New realities and challenges

Published September 23, 2021
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.

BY Aug 31, the Biden administration was able to evacuate some 124,000 people primarily through Kabul’s Hamid Karzai airport but also via overland routes. The fact that this number could be evacuated despite the chaotic conditions brought about by the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani administration, and the former president’s fleeing from the country, offers incontrovertible evidence of the resources — its own military and civilian resources, alongside those of its allies — the US could muster. This alone should suffice to establish its status as the sole superpower.

The US can also be commended for issuing licences permitting NGOs to provide assistance in Afghanistan without being held in violation of the US sanctions regime and permitting the drawing of funds by Taliban representatives for travel abroad. The US claims it has, since 2002, provided humanitarian aid to the tune of $4 billion for refugees in Afghanistan and for Afghan refugees in the region. While this means little since much of this was wasted it is possible that the $330 million they have provided this fiscal year will be better utilised.

Read: US spent $290m every day in Afghanistan for 20 years

The Americans have acknowledged that the Taliban have helped in the evacuation and have not reneged on their promise to allow the departure of foreign nationals and those Afghans with valid travel documents. President Joe Biden’s statement that recognition of the Taliban is “a long way off” obviously strengthens the hardliners in Taliban ranks who are presumably making the case that their opponents are not showing any willingness to recognise the new reality in Afghanistan. What this could mean is that the new reality in Afghanistan will also change or at least this is how one interprets reports of the divisions within Taliban ranks. The recent announcement of the expansion of the cabinet to include figures from the Panjshiris, the Uzbeks and Hazaras suggests that the moderates in Taliban ranks are still trying, albeit haltingly, to address international concerns about ‘inclusivity’.

The Americans have acknowledged, after a New York Times investigative report, that what was termed a “righteous strike” had in fact been a stri­­ke on a civilian vehicle killing a family of 10. One can be forgiven for believing that the strike was ordered for political reasons since Biden had promised “retribution” with the usual “strike auth­ori­t­ies, procedures and processes” being set aside. Now apologies have been offered and compensation promised but the damage has been done particularly to the Taliban leaders advocating moderation.

Will the Afghan Taliban entrust to the UN the responsibility of receiving and disbursing all aid?

Perhaps further damage has been done by the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) agreement to provide Australia the wherewithal to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine as part of its arsenal to compete militarily with China in the South China Sea. The consequent cancellation of the Australian agreement to buy conventional submarines from France has caused understandable umbrage in France and undermined the transatlantic alliance. It seems that despite US Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying that the US would use “diplomacy” rather than military force to advance its interests it is like Trump saying ‘my way or the highway’ with little or no regard for the interests of allies. This attitude, it is feared, will also be a determinant of US policy in Afghanistan.

Editorial: AUKUS controversy shows even closest of allies can become estranged when commercial concerns are at stake

There is some hope to be entertained in the light of the response to the appeal by UN Secretary General António Guterres for funding the relief programme for the Afghans and the determination of many NGOs with locally recruited staff to, in the words of a UN official, adopt the slogan of ‘Stay and Deliver’. The WFP programme has received pledges for the full $1.3bn it had sought. The question is, will the Taliban and the expanded cabinet, be willing to entrust to the UN and its dedicated staff the responsibility of receiving and disbursing all aid, recruiting from neighbouring countries the experts who have already migrated or will do so? This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the years that they dominated the scene in Afghanistan it was often said that they would leave governance to experts while limiting themselves to overseeing the administration and keeping a check on corruption.

As regards the role of women, little attention has been paid in the international media to a report that Afghan women have set up organisations over six years of age (35 per cent) and others less than five years old (65pc) which have created 129,000 jobs largely but not exclusively for women working in handicrafts, food production and distribution of their products. Most of these organisations are not licensed. If the Taliban want to prove that they do not want women to be discriminated against and will permit them to earn a living “within the framework of the Taliban interpretation of the dictates of Islam”, they can do so by permitting these organisations to continue to function and offer them the licensing they need under current Afghan law.

As far as Pakistan is concerned, we have done our bit by facilitating transfers of persons of all nationalities wishing to leave Afghanistan with proper documentation and helping Qatar make Kabul airport functional. We have provided more food and medical equipment etc. to the Afghan people than our limited resources would ordinarily permit. This was not just a brotherly gesture but also a recognition that Afghanistan’s stability was a sine qua non for regional stability and in particular for the tribal areas now merged with KP. About 90pc of the Pak-Afghan border has been fenced. The rest must be completed.

The government must ensure that no matter what the opposition says there should be only one person, preferably a civilian like Ambassador Sadiq to talk about Afghanistan and to deal with the efforts being made to make Pakistan the scapegoat for what has happened in Afghanistan. We must make sure that the regime in Afghanistan understands our concerns about the safe haven enjoyed by the TTP in Nangarhar. Our policy with regard to the TTP must also be thought through before anything is said publicly. ‘Least said soonest mended’ should be the wise words that guide our statements on Afghanistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2021

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