Not Too Late for Afghanistan
Not Too Late for Afghanistan
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Commentary / Asia

Not Too Late for Afghanistan

International intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was not an altruistic whim. After all, the Afghan people had long been abandoned to years of fratricidal civil war, followed by Taliban rule, at the end of the Cold War.

Rather this was - and is - about global security. The further we get from 11 September, the more it needs to be repeated: if we don’t confront extremism at its source, it comes to our shores. Abandoning Afghanistan is not an option.

Today, British troops are bearing the brunt of a belated move to Afghanistan’s restive southern provinces. This is coming as something of a shock to the British public and media, having been sold the line that Afghanistan was a “success story” before attention and resources moved to Iraq.

Afghanistan was “won” so speedily back in 2001 by co-opting local warlords and commanders. The failure to quickly expand international peacekeepers beyond Kabul in the aftermath meant a terrible loss of momentum. Indeed this year, there will be more than three times as many foreign troops in Afghanistan as there were in 2002 or 2003.

These numbers are the exact reverse of what should have happened. This is not hindsight. The International Crisis Group was arguing for more boots on the ground to help enforce the peace back in 2002, when they would have been gratefully received by the local population.

But it is obviously more important now to look forward. Those nations prepared to go to the dangerous south should be applauded, and they should get every kind of backup they need in terms of troop numbers, equipment and domestic support. And far more pointed questions should be directed at those members of NATO not prepared to put their fighters in the areas of greatest need in Afghanistan. The importance of the move south cannot be overstated: quite simply, without stabilising the south, you will not stabilise Afghanistan.

So, what can be done at this stage to help ensure success? Above all, policies towards Pakistan, the West’s slippery “ally” in the war on terror, need to come under closer scrutiny. It was the sanctuary of this international border that allowed Taliban leadership to survive the 2001 war and regroup in the intervening years.

Today, Taliban leadership and spokespeople operate brazenly in areas bordering Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt in the south and east. Its fundamentalist religious schools, never reformed despite countless promises by President General Musharraf, offer almost limitless recruits.

Such a state of affairs is unlikely to change under Pakistan’s military dictatorship, reliant as it is on support from the very Islamist parties that built up - and continue to back - the Taliban. Afghans simply cannot understand why more is not being done in to pressure Pakistan, leading to the most bizarre rumours, even amongst highly educated Afghans, that the foreigners are not really interested in regional stability but are here for more nefarious designs.

At the same time the current insecurity is not solely a cross-border phenomenon. Within Afghanistan a dangerous level of disillusionment has set in amongst the population, largely due to the notorious figures that were co-opted by the West and Karzai government.

Many are the very same warlords and commanders whose corruption and brutality caused the population to welcome the Taliban in the first place. Today, they reap the benefits of a culture of impunity and a large number also have a hand in the flourishing opium trade.

It is truly horrifying that many of those currently in power have absolutely no desire to see the spread of the rule of law threaten their trade. This is what lies at the heart of much of the current conflict in drug-ridden and lawless Helmand, often simplistically and mistakenly blamed solely on the “Taliban”.

Ultimately, stability in Afghanistan will not be brought about by the gun. But robust international military commitments can offer the time and space for Kabul – and the international community – to put in the good administrators and build up the institutions that can offer sustainable security and services to the population.

International commitment to building up the police and judicial system has been dismally slow and under-resourced to date. Building the rule of law must now become the priority.

The Afghan government’s side of the deal must be a genuine war on corruption and abusive officials, tackling the narcotics industry from the very top and ending the climate of impunity. Kabul must be firmly told that business as usual is unacceptable.

Afghanistan, as the British public are only now discovering, might not be on the inevitable road to success. But given international security and economic support, failure and its devastating consequences may yet be averted.

Contributors

Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer
Former Senior Analyst, South Asia
Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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