Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives & DVIDS
By Yan Graf
There is another crisis brewing in Afghanistan. Although Western media coverage of Afghanistan has declined following the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of August, that does not imply that the situation is improving. The newly reinstalled Taliban faces two related crises as they attempt to centralize power in the country: a massive economic implosion and a lack of international legitimacy. Failing to address these problems would plunge the country back into chaos and would likely trigger a massive refugee exodus on the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015.
The primary threat the Taliban faces in establishing a new order in Afghanistan is the country’s rapidly destabilizing economy. Afghanistan was already one of the world’s poorest countries before the Taliban takeover last month, but the withdrawal of the United States has exacerbated the problem. Professor Haroun Rahimi of the American University in Kabul explains that this is because prior to the United States’ withdrawal Afghanistan was a renter economy, completely reliant on foreign money. Professor Rahimi estimates that prior to its collapse, half of Afghanistan’s government budget came from foreign, primarily American, funds. Moreover, nearly half of the entire Afghan economy was in some way reliant on foreign aid for survival, which disappeared almost overnight following the United States’ decision to withdraw from the country.
With such a sudden drop in revenue, the Taliban finds itself unable to afford the basic costs of running Afghanistan. To make things worse, the country has a massive cash shortage, and is seeing sharp rises in food prices. The United Nations estimates that if current trends continue, only 3% of the Afghan population will remain above the poverty line in just a few months. The cash shortage combined with increasing food prices is also aggravating food insecurity. The United Nations reported a 37% surge in Afghans facing acute hunger in 2021. Unfortunately, the situation is projected to worsen, especially for the most vulnerable. The United Nations’s World Food Programme reports that approximately 3.2 million of Afghanistan’s 6.4 million children under 5 years old will face hunger by the end of 2021.
The new Taliban government is so cash-strapped that it cannot afford to maintain basic infrastructure. Afghanistan’s health sector, which was already fragile before the Taliban takeover, faces imminent collapse, according to Doctors Without Borders. Necephor Mhendi, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) in Afghanistan, warns that “supplies that were supposed to last for three months will not be able to last three months… [and they] may need to replenish much earlier than that to keep up with the medical demands of the people of Afghanistan.” Even power bills are going unpaid amidst the country’s economic armageddon. The Taliban requested $90 million from international aid organizations to help cover unpaid electricity bills the state owes its neighbors which supply Afghanistan with over 75% of its power. While countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran have continued supplying power into Afghanistan despite the mounting debt, there is no telling when they might pull the plug. Tajikistan, for example, is likely to cut electricity supplies by winter of this year due to its failure to meet domestic needs. If Afghanistan does lose significant foreign electricity imports, power might not return until at least spring of next year. As of right now, the Taliban is banking on goodwill with its neighbours to keep the lights on. Bilal Karimi, a spokesperson for the Taliban, told Al-Jazeera in the beginning of October 2021 that the group has a “good relationship with [their neighbouring countries] and we don’t expect them to stop providing us with power.”
However, the good relationship Karimi speaks of is quickly fading. Many of the countries neighboring Afghanistan disapprove of the Taliban’s return to power, significantly complicating the regime’s quest for international legitimacy. In particular, Afghanistan’s relationship with Tajikistan is a major cause for concern. Tensions between the countries are rising quickly, as Tajikistan held major military drills at the Afghan border shortly after the Taliban capture of Kabul. A major point of contention between Afghanistan and Tajikistan is the Taliban’s newly appointed cabinet, which is predominantly of Pashto ethnicity and does not feature Tajik representation, despite Tajiks being Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnicity with over 10 million individuals. Tajikistan’s president, Emomali Rahmon, declared earlier this year that he will not recognize the Taliban government unless commensurate Tajik representation is granted. Since the Taliban’s return, Tajikistan has also become a hub for the continuing resistance against Taliban rule. The country currently hosts former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled after the Taliban takeover. Rumours have been swirling that Tajikistan has been aiding ethnic Tajik resistance fighters in Afghanistan’s Panjshir province, one of the few areas the Taliban has failed to conquer so far.
Tajikistan is also drawing considerable attention and investment from larger militaries interested in monitoring the situation in Afghanistan. The Russian-led CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), a strategic military partnership featuring Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, has recently concluded an overt set of military exercises just 20 miles away from the Afghan border, which is extremely uncommon. Russia, which has long-standing interests in the region, has affirmed their commitment to defend Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors from any possible Taliban incursion. The country has also announced plans to expand its military base in Tajikistan, which is already home to Russia’s largest foreign military base. China is interested in expanding their military presence in the region as well, recently wrapping up construction on a secretive new base in Tajikistan. As Afghanistan and its neighbors continue to exchange verbal blows, it remains clear that the Taliban isn’t the only power in the region prepared to go to war.
All of these factors culminate to make the Taliban’s position in Afghanistan a very precarious one. With a failing economy, possible sweeping power cuts, aggressive neighbors, and a continuing fight against resistance elements, it won’t take much for the Taliban’s dream of anIslamic emirate to collapse. Even worse, the Taliban lacks access to the one thing it could use best to resolve their crises: money. Shortly after the Taliban takeover, the United States announced that it would freeze $9.5 billion worth of Afghan foreign reserves held in American banks as part of its sanctions against the regime’s financial assets. This move has proven very unpopular in Afghanistan, as the funds would allow the new government to save Afghanistan from bankruptcy, and possibly avert the food and utility crises. Despite criticism levied by states such as China, the United States has remained committed to its position, maintaining that access to such funds would allow the Taliban to export its terrorist activity. One thing remains certain, however: the Taliban’s Afghanistan is in deep trouble, and the worst is yet to come.
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