On August 15, 2021, the Afghan Republic government collapsed and the Taliban took over the Afghan capital city of Kabul. The last American military flight that airlifted the last American soldier, Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, left Kabul on 30th August 2021 at 11.59 pm Kabul time that ended America’s longest nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Consequently, the abrupt withdrawal created a political vacuum that resulted in a humanitarian and political crisis with far-reaching consequences. During the last two decades, there have been several areas of improvement, notably, in education, civilian government institutions, the media, the economy, civil society, healthcare sectors, and regional connectivity.
Most importantly, the literacy rate significantly improved. The adult total literacy rate (aged 15 and older) was estimated at 43% (2018) which includes 55.5% male, 29.8% female, and 13.3% elderly (65 years old and above). Youth total literacy rate (aged 15-24) is estimated at 65.4% (2018); that contains male 74.1%, and female 56.3%. Now, under the current circumstances, there is a risk of reversing the hard-earned gains of the last two decades. To preserve the hard-earned gains of the last two decades and prevent the impending socio-economic and political-security negative spillover effects, the United States of America, the United Nations, the European Union, China, Russia, and neighboring Central Asian republics should use preventive diplomacy and find a constructive solution to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Current challenges and problems
Women and girlsmake up 49 percent of the estimated 40 million Afghan population who are excluded from public life, including a ban on attending high schools and universities, as well as restrictions on access to work. Studies suggest Afghanistan is one of the worst repressive countries for women and girls, particularly due to the Taliban’s strict restrictions. Direct international development assistance, which accounted for 75 percent of public expenditures, has been suspended after the Afghan Republic government collapsed. 28.3 million people, two-thirds of the Afghan population, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance in 2023, and 17 million people are at risk of acute hunger.
Insurgent groups are resurging in Afghanistan including the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K), a regional affiliate of ISIS. According to a UN Security Council assessment, ISIS-K gained “ strength and visibility” in Afghanistan after the Taliban assumed control of the country and could create concerns beyond Afghanistan.
During a recent hearing in the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, the Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, who leads U.S. Central Command warned that the terrorist group will be able to carry out attacks beyond Afghanistan against American and European interests within six months “with little to no warning.” As a failing state, Afghanistan could turn into an unwitting host to terrorist groups, and the Taliban’s reluctance to sever ties with Al-Qaeda could further exacerbate security in the region and beyond.
Due to the absence of conflicts, there has been an overall security improvement that contributes to the reduction of the number of casualties since August 2021. However, soaring inflation, economic instability, widespread human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, ban on women and girl education from secondary and tertiary education, restrictions on working in international NGOs, and saying “female NGO staff had broken dress codes by not wearing hijabs”, and international sanctions further exacerbated the livelihood.
Quality education is a fundamental human right that should be accessible to all Afghan citizens, regardless of gender. Freedom of expression and thought is a human right that should not be criminalized or subject to extrajudicial measures. Furthermore, reports of revenge killings could further create concerns among former government officials in the country. Afghans are seeking risky ways to escape from the country, with 1.6 million new arrivals to neighbouring countries, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan following the Taliban takeover.
What can regional and extra-regional actors do?
The Bonn agreement, which took place under the auspices of the United Nations among Afghan political elites in 2001 and led to the establishment of a new western-supported government in Afghanistan. The newly established government received immense political and financial support from the EU, U.S., and other countries toward the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country. Despite facing numerous challenges, the support helped to steer the country on the path to progress.
Currently, the Taliban, a religious group, rules Afghanistan without internal legitimacy through elections or external recognition from any country. Their exclusionary approach may worsen the security and political situation in the country. They have shown no willingness to hold elections, and do not plan to do so since they believe their legitimacy comes from religious interpretations. This political stalemate may drive the country to the brink of another conflict and crisis.
Before the situation worsens, the U.S., UN, EU, Russia, China, and Central Asia through preventive diplomacy can contain the delicate situation from implosion. In terms of financial aid for Afghanistan, the U.S. is the largest donor. The aid includes over $2 billion for humanitarian and development assistance, and $2.7 billion allocated for FY 2022 to the Department of Defense for transportation and sustenance of Afghan evacuees. Additionally, the U.S. made available the transfer of $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets to the Afghan Fund, a Swiss-based trust fund.
The EU allocated €222 million and €174 million for humanitarian support through humanitarian organizations operating in the country and the surrounding region for the years 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Humanitarian support by U.S., EU, and other states may help temporarily ease the humanitarian crises. However, an impending socio-economic and politico-security crisis would spill over beyond Afghanistan and may have implications for the region and beyond. To overcome an impending socio-economic and political-security implications stemming from Afghanistan from escalating, the countries in the region and beyond, particularly, the U.S., China, Russia, and the EU must step up their diplomatic, political, and economic leverage.
The U.S. and the EU possess the necessary means and capacity to intervene and mitigate the potential crisis from exacerbating. Particularly, the EU has diplomatic presence and special envoys in Afghanistan and neighbouring states, thereby enabling them to exert their influence and leverage coupled with political pressure upon the Taliban to initiate a political settlement dialogue encompassing all facets of the Afghan political landscape. The EU and Central Asia Special Representatives and Special Envoys for Afghanistan’s latest meetings in Brussels are effective initiatives but require a tangible push to change the behavior of the Taliban’s leadership.
The U.S. EU, and China have the capacity to overcome the current humanitarian crisis by providing humanitarian assistance through aid organizations operating in Afghanistan and the region and encouraging other countries to step in to address the crises. Additionally, U.S. EU, and China can encourage other countries in the region to exert their influence on the Taliban to show willingness, initially through a traditional Loya Jirga, which could consequently pave the way for more representative government, elections, meaningful representation of women in all socio-political sectors, and respect for human rights.
Gulf countries, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates could play an influential role by leveraging their politico-religious influence. Moreover, other regional countries especially in neighbourhood, namely: Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, which often express concerns about current and impending spillover effects. These countries could be encouraged to play a constructive role.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has Programme Offices in Central Asia and Field Missions in the region. These offices could help address certain spillover effects of Afghanistan, particularly, drug trafficking and human rights abuses.
To sum up, Afghanistan has experienced tumultuous political upheavals over the past four decades, culminating in the current political impasse that reflects the recurrence of political errors. The U.S., the EU, China, and other actors in the region should closely monitor the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan to prevent escalation.
To consolidate political stability and ensure comprehensive representation across all strata of society, establishing a broad-based and inclusive government is imperative. An inclusive government has the potential to protect human rights, guarantee meaningful representation for women and ethnic and religious minorities, and address the menace of terrorism and extremism. It can also ensure access to education for all, which could help overcome the protracted crisis that has encompassed Afghanistan.