Can the Taliban join the community of nations?
THE FUTURIAN #5
Geopolitics for all countries can prove to be a complex issue. The early 2020s has shown that not only do countries need to consider their neighbours, but so too must they consider what nature has in store. Be that droughts, storms or biodiversity imbalances. Satisfying the internal needs of a country is a delicate balance between a variety of external factors.
This balancing act is even harder for new governments who have not yet built the political capital to ensure stability. Marking the end of a 20-year war, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan during 2021 in what many found to be a surprising wave of success over all parts of the country. Complete control was gained in mere months between 1 May 2021 - when the US and NATO withdrew troops from the country - to 15 August 2021 when the Taliban took control of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. The response of other countries to the newly formed government was not so helpful.
In the aftermath of this change in control, many worried about the next steps the Taliban would take. As a response to this uncertainty, the International Monetary Fund blocked the country’s access to emergency reserves, the US froze over $9 billion belonging to the Afghan central bank, while the world all but ceased humanitarian aid to the country. All of which triggered a severe banking crisis within the country.
At the same time, mother nature threw a few punches as well. With the elimination of humanitarian aid, combined with droughts in the region, it was estimated that more than half of the 40 million population experienced acute food shortages during the end of 2021. Topped with lack of access to healthcare, COVID-19 remains prevalent within the country. COVID vaccine rates are among the lowest in the world at just 11%, this being lower than the whole of Africa (at a level of 12%), and lower than its neighbours Turkmenistan (52%), Uzbekistan (39%) and Pakistan (43%).
Certainly, the country has many challenges. But how will the Taliban develop its geopolitical positioning? What are the stepping stones to stability? As at February 2022, not one country has formally recognised the Taliban’s government or its renaming of Afghanistan to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Who might be the first to recognise them?
With every new government come opportunities and risks. With the realisation that Western sanctions would not be lifted, the Taliban had to maintain their focus internally rather than looking externally during 2021. To ensure that public services remained operational throughout winter and owing to lack of available funds, the Taliban introduced a “Food for Work” program. In this program, the Taliban distributed previously donated humanitarian aid to public sector employees in exchange for continued work in the public sector.
For Afghans working outside of the public sector, a major source of the country’s GDP arises from the illicit drugs trade. This is a practice the Taliban has sought to stop for many years, with the most recent success during 2000 and 2001 where they reduced the trade in Afghanistan by 90% according to the UN. However, at this point the Taliban were then ousted and the drugs trade grew once more.
In the wake of 2021, the Taliban allowed the continuation of the narcotics trade to maintain the livelihoods of many Afghani people. For the global community, having Afghanistan reliant on the drugs trade results in more than 2,300 tonnes of opium being grown annually and a recent surge in the ephedra plant, a vital ingredient for crystal methamphetamine. These farmers fuel more than 90% of the global drugs supply and more than 95% of the UK’s drug trade.
By destabilising the Afghan banking sector, the country has felt a sharp deterioration in their livelihoods. However, the West should consider steps for the removal of such sanctions. Currently, the Taliban are not formally recognised globally, and yet the level of non-recognition differs between nations. From North America and Europe, the reception is hostile. However, countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China pose an opportunity for the Taliban to look East rather than West.
With China seeking to expand their Belt and Road Initiative, the Taliban’s geographical location and current isolated position could make for a key partnership in future years. Access to intelligence and information sharing will become more isolated the more the West dismisses the Taliban. This is likely to result in higher levels of risk to the West.
The longer the western community turns its back to the people of Afghanistan, the longer and more embedded the drugs trade will be within the global community. With drug misuse and drug related crime at all-time highs in many western countries, the cost to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan is significantly lower than the cost to police, rehabilitate, and provide healthcare for the effects of the drugs industry. In the last 10 years in the UK, heroin related deaths have doubled while cocaine related deaths have increased five-fold. The cost of the illegal drugs industry to the UK alone is £20 billion each year according to the UK government. While humanitarian aid pledge to Afghanistan during 2022 sits at a low £0.2 billion. With no reasonable steps to improve the lives of the Afghan people, these costs will simply rise as drug networks become more sophisticated with their distribution and associated violence.
The future of the Taliban is uncertain. As with every newly formed government, there are many ways in which the country could develop. What is certain is that this development will affect not only Afghanistan but the global community as a whole. Isolating the Taliban from access to their central bank funds while cutting off humanitarian aid increases the likelihood of a partnership with eastern nations. The Taliban is now seeking to strengthen ties with its eastern neighbours thus making the West superfluous.
Once the Taliban are no longer affected by Western sanctions, what future options will the West have available to quell any extremist fears? The world has seen this most recently with Russia, who have been over sanctioned for many years but who have worked in recent years to mitigate this. Let March 2022 be a lesson that diplomacy rather than isolation should be implemented while influence remains possible. To do this, perhaps the Taliban ought to be encouraged to join the community of nations? Perhaps the first step might be recognition of the facts on the ground?
© Charlotte Aguilar-Millan 2022