All scenarios point to further turbulence
Now that the United States has unceremoniously exited Afghanistan, after spending over $2 trillion and at a cost of over 170,000 lives, what sort of future is in store for the country under the returning Salafi jihadist dispensation? As a pointer to the future, the Taliban’s late 1990s governance record is scarcely reassuring. Some Taliban leaders, concerned perhaps at the grim economic situation in the country they now rule, have sought to reassure the West that human rights, including the rights of women, would be respected. Since the same leaders have admitted that these “rights” were subject to Sharia law, few western leaders are likely to buy these guarantees. Besides, the deeply opaque nature of this grouping makes it unclear if it is speaking in one voice. Thus, the only certainty about Afghanistan’s future is uncertainty. Not all of this has to do with the Taliban’s accession to power, either.
US President Joe Biden has sought to justify his abrupt decision to disengage by pointing to the chronic inefficiency and corruption of the Afghan political class and its agents. But he is being disingenuous in suggesting that the American presence played a durable, stabilising role in the country. Outside of the cities, Afghanistan remained an agglomeration of badlands where warlords ruled and the Taliban had a free hand. In the absence of basic state institutions, its combination of religious charity made it popular in rural Afghanistan, as the grouping’s swift takeover testifies. All of this, however, masks the point that, as in Iraq, the US has played a star role in the endemic corruption that has characterised the so-called democratic regimes in Kabul. The pattern is familiar: Hundreds of private contractors affiliated to the military skimmed money off public projects and unaccounted money from the CIA flowed to corrupt warlords and politicians. One analysis calculated, for instance, that 40 per cent of defence department contracts went to criminal syndicates and officials in the guise of prioritising security.
The Afghan military’s rolls and weapons inventories were found to comprise a sizeable portion of the ghost numbers, which explains why the army melted away in the face of the well-financed Taliban assault. Such deep-rooted corruption will have a lasting impact on a country where such institutions of governance that exist are, at best, shaky. Expectations that the US and EU will reappear as investors are unrealistic. First, unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan is not on the edge of Asian Tigers plugged into global supply chains. Second, the country is surrounded by powers that are either failed states or hostile — Iran, which has played all sides of the jihad game, Pakistan, Russia, and their sponsor, China. Financing resistance forces may keep the Taliban destabilised but achieve little else in the absence of the critical human intelligence from within.
Given the significant amounts of money that the Taliban can command from the drugs trade and the sale of lithium, rare earths, and copper — all critical for the world’s green energy transition — the country would well become the headquarters for Jihad Inc all over again. The recent actions of an ISIS faction offer a pointer to this future. This is obviously bad news for India, but also for Europe, possibly China, and certainly the US. Mr Biden may have thought he had solved a problem by ending America’s longest overseas war. But he may just have encouraged the start of another more brutal resurgence of global terrorism.