Afghanistan’s neighbours need to step in if they want stability

Najib Sharifi

If the Taliban take over Kabul or another civil war starts, chaos would spread across the region.

The withdrawal of the United States and NATO forces from Afghanistan has put a crucial choice before the country’s neighbours. As foreign troops are leaving and Taliban fighters are advancing, they will have to decide whether they will cooperate to stabilise the country or turn it yet again into a battlefield of regional interests. This decision will determine the course of events not just in Afghanistan, but the whole region.

So far, all indications point to the latter. Regional players have extended support for the Taliban and the ISIL (ISIS) group, which have intensified their violent attacks in Afghanistan. Having little leverage over regional powers to stop their interference, Afghans will do what they have always done – fight back against advancing militants, flee abroad, or die.

But the chaos will not be contained within Afghan borders. It will inevitably spread beyond and destabilise the whole region. If our neighbours want to ensure peace within their own borders, they will have to leave behind backdoor deals and embrace a paradigm shift in their approach to Afghanistan, pursuing rigorous regional cooperation to stabilise the country.

In the past couple of weeks, the emboldened Taliban has made tremendous advances on the battlefield. It has captured more than 100 districts and its fighters have besieged most of the provincial capitals, preparing to launch major offensives to capture them.

They have also taken control of some key border crossings, which allows them to generate large amounts of revenue from goods coming to Afghanistan and cut supply chains when they choose to intensify pressures on the government and the Afghan people. Afghan forces, unprepared for the sudden onslaught of the Taliban and suffering from poor leadership and an extensive morale crisis, have failed to stop its advance.

Meanwhile, the Afghanistan branch of ISIL has extended its presence and operational capacity, carrying out large-scale attacks in Kabul and other major cities.

At the same time, the production of illicit drugs has hit its highest record. In May, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported a 37-percent increase in poppy cultivation last year compared with 2019. Drug production and smuggling have given the Taliban a lucrative source of income. The nexus between the armed group and the drug mafia has empowered the latter, allowing it to grow stronger than ever before, forging a vast transnational network that extends into Iran, Pakistan, Central Asian countries and further afield to Europe and East Asia.

In the event of Taliban military domination or another full-scale proxy war, the whole region will be destabilised, which will have a ripple effect into the rest of Asia and all the way to Europe.

It will inevitably cause a massive refugee crisis, reminiscent of the one in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s or the recent Syrian war. The first waves of this exodus are already being felt in Turkey and the neighbouring countries.

The past four decades of war in Afghanistan has nurtured an ever more violent “jihadist” ideology. Regional “jihadist” movements, jubilant over what they perceive as an embarrassing defeat for the US, will inevitably turn Afghanistan into a strategic base to launch their international operations from.

What is more, the perception that the strongest global power has been defeated will inspire other militant groups in the region and elsewhere to ratchet up their violent tactics in the belief that they too will eventually take power. Pakistan will be more vulnerable than any other country, as the rapid expansion of violent ideology is already threatening the country’s stability.

The Pakistani Taliban and other Pakistan-based fighters will likely launch a violent rebellion across the country, with the hopes of overthrowing the government and setting up a Taliban regime.

For our part, Afghans have changed culturally, politically, and demographically since the 1990s when the Taliban ruled the country. We have a highly educated, thriving young generation that never knew Taliban rule and they are not likely to accept dramatic rollbacks of the gains we have made in media, the arts, medicine, education, and sports.

We will fight back, but we need our neighbours to stop nurturing extremist ideologues who do not adhere to the humane principles of the 21st century. Those who believe that they can rein in the Taliban and other extremist forces are delusional. After all, such groups are driven by ideology rather than rational thinking.

The atrocities the Taliban has committed in the past couple of weeks are similar to the ones they did during the times they ruled the country and to what ISIL did in Syria and Iraq. From the execution of captured soldiers to the killing of civilians, looting of government offices and people’s property, imposing religious tax and even forced marriages, the group’s actions demonstrate its vicious nature and the fact that it is not bound by any rules or values of the 21st century.

Hence, regional powers must take the threat seriously and act before Afghanistan plunges into turmoil and turns into a narco-extremist state. They should urgently initiate a multilateral cooperation framework that mobilises the region around a common security goal: to stabilise Afghanistan. Pakistan and Iran’s role is especially important here, as these countries are known to shelter and support the Taliban and other armed groups and maintain extensive leverage over them.

It is time to make a historic decision about the future of our region. Do we want to live in a peaceful region, anchored in the values of tolerance, progress, and co-existence or do we continue to engage in a destructive never-ending zero-sum game of conflicts? The US and NATO had the luxury to choose between staying in Afghanistan and leaving. But we, Afghans, and our neighbours do not. The choices made in the coming weeks and months will determine our collective future.

Afghanistan’s neighbours need to step in if they want stability