By Rustam Shah Mohmand
The challenges in Afghanistan are formidable. The odds are heavy. Resources both financial and managerial are virtually non-existent. Expectations are high. Poverty is at its peak and unemployment has gone beyond 80 percent.
Malnutrition, especially among children is at a record high. Daesh attacks continue with deadly ferocity. The army has disintegrated. The police force is in tatters. Despondency has overwhelmed rank and file Afghans.
Taliban are to operate and function under these conditions and deliver. For them also, so much is at stake. The daunting challenge of socio-economic emancipation will test their resolve and skills and the task becomes more complex when weighed in the context of ethnic and gender equality. In a situation as dire as that which confronts Afghanistan today, the incumbent administration will have to lay down its priorities clearly. Time is of the essence. Unfortunately for the Taliban, the world is not prepared to consider the many complex issues the regime faces and wants early and decisive breakthroughs.
The spectre of the international community withholding recognition is another issue that haunts the leadership of the group. Taliban have made an unambiguous statement about their earnest desire to get aligned with the world and learn from its past experience. But there is skepticism and reluctance to embrace the new realities. Part of such unwillingness to recognize the new unfolding system is attributed to the memory of the 1996-2001 rule by the group in which ideologues dictated the direction of its policies, both internal and external. But an equally important factor now that blocks recognition is the dominant role of China in the region after the exit of the US. The new scenario will see Beijing make its ingress into central Asia and Eurasia. China’s hegemony will be undeniably established in the region.
Taliban are currently in the process of identifying their immediate and more medium-term priorities. Focus on the economy, food security, resurrection of a viable police force, formation of a more inclusive and broad-based government and dealing with the threat of Daesh are urgent concerns. In seeking to address the problem of immediate payment of salaries, Kabul has to rely on external cash inflows –hopefully coming from China and some Gulf countries. But the major focus will be on pressuring the US to release $9 billion of Afghanistan’s money now held in American banks. The group has initiated a discussion with Washington. Taliban are assuring the US that they could be dependable allies. Just as they reconciled with Russia despite what the former Soviet Union did to Afghanistan, they could be in a long-term partnership with the US. Many in the US Congress see this as an important opportunity. If there is progress toward a consensus on building up a mutually beneficial relationship, that will pave the way for the UN system to release funding in such critical areas as food security, education, health and finances for running the country.
Institution building will be critical to the sustainability of the new government. The regime has to rely not only on upgrading existing systems but to design new approaches and create new avenues for ensuring a smooth system of governance that guarantees transparency, justice and helps in the task of reconstruction.
Because of Daesh’s persistent attacks, the government has to deal with the menace on a ‘crash program’ basis. Handling Daesh is a national priority. If not exterminated quickly, other such militant groups like the Turkistan Islamic movement and ‘Fidayee Mahaz’ will also raise their heads. The government has to convey the impression of zero tolerance for any militant group that operates on their soil.
Skilful and deft handling of Kabul’s relations with regional countries must receive urgent attention. Pakistan is quite unnecessarily withholding recognition for the Taliban on flimsy grounds. But Taliban believe they have to learn to live with Islamabad despite the memories of Pakistan giving bases to the US to destroy their government in 2001. China must be relied upon as a country that can bring Afghanistan into the orbit of the Belt and Road initiative. Relations with Iran will be difficult to manage in view of Tehran’s controversial policies in the region.
Afghanistan sits on more than $1 trillion of proven mineral reserves. But those will take time to exploit and market. In the meantime, the government will seek the UN’s collaboration in sectors like health, water, institution building etc. A heavy reliance on the UN’s expertise will be a key factor in Afghanistan’s formulation of a new vision and a new system of governance that meets the needs of a modern state.
There are important positives for the government too. For the first time since 1978, there is a government which has its writ all over the country. After many years there is a government whose authority to rule the country is largely unchallenged. That gives comfort to its citizens. The people are fed up of fighting and desperately want respite.
If the group can remain united on important issues and the West acknowledges the validity of the foundations upon which the new system is based, there will inevitably be a desire to work with the new dispensation. The leaders of Taliban will have to rise to the occasion, grasp the opportunities that lie ahead and stay clear of the minefields of racial and ethnic discrimination.
Governance requires vision and an effective strategy that is steeped in values of justice, accountability, transparency, pluralism and a commitment to uphold the principles of bringing change for the better. The country is at a crossroads. And failure is not an option.
The world must also begin to help the Afghan government in undertaking its gigantic responsibilities. Driving Afghanistan into isolation would be a costly error.
(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)