Nearly twenty years after the US-allied invasion of Afghanistan, the South Asia-Central Asia region is facing a new reality. The West has exited the scene (at least on the ground), leaving the East tense, trying to make sense of what is to come. Thankfully, Afghans seem to have avoided a civil war, but there are apprehensions about the Taliban’s commitment to human rights, especially for women and girls.
With the US forces completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Taliban are soon expected to announce the make-up of their government. Their near-complete victory is a dilemma when it comes to involving hitherto adversaries in a national government. The hard part is yet to come: to govern in a way that it satisfies Western donors’ expectations about safeguarding basic rights and avoiding violence.
While it is obvious that Afghanistan needs aid money to run a government, it is unclear how much flexibility the Taliban will show to go beyond the optics and really meet the pre-conditions that come with foreign assistance. Their last power trip beginning 1996 essentially entailed ruling a hermit kingdom. The world has changed in the past quarter century, and the Taliban’s assessed need for global legitimacy and diplomatic recognitions may drive a different behavior this time around. Let’s wait and see.
Here in Pakistan, thus far the expectations at the strategic level have seemed to oscillate between hopes and fears, between an aura of confidence and a sense of dread. After watching their country diplomatically suffer for years on account of alleged links with the Taliban, Pakistani citizens will be right to expect that the homeland should reap the security dividends now that a new (preferred) regime is there in Afghanistan. There should be peace & quiet on the borders, mainland and economic installations, in order for Pakistan to boost investor confidence, grow its economy and raise living standards.
While security-related gains can potentially accrue in the short term if the Taliban played ball, reaping an economic harvest may take considerably longer. The capacity of Pakistani firms to contribute in Afghanistan’s post-war infrastructure development rests on the new government’s ability to first ensure security across the country and then take investor-friendly measures to attract capital from regional/global consortiums for mega projects in sectors like energy, mining, connectivity, and farming.
Depending on which side of political spectrum one is on, there are great expectations in the US as well. DC was thousands of miles away from the scenes of Taliban takeover, but shockwaves have rattled old Biden’s young presidency. While the US President remains a figure of defiance, his Republican rivals are holding him to a higher standard on national security than they did former President Trump. Opponents will seek to turn Biden presidency into a wobbled enterprise if there is more mayhem in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Biden seems like a president who doesn’t have a re-election to worry about in 2024. Maybe he has already decided to follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt a century before. Biden has framed the US withdrawal around a shift in strategy to free up American resources for “great power competition” with China and Russia. During the evacuation crisis, he kept selling limited expectations, around preserving American lives by putting to end major military operations to reform faraway lands.
At the formal end of war earlier this week, Biden gave a confident speech, underlining his approach to foreign policy. He rightly extolled US diplomats, troops, veterans and volunteers who bravely took part in the 17-day mass-airlift – a “mission of mercy,” as he put it – that got out about 120,000 individuals. Now the mission set for Afghanistan is to mainly target ISIS-K, which killed more than a dozen American troops last week. A common enemy is emerging in that country, and even regional powers, including Russia and China, have incentives to work together to counter it. This may provide basis for further cooperation.