International leaders agree that the Taliban are violating fundamental human rights of Afghans. Girls can’t go to school, poverty is on the rise, and people are suffering. The longer the Taliban stay in power, the tighter their grip.
But what can be done about it? The speakers at “Talibanned: Prospects for Afghanistan,” a panel at this year’s Munich Security Conference, appeared to have no answer to this question.
All hell broke loose when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. World leaders were quick to condemn the takeover, and there was a genuine and widespread concern about the plight of Afghan people under Taliban rule. A year and a half later, in February 2023, there is scant global attention on Afghanistan.
The US approach
World leaders seem to have shifted their focus to other conflicts and domestic issues. And even the international actors who’d had an initial inclination to respond to the Taliban takeoever are unclear how to handle it now.
“Right now, we are looking at the humanitarian assistance,” Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said during Saturday’s Munich Security Council panel. “Half of Afghanistan’s population is starving. We have these nongovernmental organizations on the ground, and the US is providing assistance to them.”
Now that the United States has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan, McCaul said, there isn’t much the US can do for the country apart from helping out the people. However, the possible security threat posed by Taliban control of Afghanistan remains a matter of concern for the United States. In short, the US does not intend to provide financial assistance to Afghanistan as a country as this would ultimately strengthen the Taliban government.
‘More inclusive government’
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari told the panel that Afghanistan would need support as a state. “We all want to see women receiving education in Afghanistan,” Bhutto-Zardari said. “We all want to see a more inclusive government in Afghanistan. The terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan is worrisome.” The Taliban government must be willing to deal with these issues, he added.
“If the interim government in Afghanistan demonstrates the will to do that, we will have to find a way to build its capacity so that it can do so,” Bhutto-Zardari said. “They don’t have a standing army, they don’t have a counterterrorism force, they don’t even have a proper border security.”
The comments by Bhutto-Zardari and McCaul illustrate the conflicting and contradictory approaches regarding Afghanistan and the Taliban. Though Pakistan’s foreign minister wants the world to engage more with the Taliban, leaders from outside of the region are keeping a diplomatic distance from the group.
Mahbouba Seraj, an Afghan activist and journalist, is calling for a united stand to help Afghan people. “There are two governments in Afghanistan right now,” Seraj said, expressing her annoyance with regional and international politics surrounding her country. “One is the UN and its affiliates and the other is the Taliban. People are dying in Afghanistan, so I don’t care what the world is saying. Help Afghanistan in any way and make it possible for us to get out of this situation.”
Taliban consolidate power
While regional and world leaders discuss how to deal with Afghanistan, the Taliban strengthen their rule in the war-ravaged country. There are reports of Taliban infighting, but the group has so far remained largely united.
The Afghan rulers have the backing of China and Russia, two world powers that are clashing with the West on several fronts at the moment. McCaul expressed his concern about China’s Belt and Road investments in Afghanistan and the potential benefits for the Taliban.
Pakistan, a regional player that has historically had an influence on the Taliban, appears to be in a dilemma.
Foreign Minister Bhutto-Zardari wants the Taliban to act against “Islamic State” and other militant groups operating in Afghanistan. The security situation in Pakistan has only worsened since the Taliban seized power.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a militant group with links with the Afghan Taliban, have launched two massive terror attacks inside Pakistan in the span of three weeks. On Friday, TTP militants attacked and besieged a central police station in Karachi, the country’s economic hub. Pakistani security forces managed to thwart the assault and killed several militants but many people, including police officials, died as a result.
“In Peshawar, terrorists cost us over 100 lives, and just recently they attacked a police office in Karachi,” Bhutto-Zardari said. “The realistic scenario for us is that whoever is in charge in Afghanistan must fight these organizations.”
“You can’t solve the humanitarian problems with humanitarian aid alone,” Bhutto-Zardari said. “Afghanistan’s economy isn’t working, its funds are frozen, its banking channels are not functional, and then there are international sanctions. Until these issues are resolved, it will be very difficult for Afghanistan to come out of this crisis.”
But there is pushback against that. Removing the sanctions and unfreezing funds would mean strengthening the Taliban regime, which is definitely not an option for the West, even as Afghanistan’s population is suffering in the meantime.
A member of the audience at the Munich Security Conference panel aptly noted that it is Afghans who have the least say of all in their near-term future.