As Taliban sits on a powder keg, Biden has other priorities

“Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led.”, said US President Joe Biden as he summed up American foreign policy in his 2023 State of the Union Address. However, what remained conspicuously absent from one the most important events in Washington’s political calendar was any reference to the Taliban.

Washington short of plans, Kabul in stormy waters

While Biden’s address discussed domestic issues in detail, it remained starkly short on foreign policy, focussing solely on challenges posed by  Russia and China. The watered down account of foreign policy has aroused contrasting feelings, while some believe a lack of popular interest within the US over threats emanating beyond Moscow and Beijing to be the reason, others feel the silence is indicative of American lackluster achievements on most fronts.

Be as it may, as Biden’s priorities shift; Kabul under the Taliban regime escalates into what seems to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

Economic woes are the gravest of all concerns. Inflation has been at an all time high with prices of basic commodities rising to 43% in a year as the value of the currency continues to fall since the Taliban took over the reins of governance. Unemployment remains high with 500,000 jobs being lost, a figure that might  rise up to 900,000. The regime’s decision to ban women from the workplace has given a hard blow to  the economy leading to losses amounting to a whopping $1 billion. Further worsening the situation is the sudden revocation of international aid which financed nearly 75% of the public spending under the Ghani government. The sanctions have not only failed to discipline the Taliban, which continues to pocket a hefty amount through illicit opium trade; but on the contrary has added to the burden of the common people already suffering at the hands of the cruel, ultraconservative authoritarian regime. A United Nations report highlighted that by November 2022, 18.9 million people i.e. nearly half the population were expected to face acute levels of food insecurity, with women led households being the most vulnerable. Nearly 6 million have been reported to be at a risk of famine. While countries like India have pledged humanitarian aid, the amount is unlikely to cover the losses incurred.

Moreover, the “highly underspecified and under theorised” Islamic Emirate of Taliban continues to harden its stance. The Pashtun-dominated theocratic order is currently under the tight grip of ultraconservative Emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada and his Kandahar clique, who have efficiently sidelined the more internationally oriented and somewhat moderate leaders Mullah Yaqub, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai; as evident in the recent decision to ban education for girls.

While the Taliban has perfected the art of squelching internal dissent, the overtly Pashtun organisation remains deeply divided along policy perspectives with the most well known factions being the powerful Haqqani faction based in the East, the co-founders based in South and a less powerful Tajik and Uzbek Taliban based in the North. Tussles between the old moderates and the young radicals are not uncommon. Months ago, an unusual instance saw the deputy Foreign Minister Stanikzai publicly criticising the leadership for debarring girls from attending secondary school. Reports of infighting are also not uncommon, more so since  many Taliban commanders have commanded their own independent militias where the loyalty of the supporters rests primarily with the leader, not the organisation. Seen as being less exposed to political light which made him a preferred choice over Haqqani, Akhundzada’s iron fist rule is likely to weaken the roots of the Taliban in the longer run, if not immediately. However, a putsch is unlikely due to high degrees of trust deficit among the sidelined leaders.  Dissatisfaction among the lower ranks of the Taliban fighters too seems to be brewing.

The Taliban has also failed to keep up with its promise of not letting Afghanistan turn into a safe haven for terrorism, putting it at odds with 

countries such as Pakistan, Iran and China which had previously displayed an interest in dialogue, of utmost importance for a regime already lacking legitimacy with not a single nation recognising it as Kabul’s lawful government.

Islamabad’s biggest menace in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which shares ideological affinities with the Afghan Taliban,  are known to be operating from the Afghan soil. Tensions between Pakistan and  the TTP are simmering as seen in the renewed clashes on the disputed border, the Durand line.

Beijing too eyes the Taliban’s continuing links with the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an extremist organisation operating in China’s volatile Xinjiang province, with suspicion. Relations with neighbouring Iran have also been strained with frequent border clashes. For the Shia dominated Tehran,  the foremost concern is to prevent the Taliban from becoming an anti-Shia, Sunni stronghold. On the other hand, Taliban’s concern is to tone down the anti-Shia terrorism furthered by its “arch enemy” the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) so as to prevent relations with Tehran from going downhill any further. The Iran-endorsed Fatimiyoun Brigade composed of the Shia and Hazara minorities is also a  major headache.

Internal militancy against the Taliban regime is another cause of instability. Not only the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz minorities but also former security officials of the ousted Afghan government have joined the ISKP in resistance . With an estimated strength of 1500 to 4000 fighters, the ISKP has tremendously increased its violent activities which accounted for 152 attacks between August and December 2021 vis à vis 20 attacks in 2020.  The Islamic State of Iran- Khorasan has also issued fresh threats to attack embassies of India, China and Iran in Afghanistan so as to nip in the bud any glimmers of hope that the regime in Kabul might have to establish ties with these nations.

Dealing with the Taliban

There has hardly been any meaningful negotiations between the United States and Taliban since the latter captured power in Kabul after the American troops withdrew. While the Taliban successfully managed to free some of its associates held prisoners by Washington, contacts have been virtually absent. In order to prevent the militant organisation from misusing funds appropriated by the Ghani regime, the United States froze $9.5 billion dollars of Afghan Central Bank’s assets when the Taliban ascended to power. In February 2021, $7 billion were freed, one half of which were designated for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan while the other half was assigned to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban severely criticised such a move claiming the money to be their rightful inheritance from the previous regime.

Even though Washington has regularly condemned and slapped the Taliban regime with coercive methods such as sanctions for its grave abuse of human rights, it has not come up with any long term plan to deal with the militant organisation.

While expecting a productive dialogue with an ultra conservative militant organisation of the likes of the Taliban to mend its ways might sound like a pipedream, the United States rarely has any other option but to engage in talks with the new regime in Kabul, particularly the powerful leaders sidelined by the Akhundzada clique who can internally push the government to adopt partially moderate, if not entirely just ways. Such a plan might just work out considering the Taliban is obsessively seeking stability against all odds. Not bringing it to the negotiating table will only add to the druggery of the common people who suffer not just at the hands of the cruel regime but also the brunt of sanctions imposed by the international community. While Biden has his own reasons for prioritising Moscow and Beijing, ensuring a secure life for millions of innocent Afghans through peaceful means would be the real test for the United States’ continuing status as a global leader.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.