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Taliban 'conundrum' is forcing strange bedfellows on Afghanistan

Marc Champion , Eric Martin and Anthony Halpin, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

The Taliban’s recapture of power is akin to a revolution and will have harsh effects on Afghanistan’s domestic production, as well as international trade, according to Mazarei, now a non-resident fellow at the Peterson Institute, a Washington think tank. Competent bureaucrats have fled while the Taliban are driving women out of the workplace and informal economy, where they played a critical economic role.

Without an internationally recognized government in place, the IMF and other donors have halted their fiscal support programs and won’t be able to fill the gaps in family incomes that Taliban polices make wider.

The sense of common purpose between the countries trying to stave off a crisis isn’t always evident. There’s been more schadenfreude than solidarity in the responses to America’s failed attempt at nation-building in Afghanistan; officials in Tehran, Moscow and China have portrayed the hurried U.S. withdrawal as a humiliating defeat for a superpower in decline.

Russia and China both have significant interests in Afghanistan and are well placed to step in as regional power brokers and — in the case of Beijing — investors.

The Kremlin has cultivated ties with the Taliban for years, even as it banned the group as a terrorist organization, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailing their leaders as “reasonable people” after talks in Moscow in July. Russia sent military reinforcements to its base in Tajikistan and will hold joint military exercises with states in the region this month.

China is anxious to prevent any Islamist support for Uyghur movements in its mainly Muslim Xinjiang province, where it has used past terrorist attacks to justify mass repression criticized in the West as a form of genocide. China also wants to protect $50 billion of investments under its Belt and Road program in Pakistan and is eyeing potential mineral wealth in Afghanistan worth more than $1 trillion.

Chinese investment is “economically essential,” the Taliban’s main spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed said Sept. 3 in an interview with La Repubblica.

Yet, neither China nor Russia appear anxious to own a problem that has humbled outside powers, including the former Soviet Union, for decades if not centuries. They also don’t want to be left footing the bill for what they see as the mess left behind by the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

The EU may struggle to work with a Taliban government that tramples on values written into the DNA of many of the bloc’s 27 electorates, but it has paid countries to keep refugees from reaching EU borders before, including a 3 billion euro arrangement with Turkey, in 2016.

 

The U.S. “needs to work with the international community to provide Afghanistan with urgently-needed economic” and humanitarian aid, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his American counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an Aug. 29 phone call, according to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing. “It is necessary for all parties to make contact with the Taliban and guide it actively.”

Russia, meanwhile, is ready to cooperate with the U.S., according to Andrey Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-founded Russian International Affairs Council. Yet he’s less sure the political will for that exists in Washington. A block on Western aid over deteriorating human rights “would cause major economic upheaval and benefit radical rivals of the Taliban. Security should be the main concern,’’ he said.

For the Taliban, there’s an opportunity to show they can govern while keeping groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State out – and many countries appear to be banking on the fact they will take it. The international aid required could help the Taliban to consolidate power.

Much remains unclear and few optimists remain. Already, the Taliban’s statements and actions leave little doubt they intend to return to the same repressive policies toward women that they used in the 1990s.

The U.S. still has a freeze on about $9.5 billion of Afghanistan central bank assets.

For now, the Biden administration is exploring ways to use financial aid to help women and children while preventing it from falling under the direct control of the Taliban, according to a person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named without permission to speak publicly.

Blinken on Monday said the U.S. will provide $64 million in new humanitarian aid to Afghanistan that “will not flow through the government” but instead through nongovernmental organizations. At the same time, the U.S. is reviewing forms of bilateral assistance to the government in Kabul, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters at a Sept. 9 briefing. “When it is in our interest to engage the Taliban on the basis of our national self-interest,’’ he said, “we will do that.”

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