AFTER the Biden administration announced its intention to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan while continuing to assist Ashraf Ghani’s government, there was a veritable hailstorm of articles in the US, Europe and South Asia, with Japan and Southeast Asia contributing their mite, questioning the withdrawal. However, they conceded for the most part that this was necessary to implement the agreement the Trump administration had reached with the Afghan Taliban in February 2020. There was criticism of the fact that the Afghan government had not been consulted and yet was required, as part of the US-Taliban agreement, to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Many reports asserted that those released included not only the Taliban but also adherents of Al Qaeda and, most significantly, of the Islamic State group’s Khorasan chapter.
This reportage was, however, dwarfed by what followed the unexpected collapse of Ghani’s government and the horrific scenes at Kabul airport. There was an avalanche of reports, with everybody and his uncle, many with little knowledge of Afghanistan beyond such clichés such as the ‘graveyard of empires’ and ‘fiercely independent Afghans’, coming down heavily on the intel and military failures that reminded furious observers of the ignominious departure of American helicopters from Saigon in 1975. President Joe Biden and his team tried to put the best possible construct on this, reminding a sceptical audience that this was the largest airlift operation since the airlift to Berlin in 1951 and that much hard work by all branches of the US administration and the unstinted cooperation of allies around the world had gone into making this possible.
What conclusions can one draw from a perusal of the more than 350 articles?
In Pakistan, much was made of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s failure to include Pakistan on the list of countries thanked for their efforts. Belatedly, a briefing note attributed to the State Department spokesperson listed Pakistan as among the countries that facilitated the evacuation from Afghanistan. This was apparently a reference to the PIA flights to Kabul and the sensitive personnel — IMF, World Bank, Italian diplomats etc. — who were brought to Islamabad.
More of this sort of assistance to the international community is likely to follow but that will not stop the effort to scapegoat Pakistan despite some discerning commentators pointing out that Pakistan’s own security would be jeopardised if the Taliban could not exercise full control over Afghanistan and curb the excesses of their more rustic adherents, and that Pakistan had repeatedly warned successive US administrations through the now famous three (or was it four[TQ1] ?) … Kayani notes that it was following the wrong policy in Afghanistan and that Pakistan would be hedging its bets. On a personal note, I was a participant in some of the many internal discussions Gen Ashfaq Kayani held and contributed to the substance and framing of these notes
So, what other conclusions can one draw from a perusal of the more than 350 articles from all over that one has downloaded?
First Biden may be right in saying nobody expected the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to collapse so quickly but he is held responsible for the chaos. According to an ABC-Washington Post poll, he now has a negative rating with 44 per cent saying they approve of how he is handling his job while 51pc disapprove. In late June, the numbers were almost reversed, with 50pc supporting and 42pc disapproving. It is likely, though not necessarily certain, that those democratic congressmen who depend on presidential support may find it difficult to win re-election in 2022 despite the fact that it was a Republican president that laid the foundation for the debacle.
Biden is partly satisfying his critics by saying it will be a long time before he recognises the Taliban but he has at the same time taken the sensible step of issuing a licence whereby NGOs seeking to assist the Afghan people will not be subject to sanctions. Quite rightly he does not want the Afghan people to suffer even while not directly assisting the Taliban. Former assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher’s remark bears repetition “You can’t win when you’re fighting people for their own villages and their own territory. Those were lessons we thought we learned in Vietnam. And yet, 30 or 40 years later, we end up in Afghanistan repeating the same mistakes.”
Second, facts, not speculation about the grim economic situation. Afghanistan ranks as one of the most at-risk, fragile economies in the world. Poverty is endemic, as is underdevelopment, because of long-term, high-intensity conflict says the World Bank; 90pc of Afghanistan’s population lived on less than $2 a day and Kabul which received $4.2 billion in 2019 will receive none this year unless US purse strings are loosened or at least the bar on giving a Taliban government access to Afghan monies under US control is lifted. Prior to the current unrest, some3.5 million people were already forcibly displaced within the country’s borders. Recent estimates suggest that another 550,000 have been displaced since the start of 2021, 80pc of them women and children.
The UN representative in Afghanistan has made the most sensible suggestion about what needs to be done. First, he asked for the quick replenishment of food stocks which would be possible if his appeal for $1.3bn was fully met instead of being stuck at $400m received so far. His assessment is that on women’s rights the picture is mixed with the Taliban yielding ground where there is local resistance. Reportedly, Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, head of the UN Humanitarian Office in Afghanistan, has a slogan #StayAndDeliver. The UN had around 300 international staff and more than 3,000 national staff working in the country. UN national staff and their dependants, total some 16,000. It would make sense for the Taliban to be persuaded by the regional countries to let the UN and its valiant secretary general, with tons of Afghan experience in his previous stints in Afghanistan, be responsible for the procurement and disbursal of economic assistance.
Later perhaps one can pen another article on what Pakistan’s own pragmatic position should be while recognising the pitfalls. Meanwhile, one can say that the announcement of the ‘caretaker’ government by the Taliban on Sept 7 does not alter what I believe to be the best way of resolving the economic crisis in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2021