Afghanistan Left Behind: Implications of the Year-Old U.S Military Withdrawal
There is an urgent need to address the humanitarian crisis holistically by distributing aid fairly, discussing with the Taliban, and tackling the related economic and health crises while keeping women at the center of the response.
This month a year ago, the Taliban swiftly took control of Kabul, ending the United States' longest war, as the exhausted U.S. military planners finalized the evacuation and withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Particularly, before the Taliban seized power in August, 2021, Afghanistan's economy was already in decline due to a severe drought, the COVID-19 pandemic, a decline in confidence in the previous administration, a decrease in international military spending as the U.S. and other foreign troops left, capital flight, human emigration, and Taliban advances on the battlefield.
Immediately following the Taliban takeover, aid for civilians and security was abruptly stopped. No nation in the world could have survived such a severe economic shock, which was made worse by sanctions, the freezing of Afghanistan's foreign exchange reserves, and the unwillingness of foreign institutions to conduct business with the nation.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan is currently experiencing one of the worst humanitarian crises. There isn't enough cash in the Afghan economy to pay wages or buy food. Since Western aid has been halted, millions of Afghans may soon suffer acute hunger and starvation.
A Turbulent Historical Context
For more than 30 years, Afghanistan has been at war. Moreover, foreign powers have exacerbated the wars at every stage by backing one side against the other. As a result, Afghanistan's history is littered with wars and other violent conflicts, the most recent of which has been more than three decades of foreign occupation, civil war, and insurgency since 1978. These provide a rich set of experiences and potential lessons for the country's current transition and what comes after.
Soviet Occupation and the Saur Revolution
The People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) split into two factions in 1967, Parcham (flag), which drew support from educated Pashtuns in urban areas as well as from other ethnic groups, and Khalq (masses), which drew support from educated Afghans in rural areas who were primarily Pashtun.
The largest ethnic group in Afghanistan is the Pashtun, who has ruled the country's government for centuries. Uprisings spread across the nation due to the government's repressive policies, particularly its attempt to terrorize rural society into reform. The Soviet Union airlifted thousands of troops into Kabul in December 1979, alarmed by the deteriorating situation, particularly the breakdown of the army and the possibility that a crumbling Afghanistan would threaten its security on its southern border.
After Soviet intelligence troops gained control of the government and appointed Babrak Karmal, a Parchami, as president, the Khalq president, Hafizullah Amin, was assassinated. Then, with mass arrests, torture, and executions of dissidents, as well as aerial bombardments and executions in the countryside, the Soviet occupation force of about 115,000 soldiers and the Karmal government attempted to put an end to the uprisings.
Over a million Afghans died most from aerial bombardments during this time. These actions spurred a flood of refugees out of the nation that quickly reached five million out of a population of around sixteen million, and they increased the resistance to the communist government in Kabul. Islamist groups formed the backbone of the uprising and were collectively known as the jihad fighters or mujahedeen (Ahmed Rashid, 2000).
Encompassing the Mujahedeen's Civil War and the Geneva Accords
The civil war between the Mujahedeen and the communist-led Kabul government engulfed the nation until 1992, shortly after the Soviet forces finished their pullout in February 1989. The Mujahedeen continued to oppose the Soviet-backed regime of communist president, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, after the Soviet Union withdrew.
The Soviet Union, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States signed peace agreements in Geneva that call for withdrawing 100,000 Soviet troops and ensuring Afghan independence. The 1988 Geneva Accords, which marked the conclusion of the war's negotiations, had as their centerpiece the Soviet Union's commitment to withdraw all its uniformed forces by February 1989. The communist regime maintained control into the beginning of 1992 with significant Soviet support as the U.N. desperately strove to put together a transitional mechanism acceptable to all sides, but it failed.
After that, the United States and its allies gave up making other attempts to start a peace process until the Taliban took over. Najibullah's Soviet-backed regime managed to hold power until 1992 when the Mujahedeen overthrew it after it disintegrated and failed to gain popular support, territory, or international recognition.
The Tajik head of Jamaat-e-Islami, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was elected president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan (ISA) in June 1992, although Hikmatyar continued to fire rockets at Kabul. Hundreds of civilians were kidnapped and slain during combat between the Hazara faction, Hizbi Wahdat, and Sayyaf's Ittihadi Islami. An estimated 25,000 people died in Kabul in 1994 alone, most civilians killed by rocket and artillery fire. By 1995, one-third of the city was nothing more than ruins.
Taliban's Control of Afghanistan
The Taliban gained control of Kabul in September 1996. The Taliban changed Afghanistan's name to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1997. Later, Taliban leaders implemented their interpretation of Islamic law in the regions they ruled, including regulations banning women from working outside the home in professions other than health care and mandating capital punishment for individuals found guilty of specific offences.
The Taliban made numerous attempts throughout 1997 and 1998 to take over the northern part of Afghanistan, where Abdul Rashid Dostum had established what amounted to a mini-state consisting of five provinces that he ruled from his headquarters in Sheberghan, west of the significant city of Mazar-i Sharif.
Afghan Taliban Finally taking over Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998, the Taliban slaughtered at least 2,000 people there, most of whom were Hazara civilians.
War on Terrorism
Following the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration launched a global "war on terror" that included overt and covert military operations and new security regulations. The Northern Alliance seized power in November 2001, seizing Kabul, the Afghan capital. The U.S. and other nations that agreed with it, like the U.K., assisted them.
Though many governments took part in this campaign, frequently passing strict new legislation, eliminating long-standing legal safeguards, and stepping up domestic law enforcement and intelligence gathering. According to critics, the "war on terrorism" is an ideology based on fear and repression that fosters hostility and encourages violence rather than reducing terrorist acts and enhancing security.
Implications of U.S Hasty Withdrawal from Afghanistan
The Wars of Afghanistan sheds light on how Afghanistan's past as a shattering zone for foreign invaders and its tribal society has influenced the contemporary Afghan narrative. Since U.S. President Joe Biden declared the U.S.'s withdrawal from Afghanistan without establishing a reliable governance system in Kabul, the lack of a clear temporary administration quickly plunged Afghanistan into instability.
For the first time in twenty years, the Taliban are in charge of Afghanistan. They no longer face military opposition, but they now face an economy on the verge of collapse, potentially exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis.
Western nations like the U.S. and Germany halted foreign aid to Afghanistan when it became clear that the Taliban would take over Kabul. Since then, payments have also been suspended by the World Bank and the IMF.
The Afghan central bank's assets, which amount to about $7 billion, are currently under the U.S. embargo. However, the Taliban and some foreign leaders have urged the U.S. to release the hold. Since August 2021, Afghanistan's economy has shrunk by 20% to 30%, causing many people to lose their jobs and means of subsistence, social services to be destroyed, poverty and hunger to worsen: a real humanitarian crisis.
Additionally, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country, leaving government agencies devoid of managerial and professional staff, many Afghan businesses to close or downsize, and already low levels of investment reaching new lows.
Imports have dramatically decreased in recent months, while exports have increased twice. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is caught in a low-level equilibrium trap with extremely slow economic growth (below the population growth rate, indicating that life will not get better soon). Even this terrible scenario is insecure and subject to failure due to a protracted drought, reduced humanitarian aid, the impact of the Ukraine War on food prices, or deteriorating security.
The ongoing drought threatens Afghanistan's most valuable natural resource, water, and will make it even harder for agriculture to play its crucial part in economic recovery and maintaining livelihoods.
Afghanistan was one of the world's biggest and most complex humanitarian emergencies even before the withdrawal of foreign troops and the Taliban's takeover in August 2021. However, since the withdrawal, the humanitarian crisis has gotten worse. More than 700,000 Afghans fled their homes in 2021 due to conflict, with 59% children. The number of forced evictions in Afghanistan last year was 33 out of 34 provinces.
Disaster risk is increasingly a motivator of underlying need, in addition to political, social, and economic shocks from conflict and the withdrawal of international forces. For example, the worst drought in more than 30 years was officially declared across the country in June 2021. Similarly, In June 2022, a 5.9 magnitude earthquake struck eastern Afghanistan, killing more than 1,000 people and leaving 362,000 people in need of humanitarian aid (CDP, 2022).
The geopolitics of Asia and global relations are impacted by the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan. As both countries work to maximize their influence, security, and economic interests in Afghanistan, China-Pakistan relations are also changing steadily. China-Pakistan relations have been put to the test on numerous fronts as a result of Afghanistan's unsure future and turbulent past, whether it be in the form of forging new alliances or ensuring security at the two ends of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC): Kashgar in Xinjiang and Gwadar in Baluchistan.
The Taliban's resurgence in Afghanistan may pose a serious security threat to China's mainland, even though China has successfully contained terrorist threats in Xinjiang. Moreover, despite maintaining diplomatic relations and engaging in negotiations with the Taliban, Beijing's stability in its northwest may be seriously jeopardized by the latter's affiliation with other terrorist organizations.
Pakistan's stability in the western region will be seriously threatened by the state of affairs in Afghanistan. Thereby, the continuing Afghan crisis will affect China-Pakistan relations. However, no matter what happens, Afghanistan's future is still in doubt because of so many uncertainties and complications.
Afghanistan's future is shrouded in Uncertainty
In response to the Taliban takeover, the international community cut off funding, plunging almost the entire Afghan population into poverty and leaving millions unable to provide for their families.
More than half of Afghans now need humanitarian assistance due to decades of war, frequent natural disasters, chronic poverty, drought, widespread food insecurity, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The other significant change was the escalating level of violence and the protracted political processes, which have raised doubts about whether international society will keep to its commitments to provide long-term assistance, although Afghanistan is entirely dependent on foreign aid to pay the salaries of its government employees, including the army and police. So many Afghans are debating whether they, or at the very least, their children, should stay in a war-torn nation where the future is so uncertain.
Hence, there is an urgent need to address the humanitarian crisis holistically by distributing aid fairly, discussing with the Taliban, and tackling the related economic and health crises while keeping women at the center of the response.