conducted by the World Bank over October-December last year showed 70 per cent of Afghan households had insufficient income to meet basic food and non-food needs.
The stoppage of international aid (previously equal to 45 per cent of gross domestic product) has led to fiscal contraction and collapsing demand in addition to severe disruptions to basic services such as healthcare and education.
The loss of hard-currency aid inflows, a cut-off of access to the overseas assets of the central bank and banking curbs related to anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing regulations have also disrupted remittance payments and made it extremely difficult for firms to pay for imports or receive payment for exports.
The import constraints are driving prices upwards. Last December, food price inflation was up by nearly 18 per cent and is expected to worsen because of the impact of the war in Ukraine on global grain supplies.
PLIGHT OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN
According to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report, two-thirds of Afghan girls did not attend school, which were functioning under dismal infrastructure conditions.
The Taliban’s return to power was to the further detriment of Afghan women and girls, with new barriers to education, healthcare access, freedom of movement, expression and association. Women have been banned from most government employment or had their salaries slashed. Families that had women as sole income earners were particularly hard hit. According to the Save the Children aid organisation, more than 13 million children need immediate humanitarian assistance.
RISING SECURITY THREATS
With the Taliban’s return last year, its repressive actions against officials from the former government and ethnic minority groups such as the Hazaras have fostered anti-Taliban movements such as the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.
There is also the threat posed by its rival, Islamic State-Khorasan. Its ranks have risen since the Taliban’s return to power. Targets of its recent attacks have included a Sufi shrine and Shi’ite mosques in several cities. Meanwhile, the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement that China blames for terror attacks in Xinjiang is reportedly rebuilding its presence in Afghanistan.
The killing of Zawahiri in Kabul has brought into sharp focus the presence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s promise to the US in 2020 that they would not harbour its members. It also bodes ill for Afghanistan’s future. Strained ties between the Taliban and the West will make it harder for the country to secure more cash and other help to avert an economic catastrophe.
Last month, Pakistan and China stressed the need for stability in Afghanistan as Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari met his counterpart in the Taliban administration on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Tashkent.
China and Pakistan recently raised the possibility of extending China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan. While both countries are not averse to Taliban rule in Kabul, both share security concerns about their common neighbour. In China’s case, it wants a stable government in Afghanistan to avoid cross-border overflow of terrorism and to protect its investments.
Meanwhile, India, which has kept to an anti-Taliban stance for decades, sought in June to reboot relations. Some of the existing tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban may be a reason why India is seeking to engage with the Taliban.
ISOLATION IS NOT THE ANSWER
The hasty exit of the US abandoned millions of Afghan women and youth to the mercy of Taliban. The cut-off of aid is hurting ordinary Afghans more than the Taliban. Although some nations may be engaging with the Taliban, their interests are driven more by their own economic and strategic interests.
While the US has yet to recognise the Taliban government, it was part of the international conference on Afghanistan last month in Tashkent. There they held meetings with the Taliban on issues such as girls’ education, human rights abuses and Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves frozen in the US and Europe.
More engagement is needed. Sanctions and unstructured political engagement by the West are unhelpful – it deepens the crisis in Afghanistan and jeopardises peace and stability in the region. Apart from humanitarian concerns, cutting off Afghanistan risks driving the country into the embrace of its enemies – China and Russia.
The growing polarisation, both regional and global, in the wake of the Ukraine war has shown that in geopolitics, there is no permanent friend or enemy. Unless the West learns from the recent lessons from Asia and Middle East, where it has been scrambling to find support against Russia as well as in raising oil production, isolating Afghanistan risks ceding influence in a strategically important region – South Asia. It houses one-fourth of the world’s population and two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.
A weak and unstable Afghanistan, no matter who rules the country, may come to haunt the international community as it did when the US-led West turned its back on the country after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989, leading to the rise of Al-Qaeda.
Professor Syed Munir Khasru is chairman of the international think-tank, IPAG Asia Pacific, Australia, with also a presence in Dhaka, Delhi, Vienna and Dubai.