Richard North, 24/08/2021  

The Taliban is warning that any extension to the Biden's 31 August deadline for ending the airlift from Kabul would cross a red line that will lead to "consequences". This has the Guardian pontificating that the prospect of the Taliban wielding an effective veto on this matter, while the west haplessly ponders its options, "is a measure of the stunning strategic failure that has taken place".

It is easy in this context, though, to highlight the weakness of the coalition position. Large, ponderous military jets taking off are an easy target and it would be relatively easy for Taliban fighters to bring one down, or target the runway with mortars or other weapons, so as to make the airport unusable.

In so doing, the Taliban would exploit the inherent western respect for human life, knowing that the coalition powers would be reluctant to risk the lives of refugees and others in vulnerable aircraft which could get shot down on take-off, with appalling results.

But, to interpret western caution in this respect as weakness would be a mistake. Any ruthless group, with neither conscience nor respect for human life, can temporarily exploit their power over life and death, but this is not necessarily a winning strategy over the longer term.

And it is in this longer term – and not very much longer – that the Taleban are extremely vulnerable, and more so if any action of their over the evacuation period gives rise to significant loss of life. The response might not be measured in terms of bullets and bombs – not immediately, anyway – but response there will be to any outrage, and there will be no happy outcome.

One only has to look at the immediate US response to its defeat in Vietnam, and the years of isolation that nation suffered, to appreciate that power can be exerted in many different ways, the net effects of which can be as deadly as the bullet or the bomb.

Here, as I touched on recently, Afghanistan is in a vulnerable position, on the brink of economic collapse and facing a humanitarian crisis.

The US might walk away humiliated from a rebuff, but its people will survive. Many Afghans might not and, in the stresses that arise, the Taliban themselves may not survive the experience. Tweaking the nose of the United States is not the brightest of ideas for a group seeking to govern a nation with its own, multiple and pressing vulnerabilities.

Oddly, the nature of those vulnerabilities is best expressed in the Guardian, the very newspaper which seeks to portray the west as "hapless" – and I have looked elsewhere, including the Hindustan Times which makes some interesting observations.

On the economic front, the Guardian published a piece online on Sunday afternoon, expanding on the points I had raised earlier in the day.

The paper talked of Afghanistan facing a potentially "catastrophic perfect storm" of bank closures and shortages of hard currency on top of the suspension of money transfers by companies that sustain the key flow of remittances to Afghans from abroad by family members.

With ATMs in cities emptied, and banks and the main Sarai Shahzada financial exchange in Kabul still closed, the paper said, the country has faced a series of economic shocks since the Taliban seized power a week ago.

Continuing with the detail, the paper then told us that, without access to $9 billion (£6.6 billion) in frozen central bank reserves, which are held in the US, and with a crucial delivery of dollars cancelled as the former government collapsed, ordinary Afghans are already confronted with rising prices for basic goods as the value of the afghani has dropped even as they have started to run low on cash.

Salaries for government workers, many of whom are in hiding since the Taliban takeover, are unpaid, while queues formed at banks to withdraw savings during the former government’s collapse. And with that came the warning of "experts" about the risk of hyperinflation and increased hardship in the already impoverished country.

In its latest offering, published yesterday evening, the paper conveys a warning by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) that Afghanistan could start to run out of food by September.

Making exactly the point I made in my earlier piece, it warns of the winter coming, going into the lean season and many Afghan roads will be covered in snow. Andrew Patterson, the WFP's deputy country director in Afghanistan, says: "We need to get the food into our warehouses where it needs to be distributed".

Patterson adds that his agency has 20,000 metric tons of food in the country now, with another 7,000 on the way. But, he says, "We need another 54,000 metric tonnes of food to get the Afghan people through to the end of December". Then comes the headline quote: "We could start running out of food by September".

All this, of course, requires money. Patterson says that the WFP needs $200 million to buy food for up to 20 million people who they predict will need it. Nearly 18.5 million people – half the population – already rely on aid, and the current drought is expected to exacerbate that.

Needless to say, the US is amongst the most generous donors to UN causes, but the prospect of aid flowing from that source to a Taliban-dominated country is probably slight. Even now, it is probably not politically tenable for the US government to make substantial aid allocations and even less so if the media has been carrying pictures of the smouldering wreckage of downed transport aircraft.

With the best will in the world though, there is no certainty that any aid sent across the border into Afghanistan will reach the people for whom it is intended. The Taliban during its earlier tenure was hostile to the activities of aid NGOs, many of whom were forced to leave the country. As so people suffered – by the millions.

The US could well take the view, therefore, that the interests and the Afghan people are best served by withholding aid – which will either go directly to the Taliban, or be sold by them to sustain their own operations. Politically, that is easily justified. Americans are unlikely to welcome their tax dollars being used to support the Taliban, once more.

An ongoing humanitarian crisis would undoubtedly create stresses in the Taleban leadership, and amongst its supporters, possibly leading to the emergence of an opposition which the US could use as a conduit for aid, much as it did through the Soviet occupation.

Furthermore, if Pashtun ambitions for a united homeland go beyond mere aspiration, the US will not be without support in the region. Pakistan, which has been playing both sides of the fence, may recognise the existential threat, and provide the resource and access needed to take on the Taliban.

Nor will the US necessarily find it hard to enlist allies elsewhere. European nations, Turkey – and even Iran – have reacted sharply to the prospect of millions of Afghan refugees on the move. They may well accept that they fastest way to bring an emerging refugee crisis under control is to engineer the overthrow of the Taliban.

And here, history is on their side. In 2001, the Taliban were overthrown with the same ease with which they have now deposed the Afghan government. But what goes round, comes round. The administrative skills of the Taliban are unlikely to be up to the task of managing a crisis-ridden country and they are no more likely to be able to hold territory than their predecessors.

On the other hand, if the Taliban had an eye for the long game, they would be assisting in every way possible the flow of refugees – there being no better way of destabilising western government. Every load of humanity flying out represents a strain on the host nations, and makes it easier for the Taliban to manage what is left.

The fact the hard men seem to be making the running, though, suggests that the Taliban have learned little from their exile. And making a mess of things does not have to be the exclusive domain of the United States and its coalition allies.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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