London/Washington/Moscow: After al-Qaeda attacked the twin towers in New York 20 years ago, the U.S., Europe, China, Russia and even Iran rallied around a rare common cause: To topple a Taliban regime in Kabul that had made Afghanistan a base for international terrorism.
Now that unlikely group of geopolitical rivals find their interests aligned once more, only this time to see those same Taliban leaders restore order in a nation of 38 million whose economic collapse could trigger destabilizing humanitarian and refugee crises.
In the weeks since Kabul fell to Taliban fighters on Aug. 16, world leaders one after another have called for international cooperation even as they jockey to gain influence in the great power vacuum that the U.S. departure has left behind.
That’s in large part because they face a common dilemma: How to shore up a nation at risk of famine, without strengthening a Taliban government that includes designated terrorists and whose intentions – from the treatment of foreign citizens and women, to its support for al-Qaeda – remain unclear or worse, unpalatable.
French President Emmanuel Macron said his country would do “everything we can to help Russia, the United States and Europe to cooperate effectively, because we share the same interests” in deterring irregular migration and terrorism.
France, together with Germany, is now proposing an European Union-led platform for some of Afghanistan’s neighbors to coordinate a response, according to a document seen by Bloomberg last week. The plan suggests inviting international organizations, as well as countries such as the U.S., Norway and Turkey to help finance the effort, and to give “special thought’’ to including China and Russia.
“The key priorities are to prevent a humanitarian crisis & to take steps to prevent economic meltdown,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi wrote on Twitter last week, after meeting counterparts from China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. That, he added, “requires enhanced engagement of the international community.”
The U.S. and other nations have leverage they can use to try to press the Taliban to share power, sideline terrorists, permit the education of women and forgo revenge against those who worked and fought alongside the U.S. and its allies. That includes the potential withholding diplomatic recognition, as well as economic sanctions.
Yet if those tools are used, they could starve the country of the funds and humanitarian support needed to stave off collapse. Foreign aid accounted for 43% of the Afghan economy in 2020, according to the World Bank. The country remains among the world’s poorest, with gross domestic product per capita of just $509 in the same year.
“The conundrum this leaves the world with is how to first deal with the humanitarian crisis that is looming,’’ says Adnan Mazarei, a consultant to the United Nations Development Program in Afghanistan, who oversaw the International Monetary Fund’s work there from 2009 to 2015.
The Taliban’s recapture of power is akin to a revolution and will have harsh effects on Afghanistan’s domestic production, as well as international trade, according to Mazarei, now a non-resident fellow at the Peterson Institute, a Washington think tank. Competent bureaucrats have fled while the Taliban are driving women out of the workplace and informal economy, where they played a critical economic role.
Without an internationally recognized government in place, the IMF and other donors have halted their fiscal support programs and won’t be able fill the gaps in family incomes that Taliban polices make wider.
The sense of common purpose between the countries trying to stave off a crisis isn’t always evident. There’s been more schadenfreude than solidarity in the responses to America’s failed attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan; officials in Tehran, Moscow and China have portrayed the hurried U.S. withdrawal as a humiliating defeat for a superpower in decline.
Russia and China both have significant interests in Afghanistan and are well placed to step in as regional power brokers and — in the case of Beijing — investors.
The Kremlin has cultivated ties with the Taliban for years, even as it banned the group as a terrorist organization, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailing their leaders as “reasonable people” after talks in Moscow in July. Russia sent military reinforcements to its base in Tajikistan and will hold joint military exercises with states in the region this month.
China is anxious to prevent any Islamist support for Uyghur movements in its mainly Muslim Xinjiang province, where it has used past terrorist attacks to justify mass repression criticized in the West as a form of genocide. China also wants to protect $50 billion of investments under its Belt and Road program in Pakistan and is eyeing potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan worth more than $1 trillion.
Chinese investment is “economically essential,” the Taliban’s main spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said Sept. 3 in an interview with La Repubblica.
Yet, neither China nor Russia appear anxious to own a problem that has humbled outside powers, including the former Soviet Union, for decades if not centuries. They also don’t want to be left footing the bill for what they see as the mess left behind by the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.
The EU may struggle to work with a Taliban government that tramples on values written into the DNA of many of the bloc’s 27 electorates, but it has paid countries to keep refugees from reaching EU borders before, including a 3 billion euro arrangement with Turkey, in 2016.
The U.S. “needs to work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with urgently-needed economic” and humanitarian aid, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his American counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an Aug. 29 phone call, according to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. “It is necessary for all parties to make contact with the Taliban and guide it actively.”
Russia, meanwhile, is ready to cooperate with the U.S., according to Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. Yet he’s less sure the political will for that exists in Washington. A block on Western aid over deteriorating human rights “would cause major economic upheaval and benefit radical rivals of the Taliban. Security should be the main concern,’’ he said.
For the Taliban, there’s an opportunity to show they can govern while keeping groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State out – and many countries appear to be banking on the fact they will take it. The international aid required could help the Taliban to consolidate power.
Much remains unclear and few optimists remain. Already, the Taliban’s statements and actions leave little doubt they intend to return to the same repressive policies toward women that they used in the 1990s.
The U.S. still has a freeze on about $9.5 billion of Afghanistan central bank assets.
For now, the Biden administration is exploring ways to use financial aid to help women and children while preventing it from falling under the direct control of the Taliban, according to a person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named without permission to speak publicly.
Blinken on Monday said the U.S. will provide $64 million in new humanitarian aid to Afghanistan that “will not flow through the government” but instead through nongovernmental organizations. At the same time, the U.S. is reviewing forms of bilateral assistance to the government in Kabul, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters at a Sept. 9 briefing. “When it is in our interest to engage the Taliban on the basis of our national self-interest,’’ he said, “we will do that.”- Bloomberg