When U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that the United States would withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the only real question was whether the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist movement that seeks to retake control of the country, would wait until that departure to launch their offensive.
They did not. Taliban forces have moved relentlessly forward, taking control of nearly one-third of Afghanistan’s districts and threatening many more.
Civil war is not Afghanistan’s only danger. The country is also dealing with a massive drought and the COVID-19 outbreak. Food insecurity is on the rise. The resulting instability threatens not only Afghanistan but will spill over and roil its neighbors.
Diplomacy is unlikely to stave off the Taliban’s return to power, but it is absolutely necessary — to explore peaceful solutions to the conflict and to engage regional countries and give them a stake in Afghanistan’s future and its stability.
Intelligence officials and military strategists warned that a U.S. (and allied) withdrawal would imperil the survival of the government in Kabul. One assessment reportedly gave the Afghan government six months after American troops left. That may have been optimistic.
The Taliban launched its offensive shortly after Biden announced that he intended to end the “Forever War,” and the gains have been impressive. The group is believed to already control about half the territory of Afghanistan, and it is expanding quickly.
In the country’s northern and southern provinces, Talib fighters have been routing government forces, with an estimated 1,600 soldiers fleeing to neighboring Tajikistan, prompting that government to deploy its own military to the border.
The government in Tajikistan is already coping with an influx of Afghans, reported to be about 1,000 a month, who have fled in fear of a Taliban takeover. It is said to soon be setting up camps for the growing number of refugees.
Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, is worried, too. That country is already home to an estimated 2 million undocumented Afghans, and fears that renewed fighting will spur more to cross the border. Iran is a Shiite country and the Taliban are militant Sunnis.
Iranian forces clashed repeatedly with the Taliban when that group was in power in Kabul during the 1990s. Iranian politicians have warned that a Taliban presence on the border would cross a red line.
That concern, and a desire to spread its influence in south Asia, prompted Iran to host last week peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives. The Afghan government has been insisting on negotiations with the Taliban, but the group has preferred to do its talking on the battlefield. Quiet talks in Qatar made no progress but the Taliban’s gains may encourage its leadership to use diplomacy to avoid a bloody fight for the capital.
China too is watching developments in Afghanistan, worried about the potential impact of instability on its western, predominately Muslim provinces. Beijing hosted the fourth round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue.
Chinese officials have also been pursuing talks with Afghan counterparts about investing in the country through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s multibillion-dollar project to build infrastructure throughout the world to spur development, facilitate trade and extend Chinese influence. China has already tightened links with Pakistan through the BRI, and the prospect of adding Afghanistan to the effort appeals to the governments in Beijing and Islamabad.
Despite the many different perspectives, one thing most of those countries agree on is that the dire situation in Afghanistan is the fault of the U.S. Blame is affixed for either invading in 2001 or pulling out this year.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov faulted “the hasty withdrawal of NATO.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad decried the “failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan,” while Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. “the origin of problems in Afghanistan” and warned that it “cannot cause instability or war by withdrawing troops.”
There is some truth to charges that the U.S. presence contributed to the Kabul government’s difficulties, but the bulk of the blame rests on a feckless class of elites that have prioritized personal or tribal gains over those of the nation. The result is a country that is weak and divided, with no social capital and little resilience.
Fighting has created an estimated 200,000 internal refugees this year. Relief agencies fear that a drought, the worst since 2018 and which displaced 250,000 people, threatens a humanitarian catastrophe. The Red Cross has warned that about half the population — 18.4 million Afghans — need assistance and nearly 17 million people are experiencing serious food insecurity. Aid officials expect to see cases of malnutrition rise significantly, especially among infants and young children.
This is occurring amidst a third COVID-19 outbreak that is overwhelming hospitals and health care systems. Despite testing just 500,000 people (out of a population of 40 million) the United Nations reports that 42% of recent tests come back positive. The country lacks tests, vaccines, hospitals and other basic health care equipment.
The combination of war, disease and drought has pushed Afghanistan to the brink. It desperately needs money and other forms of assistance but much of the world is ready to turn its back on the country. It is telling that the United Nations humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan is only 13% funded.
The U.S. withdrawal will prompt regional countries to devote time and attention to Afghanistan, to figure out how to pacify the country’s warring factions and prevent instability from spilling over the borders and affecting them. The risk of a wider conflagration may prove to be the motivation that they need to put effort and energy into what has until now been someone else’s problem.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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