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Taliban Back in Power. Now What?

Sep 21, 2023
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

August marked the second anniversary of the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power. Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Afghanistan has ceased to be the center of attention of Western media, but the Afghan people and their suffering should not be forgotten by the international community.

What has the Taliban brought to Afghanistan during these two years? Where will Afghanistan go in the future? The international community is far from forming a consensus on any definite answers to these questions.

Politically, despite the many accusations made by Western media and politicians against the Taliban, no one can deny the fact that Afghan politics are more stable than at any time since 2001. On one hand, the Taliban can survive without external support; on the other, there is no political opposition in Afghanistan that can match its influence. More important, the Taliban’s reputation for political probity and efficiency is far beyond the reach of the previous regime. While there are growing disagreements within the Taliban regime, it remains to be seen whether these divisions will lead to a real split in the short term.

The Taliban’s restrictions on women’s employment and access to education have thrown the international community for a loop. Not only is this at odds with what the outside world expects from the Taliban, it is also detrimental to its own economic recovery and a big blow to its international image. However, this is no excuse for the Western world to refuse humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.

It is important to understand that such a situation is not unique in the Islamic world. The status of women in Afghanistan is closely related to the overall social structure, stage of development, religious traditions, history and culture. So the international community needs to be patient and helpful in this regard. Any condescending accusations or pressure will not help. In the face of the enormous humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, high-handed excuses ring hollow and are even immoral.

Economically, there is no doubt that Afghanistan is currently facing a severe humanitarian crisis. Not only is its economy in ruins, but there is a serious shortage of food and supplies. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently released a report saying that Afghanistan’s wheat production may increase in 2023, but the wheat deficit will still be 30 to 35 percent. Also this year, the United Nations World Food Programme has cut food aid for tens of millions of Afghans for budgetary reasons.

The current economic difficulties faced by Afghanistan arise for several reasons. First is the impact of severe natural disasters. It is known to all that Afghanistan is a typical agricultural economy, and three consecutive years of drought have resulted in repeated poor harvests. Afghanistan is experiencing a domestic famine.

Second is the sudden massive reduction of foreign aid, from which nearly 80 percent of the government's budget was derived until 2021. These funds have now been frozen or suspended, exacerbating the financial and economic difficulties faced by the Taliban authorities. Once again, the Taliban are endeavoring to carry out an economic transformation — on one hand eradicating the drug economy and on the other shifting the economic structure from a development model that is highly dependent on foreign aid to a model of self-reliance. This is obviously not something that can be accomplished overnight.

Finally, there are the limitations of the Taliban themselves, many of whom have extensive experience on the battlefield but are unfamiliar with economic development and management. To make matters worse, because of years of war, lack of infrastructure, Western sanctions and other factors, Afghanistan has difficulty attracting foreign investment. It is thus inappropriate to attribute the current economic difficulties faced by Afghanistan entirely to the Taliban. It is also unrealistic to expect Afghanistan to complete its economic transformation quickly.

In terms of security, it is true that some groups of transnational jihadists still exist in Afghanistan, but they have changed so much from the pre-9/11 period that it is inaccurate to continue to describe Afghanistan as a “incubator” or “haven” for international terrorists. After the Taliban came to power, transnational terrorist organizations in Afghanistan rapidly evolved into three types. The first chose to integrate into the Taliban regime — the Haqqani Network, for example. It is now part of the Taliban regime and is subject to its rule and authority.

The second group has opted for alliances with the Taliban, such as Al-Qaeda and TTP. The Taliban continue to host them within its borders, explicitly or implicitly. Therefore, they can move more freely within Afghanistan than before 2021.

The third group, which continues to challenge the Taliban’s rule by engaging in terrorist activities within Afghanistan — and also being strongly suppressed — is mainly the notorious Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K). Many observers believe that, while IS-K continues to pose a challenge to the Taliban’s governance, Afghanistan is experiencing its safest period since 2001. Even so, the Taliban’s ambiguous position on the second category of terrorist organizations has not only exacerbated conflict with neighbors, especially Pakistan, but also aroused the suspicions and uneasiness of an increasing number of other countries.

In the field of diplomacy, no country in the world has so far been willing to publicly recognize the Taliban regime. In this sense, the Taliban have not made a fundamental breakthrough in foreign affairs. However, the channels of contact and communication between the Taliban and the rest of the world have never been interrupted, including the United States, which had been their rival on the battlefield. Even the U.S. has been communicating with the Taliban through various channels. The Afghan Taliban has not been completely isolated, which also shows that the international community has some degree of goodwill.

At present, there are some big differences between Western countries about how to deal with the Afghan Taliban. The biggest obstacle arises mainly from political factors — the Western World cannot quickly recognize and accept an adversary with which it had been at war for two decades. As P. Michael McKinley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2014 to 2016, put it: “Any move to soften Washington’s line against the Taliban might produce a political backlash at home, especially in the runup to the presidential election in 2024.”

In a word, the Taliban has brought tremendous changes to Afghanistan, but it has not completed the transformation or achieved the nirvana that some people expected.

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