“I am not going to predict the future of Afghanistan,” was a quick response from a western diplomat in my conversation with him on the current Afghan situation. The diplomat was reluctant to give any definitive answer to the most pertinent question because the world’s best intelligence agencies failed to foresee the stunning fall of Kabul. Given this element of unpredictability and complexities, post-US withdrawal Afghanistan is not simply a challenge but a headache for the world at large and the region and Pakistan in particular.
There could be two possible scenarios. First, the worst case. Even before the Afghan Taliban took over, the Afghan economy was on the verge of collapse. Poverty was rising, unemployment was growing, and a third of the population was facing food shortage. With the arrival of the Taliban, the US froze $9.5 billion foreign reserves of the Afghan central bank. This means that Afghanistan, which is heavily dependent on the foreign aid, has no money to run the affairs of the government. Although international donors, including the US, have pledged $1.2 billion in humanitarian assistance at the recently held Geneva conference, the US is unlikely to give the Taliban government access to the Afghan foreign reserves. The humanitarian assistance would be distributed through the UN while no direct economic assistance would be provided to the Afghan government. In this scenario there can potentially be an economic collapse. This is the scenario Pakistan and other countries in the region fear the most. The neighbouring countries have thus far been relieved that there was no civil war or bloodshed in Afghanistan. This means that there was no exodus of Afghans. But in case of an economic meltdown, there is a possibility of unrest in Afghanistan. Like in the past, Afghanistan can descend into a civil war with the world rendered as a mere spectator. The unrest in Afghanistan means a security vacuum. Security vacuum would allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and IS-Khorasan to re-emerge and pose a threat to Afghanistan and beyond. That is why the UN Secretary General said the economic collapse of Afghanistan would be a gift for “terrorists”.
The best case scenario envisages the Afghan Taliban slowly and gradually meeting the international demands. They form an inclusive government, give women their due rights, and respect other human rights. With their actions, the Taliban prove that they are a changed entity compared to the last time when they were simply an international pariah. As a result the international community recognises the Taliban government and helps it in post-conflict reconstruction efforts. The US unfreezes Afghan foreign assets and pledges economic assistance. Other western countries follow suit. International and regional players come together and conclude that the peace in Afghanistan serves everyone’s interest, and that for the first time in 40 years, there is peace and stability in Afghanistan. Such a situation would immensely benefit the regional countries particularly those in the neighbourhood, including Pakistan, which has suffered the most because of the continued war in its backyard. The stability in Afghanistan allows China to extend its BRI to the neighbouring country. The stalled energy projects passing through Afghanistan are revived, turning the dream of regional connectivity into a reality. Afghanistan that has long been a place for regional and international powers vying for their influence becomes a regional hub. There is broader consensus among the regional players not to use Afghanistan to advance their strategic designs. On top of that, Afghans themselves come to this realisation of addressing their ethnic and other discords.
But as it is often said history is the best guide to predict the future. And keeping in mind the Afghan history, prospects of long-term peace and stability are unfortunately not too bright!
Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th, 2021.
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