Taliban takes control of Kabul
The Taliban has begun the process of forming a government in Afghanistan, after taking control of the capital Kabul and declaring that the war is over as Afghan forces surrendered and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
Despite two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan, and a war that cost over a trillion US dollars, Taliban insurgents arrived at the gates of Kabul on Sunday and took the capital, installing themselves in the presidential palace with little resistance.
“Today is a great day for the Afghan people and the mujahideen [Taliban],” said Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem on Monday. “They have witnessed the fruits of their efforts and their sacrifices for 20 years. Thanks to God, the war is over in the country.”
The Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital Sunday after the government collapsed and the embattled president joined an exodus of his fellow citizens and foreigners, signaling the end of a costly two-decade U.S. campaign to remake the country.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman and negotiator, told The Associated Press that the militants would hold talks in the coming days aimed at forming an “open, inclusive Islamic government.”
Earlier, a Taliban official said the group would announce from the palace the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the formal name of the country under Taliban rule before the militants were ousted by U.S.-led forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida while it was being sheltered by the Taliban. But that plan appeared to be on hold.
Kabul was gripped by panic. Helicopters raced overhead throughout the day to evacuate personnel from the U.S. Embassy. Smoke rose near the compound as staff destroyed important documents, and the American flag was lowered. Several other Western missions also prepared to pull their people out.
Though the Taliban had promised a peaceful transition, the U.S. Embassy suspended operations and warned Americans late in the day to shelter in place and not try to get to the airport.
Commercial flights were suspended after sporadic gunfire erupted at the Kabul airport, according to two senior U.S. military officials. Evacuations continued on military flights, but the halt to commercial traffic closed off one of the last routes available for fleeing Afghans.
Many people watched in disbelief as helicopters landed in the U.S. Embassy compound to take diplomats to a new outpost at the airport. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected comparisons to the U.S. pullout from Vietnam.
“This is manifestly not Saigon,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The American ambassador was among those evacuated, officials said. He was asking to return to the embassy, but it was not clear if he would be allowed to. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations.
As the insurgents closed in, President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country.
“The former president of Afghanistan left Afghanistan, leaving the country in this difficult situation,” said Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the Afghan National Reconciliation Council and a longtime rival of Ghani. “God should hold him accountable.”
Ghani later posted on Facebook that he left to avert bloodshed in the capital, without saying where he had gone.
As night fell, Taliban fighters deployed across Kabul, taking over abandoned police posts and pledging to maintain law and order during the transition. Residents reported looting in parts of the city, including in the upscale diplomatic district, and messages circulating on social media advised people to stay inside and lock their gates.
The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on Sunday had followed weeks of fighting between insurgents and Afghan forces across Afghanistan after the swift pull out of US forces this summer. In recent weeks, key cities and regions across the country had fallen to the Taliban at unprecedented speed, and the capture of Kabul sealed their control over Afghanistan.
The decision on who will become president will be decided after a shura, consultation, between top Taliban leadership but Baradar, the group’s most public face who oversaw the signing of the agreement for the US troop withdrawal, has been touted as a likely candidate for a key role.
How will the Afghan economy and society fare?
Many question the ability of the Taliban leadership to effectively manage the Afghan economy and its subjects, especially since up until now, the main source of income of the Taliban has been the opium trade in the country.
“The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters. “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”
With the Taliban entering Kabul on Sunday, “these are the best moments in which these illicit groups tend to position themselves” to expand their business, Gudes said.
The Taliban banned poppy growing in 2000 as they sought international legitimacy, but faced a popular backlash and later mostly changed their stance, according to experts.
Despite the threats posed by Afghanistan’s illicit drug business, experts noted, the US and other nations rarely mention in public the need to address the trade – estimated by the UNODC at more than 80 percent of global opium and heroin supplies.
“We’ve stood by on the sidelines and, unfortunately, allowed the Taliban to become probably the largest funded non-designated terrorist organisation on the globe,” said a US official with knowledge of Afghanistan’s drug trade.
Once in power, the Taliban will not be able to keep the opium trade going in the open, as public scrutiny would rise, the group also cannot depend on the trade for the governance of society and will have to diversify its sources of income. This will be hard to achieve when there is a high risk that Afghanistan will be internationally isolated, and deprived of major investors, at least from the Western economic powers.
According to a report in the Economic Times, customs revenue of the Afghanistan government has fallen over 30% in the month of July to $57.5 million after the Ashraf Ghani government had lost control over Islam Qala, Torghundi, Abu Nasr, Farahi, Spin Boldak, Ay-Khanoom, Dand-e-Patan and Shir Khan land ports. Now with the Taliban taking full control of the Kabul, capital of Afganistan, international trade and business will come to a collapse soon as exporters will stop doing business with the country amid uncertainty. Residents will soon face a shortage of essentials.
According to the business daily, Afganistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment officials had expressed concern over the situation last month in customs offices and ports and said traders are not willing to import goods through custom ports. Now with the Taliban taking full control of the country, international trade will completely come to a standstill, leading to a surge in smuggling.
So far Afganistan’s economy has been dependent on international aids. Private sector of the Islamic country was extremely narrow as according to World Bank, 44% of the total workforce works in agriculture. Private sector development in the country was constrained by insecurity, political instability, weak institutions, inadequate infrastructure, widespread corruption and a difficult business environment. According to World Bank, Afganistan was at the 173rd position among 190 countries in 2020 in the Doing Business Survey.
Now, with the present situation in place a large portion of international aid to the country will stop. Afganistan’s trade deficit was around 30% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and was financed almost entirely from grant inflows. Not only this, international grants used to finance 75% of the public spending in the country. Security expenditure in the country was high at around 28% of GDP in 2019. This was much higher compared to other low-income countries, where the average expenditure on security was around 3%.
Many Afghans fear that Afghan society will plunge into radical and extreme measures of repression, especially for women, as they experienced the last time the Taliban held the country, at the turn of the century.
It is not yet clear what rules the Taliban will put in place for women now. But here are some of the rules they strictly enforced the last time they were in power, according a 2001 report from the US State Department:
- Women had to wear coverings from head to toe.
- Women were not allowed to work, except in very limited circumstances.
- Women were barred from attending schools.
- Women’s healthcare was restricted.
- Women were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were accompanied by male relatives.
- Women could only use special buses, and were only allowed to take taxis when with male relatives.
Despite this precedent, a Taliban spokesman has told the BBC that the group “will respect rights of women” when it takes control of Afghanistan, as they enter Kabul with the previous regime reportedly getting prepared to concede power.
A spokesperson for the Taliban, Suhail Shaheen, told BBC News: “We will respect rights of women…our policy is that women will have access to education and work, to wear the hijab.”
It remains to be seen whether these pledges will be fulfilled.
Kay Van-Petersen, a global macro strategist at Saxo Capital Markets in Singapore, said the impact of the crisis in Afghanistan could ultimately spread far wider.
Many Afghan refugees could seek refuge in Europe, he said, following an earlier influx of asylum seekers, mostly fleeing war or persecution in Syria, other Middle Eastern countries and Afghanistan.
Will China and Russia fill the US void in Afghanistan?
There have been increasing signals in recent weeks, that China, and to a lesser extent, Russia, are looking to fill the geopolitical and economic void left by the US in Afghanistan, and could do so through investments and trade, which Afghanistan will especially need once it is isolated by the West.
China is ready to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with Afghanistan, a government spokeswoman said Monday, after the Taliban seized control of the country.
Beijing has sought to maintain unofficial ties with the Taliban throughout the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, which spurred an advance by the Islamist hardliners across the country that saw them capture the capital Kabul on Sunday.
China shares a rugged 76-kilometre (47-mile) border with Afghanistan.
Beijing has long feared Afghanistan could become a staging point for minority Uyghur separatists in the sensitive border region of Xinjiang.
But a top-level Taliban delegation met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin last month, promising that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militants.
In exchange, China offered economic support and investment for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
On Monday, China said it “welcomed” the chance to deepen ties with Afghanistan, a country that has for generations been coveted for its geo-strategic importance by bigger powers.
“The Taliban have repeatedly expressed their hope to develop good relations with China, and that they look forward to China’s participation in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
“We welcome this. China respects the right of the Afghan people to independently determine their own destiny and is willing to continue to develop… friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.”
Hua called on the Taliban to “ensure a smooth transition” of power and keep its promises to negotiate the establishment of an “open and inclusive Islamic government” and ensure the safety of Afghans and foreign citizens.
China’s embassy in Kabul remains operational, Hua said, although Beijing began evacuating Chinese citizens from the country months ago amid the deteriorating security situation.
On Monday, as violence gripped Kabul, Russia said it was in contact with Taliban officials through its embassy in the Afghan capital, but said Moscow would take its time to decide on whether to recognise the new authorities.
But Russia’s attitude towards the Taliban “hasn’t changed” Moscow-based analyst Aleksey Mukhin told Al Jazeera.
“There is no objective to legalise the Taliban, but yes, there is an objective to talk to them to reach certain agreements, accords, limitations in Afghanistan and adjacent nations. The approach is purely pragmatic,” he said.
This approach follows years of mutual contempt and distrust.
In 2000, when the movement controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan, it recognised the independence of Chechnya, allowed Chechen separatists to train on their territory and declared a “jihad” on Russia.
The Kremlin still bans the Taliban as a “terrorist organisation”; Russian courts have sentenced half a dozen of its adherents to jail. However, as the Taliban takes control of Afghanistan, Russia may look to geopolitical gains and invest in Afghanistan, to place a stamp on the US’s failure.
Zamir Kabulov, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, even dangled the possibility that Russia would recognise the Taliban government based “on the behaviour of the new authorities”, a major prize for the Taliban that would also indicate Moscow sees itself as a potential intermediary as the west pulls out.
For now, the Russians are staying put. Taliban forces have “taken the external perimeter of the Russian embassy under protection”, Kabulov said on Monday, and its Afghan ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, said Russia had a promise that “not a single hair will fall [from the heads] of Russian diplomats”.
Other neighboring powers, like Iran and Turkey have also shown signs of willingness to cooperate with the Taliban, and the Taliban welcomes such opportunities which would significantly reduce the prospects of its complete isolation.
The Taliban is unlikely to be completely isolated in the next months, however, despite foreign powers like China voicing there interest in investment in the country, Afghanistan will still undergo an economic shock and recession, at least temporarily after the US financial support, and many investment opportunities have ended.