U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

The departure of the last U.S. military plane from Afghanistan left the region facing uncertainty, with the Taliban seeking to cement control of a nation shattered by two decades of war and an economy long dependent on foreign aid and opium sales. 

Now the U.S., its allies, and adversaries including Russia and China must all regroup and assess how they’ll approach the Taliban, which swept to power with stunning speed as American and NATO troops withdrew over the summer. The chaos of the American withdrawal following the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s government only underscores the country’s fragility and the daunting challenges that await.

After evacuating some 120,000 people, the U.S. says it will look to help any Americans who remain in the country. Less certain is the fate of the tens of thousands of Afghans -- civil society workers, women and girls, minorities -- who may still want to flee but couldn’t make it through the crush of people at Kabul’s airport this month.

U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

Here are some of the biggest unanswered questions about the future of Afghanistan:

What Will Happen to People Left Behind?

General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said Monday that the number of Americans remaining in the country totals in the “low hundreds” and that the State Department would undertake a “diplomatic sequel” to the military effort to evacuate U.S. citizens.

“We will keep working to help them,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Monday evening after the Pentagon briefing. 

U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

The more complicated question is the fate of those Afghans who worked for the U.S. government and military and the country’s U.S.-backed government, as well as people who may be subject to oppression and reprisals by the Taliban -- women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, educators, employees of charities and other non-government organizations and others. 

“I think the number of Afghans who worked with us and other coalition forces for the last 20 years are going to be few and far between getting out,” former National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Bloomberg Television. As for the remaining Americans, “I’m very worried that they’re not coming out,” he said. 

The U.S. and European allies have said they will continue to help facilitate evacuations from Afghanistan, and on Sunday the State Department and 97 other countries announced they had reached an agreement with Taliban leaders to allow them to continue removing people from the country after Monday’s withdrawal. 

“The Taliban has made commitments on safe passage and the world will hold them to their commitments,” President Joe Biden said in a statement on Monday. “It will include ongoing diplomacy in Afghanistan and coordination with partners in the region to reopen the airport allowing for continued departure for those who want to leave and delivery of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.”

How Will the Taliban Govern?

The decisions the Taliban make in the days following the U.S. withdrawal will reverberate long into Afghanistan’s future.

The militant group has engaged in talks with Afghan power brokers -- including Hamid Karzai, the first president after the U.S. invasion, and Abdullah Abdullah, No. 2 in the ousted administration -- on forming a new government. In press conferences and interviews with Western media, Taliban representatives have said their government will be more inclusive to women, offered amnesty to those who fought against them, and vowed to battle corruption.

Many in Kabul and most outside the country are skeptical, suspecting a rapid return to the brutality that defined Taliban rule in the late 1990s that some Afghans initially welcomed for bringing order in the wake of a bloody civil war. And with even the Taliban surprised at how quickly they seized power, it’s unclear if the group’s leaders can impose order within their own ranks of young, often poorly-educated fundamentalists.

But there’s some incentive for the Taliban to attempt a different approach. Ethnic and religious conflicts have defined politics in Afghanistan, and a viable power-sharing agreement has long eluded the country’s rulers. To avoid yet another civil war, the largely Pashtun leaders in the Taliban will need buy-in from the ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras that wield regional power.

That task becomes even taller with the Taliban facing terrorist threats of their own from a local offshoot of Islamic State. And in a digital age where mobile phone cameras put atrocities in the full view of the world, a reign of terror could again isolate Afghanistan from the world, destabilizing the Taliban government.

U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

“The Taliban will be different from what they were, but whether that’s enough to comfort the international community is another question,” said Carter Malkasian, author of “The American War in Afghanistan: A History.” 

“Life will be worse for women,” he said. “Reprisals and such are probably fairly likely.” But, he added, “I don’t think it’s going to be as brutal as it was in the ‘90s.” 

Will the World Recognize the Taliban? 

For the U.S. and its allied partners, a decision about how or if to recognize the Taliban government is a high-stakes diplomatic quandary wrapped in political dynamite. On Monday, a senior State Department official said U.S. recognition of a new government wouldn’t come anytime soon, no matter what.

Throughout the evacuation, U.S. diplomats brokered a détente that allowed the flow of evacuees to the Kabul airport, involving close coordination between U.S. officials -- including CIA director William Burns -- and Taliban leaders.

But those efforts have come under ridicule by the president’s political opponents, and some allies -- including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- have said nations should not recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. 

The White House so far has largely sidestepped the issue. Biden has said the legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan would depend on whether the Taliban upheld international obligations and prevented terrorist groups from taking hold.

Although it’s politically difficult for the U.S. to engage with the Taliban, the alternative may be worse: A failed state or return to civil war could provide ample space for terrorist groups that want to strike the American homeland.

The first formal recognition of the Taliban government by a major power is likely to come from China, which has previously welcomed Taliban representatives to Beijing and hinted at the possibility in recent public statements.

Can Afghanistan’s Economy Advance?

Afghanistan’s economy is on the brink of collapse, and the biggest challenge for the Taliban government will be averting further shocks that would result in spiking prices and a humanitarian crisis.

The U.S.-led war left large swaths of the Afghan economy dependent on foreign aid and financing. The economy has been thrown into further peril after the U.S. froze nearly $9.5 billion in Afghanistan central bank assets and stopped shipments of cash to the nation.

U.S. sanctions mean it will be difficult for the Taliban to do any business outside the country, while Afghan banks and its hawala system of informal money transfers will be pinched by the shutoff of fresh foreign currency.

Sanctions will “cause issues for banks as they aren’t able to access the funding they need for customers who have paid deposits in dollars and now can’t withdraw those dollars,” said Ajmal Ahjmady, the former acting governor of the Central Bank of Afghanistan.

Zahid Hamdard, the deputy finance minister in the recently deposed Afghan government, urged the global community to continue providing aid to the country, saying it would help get the new Taliban government “addicted to aid.” Conditional access to the country’s reserves and aid through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank could help, while continuing strict sanctions would undermine any hope for stability by confidence-building measures under Taliban rule.

“The Taliban will not be able to run the country under these sanctions regimes,” Hamdard said.

U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

Navigating the short-term crisis will be essential to the Taliban’s hopes of profiting from Afghanistan’s minerals wealth. The Taliban and China are both eager to tap rare-earths materials in the country’s mountainous regions, and accelerate extraction at an oil facility in the Amu Darya basin.

How Will Afghanistan Continue to Impact the West?

The quick collapse of Afghan government forces and frenetic withdrawal from the country has already dealt significant political damage to Biden and strained some of the most enduring Western alliances.

But the crisis may just be beginning. The U.S. and its allies must now process tens of thousands of refugees, many of whom rushed to leave Afghanistan with scant documentation. 

The White House has vowed to subject incoming Afghans to a thorough vetting process that can take more than a year under even the best circumstances, while leaders in Germany and France -- who face elections in the coming months -- are wary of a refugee influx that could inspire the type of nativist backlash that followed waves of asylum-seekers from Iraq and Syria in the last decade.

The result may be sprawling, hastily assembled refugee camps in countries that have agreed to temporarily house Afghan evacuees, leaving interpreters and assistants key to the U.S. war effort facing harsh conditions.

Biden’s political opponents – including former President Donald Trump and his top aides -- are already accusing the administration of a shoddy vetting job, feeding anti-immigrant sentiment that has increasingly defined Republican politics. Paired with the chaotic scenes of death from the Kabul airport, the Afghanistan withdrawal could loom heavy over Democrats’ efforts to maintain their congressional majorities in the midterm elections.

And the withdrawal of U.S. troops poses an additional long-term risk: the prospect that terror organizations could regain a foothold in the country, particularly as the Taliban struggles to maintain control. The local offshoot of Islamic State claimed responsibility for last Thursday’s suicide bombing outside the gates of Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. service members.

Biden has maintained the U.S. can prevent terror organizations from metastasizing through intelligence and airpower, but it’s a risky gamble -- particularly after the Taliban freed scores of prisoners with prior links to terrorist organizations. 

U.S. Withdrawal Leaves Afghanistan in Crisis and Uncertainty

A U.S. drone strike this weekend on what the Pentagon said was an ISIS-driven car laden with explosives instead may have killed several Afghan civilians, most of them children, family of the victims told the Los Angeles Times and other news organizations. The Taliban also denounced the U.S. strike as a violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. 

Will China and Russia Step Into the Breach?

The U.S. exit from Afghanistan creates a power vacuum that may be filled by Moscow and Beijing, though involvement in the war-torn country is a high-risk, high-reward proposition for both nations.

For China, Afghanistan represents a new opportunity to expand its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative -- which the previous U.S.-backed Afghan government rejected -- and tap into deposits of copper, iron ore, lithium and rare earth minerals that fuel high-tech manufacturing.

But the recent turmoil underscores the danger of operating in the country, and China has long been concerned that the remote Wakhan Corridor could become a pipeline for Uygur militants to enter the Xinjiang region. Beijing has urged the Taliban to eradicate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a traditional partner of the militant group that has sought freedom for the Uyghurs.

China’s willingness to “throw an economic lifeline to the Taliban” is one of the biggest questions facing a post-U.S. Afghanistan, according to Laurel Miller, the former State Department acting special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“How much money will they chip into Afghanistan and the Taliban?” Miller said. “Will it be enough to, if not entirely substitute for Western aid and international financial institution aid, soften the blow sufficiently?“

Russia faces a similarly complex calculus. The Kremlin has invested in relationships with the Taliban, hosting a delegation of Taliban representatives in Moscow, and the departure of the U.S. has dealt not only an embarrassment to the U.S. but the opportunity to grow Russia’s sphere of influence.

But Russia is also worried about the flow of opium or Islamic militants from Afghanistan into former Soviet republics including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. Those central Asian countries could also see a flow of refugees if Afghans continue to seek to flee Taliban rule.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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