On 30 August 2021, the war in Afghanistan ended. America had managed to evacuate 123,000 civilians from Kabul, including 6,000 Americans. The twenty-year war had a high cost; 2,461 US soldiers and civilians were killed. On 26 August 2021 a terrorist bombing killed 13 soldiers in Kabul. On 31 August 2021 President Biden declared the close of an era in which the US employed military power “to remake other countries.”1 He stated:
Costs to the United States would have been even higher if he had allowed the nation to remain mired for years in a civil war that has dragged on for decades. …the only alternative to the departure he oversaw was another escalation of the war.1
Biden indicated that the US would now focus on its rivalry with Russia and China.1 Meanwhile, thousands of people who were eligible to be evacuated have been left behind. The UN Security Council passed a resolution on 30 August 2021 asking the Taliban to let people leave.
Earlier in July, Biden had assured the public that it was “highly unlikely” that Taliban would control Afghanistan. However, on 15 August the Taliban did take over control. Their victory has diminished President Biden’s reputation. Notwithstanding the botched exit, Biden was only acting wisely as most Americans wanted the war to end.
So far, no government has recognized the Emirate. A de facto recognition of the Emirate by the EU and NATO has already happened but not de jure because of tough conditions. This is a mistake as a minimalist approach is required. Perceptions matter in the conduct of international relations. The US and NATO have been defeated and disgraced. Most importantly, it is pertinent to remember that Western notions of human rights are not universal and there are many who have different understandings of how best to organize societies. The US is no more the global hegemon and there is nothing exceptional about it. The world has changed, and America has lost its standing. Therefore, undue pressure on the Taliban can backfire as they will go into defiance mode.
The Taliban will stick to their legacy, no matter what the US and NATO desire. However, some flexibility must be shown on the recognition issue by the Taliban too. Afghanistan has also changed in the last twenty years. The Taliban need to take into consideration that things are very different now than in 1996 when they first took control of Afghanistan. They need to exhibit minimum actions to be recognized by the world community. These actions are: General amnesty for all, including people who worked for the US and NATO forces, and some minimum women’s rights like the right to work and education. The Taliban have indicated that they will do so. The world will be watching now. Some concessions to the global community will be forthcoming soon as the Taliban show greater pragmatism.
Today, Afghanistan has a shaky economy. Out of Afghanistan's $9 billion dollars in gold and foreign currency reserves, some $7 billion dollars are held in America. The US had swiftly blocked the Taliban from accessing them and the assets remain frozen.
Before 15 August 2021, grants to Afghanistan totaled around $8.5 billion dollars per year, some 43% of GDP. They funded 75% of public expenditure. The Taliban leaders are already subject to US and UN sanctions that effectively ban their access to the US financial system. Afghanistan also depends heavily on remittances, with such payments from migrant workers abroad accounting for about 4% of GDP. Meanwhile, Western Union (the world's largest money transfer firm) and Moneygram have both banned such services, ending the flow of funds that many Afghans count on. Reopening these services requires an easing of US financial sanctions.
If recognition is withheld, the Emirate may collapse, which will have a spillover effect on the region and destabilize it. For this reason alone, it is advisable that the Emirate be recognized. Afghanistan’s bankruptcy is in no one’s national interest. Therefore, pragmatic action is required now for the Taliban to be given a chance to establish their Emirate. Much depends on Biden’s promise to chart a new global reset of American power.
The key to securing Afghanistan is for the US to mend its strained relations with Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, the trust deficit between the two countries is remarkably high. However, these countries are most likely to cooperate at a certain level to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan as Pakistan has gained the most from developments in Afghanistan. Also, its rival, India, has lost out considerably because it wrongly supported Ghani’s corrupt and ineffective government, and vehemently opposed the Taliban.
Afghanistan has made the US much more reliant on Pakistan than ever before. The Biden administration has now praised Pakistan’s efforts in their special assistance toward evacuation operations. Lindsey Graham, a powerful US senator, said on 28 August that any “sustainable solution in Afghanistan must include Pakistan.” He appreciated Pakistan’s assistance with the Kabul evacuation. Earlier, Graham had expressed surprise at Biden’s decision not to include Pakistan in regards to the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Recently, the Pakistan foreign minister said that Pakistan wanted to forge closer linkages with America. There is now a convergence of national interest in making sure that Afghanistan remains peaceful, secure and stable. Therefore, both countries will cooperate to ensure that it happens.
The path forward
Remember, the US partnered with the Taliban to end the war. The Biden administration should not sabotage the new working relationship with the Taliban. Most importantly, the Jihadist mindset of the ISIS-K cannot be easily reformed. Given the powerful Jihadist legacy and radical Islamic ideology, this shall remain a big challenge for the entire region. Most troubling is the ISIS-K’s caliphate project which stretches beyond West Asia. The Taliban were never a global jihadist entity, not even a regional one. They are an Afghan phenomenon. The Taliban are no angels although they are considerably moderate now. The US and NATO must now establish a regional comprehensive security arrangement for Afghanistan. They must also recognize the Emirate soon, just as China, Turkey, Russia, Qatar and Pakistan will. Only regional cooperation can bring much needed stability to Afghanistan. Germany has announced humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and the US will follow.
Meanwhile, Biden’s opponents are vehemently blasting him. On 29 August, Senator Graham condemned Biden, saying:
For the next 20 years, American presidents will be dealing with this catastrophe in Afghanistan… Biden should be impeached for dereliction of duty.
Such unwarranted attacks portray the politics of a divided America in which partisan politics is a permanent affair, largely because of the continuous cycle of elections. A bipartisan commission must now be formed, like the 9/11 commission, to ascertain the mistakes of the Afghan war. Arguably, the whole Afghan war project was a colossal mistake. Certainly, Biden was right in partnering with the Taliban to end the war without an extreme loss of lives and overall the strategy was successful. A rethink of America’s West Asia policy must now happen: recognize the Iranian Republic and return to the nuclear deal.
1 Michael D. Shear and Jim Tankersley, Biden Defends Afghan Pullout and Declares an End to Nation-Building, New York Times, 31 August 2021 Biden Defends Afghan Withdrawal.