Afghanistan’s internal contradictions have time and again got caught in the external power agenda, with its neighbours particularly playing a destabilising role. Shared ethnicities across borders have facilitated the neighbours’ game plan to use the ethnic card to their advantage in the ensuing proxy war. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan, since the 1970s, has witnessed ethno-tribal warfare. The country has also been subjected to external power interventions for decades, making it a theatre of a new Great Game. It has unfortunately been a laboratory for many experiments by the international community, few of which have been carried to fruition. External actors have implemented new strategies and have walked away from their failed experiments, leaving the Afghans to pick up the pieces. Thus in understanding the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, analysis of the role of external powers assumes critical importance.
During the two decades of international intervention in Afghanistan, following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, substantial gains had been made in the realms of girls, women, and minority rights, democracy and human rights. The economy of the country looked up, even though this was mostly achieved through international aid and assistance — making the gains essentially fragile. The nature of the international intervention, with its emphasis on high visibility quick impact projects, did not provide the long-term institution building required to stabilise the country. Instead, it created a crisis of legitimacy, both for the government and for the international community, because it failed to meet the basic needs of citizens (such as security, health, employment and justice) in the rural areas.
The Taliban took advantage of this crisis of legitimacy — with the insurgency finding popular support in the remote areas of the South and East, where the reach of the government was limited. The takeover of Kabul of August 15, 2021, therefore, was not a surprise development for long-term observers, particularly after the signing of the peace deal by the U.S. with the Taliban on February 29, 2020. The writing had been on the wall since then: the virtual absence of the Afghan government in the initial stages of the peace process had weakened it further, rendering it incapable of negotiating with the Taliban from a position of strength.
Following the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has been facing a dire economic and humanitarian crises. After pulling out, the US and the international community seem to have forgotten the Afghans again, with Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific attracting much attention. It is against this background that I attempt a critical examination of the role of the international community in Afghanistan in a range of sectors – security, democracy, and political accountability, and finally economic management and governance.
First, in the security sector, it is apparent that the United States did not have a concept of an ‘end-state’ in Afghanistan, even as it poured enormous resources into the country. Its project of stabilisation of Afghanistan was bereft of a concrete vision. It created a large Afghan National Army on conventional lines, but did not equip it to deal with the challenges of insurgency. Problems such as corruption, desertions, inadequate training and weapons plagued the ANDSF throughout its existence. Not surprisingly, the ANA and the ANDSF rapidly began to unravel after the signing of the Doha Accord, even before the fall of Kabul in August 2021. The negotiated withdrawal date gave the Taliban the upper hand and the terms of the peace agreement generated enormous confusion among the Afghan security establishment. To many ANDSF personnel, the terms appeared to mean that the state should not fight the Taliban in the interim. This, in turn, led to a crisis of legitimacy and morale, desertions, and finally collapse of the security sector.
Secondly, in relation to democracy and political structure, Afghanistan was not ready for the western notion of democracy promoted by the international community. Afghanistan had its own traditional institutions of democracy, which were bypassed in the zeal for imposing a modern democracy on the country. But the ‘democratic’ experiment precluded accountability or representation in the true sense of the term. This was apparent particularly with successive allegations of fraud — which marred the presidential elections of 2014 and 2019. As an election observer for one of the presidential elections, I witnessed rising popular discontent from 2014, when people began to express serious displeasure with the electoral results, which seemed to have overruled their choices. As a result, the legitimacy of the Afghan government, was questioned not just by the Taliban, but by people themselves. The deep polarization within the National Unity Government (NUG) paralyzed the government, impacting on its capacity to frame and enact laws in a timely manner. The signing of the peace deal with the Taliban by the U.S. further discredited the Afghan government, leading to a serious crisis of legitimacy.
Thirdly, Afghanistan’s economy and national commerce overtly relied on the international community’s aid and assistance. Far from moving towards a self-sufficient economy, internal revenue generation and exploitation of natural resources, the establishment of an aid-dependent economy created a generation of elites and a rentier state. The elites extracted benefits while in the country, channelled much of their earnings out of the country, and left the country in the weeks and months preceding the Taliban takeover. Lack of revenue generation, alternate means of livelihood, and other economic opportunities led many Afghans to restart poppy cultivation and/or join the insurgency. Likewise, despite the tremendous potential in the mineral sector, the absence of government initiative, the overall security situation, and the lack of regional cooperation and connectivity severely impeded the realisation of the national potential for development, revenue generation and employment. Projects like the Mes Aynak copper mines allotted to the Chinese company, the Metallurgical Corporation of China in 2007/2008, and the Hajigak iron mine contract won by the Indian consortium led by the Steel Authority of India in 2011, were never able to take off.
Another major gap was in the governance sector. I worked in Afghanistan’s local governance sector. Real devolution of power was lost in the bid to install a strong central government capable of answering all of the country’s woes. Certain provinces represented by powerful members of parliament were allocated a number of projects, whereas a vast number of other provinces were neglected. The opinions of the provincial councils hardly featured in development plan documents. Certain foreign governments started working directly with provincial administrations, but this raised objections from the central government in Kabul. Corruption, patronage networks and pilferage of funds were hallmarks of the entire governance system. It was quite obvious that not much could be done to improve governance under the prevaling system.
Other institutions were subjected to the same sort of experimentation by the international community; and these factors were compounded by the lack of economic opportunity. Most Afghans had very few economic opportunities, or lacked access to basic service delivery. Not surprisingly, many of them fell back on incomes derived from poppy cultivation. For them, it was not a conscious decision to be a part of the organised crime network that sustained the insurgency, but a matter of life and death. Little help came to them either from the international community or from the central government in Kabul.
Ever since the peace agreement between the Taliban and the US was signed in Doha, mostly to facilitate a honourable exit of the American and NATO troops from the war-torn country, the writing was on the wall. The Afghans had to come to terms with the Taliban, because the raging insurgency and the peace agreement had given them very little choice.
Taliban 2.0 sought to put forward a reformed and positive image of its model and mode of governance. They sought legitimacy and acceptance from the international community in order to get funding, and hoped to receive public recognition of the Islamic Emirate as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The victory of 15 August 2021, however, had come as a surprise to them. They were completely ignorant of the means to govern a country which had transformed in the last two decades. On issues like terrorism, connection with and support for regional and global terror formations, there has been no change between the Taliban government of the 1990s and the current one. The August 2022 killing of the al Qaeda Chief Ayman al Zawahiri proves this. A whole range of Islamist terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan now finds support from the Taliban. Poor economic governance resulting in poor economic growth will further increase radicalisation. The international community is relying on the UN and other aid agencies to provide assistance to address the humanitarian crises in Afghanistan. However, such emerging threats cannot be addressed by such quick-fix methods.
People in Afghanistan are incredibly poor and the economy is weak. This has in turn created huge problems and an economic blackhole. The Taliban have officially banned poppy cultivation after capturing power. However, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported, in November 2022, a 32 percent increase in opium cultivation since August 2022. Farmers' incomes from opium sales have tripled to $1.4 billion in 2022, from $425 million in 2021. The decades of hard work put in to reduce reliance on opium cultivation seems to have been reversed, amid sweeping poverty and unemployment.
And finally and even more importantly, the rights of women, girls and minorities remain a major area of concern. Persecution of minorities, denial of educational and employment rights to girls and women have been widely reported. Yet, the Taliban policy in this regard remains unchanged. In Afghanistan at the moment, the Taliban is specifically targeting and persecuting minority groups, and this has created deep fissures in Afghan society. Unless an inclusive and representative government is established, it is hard to imagine a change in this state of affairs. The recent history of the country has amplified pre-existing ethnic divisions and broken down the socio-economic fabric. There is an obvious need for the international community to find pressure points that will compel the Islamic Emirate to change its approach towards women, girls, and minorities. In the absence of a legitimate, inclusive and representative government, Afghanistan will be in a free fall to chaos, with larger implications not just for its own population, but also for the region and the world at large.