Opinion: Time to rethink Afghanistan



Big powers are busy with other conflicts in West Asia and Europe and it’s here that India can play a crucial role

Published Date – 1 April 2024, 11:59 PM

Opinion: Time to rethink Afghanistan

Afghanistan is mineral-rich country and by connecting energy-rich Central and West Asia to South Asia, both Afghanistan and Pakistan will benefit

By Dhananjay Tripathi

When the United States of America exited Afghanistan in August 2021, it was a long war of 20 years that came to an end. Every war has its cost, both material and human. For example, America invested almost $2.3 trillion during its military involvement in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that in this war, nearly 2,400 US military and 70,000 Afghan military and police personnel lost their lives. Though there is no concrete data, the civilian casualties are high — estimated between 1 lakh and 1.5 lakh people, including Taliban fighters. Needless to say, it is a traumatic experience for ordinary Afghans who remain unsettled for almost four decades.

The return of the Taliban ended the conflict, but there are several issues, mainly related to women’s rights, that are unresolved. The unfortunate part is that after the exit, the US and its Western allies are not focused enough on Afghanistan. There is still confusion on how to deal with the Taliban. Is the world going to officially recognise it, and when? Let us deal with some of these questions.

Return of History

In 1989, the Soviets, after fighting for 10 years in Afghanistan, retreated but left the country in complete disarray. The US, after fulfilling its objective of defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan, turned its back and returned only in 2001 after it was attacked by Al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden was based in Afghanistan. Armed re-entry of the US in Afghanistan was termed as part of a decisive war on terrorism. However, soon the US entered into another war in a different region by invading Iraq in March 2003 on the pretext of Saddam Hussein possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

The Taliban, which was under pressure, fled and took refuge in Pakistan and started regrouping after 2003 as the US had to divert attention from Afghanistan. Now, documents and papers reveal how the Pentagon and the White House remained indecisive on Afghanistan, lacked a coordinated policy and kept changing the goalposts. Ultimately, just like the Soviets, the US had to leave Afghanistan in 2021 after formally negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. The same Taliban that was chased out of Kabul by the US was brought back through a deal.

Taliban 2.0

The sudden departure of the US from Afghanistan surprised many. Today, Afghanistan has a government, but there are several doubts about governance. The Taliban, during the peace process, assured the international community that it would not allow Afghan land to be used for terrorism. Unlike the earlier Taliban that was facing stiff resistance in Afghanistan, this time, there is no organised opposition. Moreover, unofficially, the Taliban has a wider international reach and is hopeful of formal recognition by the international community.

While these are new things about the Taliban, we have not witnessed any real reform on several fronts. The most important is women’s rights, and here, the Taliban is unwilling to relent. This year again girls over the age of 12 were kept out of schools. As per the Taliban’s education policy, girls beyond sixth grade are not permitted to continue their learning in a school. While one can be critical of the US’ Afghan policy, during the tenure of the US-supported government of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, Afghan women enjoyed fundamental rights. Today, there are around 1 million Afghan girls who are out of school.

Taliban’s defence of the present ban on girls’ education is based on its interpretation of Sharia. The Taliban also claim that their position on girl’s education is in the context of Afghan culture, which is undoubtedly a debatable proposition. Faced with international criticism, the Taliban often argue they are preparing an appropriate Islamic curriculum for girls. Even if one takes this reason of the Taliban, it fails to convince how long it will take to prepare a curriculum.

Experts believe that the Taliban as an organisation consist of leaders and cadres who are trained in a very conservative orthodox ideology. Therefore, it is difficult for the top leadership of the Taliban to radically change their politics. However, they don’t want to completely close themselves to the outside world. In brief, let us not expect sudden alterations in the Taliban’s worldview. Nevertheless, it is pertinent that one keeps raising these concerns regarding the rule of the Taliban.

Future of Afghanistan

Afghanistan, for the last many decades, remained politically volatile and violent. It has affected the people and only added to lawlessness. Long internal conflict, the near absence of good governance and the presence of several unwarranted non-state actors only added to the troubles of common Afghans. Now, with the Taliban in Kabul, things can go in the right direction, provided the international community remains concentrated on the country. Afghanistan has economic potential, but it requires external assistance for growth. According to the World Bank data, Afghanistan received aid of $6.75 billion in 2011, which reduced to $4.66 billion in 2021, the year the US decided to end its intervention in this country. There was a concern that post-2021, the aid may shrink further.

In 2021, more than two-thirds of the Afghan population desperately needed international assistance. Even today, the ground realities have not changed much, and some 23 million people cannot lead a proper life without some kind of support. In one of its studies, the Centre for Disaster Philanthropy underlined that between “November 2023 and March 2024, around 15.8 million people are projected to experience high levels of food insecurity” in Afghanistan. Fortunately, international aid agencies have not abandoned Afghanistan and provided $6.9 billion in humanitarian aid from August 2021 to September 2023. This generosity of the aid agencies checked the rising inflation in the country and provided some economic cushion.

External backing is necessary, but Afghanistan has to develop its own industrial base for long-term economic sustainability. It is a mineral-rich country, and geographically connects South to Central and West Asia. According to a report published in Reuters, the country has natural resources worth $3 trillion. To highlight a few, Afghanistan has copper reserves of around 30 million tonnes and some 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore that can be used for steelmaking. It is relevant to note that by connecting energy-rich Central and West Asia to South Asia, both Afghanistan and Pakistan will benefit.

What can be Done?

Once again, Afghanistan is at a crossroads and requires aid and political engagement. The international community cannot afford to isolate the Taliban. It is time to think about giving official recognition to its regime. There are diplomatic tribulations because, at the official level, one is dealing with the Taliban, but when it comes to ordinary Afghans, they cannot travel easily to another country. It is difficult for an Afghan to obtain a Visa. At present, big powers of the world are busy with other conflicts such as in West Asia and Europe, and may not prioritise Afghanistan. Here, India has a role. Let us hope that after the general election, the new government will take some diplomatic initiatives on Afghanistan.


(The author is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi)



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