By Rustam Shah Mohmand
The uncertainty about recognition continues: the world continues to weigh the pros and cons of whether and when to formally acknowledge the reality of a Taliban government. But this reluctance of the international community to embrace the ground realities in Afghanistan is pushing the country to the verge of economic collapse. Poverty has overwhelmed large swaths of the population and the middle class has been all but wiped out. A humanitarian catastrophe is not far from sight.
But there is good news too. The US has decided to inject some money into the economy and the EU has already pledged a substantial amount in aid to be channelled through UN departments and some leading reputable NGOs. Saudi Arabia is keen to offer an estimated billion riyals. The UN is also providing vital support in a number of sectors while Pakistan has dispatched a large quantity of wheat to help overcome critical food shortages. Islamabad has even allowed Indian donations of food to transit through its territory on the way to Afghanistan. These measures and more provide some hope for the war-ravaged country.
But crucial issues will have to be resolved if the country is to break out of the current impasse of despair and disillusionment.
The Taliban have not really been responding to the demand of an institutionalized system of justice, accountability, governance that the world hopes to see emerging in Afghanistan. There are fair doubts world over whether the Afghan Taliban intend to make Afghanistan a responsible member of the international community by adopting international conventions and practises. The new government has made some progress in that direction but more needs to be done. There is arguably some progress in the crucial areas of women’s rights, protection of minorities, freedom of the press and pluralism but not enough yet for the international community to be able to justify the establishment of formal ties.
One major reason the Taliban government has so far been unable to address the international community’s concerns is its lack of experience of governance. The Taliban have not been able to establish their credentials as a movement that genuinely seeks to work for the socio-economic rights of the people, for the promotion of education and literacy and to attract investments and create jobs. Not that the Taliban have remained oblivious to the demand for rapid economic revival but they simply have not interacted with the world enough, or at all, to be able to market what they have accomplished so far.
There are many solid and incontrovertible achievements that need to be projected for the world to comprehend the enormous change that has happened. By far the biggest of these transformational events has been the end of a long conflict that devastated the country from 1978 to 2021—a time period spanning more than four decades. Gone are the so-called powerful warlords who had established their control and hegemony over areas they enjoyed influence in. In today’s Afghanistan, there is no longer any force or group that can dare challenge the writ of the government.
Also, Afghanistan’s unity has been preserved and guarded. The once dreaded prospect of an imminent division has vanished. Considering the growth of many regional power centers that dotted the political landscape of the country in the past, the current picture is most reassuring.
However, these accomplishments have not been publicized. Peace has finally returned to the country after decades of fighting. Taliban leaders have repeatedly emphasized their determination to ensure girls go back to schools and universities with their ‘hijabs.’ Women’s right to seek jobs has been accepted. Now what the Taliban need to do is formulate a proper vision about their scheme of pluralism and participative decision-making.
The biggest challenge is how best to reinvigorate the economy and it is here that the Taliban government’s relations with the US assume critical importance. What are America’s suspicions about the policies the Taliban would pursue in the country and beyond? The US, with its considerable human and material resources, must have ascertained the real, genuine motives of the Taliban movement. It is surprising that there is such a lack of understanding on the part of the US of the Taliban’s plans for the future.
The Taliban are not just any trans-border movement. The group’s only commitment is to enforce the Islamic system of governance in the country – no more, no less. Indeed, the group is not pursuing any scheme through which it wants to export its ideology or strategy to any region beyond Afghanistan or help movements in regional countries that seek to overthrow existing systems. Once this is understood, and the world must understand this, a framework for relations would begin to emerge.
Secondly, the Americans must also understand that if the Taliban can embrace the Russians who, in the shape of the then Soviet Union, inflicted pain and suffering on helpless Afghans, they can also enjoy productive and useful relations with the US. The Taliban can manage to deal with America’s fears of China establishing its foothold in Afghanistan at the expense of Washington’s interests. Indeed, the future of US-Afghanistan relations is not bleak. There are hopes for a better tomorrow. If there is a dispassionate evaluation of the whole situation, there is hope for a reappraisal of policy. That reappraisal would include formally establishing diplomatic relations with Kabul and would lead to the release of $9.2 billion in frozen assets. The Taliban have declared that the release of the Afghan assets held in American banks would be such a boost to the economy that they would no longer need any more immediate assistance. This initiative would create a snowballing movement for recognition and could lead to a complete change of the political landscape.
The new year would then be watched with keen interest by all those who are eager to see economic stability in the war-ravaged country and the key to that would be the revival of US-Taliban contacts, leading to formal recognition. The gravity of the alternative should not force any delay in setting the process in motion of the normalization of ties between the estranged rivals.
(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.)