Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The Taliban face major governance challenges, while South Asian governments react cautiously to the group’s victory in Kabul.
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Will the Taliban Fail to Govern?
On Thursday, at least two bombs exploded near Kabul’s international airport. One Afghan health official said at least 60 Afghan civilians were killed, and the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed that 12 U.S. service members lost their lives. Hours later, the Islamic State claimed responsibility on its Telegram channel; Washington had warned for days of the threat posed by Islamic State-Khorasan, the Afghanistan chapter of the terrorist group.
The blasts have thrown future U.S. evacuation plans into uncertainty. The number of evacuations had decreased in recent days, but many people still want to leave. Thousands of Afghans had gathered outside the airport when the attacks took place. The Biden administration hasn’t announced what it will do in the days before Aug. 31, the deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal. The U.S. Embassy has warned American citizens not to travel to the airport.
The attacks underscore the challenges the Taliban face when they formally establish their new government after the U.S. troop departure. The Taliban must confront the ongoing threat of violence posed by their rival Islamic State-Khorasan, which won’t stop staging attacks just because the Taliban declared the end of their own war when they marched into Kabul earlier this month.
Much talk about Afghanistan in the days since has focused on the Taliban’s strengths: their wealth, military clout, and ability to exploit the deep weaknesses of the Afghan state. But the militant group will soon learn the age-old lesson that governing is harder than fighting—especially because it lacks the experience to tackle the deep policy challenges it confronts.
In addition to security problems, Afghanistan is suffering an economic crisis that predates the Taliban takeover. In fiscal year 2020, its GDP growth contracted by nearly 2 percent, urban poverty rose by 6 percentage points, and inflation rose by nearly 3 percentage points. Food prices skyrocketed this spring, and by April, 5.5 million Afghans were experiencing “emergency” levels of food insecurity—the highest figure in any country other than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Taliban’s governance model emphasizes repression and draconian justice, not discerning macroeconomic policies. Ajmal Ahmady, the former acting governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, predicts currency devaluations, more inflation, higher food prices, and plummeting government revenues. The current volatility has already exacerbated the crisis: The money transfer service Western Union, which brings critical remittances from abroad, has temporarily suspended operations.
The international community’s decision to sanction the Taliban, including freezing almost $9.5 billion in foreign reserves, will compound the economic stress. Most countries—including potential partners Pakistan and China—have indicated they will watch Taliban behavior before recognizing the government. They will struggle to gain recognition from many potential donors, especially in the West. Nonetheless, some capital-rich countries are likely to eventually back the Taliban financially—think China and several Gulf countries.
Even with support, the broader challenges of governance are immense. Before the Taliban takeover, residents in Taliban-controlled areas reported that basic service delivery mechanisms were not in place and that the insurgents struggled with everything including how to manage border trade and regulate dams. To ease their burden, the Taliban may recruit several non-Taliban technocrats and economists into its government.
But the group will still struggle to gain a critical mass of legitimacy from a population that may have resented corrupt and dysfunctional non-Taliban governments but will resent repressive Taliban rule even more, especially if economic stress isn’t eased. Such grievances could eat into any support the Taliban do receive for ending the war and bringing better security, an achievement they will trumpet.
If the Taliban fail to consolidate power and legitimacy, security will worsen throughout Afghanistan, as the attack on the Kabul airport has shown. Armed opposition will return, energizing what is at this point a limited resistance front in Panjshir, the only province not currently under Taliban control. Terrorists will capitalize on increased unrest, and insecurity and continued economic strain will intensify refugee flows.
This isn’t to suggest the Taliban’s time in power will be short-lived. It won’t hesitate to use force to withstand challenges to its rule. It has also preempted the emergence of new pockets of resistance in the north, a traditional bastion of anti-Taliban activity. The non-Taliban state—the political and military apparatus overseen by the previous government—has effectively collapsed.
But the pressure and tests the Taliban face right away will shatter any veneer of invincibility that they may seek to project following their lightning-fast ascension to power.
Tuesday, Aug. 31: The United States faces a deadline for full military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Regional reactions. South Asian governments have reacted to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan with caution. Many countries say they won’t make any immediate decisions about recognizing the new regime. This week, India indicated it would cooperate with Russia on an assessment of Taliban behavior. In the Maldives, officials have refused to offer any comment. Even Pakistan, which has close ties to the Taliban, says it will only recognize the new regime “in line with the international consensus.” However, it is the only South Asian country to keep its embassy open in Kabul, and when the Taliban entered the capital, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan proclaimed that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery.”
Intensifying diplomacy. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have each engaged intensely with major powers and regional players over the issue of Afghanistan. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke with his Saudi, British, German, and U.S. counterparts. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has spoken to his U.S. and Russian counterparts, and on Tuesday he left for a trip to Central Asia and Iran. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s Khan have both spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Most of these exchanges dealt with the Taliban takeover and the evacuation process. But a readout of an Aug. 20 call between Khan and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggests Pakistan is also using this diplomacy as an opportunity to convince skeptical interlocutors that it will play a peaceful role in Afghanistan, despite its ties to the Taliban.
Nepal struggles to evacuate citizens. While South Asian governments have safely evacuated nationals from Afghanistan, several of them—including Pakistan, which is keeping its embassy open, and Sri Lanka, which has some nationals who are voluntarily staying—aren’t planning to remove everyone. Nepal, however, has struggled—in part because it has as many 15,000 nationals working illegally in Afghanistan, meaning Kathmandu has no data on them. Nepal also has no embassy in Afghanistan and has asked the United States and India to assist with evacuations.
One big question emerging from the Taliban takeover is the impact it will have on the activities of terrorist groups in the region, which have been galvanized by the U.S. military withdrawal. Such discussions tend to focus on the Pakistani Taliban, which threaten Pakistan, and Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which threaten India.
Less is heard about the implications for Bangladesh, where local and foreign Islamist militant groups have a presence. In 2016, five assailants attacked a Dhaka bakery, killing 20 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, but the Bangladeshi government blamed a local terrorist group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh. This week, a Deutsche Welle report found that thousands of people in Bangladesh have posted messages on social media celebrating the Taliban victory and that earlier this year police discovered plans to send nearly a dozen Bangladeshi radicals to Afghanistan to join the militant group.
Such developments are unsettling for Dhaka. In the 1980s, Bangladeshis traveled to Afghanistan to help mujahideen forces fight the Soviets; they returned home and formed extremist organizations that endure today. However, the government may also use new terrorism fears as a pretext to crack down hard on the country’s Islamist opposition, risking provoking the very radicalization it seeks to prevent.
“I have to try.”
—Zaki Anwari, a 17-year-old Afghan soccer star, telling his brother he was determined to flee after the Taliban seized power. Several hours later, he fell to his death after clinging to a U.S. airplane.
Avasna Pandey of the Center for Investigative Journalism-Nepal argues in South Asian Voices that Kathmandu needs a feminist foreign policy. This would “prioritize humanitarian interests over hard power” in a country where “laws are embedded within patriarchal and oppressive power structures that inhibit women from reaching their full potential,” she writes.
Tenzing Lamsang, the editor of the Bhutanese newspaper, writes on the plight of the sole remaining Bhutanese national in Kabul: a United Nations staffer whose name is withheld. After the Taliban stormed the U.N. compound in Kandahar, where he was based, he relocated to Kabul, “where he is relatively safe in a large U.N. compound.”
An editorial in the Times of India calls for New Delhi, confronted with the reality of a Pakistan-allied Taliban government, to “work with the US and other G7 democracies to safeguard its strategic, security, and economic interests that can be threatened by the Afghan situation.”