After a chaotic, bloody and pathetic withdrawal of American troops, diplomats and American nationals in August, the Biden administration is faced with a dilemma on how to deal the with the Taliban administration. Though officially declared troops withdrawal date has passed by, an unknown number of Afghan-Americans remained stranded in Afghanistan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, assured that the evacuation has not come to an end and reiterated that efforts would continue until all American nationals willing to leave Afghanistan are evacuated. There are thousands of Afghans who had worked with the American troops as translators, informers, guide and auxiliary staff and were promised of special visas to settle in the United States have been left behind. They are reportedly hiding with friends and relatives for fear of their lives. Contrary to the assurances of Taliban leadership, armed Talibans are in search of them. They are still counting on Blinken's assurance, but it is unclear how would they get a safe exit.
The collapse of the civilian government in Kabul caught President Biden and his government by surprise. The administration was forecasting that it would take months for the Taliban to seize Kabul and that would provide sufficient space for the American troops and Kabul government to evacuate foreign troops and civilian nationals out of Afghanistan. But the prediction proved utterly wrong. Even Taliban leadership could not believe that the Afghan army would disintegrate in days and they would march to the capital without firing a shot in the air. Biden hurriedly dispatched 6,000 troops to protect Kabul airport to ensure safe passage of American troops, diplomats and nationals. The deployment at the final hour spelled disaster; 13 US marines and 170 Afghans fell prey to explosion at the entrance of Karzai airport on August 26.
Biden, humiliated at home and severely denounced abroad for orchestrating a chaotic evacuation programme, resolved to avenge the deadly attack at the airport. In attempting to demonstrate a firm and resolute stand, he ordered drone strikes on suspected IS-K positions killing two militants. But a recent report dismissed the official claim and revealed that a civilian family of seven members including children were the victims of the drone attacks. Biden also blocked Afghanistan's central bank from accessing $7 billion in reserves held in the United States and halted the release of $460 million loan approved by the International Monetary Fund. NATO and Germany have put on hold their allocated financial aid. The European Union has kept all economic assistance to Afghanistan under suspension.
In the meantime, the Taliban attempted to consolidate its position in the country. The rebels in Punjsher vowed to resist the Taliban occupation but after a week-long battle, the Taliban occupied the valley. The rebels, mostly from the tribe of late leader Ahmed Shah Masood, retreated to north-eastern Afghanistan. They would not sustain in the absence of external support.
Taliban has announced an interim government with Mohammad Hassan Akhund as acting prime minister. Abdul Ghani Baradar, the chief negotiator with the American envoy in Doha, was named as deputy prime minister. Mohammad Yaqub, son of late Molla Omar became the defence minister. Sirajuddin Haqqani, a member of the Haqqani group, has been made interior minister, overseeing the police, intelligence services and other security forces. He is also in charge of combating terrorism. Haqqani is on FBI's most wanted list in connection with a 2008 attack in Kabul that killed six people including an American citizen. Khalil Haqqani is the minister in charge of refugees. Hamid Karzai, former president and Abdullah former second in command of Kabul government had no luck in the cabinet. Their followers were also not given any portfolio. A coalition government as stipulated at the Doha agreement did not seem to have been reflected in the formation of the new government. None of the ministers have any experience of working with a civilian government and are hardly known abroad. Several members of the new cabinet were previously detained at Guantanamo Bay and released in exchange for US soldier Bowe Bergdahl in 2014. They have excelled in conducting insurgency in the past two decades. In the cabinet, at least 14 of the 33 members are on UN sanctions list. No woman has been included in the cabinet. A spokesman of Taliban clarified that women would be welcome to continue in the Ministry of Education and in the Ministry of Health. Their role would be defined in accordance with the sharia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Germany that the interim government "does not meet the test of inclusivity, and it includes people who have very challenging track records." Lloyd Austin, the US Defence Secretary said in Washington, "The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaeda has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan. We put the Taliban on notice that we expect them to not allow that to happen." German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on September 8 that "the announcement of a transitional government without the participation of other groups and recent violence against demonstrators and journalists in Kabul are not signs that give cause for optimism." Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi welcomed Taliban statement related to government formation and international cooperation, particularly on terrorism. He announced that China will send $31 million worth of aid, including covid-19 vaccines to Afghanistan. Taliban welcomes China's aid package and said, "China is our most important partner, and represents a fundamental and extraordinary opportunity for us."
Despite remarkable human resource development and transformation of major cities with improved water supply, functioning sewerage system and electrification, more than 50 per cent of the population suffer from abject poverty. About 18 million people are regular recipient of humanitarian assistance. The donors led by the United States have been providing 75 per cent of government expenditure amounting to 43 per cent of country's GDP.
The stalemate resulting from freezing of foreign assistance will have catastrophic consequences. It is estimated that nearly 97 per cent of the population would descend to severe poverty in near future. Millions of people will be forced to migrate to neighbouring countries triggering another behemoth refugee crisis.
Martin Griffiths, the UN Undersecretary general met the Taliban leader Baradar last week. Griffiths underlined "the need to work together for a reason, because we need to deliver humanitarian assistance that the people of Afghanistan urgently needs. I set out to Taliban very clearly what humanitarian agencies around the world, in every country, need to operate." Baradar seemed to have broadly agreed to Griffiths but added that the rights of the people in Afghanistan were subject to the culture and religion of Afghanistan.
Peter Maurer, the head of the International Committee of Red Cross visited Kabul last week and met with senior Taliban leaders. He urged the leaders to ensure "neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian" actions that are prerequisite for international agencies to effectively operate.
The United Nations held donors meeting in Geneva on Monday and secured $1 billion to arrange humanitarian assistance. UNICEF warned that about a million children would suffer from acute malnutrition in Afghanistan and run the risk of death in the coming months. The Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for urgent actions to avert an impending humanitarian crisis.
Russia has called on the United States to unfreeze Afghanistan's cash reserves and not to block World Bank/IMF assistance. The Taliban delegation was warmly received in Moscow last month. Foreign Minister Sergio Lavrov has welcomed the Taliban government but has not accorded diplomatic recognition. Friendly rapprochement from Beijing and Moscow is no substitute to US-led donors' assistance.
Appearing before the Congress Foreign Relations Committee on September 13, Antony Blinken confirmed that the United States and its allies were engaged in negotiations with Taliban in the past three weeks in order to ensure safe exit of hundreds of foreign nationals from Afghanistan. He informed a number of chartered flights operated from Kabul with foreign nationals and Taliban did facilitate the safe exit.
The United States has no alternative but to work with Taliban to protect its interest. That became clear from the moment Kabul fell to Taliban. Washington immediately opened a liaison channel with Abdul Ghani Baradar which helped the evacuation of 124,000 people. Taliban badly needs America's recognition and economic assistance to keep the government functioning. The United States has the history of mending relationship with some of its former enemies as evident from its magnanimous role in rebuilding Germany, stabilising Japan and advancing trade and commerce with Vietnam. Shutting down the liaison channel with Taliban would bring miseries to the people of Afghanistan and the United States would dispossess itself of the prospect of exerting influence over Taliban on terrorism, human rights and women empowerment.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.