Opinion |

How the Taliban Have Taken the Whole World Hostage

The Taliban's new weapons are refugees, radicalized Islamists, opium and chaos. With Afghanistan facing economic catastrophe, Kabul's rulers are sending the world an ultimatum: Engage with us or die with us

Mohamed Zeeshan
Mohamed Zeeshan
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A Taliban fighter controls a crowd waiting to withdraw money from a bank branch in Kabul, Afghanistan
A Taliban fighter controls a crowd waiting to withdraw money from a bank branch in Kabul, AfghanistanCredit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Mohamed Zeeshan
Mohamed Zeeshan

In the wake of Afghanistan’s crippling humanitarian and economic crisis, the world now faces a difficult dilemma: How do you stabilize the Afghan economy without recognizing the Taliban?

Ever since the Taliban ransacked their way to power earlier this year, Afghanistan’s already moribund economy has become far more desperate.

In recent remarks, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs warned that the Afghan economy is in "free fall" and highlighted some shocking numbers: 23 million Afghans – over half the total population – are facing hunger, 70 percent of teachers are not getting paid, and millions of children are out of school. Poverty is afflicting a whopping 97 percent of the population, he said, warning that as much as 30 percent of Afghanistan’s economy could be lost within a year.

In response, regional powers have been scrambling to create mechanisms of their own to find solutions to the crisis. At a special summit hosted by Pakistan last week, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) pledged to create a trust fund for Afghanistan.

On the same day, New Delhi played host to a competing summit between India and five Central Asian nations – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. The motivation was the same: to provide "immediate humanitarian assistance" to Afghans.

The question is how any country can do any of these things without officially recognizing the Taliban and working with it institutionally.

For months, Pakistan has been pushing the world to engage more openly with the Taliban regime. Shortly after Kabul fell in August, Prime Minister Imran Khan declared that the Taliban have "broken the shackles of slavery." Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf went even further, warning that the West risks a "second 9/11" if it did not "immediately recognize" the Taliban. He later retracted that statement.

But at the OIC, that rhetoric had to be considerably softened, as several countries attending had serious reservations about jumping to recognize the Taliban regime. Unlike in the 1990s, the Gulf states no longer provide political patronage to the Taliban on the world stage.

Despite pleas by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, and renewed warnings of "chaos," the summit failed to offer the Taliban formal recognition. When the official "family photograph" was taken at the OIC summit, the Taliban’s foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi was pointedly excluded.

Just as significantly, of the 57 OIC members, only 20 were represented at the summit. Five of the OIC’s Central Asian members were away in Delhi on the same day, parleying with India instead. One of those countries – Tajikistan – has been especially vocal in its opposition to the Taliban since its rise to power. At the UN General Assembly in September, the Tajik president Emomali Rahmon said, "Afghanistan is once again on the path to becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism."

To most neutral observers, the question of recognizing the Taliban is primarily humanitarian. Many, especially in the West, are opposed to recognizing the Taliban until they promise to uphold the rights of women, minorities and other oppressed groups. The U.S. has frozen billions of dollars in Afghan central bank reserves, in order to keep them out of the Taliban’s hands.

An Afghan woman wearing a burka exits a small shop in Kabul, Afghanistan. Women's rights activists insisted they would continue fighting for access to education, employment and political participationCredit: Petros Giannakouris /AP

Yet, in reality, there is no political will in the region to stand up against the Taliban for Afghan rights. For one, there is no alternative partner to work with on the ground. The primary defenders of a more inclusive nationalism in the country are the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) – a grassroots resistance movement in the mountainous Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. But since the Taliban’s ascent, the NRF have been boxed in from all sides and retain only a small, modest force. The other contenders for power are the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) – an altogether more violent and chauvinistic band than the Taliban themselves.

On the other hand, pretty much all of Afghanistan's neighbors are also guilty of the principal human rights violations that the Taliban are accused of: Minority rights have long been violated with impunity in Pakistan and much of the Arab world, and most of Central Asia has been a showcase for obscene ethnic nationalist authoritarianism for decades.

Elsewhere, China has already moved on, and is currently foraging for opportunities to exploit Afghanistan’s rich mineral wealth, estimated at about $1 trillion. India has no appetite for human rights activism either, especially in geopolitically sensitive countries – a policy that is amply evident from its unwillingness to criticize the brutal military junta in Myanmar next door. Even the West is now increasingly exhausted; for all his rhetoric on democracy and human rights, President Biden is more likely to prioritize China's onslaught in the Indo-Pacific over the Taliban's brutalities.

Afghan men in Herat take a 300-mile trip south to Nimrooz near the Iranian border. In the past three months, driven by desperation, more than 300,000 people have crossed illegally into IranCredit: AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

The bigger worry for regional powers, instead, is that the economic disaster being overseen by the Taliban could spill over into their own countries, in the form of the drug trade, organized crime, heightened radicalism and refugees.

Since their takeover, the Taliban have already presided over a sharp increase in opium production, concurrent with the economic free-fall. In the last harvest season which ended in July, Afghanistan produced about 6800 tonnes of opium – an 8 percent increase over 2020, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. This year, the opium industry is estimated to have accounted for a tenth of Afghanistan’s total economic output. In fact, as uncertainty grows, more Afghan farmers are beginning to turn to opium cultivation – a crop which they find to be far more stable than alternatives such as pomegranate.

Poverty is also pushing more and more young Afghans to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, which has been engaged in a fierce insurgency movement against the Taliban for months. According to one report, the Islamic State is offering between $270 and $450 a month to young men willing to join their ranks – a massive boon amidst skyrocketing food prices. Those fighters are almost certain to find their way to various other parts of the world at some point – from Yemen to Libya.

In result, every country in and around the region is on edge, anticipating huge waves of both extremist radicals and helpless refugees to come out of the Afghan economic crisis. The spectre of a refugee crisis is already sending shockwaves as far as Europe, after Russia and Belarus recently engineered a massive standoff on Poland’s borders.

Afghan children are covered with a blanket as their families camp outside the Directorate of Disaster, in Herat, as Afghanistan faces an economic and humanitarian disaster Credit: Petros Giannakouris /AP

The Taliban know these dynamics well and are now increasingly holding the world hostage to their economic catastrophe: engage with us or perish with us, they warn.

After weeks of campaigning for representation at the UN, the Taliban recently managed to force out the overthrown Afghan republic’s ambassador to the UN (the Afghan mission appeared to be unable to operate because it has no funds). Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are sending diplomats back to Kabul, even though they have not yet officially recognized the Taliban regime. The European Union may soon follow suit.

With things as they stand, the world seems more likely to quietly accept the Taliban regime and tolerate its oppressive rule, in return for an opportunity to keep those troubles within Afghanistan’s borders. Whether such a strategy will really succeed depends on how capable the Taliban can be in running a functional government – one that uses the world’s help effectively in order to rebuild a shattered economy.

Either way, the world’s inevitable engagement with the Taliban is a huge betrayal for the Afghan women, minorities and the brave hearts who fought for two decades in the hope of building a more inclusive nation. But there is neither the political will nor the opportunity to help them regain their losses.

Mohamed Zeeshan is a foreign affairs columnist and author of "Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership" (Penguin, 2021). Twitter: @ZeeMohamed_

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