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The Financial Express

Afghanistan's Taliban's first year of being back in power


Afghanistan's Taliban's first year of being back in power

The world, helped by the electronic and print media, has watched how Taliban fighters have celebrated on August 15, 2022 in front of the US Embassy in Kabul-- one year since they seized the Afghan capital, Kabul. This led to analysts referring to an interview given by Afghanistan's former President Hamid Karzai (2002-2014). He was asked to assess the Taliban's first year back in power and he delivered a fair summary. He observed that the Taliban had brought an "end to widespread fighting and conflict", but the Afghan people cannot "find themselves" in the government and the "economic situation is disastrous".

Professor Sultan Barakat has interestingly observed that the Taliban's first year back in power has been one of crisis, but they have also moved forward in certain areas. Many Western analysts have however indicated that Afghanistan's first year back under Taliban rule has been marked principally by three main events- (a) the chaotic evacuation of Western nationals from Kabul airport; (b)  the decree by the Taliban leaders to stop girls' secondary education; and (c) the drone killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri- in clear violation of Afghanistan's sovereignty in a Kabul safe house allegedly owned by the Haqqani network and the Taliban's interim Minister of Interior.

In this context many are referring to the 2020 Doha Agreement - which paved the way for the withdrawal of US-led foreign forces. In this regard, some have suggested that the recent dynamic has placed the Taliban's guarantees (that it will not allow transnational armed groups to operate on Afghan soil) in an awkward situation. Consequently, many observers have concluded that the assassination, which exposed enduring ties between al-Qaeda and the new Afghan leadership, might lead to a collapse of trust between the United States, the UK and the Taliban.

The complexity pertaining to the violation of the Doha Agreement might have led the Taliban to refrain from threats and actions that might have led to greater difficulties for them and the sustainability of their government. Such a course of action might have emerged from both parties keen to protect their alignment on the question of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a failed state that could provide a haven to "terror" organisations such as the ISIL and a base for the distribution of narcotics to the rest of the world.

One has to understand that over the past year Afghanistan has experienced a severe economic downturn, largely due to the ongoing efforts by the Western alliance trying to prevent the Taliban from further consolidating power through the use of economic pressure. Professor Barakat has observed that billions of US dollars that were used to finance the war effort and to support a wide range of developmental projects, including funding a thriving civil society in the past two decades, have suddenly dried up, causing a sharp rise in unemployment, particularly in the public sector.  Simultaneously, the country has been isolated from the international financial system which has crippled local banking. The US has also frozen almost US dollar 9 billion in Afghan foreign exchange reserves held abroad and started to float the possibility of using some of that money to compensate the families of 9/11 victims.

As a result of all this, for most Afghans, it appears that their first year under the Taliban's rule has been defined by increased levels of poverty, unemployment (more than one million people have lost their jobs), brain drain, uncertainty and loss of confidence in the future.

Analysts in this regard have pointed out that Afghanistan might have been able to avoid a serious threat of famine last winter. Thanks to the Taliban's willingness to cooperate with the international community - which provided the Afghan people with US dollar 1 billion in humanitarian aid - the country still came to the brink of poverty soon after the change of government, with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warning that as much as 97 percent of the Afghan population might sink into poverty before the end of 2022.

Incomes have dropped harshly since the Taliban takeover. This scenario led the World Bank to observe in April this year that about 37 per cent of Afghan households did not have enough money to cover food while 33 per cent could afford food but nothing more, including medicines. Moreover, given Afghanistan's dependency on imported food and skyrocketing global food prices due to the instability over Ukraine, a deadly famine is on the cards for Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, there are also some other aspects on the other side of the coin. Socio-economists have been following them very carefully.

The foremost among them has been regarding the security situation in Afghanistan. This has slightly improved since August, 2021. After the departure of the NATO forces, the Taliban officially ended their armed struggle, declared a general amnesty for all political and military opposition and announced a nationwide decommissioning of weapons. As a result, civilians in many parts of that country have started to feel slightly safer and this has enhanced mobility as well as transport connectivity across the country.

Strategists have also observed that there has been another positive connotation because the country is presently under the control of a single authority-- for the first time in more than three decades. Another constructive development has been the efforts by the Taliban to curb the influence of local warlords who have been acting above the law and terrorising small communities. Kabul and other cities have apparently also been cleared of the concrete barrier walls that had made certain parts off-limits for citizens and caused huge traffic jams. Body searches at the entrances to public buildings have also been downgraded. These measures, in general, have been increasing the confidence of Afghans.

Unfortunately, such a situation has not been created by the Taliban authorities in the case of huge segments of the Afghan population, namely women and members of the Hazara minority who continue to find themselves at the receiving end of ISIL attacks. This, indeed, is very sad. 

Analysts have also drawn attention to another aspect. They have pointed out that at the regional level, except for some tensions with Pakistan, the Taliban have managed to maintain good relationships with all of Afghanistan's other neighbours. 

Pakistan, a long-term Taliban ally which was one of only three governments to recognise the Taliban government in the 1990s, has also had major problems with post-occupation Afghanistan. Taliban rule has emboldened Pakistan Taliban, known by the acronym TTP, in its attacks against Islamabad, which has been responded to by Pakistan carrying out cross-border air attacks.

 Moscow and Beijing seem to be following a wait-and-see approach to the Taliban government for now. But if the Taliban rulers can convince Moscow and Beijing of their commitment to fighting ISIS and denying ETIM a haven in Afghanistan, these capitals could help the Taliban circumvent Western sanctions. It would also help Chinese companies to access the war-torn country's prized rare-earth mineral reserves-- copper, lithium, iron ore, and other natural resources. As China, Russia, and Iran are increasingly becoming cooperative in their efforts to challenge US hegemony, these powers might view the Taliban as a partner in their mission to expand influence in greater Central Asia.

There has been another interesting development. The Taliban government, according to some financial analysts, appears to have managed to look after Afghanistan's public sector institutions and infrastructure, including its security apparatus-- better than expected. Most public institutions have maintained their employees and continued to provide a reasonable level of services. This has included the activities of the central bank. Under the Taliban, the bank's acting governor has been given a degree of independence and permitted to work closely with national and international advisers to protect Afghanistan's currency. As a result, the local currency has recovered some of its value against many international and regional currencies and newly printed bank notes have also been brought from Poland to circulate in the local market. The Taliban government, according to security analysts, also appears to have managed to recruit not only almost 100,000 young men within the Afghan national army but also nearly 180,000 in the national police force over the past year. Many of those recruited were former Taliban fighters but that did not apply for everyone.

Within one year, to the surprise of many financial analysts, the Taliban having lost international budget support have been apparently capable to put forward a national budget dependent only on national income. They have also been able to increase state revenue to the unprecedented level of $100 million per month despite the economic difficulties facing the country and the low tax base that this has resulted in.

However, some of these constructive achievements are being overshadowed by the Taliban's negative social and regressive gender based role. Shruti Menon of the BBC has pointed out that the previous Taliban regime, in the 1990s, severely curtailed women's freedom, and since the takeover of power by the Taliban last year, a series of restrictions have been re-imposed on women. Regulations on clothing and laws forbidding access to public areas without a male guardian have been enforced. In March, schools reopened for a new academic year, but the Taliban reversed an earlier promise and girls are currently not permitted to attend secondary school. This has provoked widespread international criticism. Primary school education for girls has however been permitted.

Their access to education has been restricted apparently to please a minority view within the Administration. This, combined with the crackdown on liberties, including press freedom, cultural expression and political activism has resulted in a large number of Afghans feeling detached from the Taliban government. Continuation of such counterproductive sensitive social policies is also not allowing Afghanistan to emerge out of international isolation and criticism. This last aspect has made the Taliban government's yearly one year report card far from perfect.

 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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