The past 20 years of conflict have achieved nothing apart from bloodshed and pain, and now the foes the West invaded to depose are about to get back into power. Afghanistan needs an economic solution, not a military one.
To nobody’s surprise, the rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan has resulted in a massive advance of the Taliban, who have overrun hundreds of districts in a matter of weeks and are continuing to gain territory, seizing countryside areas and surrounding the major cities.
The end of the stagnant and seemingly useless conflict is, of course, welcomed. The momentum of the group, despite their militant ideology, has always been fundamentally buoyed by the foremost desire to drive the foreign invaders away in a country that has spent most of the past 40 years in a state of ruin and despair.
While Joe Biden stated recently that he wishes for Afghanistan to “decide its own future,” arguably there is little decision to be made, because whether anyone likes it or not, the outcome is seemingly inevitable. The Taliban are taking over again, by force, and will be in control even if peace talks succeed, as an inseparable part of this country’s future.
In this case, what can and should be done about Afghanistan? Will the world accept a new Taliban-led “Islamic emirate”? Some might be spooked by the legacy of 20 years ago, whereby the state was accused of harbouring Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and enabling 9/11. Yet attempts to try and stifle this group have been utterly fruitless and have taken a heavy toll in terms of human life on all sides.
Any progress on the future of this country must ultimately confront and acknowledge the reality that there’s no getting rid of the Taliban, and if 20 years of NATO intervention cannot quash them, then nothing will. The invested regional parties, including China, Russia, India and Pakistan, must be prepared to create a series of strategies and contingencies for this scenario. History may not repeat itself, but, of course, it will be a political, ideological and strategic gamechanger for Central and South Asia.
Who are the Taliban? What do they want? They’re a group that most of the world considers extremist and dangerous; we know them as militants and fantasists, and they have a bad record when it comes to the treatment of women, but are they really unhinged Islamists hell-bent on a violent and destructive world conquest in the same way as ISIS? Not quite. The Taliban are dogmatic and fearsome, yet rational, with narrow and specific objectives. Their ideology is underpinned by a religious nationalism which seeks to utilise Islamism as a unifying force in a country which is strongly beset by immense tribal and ethnic divisions, a problem many post-colonial states face, some more so than others.
The Taliban’s seemingly dogmatic and aggressive outlook is something that has been exacerbated by the constant hand of foreign forces undermining their country, which has robbed it of stability and legitimacy. They have targeted NATO troops and diplomats, yet they are not irrationally hell-bent on killing every foreigner. I have heard stories from those who went touring Afghanistan in a non-military or political capacity, and wore local clothes for their own safety. I was told that Taliban members were actually friendly to those who were willing to embrace their country in a non-hostile way. The US, of course, has long viewed the country in a zero-sum dimension; the Bin Laden legacy has otherwise left a belief in Washington that the Taliban are obsessed with exporting terrorism to the whole world. Not quite: they just want their country back.
And whether we like it or not, they seem destined to “get it back” – so what is the answer? The strategy for managing a new Taliban Afghanistan ought to be economics-based, not military. It’s about giving a country a chance to move forwards from endless war and destruction, something that three or so generations in that country have experienced. This is where China might be able to play a role. While the Pakistani Taliban and Baluchistan Islamists have opposed Beijing, a Taliban government in Kabul may be more than willing to facilitate relations in the pragmatic reality that their country desperately needs economic help, and they will now be a status quo power as opposed to an insurgent one. They need development, desperately.
In line with this, a post-US Afghanistan would fit well into China’s Belt and Road Initiative, not just because it needs infrastructure, but for the fact that the country is a crucial gateway between South, West, Central and East Asia. As a landlocked state, its prosperity hinges on the ability to build roads and railways through it, which the past 20 years has made completely impossible. It has the potential to be a hub of trade and commerce. Beijing can facilitate this, but so can others too, including Russia, India, and likewise the countries in the Middle East who were warm towards a Taliban Afghanistan previously, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Prosperity may ultimately be the key to creating stability in the country.
If the Taliban become economically satisfied, they don’t need to induce violence and nor would they need to pursue the opium trade either. A lot of the country’s problems have sprung from the simple reality that the Western-propped regime in Kabul is corrupt and lacks stability. Unlike it, the Taliban has real legitimacy, which is why, unlike ISIS, the US simply couldn’t bomb it out of existence. As long as Afghanistan continues to be an impoverished and broken country besieged by war, they will never go away.
There needs to be a new roadmap for how to deal with the Taliban, one that doesn’t involve war. The Americans, for all their time there, were completely incapable of understanding the country’s intense social and economic realities, peddling a nonsense that it was nothing more than democracy versus terrorism.
Afghanistan’s woes have long empowered Islamism as a harsh yet unifying force. Trying to oppose this is a non-starter and that’s why the past 20 years achieved nothing. Now, it is time to recognise that and work with it, be it on an economic or security level. Biden’s comments are meaningless because he is out of the game. It’s time to relegate the failed US experiment in Afghanistan to the ash heap of history and see what others can come up with.