Afghanistan’s uncertain future

Maleeha Lodhi

The past two weeks have seen intense global focus on the extraordinary developments in Afghanistan. There has been much discussion across the world as to why the Taliban met little resistance and were able to seize Kabul without any bloodshed while the Afghan army equipped with sophisticated weapons and trained for years by the US just crumbled. Assessments vary but there is general agreement that it was above all a political collapse. The lack of motivation to fight was because a government imposed from outside and marred by corruption was not worth fighting for especially when US military support was no longer available with its forces having all but departed the country.

These debates will no doubt continue but more consequential is what happens next in Afghanistan. Will uncertainty give way to stability? Will the Taliban be able to govern ? Will they govern by accommodating other groups to ensure the country doesn’t relapse into bloody power struggles and strife? How different are the Taliban from when they ruled the country in the 1990’s when they imposed an austere and repressive system on the people ?

Answers to these questions will only emerge with time. For now, the Taliban are trying to consolidate power and reassure a concerned international community that they have learnt from experience and their rule will not be a throwback to the past. They have promised to establish an inclusive government, respect human rights and guarantee women’s rights. They have also pledged to ensure that Afghanistan’s soil is not used to attack other countries.

For its part, the international community including all neighboring and regional states are engaging with the Taliban to nudge them to abide by their commitments. The international community has so far also been speaking with one voice to lay out its expectations of the Taliban. The global consensus is expressed in the statement of the UN Security Council of August 16. This called for an inclusive and representative government and “urgent talks to resolve the current crisis of authority…. and arrive at a peaceful settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of national reconciliation.” It urged respect for human rights and stressed “the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan.”

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also issued a communique on August 22 after an emergency meeting on Afghanistan. This reiterated the international community’s expectations – “promoting national reconciliation….and adherence to international governance norms.” It also called on the future Afghan government to ensure that “Afghanistan is never again used as a haven for terrorists.”

Meanwhile a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on Afghanistan convened on August 24 adopted a resolution by consensus that called for respect for human rights while expressing serious concerns at reports of violations. It underlined the importance of combatting terrorism and urged an inclusive settlement to establish durable peace.

The international community needs to maintain unity on these core demands as a joint approach at this stage is key to getting the Taliban to translate their words into deeds. Multilateral engagement has already influenced the Taliban and persuaded them to offer assurances. But if global solidarity begins to fracture and differences emerge among the major powers, this would be counter-productive and actually deprive them of leverage to ensure the Taliban don’t backtrack on international obligations. Both engagement and international unity are essential going forward. Some countries are calling for harsher conditions to be imposed on the Taliban but this would risk dividing the international community. Instead, the world community should continue to offer the incentive of recognition in return for the Taliban living up to their promises. China has already said that “Imposing sanctions and pressure at every turn will not solve the problem and will only be counterproductive.”

For their part, the Taliban have been in talks with their former political foes to hammer out an inclusive government. Whether these efforts lead to a political settlement and a broad-based government will become clear in the days to come. Their leaders have said government formation will await the final departure of US-led coalition forces although some ministers and the head of intelligence have been named. For now, the Taliban are making the right noises on issues ranging from amnesty for those who fought against them and allowing girls to go to school. But it is way too early to judge whether their rule will really be a break from their past.

Uncertainty prevails and while the political fog might start to lift after August 31, it will be some time before it becomes clear whether Afghanistan’s leaders will be able to govern by accommodating others and deliver peace that people yearn for so desperately. If they are unable to do this, Afghanistan will be at risk of descending into chaos and turmoil with serious ramifications for the region and the world.