It has become fashionable to characterize recent events in Afghanistan as a loss for the United States and a win for China. This zero-sum interpretation framed in the narrow context of U.S.-China relations is too simplistic and off the mark. The reality is far more complex and nuanced. The end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and the collapse of that country’s pro-Western government do not automatically translate into significant Chinese gains, nor do they trigger a swift Beijing swoop to fill the vacuum in Kabul left by Washington.
Last month’s bombing outside the Kabul airport was a devastating sign of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province’s (IS-K) recent resurgence. The group had already launched 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021 — an increase from 21 in the same period last year. This renewed capacity for mass-casualty attacks could further destabilize Afghanistan’s already precarious security situation, leaving both the new Taliban government and the United States with a vested interest in mounting an effective campaign to undercut IS-K’s presence in the region.
The Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan caught many people by surprise, perhaps including the Taliban themselves. However, it is not the country’s first episode of an unexpectedly quick military victory and consequent rapid change in regime. Historical examples may provide relevant lessons for the victorious Taliban as they begin to govern the country, including pitfalls to be avoided in their own and the nation’s interest.
Amid the fallout from the Taliban’s sudden takeover, USIP’s William Byrd warns that Afghanistan’s economy faces a catastrophic outlook if action isn’t taken — adding that “the Afghan people and the economy have a lot farther to fall than they did the previous time the Taliban were in charge.”
As part of the Taliban’s bid to re-establish the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the militant group announced the line up for its caretaker government on Tuesday. Despite several leading Taliban figures saying the movement would govern in a more moderate and inclusive fashion, the acting appointments made this week were mostly old guard members who played similar roles when the group ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. USIP’s Andrew Watkins discusses who the key players are, what it signals about the Taliban’s commitment to inclusivity, the key challenges the government will face and how the West and regional countries should engage.
The Taliban’s unexpectedly rapid and complete victory over the now defunct Islamic Republic of Afghanistan brings with it yet another shock to the long-suffering Afghan people and the country’s very weak economy. Already plagued by insecurity, COVID, corruption, government over-centralization and mismanagement, declining revenues and drought, the Afghan economy will now face a host of challenges in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover and the international community cracking down on aid and assistance. As a new Afghan government takes shape, the actions of the Taliban and the response of the international community could greatly exacerbate or modestly ameliorate the current economic and humanitarian crises.
While the Taliban’s swift advance into Kabul over the weekend has left much of the West reeling, Afghans themselves will bear the brunt of the militant group’s rule. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will feel the most immediate impact. Earlier this year, Russia, China and Pakistan affirmed that the future of Afghanistan should be decided through dialogue and political negotiations. How will they engage with the Taliban now?
The Afghan government has had its most difficult week fighting the Taliban since the insurgency began. As of this writing, 12 provincial capitals have fallen since last Friday, marking the first time the Taliban have controlled a city since they were ousted in 2001. By some estimates the Taliban control two-thirds of the country. While many experts predicted that the rapid and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops would increase Taliban control, few saw it happening this fast. A Taliban takeover of Kabul — once thought to be years away if at all — is now conceivable within months, or even a matter of weeks.
The situation in Afghanistan—and with it the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship—is likely to worsen in the short term. The prospect of a prolonged civil war or full Taliban takeover now looms large as hopes of a negotiated settlement recede. Whatever the outcome, the countries’ bilateral relationship will continue to be shaped by tensions that have characterized it for more than a century. This report examines these sources of tension and identifies potential openings for engagement that could, over time, become sources of stability and growth.
The Taliban’s rapid advances have caught the region and the United States off guard. The deterioration in security has forced India, along with many other countries, to retrench its diplomatic presence in the country, closing consulates outside of the capital of Kabul. There have been conflicting reports over the past month over whether or not Indian officials have engaged in talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Afghanistan’s neighbors all prefer a negotiated political settlement to the conflict but are preparing for the worst and could look to armed Afghan factions to protect their interests. Meanwhile, Kabul and Islamabad are blaming each other for the spiraling security situation.