The Americans left, but faith in their myths about the prospects for economic development and expectations of corresponding projects from foreigners have remained. In terms of belief in these American myths, the Taliban is no different from the leaders of the previous pro-American government. Moreover, the Taliban tends to ask their regional neighbours for the implementation of American myths, Ivan Safranchuk writes.
On the eve and immediately after the Taliban’s return to power, that is, in the summer and autumn of 2021, two approaches structured the expert discussion on Afghanistan.
One was that “the Taliban was completely different” — the militants were allegedly tired of mountains and caves, they wanted power, not isolation, and they realized the mistakes and excesses of their rule in the second half of the 1990s. It was concluded that the Taliban, for the sake of normal interaction with external partners, would take into account their wishes. The other approach was that the Taliban had evolved to move towards greater radicalism (after twenty years of alliance with the jihadist international movements) and the Taliban was striving for power not in order to restart its previous period of rule, taking into account the mistakes of the past, but in order to take revenge. In some countries, a more sceptical and cautious view, that is, the second approach, prevailed, for example, in India and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan is more focused on the first approach. But even with a clear inclination in the power and expert circles of some countries leaning towards one of the two approaches, the division between these approaches was not only country-specific.
In different countries there were those who wanted, or considered it necessary, to interact with the Taliban. They were the ones who took the first approach. By the end of the 2010s, almost all interested players had already established their channels of contact with the Taliban. If connections with the Taliban were maintained while it was at war with the official government, then why stop communicating with the group when it took power? The mood favouring contact with the Taliban prevailed. Interested players looked at each other: would anyone dare to try to dramatically increase their influence in Afghanistan? But still, everyone had a prevailing desire not to take the Taliban’s Afghanistan under control, but not to allow this to happen if someone else acted too assertively. By default, a neutral, Afghanistan, which wasn’t beholden to any foreign party, seemed the preferable option to everyone.
In this atmosphere, there was some international consensus that the Taliban must demonstrate the ability to be a responsible regime. This usually means the absence of aggressive intentions towards other countries and the absence of massive violations of human rights. The issue of an inclusive government, with other ethno-political forces, apart from the Taliban, represented, had become central.
In practice, over the past two years, the Taliban has not fully satisfied either positive or negative expectations. The Taliban did not abandon its principles. The movement considers itself a liberator of the country from foreign occupation. They are confident that they deserve victory and have the right to be in power. No constitution, no elections, no inclusivity (no coalition government with anyone who isn’t “our own”). The Taliban’s right to power stems from its ability to take and hold this power.
Doesn’t sound modern? Then where does the power of monarchs come from (there are still quite a few of them in the world)? Originally, from the same principle — to take power and hold it, to control it. How did republics begin? Through revolutions. How did the pro-American Afghan regime begin in the fall of 2001? An international conference met in Bonn and established power in the territory conquered by the Americans. The Taliban began their emirate in much the same way, only without foreign bayonets.
After taking power, the Taliban, as far as one can judge, efficiently reorganized the security forces. The insurgency required a certain level of autonomy for field commanders. The “war hero” syndrome often leads to excesses in civilian life, roguery and the abuse of imaginary rights. The Taliban, admittedly, did not allow this. A more centralized army was created, as well as a security service and the ministry of internal affairs.
It is impossible to call the Taliban regime extremely repressive. An attempt at an armed rebellion in the winter of 2021-2022 was suppressed by force. Its leaders are abroad and underground opposition is weak. So far, as one can judge, the Taliban is carrying out quite strict preventive measures in this regard. But this is what security forces do in any country in the world. In the 1990s, Taliban practices in terms of social order and punishment had a great resonance. The Taliban still strictly monitors compliance with Sharia law. But there is no outrageous and ostentatious cruelty. The Taliban government does not oppose itself to Afghan society. It is probably even more organic for it than the power of the previous government. But this is power with its own ideological agenda and repressive apparatus.
Peaceful life in the country persists. The retail shops, which were initially empty, are full again. The grassroots economy works. The country is poor, but there is no complete devastation, and we cannot say that the standard of living has decreased significantly under the Taliban. The stratum of those who were tied not to the national economy, but to the foreign presence, simply disappeared. In any event, an important caveat is necessary: peaceful life is fuelled from the outside. The country is receiving aid through the UN and other international organisations, including cash in dollars. There are no exact statistics on this matter. Apparently, however, the sum ranges from 1 to 2 billion dollars per year. This supply has turned out to be sufficient to finance the work of basic social infrastructure and maintain domestic demand, which is what the grassroots economy operates on. Compared to donor injections that were made into Afghanistan under the previous authorities, the current amounts are quite small.
All the identified uncertainties affect whether the Taliban is able to maintain power in the longer term. But one more factor can be identified that can largely determine Taliban foreign policy, as well as the policies of others towards them.
Afghanistan has always depended on external economic relations. Economic autonomy is alien to Afghans. But the historically justified desire for international economic interaction has now acquired exaggerated features. During the American military occupation, under its puppet regime, completely unjustified ideas about the material potential of Afghanistan and its role in world and regional affairs took root. The Americans gave birth to the myth of a “mining superpower” and a rich Afghanistan, about the possibility of a radical transformation of the country’s financial situation in literally ten years. The sentiments have taken root in Afghan society that their country is a victim of the geopolitical struggle between the great powers; they could get richer and develop if “geopolitical showdowns” did not take place on their territory.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Afghanistan proved to play a significant role in great power confrontations. Here the interests of Russia and Britain collided, then of Russia and the United States, and here they tried to dilute the interests of the great powers by making Afghanistan a buffer. In the 21st
century, Afghanistan appears to have a new role. Countries in the region need to find a way to involve Afghanistan in regional cooperation without taking full responsibility for it, without “taking it as a dependent state.” External players, apparently, will bet on Afghanistan as a spoiler in regional relations, manipulating the inadequate perceptions of Afghans formed during the foreign occupation.