The Unseen Threat
With the Taliban having taken over large swathes of land, pushing international armed forces to withdraw from Afghanistan after twenty years, many seem focussed on how such developments will present a safe haven for extremism to thrive in. Public concern is heavily weighted towards the growth of terrorism – not only have billions of dollars of US military equipment been left behind to the Taliban, they now have an extensive area from which to operate, posing a very real threat to those outside the Taliban’s favour.
That these developments occur almost exactly 20 years after al Qaeda’s attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon undoubtedly contributes to much of the West’s fear surrounding the Taliban’s revival, as the anniversary of one of the worst attacks faced by America draws near. However, whilst it is important to consider such international security implications created by the significant changes to Afghan rule, I believe such discussion fails to recognise the internal effects faced by Afghans that have been unable to escape from the country.
It seems pertinent to consider the implications that such changes to governance might have on the country’s developmental trajectory – that is, we ought also to contemplate the shifting dynamics within Afghanistan, rather than solely the implications the changes might have elsewhere.
The 20 Year Conflict Legacy
Since the US invaded Afghanistan, the country’s GDP has grown by almost 400%, shifting from $4.055 billion in 2002, to $19.807 billion in 2020. During this time, life expectancy at birth, school enrolment rates, and resultantly, literacy rates, amongst a multitude of other measures, have also all increased dramatically. Nevertheless, the prevalence of corruption prevented greater growth, and the steady reduction of aid saw a plateau of the improvements of many measures.
Thus, though these positive shifts have undoubtedly benefited the Afghan population, Afghanistan remains ranked 162nd on the Legatum Prosperity Index – the necessity for the continuation for such growth is therefore obvious. That such growth is nominally a result of the significant amounts of aid from the World Bank and IMF, as well as individual states, therefore poses an issue: taking the form of fiscal, military, medical and humanitarian assistance, aid flows are highly volatile.
The lack of clarity surrounding the Afghan government, and the likelihood of the Taliban instigating dictatorial rule has worried those offering aid, causing it to be withdrawn. Despite Taliban assurances that women will have their rights respected, the West is understandably sceptical, given the repressive regime that reigned from 1996-2001.
Effects on Women
Reports from both Taliban spokespeople and the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, amongst others, give conflicting narratives of how women are to be treated. Whilst the former has offered assurance that women’s rights will be respected, accounts from various sources contradict this, pointing to the longer-held cities, which have already seen women suffering extensively.
From the barriers to work and education that such Afghan women now face to the strict dress codes they must adhere to, there is little wonder why the West are reluctant to believe the Taliban’s claims. Similarly, Afghans that fought alongside the international militaries, or have held government positions during the last two decades, fear for their safety – again, Taliban reassurances for their security provide little comfort.
Relatedly, Afghan assets are held, for the most part, in US dollars, the freezing of such assets then have significantly worsened the prospects for those that remain within Afghanistan. Though the assets were frozen in an attempt to prevent the Taliban from accessing even greater resources, there has been a tangible effect on citizens too.
Combined with the halt of international aid, the shortage of hard cash has resulted in a stark rise in the price of goods and services within Afghanistan. Many ordinary Afghans are being priced out of food, water, shelter, and other necessities, as a result of the inflation that the country is seeing. Over a third of the population already face hunger, and this value is likely only to grow. Reminiscent of Venezuela in 2019, Hungary in 1945, and Germany in 1923, amongst other instances, economists have refused to rule out the possibility of hyperinflation, predicting a significant shrinking of the Afghan economy.
The Long Road Ahead
Such economic turmoil, combined with the effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have, has left the country in an alarming state. The infighting between the Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) then, only serves to increase the threat to an already deeply wounded public.
IS-K, who believe the Taliban, despite adhering to a strict Sharia Law, to be not extreme enough, has already claimed responsibility for the Kabul airport attacks, which killed over 170. That IS-K holds no official land and were thought to be functionally inoperative, but still managed to carry out such egregious attacks then, plays into the increasing fears of terrorist attacks that so many are so deeply worried by. Given their stronghold in the northeast of Afghanistan, and their evidently increasing threat, it is not unreasonable to anticipate similar attacks in the future.
On the whole then, an Afghanistan that was heavily dependent on aid from abroad, and showed promising signs of growth when offered the assistance it so deeply needed, is now looking likely to collapse. A combination of the withdrawal of international aid that it relied on, the advances of the extremist Taliban and the resultant increase in presence of IS-K, are coming together to threaten the population of an already struggling country.
The roots of this collapse have been decades in the making. To learn more about the cause of the wars in Afghanistan, watch our video on the legacy of the Soviet Occupation and the post-conflict civil war here.