With “more people going hungry in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world,” the Taliban have shown they recognize “the scope of the problems they’re facing. But they’ve also revealed … just how little they can do to grapple with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” says USIP's Andrew Watkins.

U.S. Institute of Peace experts discuss the latest foreign policy issues from around the world in On Peace, a brief weekly collaboration with SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124.


Julie Mason: Joining me now, Andrew Watkins is a senior expert on Afghanistan for the U.S. Institute of Peace. Here to discuss the one-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul. Andrew, good morning.

Andrew Watkins: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Julie Mason: What a dire situation there. People are starving. Their economy is in ruins. The setbacks for women. Ugh.

Andrew Watkins: It really is terrible in so many ways. The Taliban are showing the world and the Afghan people that they understand the scope of the problems that they're facing. But they've also revealed, over the last year, just how little that they can do to grapple with the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Julie Mason: What is the situation there? What are the conditions?

Andrew Watkins: The conditions are pretty horrific. And it's only due to the intervention of Western powers like the United States and European allies, that the country hasn't reached a critical mass of starvation everywhere. But the United Nations and other aid organizations say that there are more people going hungry in Afghanistan than anywhere else in the world in Asia and Africa. This is a result of an economy that completely collapsed. When the U.S. left Afghanistan, it wasn't just our military presence, it was all of the aid and the economic assistance that had been turning their whole economy into one giant bubble.

Julie Mason: The Taliban have consolidated, sort of, security in the country. They do have that on lockdown. No major threats to their rule of the country.

Andrew Watkins: It's true. A lot of what we're seeing in the news usually has to do with fighting that's still going on in Afghanistan. There are a lot of people, for maybe obvious reasons, who don't like the Taliban, and they're trying to do something about it. But to put it in perspective, all of this is really small scale. The fact is there are people trying to resist the Taliban. From the left and the right, you have people affiliated with the former government, you have our former Afghan allies, and then all the way on the other side of the spectrum, you have terrorists who are part of the Islamic State network around the world. But the Taliban have consolidated control around the country, and they're going to control it for the foreseeable future.

Julie Mason: And the Taliban hiding al-Zawahiri or giving him safe haven in Kabul, what is your interpretation of the relationship now, between those two groups?

Andrew Watkins: Yeah, I mean, the Taliban themselves have really been caught between a rock and a hard place. It's always been a complicated relationship. You can go back to 2001 and if you look at interviews and cables from the State Department, there were a lot of people in the Taliban who didn't agree with their leader's judgment to keep bin Laden protected. And there are a lot of people in the Taliban for the last 20 years who have kind of resented the relationship with al-Qaida. Because why should they have lost everything and had to suffer through 20 years of war just for the sake of keeping a lot of people from the Arab world safe when their fight is a different fight? But at the end of the day, as a friend who's very close to people in the Taliban told me, if there are some people in the Taliban who don't like that relationship with al-Qaida, there's one thing that everyone in the Taliban likes less. And that's the idea of helping their former enemy, the United States, hunt al-Qaida down.

Julie Mason: Very interesting, because I mean, after all that money, after all those lives lost, after all those U.S. promises, to have withdrawn and then al-Qaida still operating in Afghanistan. Like what exactly was achieved?

Andrew Watkins: Yeah, I mean, that's especially hard to ask when we look at everything else, right? There were a lot of mistakes made and there was, you know, countless corruption, from the money that we spent, to what Afghan politicians did with it, but there were improvements made and we're seeing even those erode, you know, across Afghan society.

Julie Mason: Right? Exactly. Everything we said like, “If you just vote. If you just turn out. If you just you know, do this, then you're gonna have all these benefits.” And now, people are starving and there's nothing. That's really grim on a Monday morning but tell us about the supreme leader of the Taliban, Andrew.

Andrew Watkins: Yeah, so this is the most interesting thing we've gotten to see over the last year. The Taliban calls their government the Islamic Emirate and the head is a leader called the emir that they say has supreme authority. He acts with the authority, you know, of God himself. The reality is, though, for the last 20 years, to survive in their war against the U.S., the Taliban had to grow very flexible. They've always said in theory that their leader had supreme authority. But in reality, if you wanted to sign up with them to fight against the Americans, they were pretty flexible. They gave you a lot of autonomy to do things in your little corner of Afghanistan the way that you wanted. Since taking over the country last year, the emir has been trying in a lot of different ways to reassert his authority and become that supreme leader that they've always said he is.

Julie Mason: And how does he occupy that job? Like, what are his edicts?

Andrew Watkins: Well, the most interesting thing is that he doesn't occupy that job with the rest of the government that's based in the capital, Kabul. He sits down in the southern city of Kandahar, which now kind of has a mystique in the Taliban because it's where their first emir, and the guy who founded the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, it's where he sat for over four years. He had this attitude, you know, not that much different than how some Americans might feel about Washington D.C., that the capital, as the hub of politics, was a corrupt and sinful place. And so, he avoided it entirely. So, this guy is styling himself in the same way, there's a lot of mythology that the Taliban tell about themselves.

Julie Mason: Other matters, meanwhile, the Taliban stalling out in critical aspects of government. As we mentioned, [there is] near universal poverty in the country. And it's an interesting policy question, right? Because, Andrew, no country really seems to want to have any sort of diplomatic relationship with the Taliban, but there's still a great deal of sympathy for the people there.

Andrew Watkins: It's true. I mean, looking forward, this is really the United States’ struggle: how to continue to provide support for the Afghan people and completely work around the government, you know, the political force that's running the country. It's an unprecedented situation. The Taliban can't seem to make up their mind on some of the most important issues to run the country. And where they do seem to have made up their mind, it's making the wrong decisions, like hosting al-Qaida. And so, you've got a United States, and of course, we still have this huge obligation to the Afghan people with everything we invested, but trying to figure out how to remain engaged without it benefiting the Taliban, while they still figure themselves out on their path to becoming a really kind of warped version of government.

Julie Mason: Andrew Watkins is senior expert on Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Andrew, thank you so much for your time this morning.

Andrew Watkins: Thanks for having me.

Julie Mason: Really great to talk to you.

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