The United States of America (US) invaded Afghanistan soon after the destruction of the New York Twin Tower on September 11, 2001 (9/11) allegedly by a terrorist outfit Al Queda. Since the top leaders of Al Qaeda were given shelter by the government of Afghanistan run by Taliban, US invaded and occupied Afghanistan expressly to exact a revenge for the 9/11 incident. Thus the very outfit that US was instrumental in creating more than two decades before 9/11 with very generous funding in order to destabilise the Soviet Union (USSR) - a task that it had performed brilliantly - was deposed and forced to seek shelter in the mountains and countryside.
However, the Taliban were battle hardened by their decade-long fierce war with one of the mightiest military power of that era, the Soviet Union. They had also gained some experience of running a government. That very considerable expertise and experience were now brought to bear against the formidable destructive power of the US military as well as that of its allies.
Predictably the Taliban suffered enormously, but they never gave up. Eventually they gained the upper hand in this disproportionate war in which the minnows were fighting for their life and honour of their country while the other side did not quite know what they were fighting for.
Eventually US engaged the Taliban in lengthy negotiations to determine the terms of its evacuation quietly forgetting their sacred edict that 'US never negotiates with terrorists'. Not only did it negotiate safe evacuation, it also surrendered the government to the Taliban disregarding other claimants, in particular the existing US-installed Ghani government. A nightmare of the liberals, a fundamentalist Islamic party, took control of Afghanistan again.
The messy evacuation of the soldiers without achieving the objectives of the longest war in US history is widely regarded as a defeat of its military campaign. However, the end of the campaign does not necessarily imply the end of the war. US still has two other very destructive weapons in its arsenal which if deployed will impose massive damages on the victim, but very little harm to itself.
One of these is economic sanctions which prevent the victim from trading or engaging in any transactions with much of the rest of the world. US can wield this weapon mainly because its currency is the reserve currency of the world, which helps it to have substantial control over the world financial system. If anyone has doubts about the brutal efficiency of this weapon they only need look at the national income and trade data of Iran to be convinced. The other is its ability to foment dissent and incite insurgencies to effect regime changes. A large number of countries including Afghanistan have been the victims of US inspired uprisings and insurgencies.
Popular support for a war offensive is usually built up for US by its corporate media. It hypes up a public hysteria of patriotic fervour by demonising the chosen adversary. It is often dutifully followed by the media of friendly countries. They are now busy in presenting to the world a narrative that paints the Taliban as dangerous Muslim extremists sheltering and abetting terrorist groups such as Al Queda and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). An obvious conclusion from this narrative would be that the Taliban is a serious threat to world peace and hence has to be contained.
Since the military option has been already exhausted, the only other options available now are the economic and indirect war. US and its allies are withholding recognition of the new Afghan government formed by the Taliban and asking other countries to do the same. The US has frozen Afghan reserves worth about $10 billion such that these are now unavailable to the Afghan government at a time of dire need. International aid supply is restricted to a trickle. A food and economic crisis is quickly building up.
Efforts toward indirect war are already coming to light. President Putin has raised alarm that "terrorists" from Syria and Iraq are being relocated (apparently helilifted) to Afghanistan. Another insurgency may be in the offing. The Taliban needs to act very wisely and strategically if it is to avoid the same fate as before.
Surprisingly all the major neighbouring countries of Afghanistan except Pakistan have followed the Western lead to demand of the Taliban an 'inclusive' government and more rights for women as preconditions for recognition. It defies logic why such conditions should be imposed on the new government when many longstanding member states of UN do not meet at least some of these conditions. Ironically some of the regional countries are also not regarded inclusive by the West.
The new ultra-conservative muslim revolutionary government of a fractious country with meagre governance capacity and resources can be hardly expected to meet these conditions without destroying its own credibility and power base built over the last four decades. It will be instructive to recall the fate of the Afghan governments during 1970-90 which tried to impose very commendable modernisation programmes, including women issues, on the Afghans.
If most of the important countries do not recognise and establish normal relations with the Taliban government, Afghanistan could soon become a dysfunctional state encouraging armed insurgencies. A government in exile has been formed. ISIS has already struck with murderous brutality. It is suspected that US has helped to relocate terrorists to Afghanistan. A number of countries allege that CIA is organising ISIS for terrorist acts in Afghanistan. The Taliban have warned US not to 'destabilise' the regime during their first face-to-face talks since the evacuation.
These will not be sufficient to dislodge the Taliban at least in the near future since it is the dominant political party with no credible challenger. But such a situation would surely be a humanitarian disaster for the Afghan people who are still smarting from the wounds of the armed conflicts of the past decades. The resulting instability could lead to an exodus of the Afghans to the neighbouring countries posing economic and security challenges to them.
US regards three countries in this region, viz. Iran, China and Russia, as outright enemies (security threats) and the fourth, Pakistan, is euphemistically termed 'not a friend'. The creation of a dysfunctional state in Afghanistan could serve the purpose of exporting instability to these countries that would no doubt contain their full growth potentials. Pakistan is already a laggard country in the South Asian region and could descend further.
These countries now have a difficult task of balancing between pushing for a gradual and peaceful change through direct engagement with the Afghan government, and withholding of recognition for a strong commitment (and steps) to quick changes. The neighbouring countries of Pakistan, China and Iran as well as Russia, UAE and Turkey have apparently decided on an intermediate position of maintaining functional relationship without formal recognition thus retaining the stick to exert pressure on the Taliban. The West has decided to provide some humanitarian aid through UN. These ploys do not confer international legitimacy on the Afghan government that it urgently seeks and needs for reconstruction work.
As the economic crisis bites the Afghan government may become increasingly more desperate for money. Even though it is a very resource-rich country, not many of its resources can be easily converted into cash. One of the few resources that is easily cashable is opium. It is already the major supplier of opium in Asia, but if it has the capacity to produce more it would be tempted to do so. Much of its production will find way to the regional market and more distant markets raising crime and health issues.
The Taliban have never engaged in cross-border incursion; but if they are pushed to a corner they might resort to desperate acts. The Afghans have their ethnic brothers in all the neighbouring countries. It is very likely that they also have some disgruntled and wronged persons (such as Uyghurs and Chechens) from some of these countries in Afghanistan. They could be very valuable assets in stirring up insurgencies. This will not go unnoticed.
US must be licking its wound after the fiasco of evacuation. What if it is tempted to turn the table and revert to its very successful strategy of the 1980s? If it so decides, the target will most certainly be its adversaries in the region. The Taliban, if they are forced to take the bait, will again have an eager client with enormous funds and logistics, but the Afghan and the regional countries will bear the consequences.
These may be remote possibilities; but the main purpose of speculating on these is that if the Afghan government slips to a desperate state it could have unpredictable dangerous outcomes. Foreign policy is not always about political correctness; it is more about what is doable to secure the permanent interests of the country which requires judicious assessment of probabilities. The country puts its trust on the skill and wisdom of its policymakers to navigate toward the optimal goal.
The author is a Professor of Economics, Independent University Bangladesh.