Rebels with a new cause: The challenges the Taliban face in governing Afghanistan

The Taliban finally have what they always wanted: Afghanistan all to themselves.

Two decades of butchery and warfare — almost three decades if you count their initial rise to power in the early 1990s — came to an ignominious end with the departure of the last U.S. troops and transport planes from Kabul on Monday.

Since the hardline Islamist movement is known to frown on dancing — when not outright banning it — you can probably expect little in the way of public celebration, at least nothing that western nations would recognize, or consider a party.

Whatever victory celebration the Taliban might have in mind, it will surely be tempered by the reality that they have inherited a country they helped to utterly ruin and are now overlords to a fractious, recalcitrant people who do not bow easily, even when bloodied.

Much has been written about the policy failures, the incoherence and the hubris of western nations, led by the United States, since the democratically-elected government collapsed two weeks ago. 

Make no mistake: There has been a legion of failures over which we can argue for the next decade.

What may be just as important to recognize at this moment is that the Taliban have been brought down to earth, going from brutal, fire-breathing insurgents — seemingly stealthy supermen who struck fear into many hearts by night — to being the ones who now have to listen to the complaints, concerns and vagaries of the governed.  

The early signs are not encouraging, according to seasoned Afghanistan experts.

The Taliban’s ability to deliver local government at the district level throughout the ethically-fractured country is suspect. It’s one of the reasons the Taliban have been begging and threatening civil servants to go back to work.

Anthony Cordesman, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said you have to remember that all politics is local.

“You basically can’t administer a district from Kabul,” Cordesman told CBC News.

Taliban fighters from the Fateh Zwak unit, wielding American supplied weapons, equipment and uniforms, storm into the Kabul International Airport early Tuesday to secure it. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

“As long as you are at war, you can always excuse whatever happened as the fault of the government in Kabul. The problem with winning is that there is only one responsible voice and one responsible target when people are angry — and now that’s the Taliban.”

‘Very serious financial pressure’ coming soon

Much has been made of the moderate face the Taliban have shown the world since seizing power, even with ominous reports of retribution, disappearances and murder. Whether the now-reverse insurgency of former Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh takes off will largely hinge on the competency of the Taliban to handle local government. 

“The question is going to be: In a country with so many factions and divisions, the question is going to be, how many of the district governments can actually function,” said Cordesman. “Most people will judge what they see in terms of local governance.”

And then, there is the question of money.

Nipa Banerjee, who ran Canada’s aid and development program in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, said the former government’s central bank reserves were largely depleted by the time the Taliban overran Kabul. 

Within days, the Taliban discovered Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, roughly $9 billion, are stored in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and that cash has been frozen by the Biden Administration.

And that is not the full extent of the cash crunch.

“Eighty percent of their budget is composed of international donations,” Banerjee said.

Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have temporarily halted Afghanistan’s access to funds. 

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said on Sunday that economic aid will be used as leverage to help ensure the safe passage of those hoping to flee Afghanistan.

There are already some in the international development community that say the money talks approach could be useful in the medium term as a check against Taliban excesses.

Afghanistan is “not bankrupt because you have ongoing cash flow,” said Cordesman, but the suspension of aid “will put very serious financial pressure very shortly.”

The U.S. could squeeze the new regime further by introducing more sanctions and apply the same sort of pressure it does on Iran and North Korea. 

Cordesman said that type of approach has not convinced either Tehran or Pyongyang to rein oppression of their citizens, nor their military buildups.

In a recent opinion piece, Cordesman wrote that the U.S. tends to focus “on security options and empty rhetoric about legitimacy and human rights with little – if any – benefits for the people of the country.”

Canada, like the U.S., is a defeated enemy of the Taliban and will have limited leverage beyond the pocketbook.

Banerjee said she worries about what comes next, whether it is an uprising because of the Taliban’s inability to govern, a renewal of the civil war — or the turning of the country into a full-fledged pariah state.

“It would be very cruel to the people of Afghanistan to isolate them,” she said.

 



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