When the Taliban Are in Your Bedroom

TIMES INSIDER

The New York Times

As armed Taliban inspected the New York Times bureau in Kabul, they were escorted by a journalist who used to be a U.S. Marine. The photo of him in uniform was plain for all to see, and ponder.

There is a thin layer of dust on everything left in the bureau, which was quickly evacuated in August.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

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KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban are in your bedroom and there’s a photograph of you on the wall holding an American flag, a rifle and dressed like a recruiting commercial for the Marines, you have to keep it together.

Then there’s the kitschy mug on your desk that you picked up from a shop just as Bagram Air Base closed in July. It reads, “Been there…done that/Operation Enduring Freedom.”

And the empty beer can in your trash that you drank the night before Kabul fell in August when you had a feeling this might be the last beer you drink in Afghanistan for awhile because the insurgents-turned-rulers don’t take kindly to booze.

And that photo of you in uniform? Taken just before the largest operation against the Taliban of the American war in Afghanistan, when you were a Marine in Helmand Province more than a decade ago. That was when the insurgents were shadows in the opposite tree line, but now, in October, they’re feet away, standing next to your bed, separated by a decade and a lost war.

But the Taliban aren’t here to take anything or kill you, even though they had plenty of chances to do just that when you deployed in 2008, and in 2009. Or when you were a journalist in the country years afterward.

But they still managed to kill some guys in your unit and blew others in half, something not lost on you as they pick up and put back a memorial bracelet engraved with the names of your friends (Josh, Matt and Brandon) and a line from a John McCrae poem: “We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow.”

A mug from a shop at Bagram Air Base.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
A memorial bracelet.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

These Talibs insist they’re here to make sure nothing has been stolen from what was once the New York Times Kabul bureau, and that everything is right where we left it when all of the newspaper’s staff members fled the country, like thousands of other Afghans and foreigners did, in August as the Afghan government collapsed.

And everything is right where I left it. There’s the new Xbox I bought at Dubai International Airport when I flew back into Afghanistan in late July, just about two weeks before Kabul fell, thinking that Kabul wouldn’t fall and that I’d have plenty of time to play Microsoft Flight Simulator. My dirty laundry is in the hamper. My bed is made. There is a thin layer of dust on everything.

This is the reality now: the end of the war and the new beginning of the Islamic Emirate.

The most distinct and reoccurring reminders of the long U.S. presence are the black American-supplied rifles now cradled by Taliban at checkpoints and on amusement rides and slung on the back of their motorbikes. The familiar and intrusive thunder of the helicopters flying into the U.S. Embassy is no more, because the U.S. Embassy is no more, and the surrounding Green Zone belongs to the Taliban.

The Green Zone, or international zone, was blocks of concrete blast walls built around what was once an affluent neighborhood with tree-lined streets, until it was turned into a fortress that connected the American Embassy and NATO’s Resolute Support headquarters and a handful of other diplomatic missions.

A whiteboard in the bureau that was used to track the fall of Afghan provincial capitals.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Now all that infrastructure is just a skeleton of a 20-year war, lost by the diplomats and soldiers who once lived inside it: a museum to failure.

It’s where The New York Times and other news agencies kept their bureaus, and where I had returned last month to continue coverage of Afghanistan and inspect what had happened to our compound.

It’s where the State Department contractors had a little base with a supposed Starbucks inside. It’s where embassy staff members dared not venture away from because the war was on. It’s where armored cars were abandoned as Westerners scurried onto helicopters, so they could be ferried out of the country as the Taliban entered the city.

The Taliban now do what they please in the Green Zone. They’re investigating the abandoned structures, looking for spies and weapons or anything that could harm them because the people within the Green Zone once did just that, running the war from behind its walls. A blimp with cameras once floated above it, watching everything in the city in color and infrared. At Resolute Support headquarters, American officers authorized airstrikes that killed Taliban and civilians alike.

Why wouldn’t the Taliban search every corner? Look under every desk? To them, it’s almost like the Green Zone is the Dragon King Under the Mountain, something that could turn the war back on if they somehow woke it up.

Body armor in storage at the bureau.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

“Are there military weapons here?” one Talib asks us, standing on the second floor of the Times bureau in a room where the security manager once painted miniature soldiers. He carried a suitcase full of them out of the country as it collapsed.

No, there are no military weapons.

One Talib points to the body armor on top of a closet. “This is military, no?” he asks in near-perfect English. “Why would you need this?”

We needed the body armor because we were covering the war that just ended, where people killed one another with roadside bombs and artillery and airstrikes and Kalashnikovs. His question is almost obscene, as if the violence his band of insurgents and the Western-backed Afghan government and NATO and the United States perpetrated had existed in some parallel universe.

We respond courteously because our new landlords are carrying a lot of weapons with them.

I throw away a club soda that has been sitting on the kitchen table since August. The refrigerator is rancid. The garden is overgrown.

The garden of the New York Times bureau in Kabul.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The Taliban walk through the bureau inspecting a home and office frozen at the moment of collapse. On the bed in the room opposite mine is an open suitcase, half-packed, clothes scattered about. In the small newsroom downstairs, the white board that marked the fall of provincial capitals is still there, though in the end, the country fell apart too fast to track.

On the wall is a map of the city of Kunduz and where the Taliban front lines once were, with the insurgents held in check for a few brief weeks by the demoralized and depleted Afghan security forces before they evaporated and the city fell.

Now, in Kabul, the Taliban are driving around in the Afghan military’s trucks and Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and wearing their uniforms.

“Free cars,” one Talib had messaged me days earlier from the front seat of some armored S.U.V. that had belonged to a contracting company or came from an abandoned military motor pool. He then sent a picture of his rifle, also free, with its markings circled: “Property of U.S. Gov. M4 Carbine. Cal 5.56 MM W0207610.”

This is what losing a war looks like. And the Taliban are still in my bedroom.

One looks about the same age I was in that photograph on my wall where I’m standing beside a gigantic and newly unpackaged American flag, holding that rifle and grinning, because I thought then we were going to win the war or turn the tide or kill the guys who are now sifting through my wardrobe, pointing to a pair of sneakers in my closet. The very shoes were the subject of an article we wrote: “In Afghanistan, Follow the White High-Tops and You’ll Find the Taliban.”

He smiles, points and tries them on.

A pair of Servis Cheetah hightops  — the type of shoe favored by Taliban units.
Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a correspondent in the Kabul bureau and a former Marine infantryman. 

When the Taliban Are in Your Bedroom
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It’s Getting Dire in Afghanistan. Biden Can’t Walk Away.

Opinion by SAAD MOHSENI

Politico

The United States doesn’t have to recognize the Taliban to help avert humanitarian disaster.

Men wait in a line to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program (WFP) in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Afghanistan's economy is fast approaching the brink and is faced with harrowing predictions of growing poverty and hunger. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Men wait in a line to receive cash at a money distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2021. | AP Photo/Bram Janssen

In Afghanistan, young babies are now starving to death. Those parents who fear this fate are selling off their children to survive themselves. More than half of Afghanistan’s 39 million people do not have enough to eat and are “marching to starvation,” in the haunting words of the World Food Program. By next year, the United Nations warns, 95 percent of the country could be plunged into poverty.

Two months after the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan is reeling from the quadruple crises of conflict, coronavirus, climate change and economic collapse. Together, they have created a humanitarian situation that threatens to become more dire by the day — all of which happened under the watch of the international community. Meanwhile, international terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are reconstituting and could pose a threat to Western targets within the next year, according to counterterrorism officials. And yet, the Biden administration still has no real Afghanistan policy.

Washington has been principally focused on the evacuations of U.S. citizens and green card holders, as well as resettling Afghan allies who fled. It has paid little attention to the fate of the millions who were left behind after the withdrawal of international forces in August. Diplomatic engagement has been downgraded, with more junior officials appointed as the State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and to head up the “Afghan affairs unit” in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. also stayed away from a recent meeting in Moscow, effectively ceding its space to the other members of the “troika plus” group on Afghanistan: Russia, China and Pakistan.

President Joe Biden may wish to forget about Afghanistan, but there’s never been a more urgent need for the U.S. to stay involved. A military withdrawal should not mean diplomatic disengagement, no matter how politically embarrassing the episode was for the White House. The crises that are consuming Afghanistan threaten to exacerbate the very problems Washington intervened to deal with in the first place. Biden does not have to formally recognize the Taliban, but neither can he wish away their control of the country. Working closely with international partners, the U.S. should ensure aid gets to those who need it most — even if that means dealing with the people they battled for 20 years.

Afghanistan’s problems never stay within its landlocked borders. The desperate economic and humanitarian situation could reignite conflict within the country, potentially destabilizing the wider region while creating space for international terrorist groups to plan new campaigns. Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of Defense, warned this week that the Islamic State in Khorasan Province and al Qaeda could be able to launch attacks on the West in anywhere from six months to two years.

Europe’s leaders could soon find themselves contending with a fresh refugee crisis and the flow of narcotics from the world’s largest source of heroin. Already, large numbers of Afghans are attempting to cross any border that is open to them, driven there by fear and hunger. They may be forced to make the journey northward, along the same route used by drug smugglers, passing through Iran and Turkey. On a continent where even centrist leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have grown hostile to new refugees, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Afghans on their shores could dramatically alter the political landscape.

There are clear opportunities to stave off these forbidding outcomes and create a viable future for the Afghan people with modest international assistance. There is a temptation to view Afghanistan only through the prism of the war of the past two decades and the Taliban’s triumph that brought it to an end. But this perspective overlooks the tremendous gains that were built and are now under threat. There has been a generational transformation that has seen basic literacy levels rise from below 20 percent two decades ago to now, when as many as two-thirds of Afghans under 25 can read or write. Infant mortality plunged, the media flourished, women became central to public life, infrastructure and public services reached the most remote parts of the country.

Tens of thousands of talented Afghans have left their country over recent weeks, but there are millions more who have no choice but to remain there. These include the brave young women who continue to protest on the streets for their rights, the journalists who defy restrictions to report on them, the educated women who want to return to work, and the young girls who are anxious to return to the classroom and follow their path. They all deserve a future, too.

For the U.S., there is a narrowing window to secure not only its interests but the welfare of the Afghan people. The Taliban are in power, but they know they need international support to hang onto it. Afghanistan’s neighbors have swept into the vacuum created by the West’s withdrawal but have rival concerns and lack the resources to lift the country out of its deepening crises. Daunted by the scale of the challenges, there’s a sense of buyer’s remorse settling in among the Chinese, Iranians, Russians and Pakistanis — creating openings for greater U.S. involvement. There is a need for a robust multilateral approach on common concerns, including counterterrorism, the humanitarian situation and human rights.

Right now, there is a ruinous standoff. The Taliban have only partially let girls return to school, in about a third of Afghanistan’s provinces, and women face restrictions on work in the public sector. In response, the U.S. and its allies have withdrawn the crucial assistance that funded those schools and paid those teachers’ salaries. But if the humanitarian situation worsens, it won’t be the Taliban who pay the price. It will be the Afghan people who have suffered so much, for so long. The Taliban can simply turn the human catastrophe to their advantage, cite it as proof of the West’s cold indifference and stoke anti-U.S. sentiment, as happens in Iran. 

There is no alternative but to engage with the Taliban, but engagement is not the same as recognition. The U.S. and its partners still have a chance to rediscover their relevance and offer incentives with clear benchmarks to the Taliban — a path that ultimately could offer international recognition once firm guarantees on counterterrorism, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and a broad-based, inclusive government are established. The key is to find a balance, where assistance to the Afghan nation continues without the Taliban being able to declare outright legitimacy through this assistance. It starts by making sure no Afghans feel forced to sell their children to feed themselves this winter.

It’s Getting Dire in Afghanistan. Biden Can’t Walk Away.
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After a Taliban takeover, the world must prevent starvation in Afghanistan

Afghan internally displaced persons wait to receive food distributed by a German aid organization in Kabul on Oct. 27. (EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock) (Stringer/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Afghanistan is no longer in the headlines — after dominating them during a harrowing August in which the Taliban seized power, triggering a fearful mass exodus from Kabul. In the chaos, a terrorist attack killed 13 U.S. military personnel; then, a mistaken U.S. drone strike killed 10 innocent Afghans. Yet the country’s crisis has mutated, not ended.

The fate of those who want to flee the new regime remains unresolved, with governments and private organizations scrambling to organize escape for groups such as students of the American University of Afghanistan. The Biden administration has revised upward the number of U.S. citizens remaining in the country, which it estimated at about 100 shortly after the Aug. 31 troop withdrawal deadline. On Oct. 26, Pentagon official Colin Kahl told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the State Department and private organizations have extracted 314 Americans and 266 lawful permanent residents since Sept. 1. Mr. Kahl also testified that there were an additional 196 Americans in the country who want to leave and are ready to do so.

Meanwhile, of the roughly 28,000 Afghan interpreters and others who had helped U.S. forces and organizations and had started to apply for special immigrant visas, only about 8,500, and their families, got out before Aug. 31, according to Mr. Kahl’s testimony.

These numbers define some of the United States’ unfulfilled responsibilities in Afghanistan — but hardly all of them. The country’s dire economic situation, and the potential for widespread hunger, will soon call for action as well. Decades of war, a post-Aug. 31 financial collapse and drought have devastated a country where about half of the 39 million people already lived below the poverty line. Some 6.8 million Afghans, mainly located in the country’s northern half, face food scarcity, requiring “urgent lifesaving support,” according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a consortium of nongovernmental organizations. These estimates bolster the World Food Program’s warning, issued Oct. 25, that “Afghanistan is becoming the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with needs surpassing those in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.” The WFP says it is feeding 5 million people in the country, but it will need an additional $220 million a month to cope with the deteriorating situation.

On Oct. 28, the State Department announced $144 million in new aid, which, officials said, will “flow through independent humanitarian organizations” — not the Taliban. The amount is more than double the $64 million the United States had pledged at an international donors conference in September, and came after the first direct U.S.-Taliban talks since Aug. 31 — which produced a pledge from the Taliban to let foreign-based aid groups deliver help “transparently.” The United States is still withholding $9 billion in Afghan assets, along with political recognition, as — for now — it should, despite fresh demands from the Taliban to release it. This is leverage to ensure the Taliban lives up to its commitments and respects the needs of its own people. In helping feed the Afghan people, the United States is signaling a measure of good faith after years of bitter conflict. The Taliban’s reciprocation — or lack thereof — could shape the relationship beyond that.

After a Taliban takeover, the world must prevent starvation in Afghanistan
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What now for the Taleban and Narcotics? A case study on cannabis

Fazl Rahman Muzhary

Afghanistan Analysts Network

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It has been more than a year since the Taleban banned the cultivation of cannabis and the production and trafficking of cannabis resin, known as hashish, in areas of Afghanistan under their control. The Taleban put a great deal of effort into formulating the ban, consulting Islamic scholars and various of their commissions before issuing a decree from the Taleban Supreme Leader in March 2020. This report looks at whether and how the ban was implemented using field research conducted by AAN’s Fazal Muzhary in five districts of Ghazni and Paktika, and sample interviews with farmers and others elsewhere. The research, which took place before the Taleban captured power nationally in August 2021, provides a useful context for considering future Taleban policy on narcotics. Narcotics are important, not just because of their significance to the Afghan economy and many people’s livelihoods, but also their contentiousness – both for potential donors and an avowedly Islamic administration. 

A farmer working on a cannabis plantation in Panjwayi district, Kandahar on 13 October 2021 – no ban here. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP

The author conducted field trips to five districts in Ghazni and Paktika in March 2020 and November 2020, and made follow-up telephone interviews there and in other provinces, up to July 2021. Four of the districts which this research focuses on – Andar, Giro and Nawa in Ghazni province and Dela in Paktika, were mainly under or completely under Taleban control in 2020. The fifth district, Gilan in Ghazni, was split between Taleban and government control. By July 2021, all the government-controlled areas of these districts had fallen to the Taleban. 

Highlights of the Report

  • Research details the active implementation of the Taleban ban on cannabis cultivation in the southeast of Afghanistan in the 2021 growing season, with farmers seeing they had no choice but to obey the decree. 
  • Cannabis cultivation in the southeast is a recent phenomenon and one often pursued by farmers who had moved there to grow cannabis using solar panels to power tube wells, some on land ‘grabbed’ from the state. Some were Taleban commanders.
  • Research also showed that the Taleban did not implement the ban in areas under their control in the major cannabis-cultivating provinces of Kandahar, Nangrahar and Balkh.
  • To put 2020 ban on cannabis in context, the report looks back briefly at earlier attempts to prohibit narcotics in Afghanistan from 1973 onwards, with a particular focus on how the Taleban dealt with narcotics during their first emirate, in particular bans on cannabis (1999) and opium (2000).
  • The report details the tremendous efforts the Taleban expended in formulating the 2020 ban: the leadership consulted Islamic scholars for a religious ruling, or fatwa, and worked through various of their commissions. It also considers the inconsistency of the arguments given by the Taleban for banning cannabis, but not opium. 
  • A conclusion looks at how local price falls may have helped the Taleban implement the ban in the southeast, and asks whether the ban might be maintained, extended, or quietly forgotten in 2022.

Setting the scene: greening the desert with cannabis in Paktika and Ghazni

In Nawruz 2020, the start of the Afghan new year, the author was visiting Dela district of Paktika province and found most of the desert land under cannabis cultivation. Every half a kilometre, 25 to 35 solar panels could be seen set up over a relatively-recent dug well. Next to each well was an improvised storehouse, typically a couple of rooms, covered with a tarpaulin. Just days earlier, the Taleban had issued a ban on growing cannabis, but neither farmers and other locals, nor the author, nor the wider world had yet heard of it. [1]

The previous year’s cannabis crop was hanging from the ceilings of the storehouses and after several months had dried out completely and was ready to be threshed and sieved. This process makes a powdered cannabis resin, locally known as garda. Some farmers sell the garda to traders. Others go on to process it into resin – hashish, or locally chars – before they sell it on. Since the quality of garda deteriorates after only a couple of months, most Afghan farmers sell the complete harvest before that happens, as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) has reported.

On that same trip, the author travelled to four districts in Ghazni province, Andar, Giro, Gilan and Nawa (see map below) and found cannabis also being grown. All the districts were then mainly or completely under Taleban control (Andar, Giro and Nawa in Ghazni province and Dela in Paktika) or split between Taleban and government (Gilan). All would fall completely to the Taleban from July 2021 onwards.

News of the Taleban decree prohibiting cannabis cultivation and the production and sale of hashish first came just days after the author’s visit, on 28 March 2020, on the pro-Taleban website, Nunn.Asia.

A return trip was made to the five districts in late November 2020 to see whether and how the ban had been implemented. On that return trip, the author found that the cannabis sown in spring 2020 had been harvested, that is, the Taleban had not immediately implemented the March 2020 ban. However, he also found that the farmers who had grown cannabis the previous year had sown their fields with winter wheat. If they had wanted to grow cannabis again, they would have left those fields empty; cannabis, unlike wheat, is a spring-sown crop. Wheat had been sown in the Loya and Kuchni Chula areas of Dela, in Spin Tak and Hazrat Shah bazaar areas of Gilan, in the Kuchni Nawa area of Nawa and in the Asgharai area of Giro district. A local man, who worked mainly as a driver, said the difference from previous years was stark: if the author had visited those areas 12 months previously, he would have seen vast areas of land left empty, ready to be sown with cannabis the following spring. The author’s conclusion was that the Taleban ban on growing cannabis had been implemented and obeyed, in these districts, at least.

Cannabis cultivation is a relatively new phenomenon in Ghazni and Paktika – neither province is renowned for its hashish, unlike Balkh, Nangrahar or the province currently growing the current most expensive and best-quality cannabis, according to illicit economies expert David Mansfield, Takhar. Interviews with farmers in Ghazni and Paktika conducted in November 2020 bore out the impression of a crop recently taken up – and now banned. One farmer, for example, 65-year-old Samad Khan (name changed for his security), whom the author met in Nawa’s district town, said he had returned temporarily from the Kuchlagh area of Baluchistan in Pakistan and had been growing cannabis on 20 jeribs of land in his village (one jerib is roughly equal to 0.2 hectares). He had also opened a car repair shop. He said that cannabis cultivation in the previous years had proved more profitable than mending cars, and was not difficult. “Everyone learned how to grow cannabis from each another,” he said. For him, however, the 2020 growing season would be his last because cannabis was “definitely banned for 2021.… Its cultivation [in the future] will be impossible.” He said some people might grow it for personal use only, for which half a jerib or one jerib of land would be more than enough. When asked about people’s reactions to the ban, he said, “No one can challenge Taleban policy. They will apply it everywhere.”

Another farmer, a 70-year-old man living in the Spin Tak area in Gilan district said that in 2021, he and other people in his area were planning to “cultivate wheat, alfalfa, barley, maize or beans on our land.” Other local men told the author that the Taleban had held meetings in spring 2020 to inform people of the ban. A civil society activist from Gilan, Aminullah Bahar, said his village elders had gone to a meeting in the bazaar in Jahangir, the district town of Gilan. He said the Taleban had told the elders that cannabis cultivation was haram – forbidden under Islamic law – and was therefore banned. In the Kuchini Chula area of the Dela district, two brothers, the owners of around 20 jeribs of land, who had migrated from Logar, said local Taleban leaders had also told them to stop growing cannabis. “It will be impossible to cultivate it in 2021,” one said, “so we have sown wheat this autumn [of 2020].”

That cannabis is an illegal crop in Islam appeared to be accepted by all interviewees. The part-time farmer and car mechanic, Samad Khan, for example, himself a user of hashish, accepted it was haram: “If you doubt it’s haram, you doubt your belief in Islam.” Therefore, he said it was good that the Taleban had banned it. Other interviewees said that money earned from cannabis cultivation was not ‘good money’, meaning legitimate income. A landowner in Dela gave the example of what happened to his neighbour to make this point: the neighbour, he said, had made 2,000,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly 12,500 USD) from cannabis, but just a few days later, he was broke. It was because the income from cannabis was haram, he said, that the neighbour did not know how or where he had spent the money. It had “disappeared from his pockets quickly.”

Some curious aspects of cannabis cultivation in Ghazni and Paktika

The author was interested to discover that many of the now ex-cannabis farmers in the districts of Ghazni and Paktika, which are the main subject of this study, had come from other provinces and had been renting land. For example, two brothers encountered in Dela had migrated from Logar province to cultivate cannabis. There were also people from Kandahar in Dela, whom locals said were cannabis cultivators and hashish smugglers. A businessman from Nawa, who now lives in Kabul, also told the author that farmers had migrated from Kandahar and other provinces to his home district to cultivate cannabis.

There are also cases of people grabbing what is called ‘uncultivated’ or ‘state’ land, usually where there is no proven landowner (see page 32 of this AREU report for a full explanation) and renting that land to farmers from other provinces to grow cannabis. This had been the case, according to several interviewees, in the Nawa and Aab Band districts of Ghazni and Khoshamand district of Paktika. One Nawa resident, who owns a business in Kabul, told AAN that land grabbing and renting had started in his district two or three years previously, with farmers installing solar panels to power wells for irrigation. This technology, introduced originally for opium poppy cultivation in the desert areas of the southwestern region (see this AREU report) has been developed and adopted throughout the country since and not only for the opium poppy. As for returns on the land, the resident said that in the past, such land could not be cultivated and had no monetary value except for grazing animals. That changed with irrigation. Another Nawa resident, speaking in November 2020, explained that with a well that could irrigate 15 jeribs, tenants could be easily found and financial arrangements made. Once the season was over, he said the farmer would give the solar panels and the well to the landlord in lieu of rent. In other areas, landlords were given 1,000 seers of wheat (around 143 kilogrammes) as rent for one jerib for the season. As to the profits made, one Nawa resident said some people in his district had made 300,000 to 350,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly 1,870-2,181 USD) for each jerib rented out, a considerable sum.

Residents in all the districts visited by the author said that both local Taleban commanders and fighters had been actively involved in cannabis cultivation and trade in hashish, prior to the ban. Interviewees told AAN that local Taleban commanders had, for example, cultivated several jeribs of land in Spin Tak, the desert between Gilan and Nawa districts. During the author’s visit to Khwajakhel and Kalawoo in Nawa district, some residents even named the commanders who had cultivated cannabis.

Also featuring in the interviews conducted in November 2020 were indications that, even before the ban, many farmers had not been keen, or had become less keen on cultivating cannabis. This had nothing to do with religious considerations, but the nature of the crop. While producing hashish does not require much expertise, farmers said it is time-consuming and labour-intensive. Also significant – and this theme will be explored in depth below – is that farmers reported that the price of hashish had fallen considerably in 2020. However, it may be that, at the time of year when farmers were deciding what crops to grow in 2021, cannabis had become a less attractive crop to grow regardless of the ban. No one in the districts visited by the author were intending to defy the new Taleban ruling. On the face of it, it looked like the Taleban had successfully stopped the cultivation of cannabis locally. The next question was whether they were enforcing the ban in other areas of Afghanistan then under their control.

Fields newly sown not with cannabis, but wheat, and with a solar system installed previously to grow cannabis seen in the background. Photo: Fazal Muzhary, 23 November 2020, in Giro district, Ghazni province.

Are the Taleban enforcing their ban in other districts and provinces of Afghanistan?

A full nationwide survey was beyond the scope of this report. However, the author did conduct some sample interviews in November 2020, either face-to-face or by phone, with people in other districts of Paktika, Logar and Paktia provinces, to get a flavour of what was happening elsewhere in the south-western region. Interviewees also reported that the Taleban had allowed local farmers to grow cannabis in 2020 and for the crop to be processed into garda and hashish, and that the ban would start in earnest in 2021. In Paktia, people said they had seen a copy of the Taleban ban. There were also indications, however, that in some places, not all farmers were obeying the order not to grow cannabis, or that the Taleban had not informed them of it. In Paktia’s Aryub Zazi district, civil society activist Anwar Seddiqi told AAN he had seen a copy of the cannabis ban in his village mosque in the spring of 2020 and that around “70 per cent of farmers have stopped growing cannabis.” The other 30 per cent, he said, were “demanding assistance to switch to alternative crops” and said they would not stop cultivating cannabis until they were given support. He said that key to the 70 per cent of farmers opting not to grow cannabis in 2021 was not only the Taleban’s ban, but also a decision reached by tribal shura that had possibly been inspired by the Taleban’s ban.

The author also carried out some sample interviews with farmers in other cannabis-growing provinces in summer 2021. In Chimtal district in Balkh province, two farmers and a businessman reported in July 2021 that they had heard only been rumours of a Taleban ban on cannabis; nothing official had been seen or said. One of the farmers said such rumours were rife also in Chaharbulak and Balkh districts. The Taleban had been present in the rural areas of all three of these cannabis-growing districts before the collapse of the Republic government and Taleban takeover. [2]

The author also spoke to one farmer in a Taleban-controlled area of Nangrahar’s Sherzad district where most farmers were cultivating cannabis in June 2021. “No one’s been told in the Taleban-controlled part of our district not to cultivate cannabis,” said the Sherzad farmer. “It’s just a rumour that the Taleban have banned cannabis cultivation.” He himself had cultivated cannabis on three jeribs of land in 2021 and said he planned to sow cannabis again in 2022.

In Panjwayi district of Kandahar province where most of the farmers grow cannabis, the then district governor, Haji Mahmud, told AAN on 12 July 2021 that he had never heard of a Taleban ban on cannabis. He said people had cultivated cannabis and they would cultivate it again. However, a local researcher said on 15 July 2021 that people had decided that, because the Taleban might return to Panjwayi, and to neighbouring Maiwand and Arghandab districts and might ban cannabis, most farmers had cultivated less cannabis in 2021 than previous years. [3]

None of the interviewees in Balkh, Kandahar or Nangrahar, all major cannabis-growing provinces, reported the Taleban actively announcing and enforcing their ban in the way they had in Ghazni and Paktika.

The author asked Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed about the very mixed implementation of the ban on 28 July 2021. He insisted that Taleban fighters in all areas had told farmers that cannabis cultivation was now banned. “If it is cultivated somewhere,” he said, “that is in violation of the ban.” He also said Taleban governors had said “they had banned it and were not allowing. If cultivation is found, [the crop] will be destroyed.”

Despite Mujahed’s insistence, it is clear that the ban has been only patchily implemented. As was explained above, Ghazni and Paktika had been fairly new to cannabis cultivation; cannabis was a novel crop there which was not a major revenue source for the community. This, combined with the Taleban’s solid control over many districts in these two provinces, may have meant it was relatively easy to ban. As yet, it seems the Taleban have not tried to stop farmers with a long history of cannabis cultivation in provinces such as Nangrahar, Kandahar, Balkh from growing this narcotic crop.

In order to explore the current Taleban ban more thoroughly, this report now looks at previous attempts to ban cannabis and hashish, and also opium poppy, and then explore the painstaking way the Taleban built up their case for the ban, by consulting religious scholars (ulema) and involving various of their commissions in drawing it up. It then returns to the question of the nature of this ban. That narcotics are banned under Islamic law is nothing new and if cannabis is banned on religious grounds, why not opium, and anyway, why try to ban cannabis in 2020/2021?

Previous attempts to ban cannabis 

Cannabis regulation has been an important feature on Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics agenda, although it has always come second to opium, a more commercially-valuable crop and a more dangerous narcotic. In 1973, Afghanistan’s King Zahir Shah outlawed cannabis production, following it up with a commitment to eradication – backed by 47 million USD in funding from the United States government (see this AAN report). In line with the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, during Dr Najibullah’s presidency, a law prohibiting the “illicit trafficking of narcotics and psychotropic substances” was approved and published in the official gazette on 20 January 1992. This law referred to ‘psychotropic substances’ as listed in the 1988 convention.

During the Taleban regime, cannabis also became a focus of attention. In September 1997, the Taleban’s State High Commission for Drug Control (SHCDC) declared that farmers “should strictly refrain from growing, using and trading in hashish and heroin” (quoted by David Macdonald in his 2007 book “Drugs in Afghanistan: Opium, Outlaws and Scorpion Tales”, p80).

The Taleban’s first attempt to officially ban cannabis cultivation came in a three-article decree signed by Mullah Omar and in the official gazette on 30 April 1999. The first article stated, “Cannabis cultivation is absolutely banned. If anyone cultivates cannabis, they will receive the harshest punishment under sharia.” The second article instructed all provincial governors to take necessary steps to prevent cannabis cultivation. [4] Four months later, on 18 August 1999, the Taleban leadership issued a second decree, which legalised the destruction of hashish-processing workshops. It authorised the Minister of Vice and Virtue and his staff to “destroy hashish and hashish workshops, wherever they are.” It also instructed other officials to cooperate with this ministry as needed. As a result, Macdonald reported, “34 drug processing workshops in Nangrahar were allegedly destroyed with a further 25 destroyed in Helmand the following year” (p80).

On 25 June 2000, Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar signed a new and much more substantial anti-narcotics decreecontaining six chapters and 28 articles. It banned the cultivation, processing, production, sale, buying, smuggling and other uses of both poppy and cannabis. It also focused on the rehabilitation of addicts, spoke of providing alternative facilities for farmers, requesting the ulema, elders and other influential figures to support and attract international assistance in this regard. The decree stated that the Taleban would destroy any poppy fields found in areas under their control during the 2001 growing season. This ban would also apply to any territory seized from the Northern Alliance. In February 2001, the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) – now called the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – declared that the ban on opium poppy cultivation was successful and that the 2001 crop in Taleban-controlled areas was expected to be negligible. [5]

This ban was the Taleban’s first real effort to reduce opium production. In 1999, they had ordered poppy cultivation to be reduced by one-third, but this had not happened. [6] There was surprise then, when observers, including AAN colleague Kate Clark, then the BBC correspondent in Afghanistan, found in the winter of 2000 that the Taleban were strictly enforcing the ban; this was not just propaganda. It was certainly ambitious, the first time, noted Bernard Frahi, then head of the UNDCP office in Pakistan, which also had Afghanistan in his remit, that “a country has decided to eliminate in one go – not gradually – these crops on its territory” (quoted here).

Whether the ban would have lasted is debateable – it was extremely unpopular in opium-growing areas, the very parts of Afghanistan from which the Taleban drew soldiers and support. Moreover, the harm done to many farmers by the 2000/2001 ban was profound. Those in debt found it difficult to survive the winter without the promise of an opium harvest and were forced to default or reschedule their seasonal loans. Some had to resort to selling land, livestock and even marrying off very young daughters to service their debt (see here). Its success in terms of drugs control was also subsequently questioned (see, for example, Bill Byrd’s scrutiny of the Afghanistan’s opium drug economy published in 2004).

In any case, by the following sowing season, winter 2001/02, the Taleban government had fallen. Hamid Karzai, new head of the transitional government, did issue a new, seven-article decree banning both poppy and cannabis cultivation, on 4 April 2002 (although the word ‘cannabis’ was included in the 2002 law’s title, there were no further references to cannabis in the articles), but his government could not or did not want to enforce the ban on either narcotic crop. President Ashraf Ghani approved the current anti-drug law passed on 24 February 2018, the third counter-narcotics law since 2001 (see this AAN report). The 2018 law penalises both poppy and cannabis cultivation, as well as a variety of other substances.

Under both Taleban and post-Taleban governments, the main thrust of counter-narcotics talk and action has been taken has been against opium poppy. Cannabis, while mentioned, has never been the focus of action or attention. In 2020, however, the Taleban have only banned cannabis. The next section of this report looks at how they introduced the ban and at the pre-ban measures they took, especially their consultation with ulema.

The new Taleban ban on cannabis 

Before issuing the ban, the Taleban had first asked its commission that rules on religious issues, the dawat wa ershad – invitation (to Islam) and guidance commission, previously known as the vice and virtue department – for help in obtaining a fatwa, a religious ruling based on sharia law, on cannabis. This is significant because once there was a fatwa, it would be more difficult for people to justify ignoring the ban. The commission referred the issue to the Taleban’s Dar ul-Eftah (the house of fatwas), whose religious scholars sent a questionnaire to several clerics in different districts and provinces, mostly in Taleban-controlled areas. For example, a local imam in Ghazni’s Andar district, who is a member of the Taleban’s district fiqhi majles (jurisprudence council) that meets to discuss issues related to Islamic jurisprudence and answer religious questions from the public (read this AAN report about living with the Taleban in Andar, for details), was among those receiving the questionnaire. He told AAN the main issue was whether “selling, cultivating and profiting from cannabis” was religiously permissible.

Asking their advice gained the approval of those mullahs who had been against cannabis cultivation. They praised the Taleban for taking action against the narcotic crop. As one interviewee, a local mullah and schoolteacher said, now the local mullahs could say that the Taleban had listened to them and would be satisfied. Local mullahs are an effective mechanism for the Taleban to deliver messages to the population. This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that spreads the word of the Taleban to nearly every mosque, where the mullahs work as imams, in their respective districts and provinces. As one mullah told AAN, “The mullahs prove more effective than the media.”

When asked about the stance of Hanafi jurisprudence regarding cannabis, another member of the Fiqhi Majles told AAN that selling, transporting, planting and processing cannabis was haram because the prophet had “forbidden every intoxicant and slanderer. [7] Quoting Syrian religious scholar Wahbah al-Zuhayli, he said that smoking hashish was harmful to both the smoker and to others and this was illegal in Islam. He said a small amount was allowed for medicinal use. The opinion of the mullahs consulted, that cultivating and profiting from cannabis was haram, paved the way for the Dar ul-Eftah to issue a fatwawhich then underpinned the decree and its implementation. Taleban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahed, told AAN that it took six months to get the fatwa from Dar ul-Eftah. The mullahs’ religious consensus that cannabis was haram was entirely to be expected and could hardly have surprised the Taleban. What it gave the Taleban, however, was a religious legitimacy to their ban.

The movement also sought, spokesman Mujahed told AAN, information about who was growing cannabis, how it was used, how many addicts there were and what people thought about it and whether there were complaints or concerns. He said the Talebancomplaints commission and Dawat wa Ershad commission were both involved in the fact-finding and sent a written report to the Taleban supreme court. Another report by an ‘investigative team’, looking at the financial benefits of cannabis was also sent to the court, he said, which, “with the help of the Dar ul-Eftah, analysed the effects and side effects” of cannabis production. The court approved the Dar ul-Eftah fatwa stating that cannabis cultivation is illegal and sent it to the current Taleban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada for final approval. “Once the leader signed [the fatwa],” said Mujahed, “he issued a decree, which was sent to the Dawat Wa Ershad commission. The military commission will support this commission [Dawat Wa Ershad] if the use of force is required.”

The March 2020 decree (see Annex 1) gives as a reason for the ban the harm done to compatriots who become addicts and the need to protect the community and future generations, as well as that the crop is haram. It couches the ban in words of guidance: farmers are to be “encouraged and motivated to refrain from planting cannabis and cultivating this destructive crop and instead to cultivate beneficial and harmless crops” and tribal and local elders are “encouraged to make decisions to comprehensively prevent cannabis cultivation and the hashish businesses in their areas through community-based agreements.” Yet it also says the cultivation of cannabis is “definitely” or “absolutely” banned (mutlaq). It also, unequivocally, bans the renting out of state land for cannabis cultivation and also warns Taleban officials to avoid involvement in its cultivation and the transport and trade in hashish. The decree is not yet accompanied by secondary legislation, which would provide details on fines and penalties. The only clearly stated punishment relates to Taleban commanders or fighters who, according to the decree, will be removed from their positions if they are found to be in violation of the ban.

Mujahed told AAN that, based on their experience of banning opium in 2000/2001, the Taleban were confident they could successfully implement the new decree. “In 2001,” he claimed, “we had gradually banned drug production and we have adopted a similar attitude for the current policy.” The 2000 poppy ban was actually sudden and comprehensive and about as far from gradual as it is possible to imagine. There had, on paper, supposedly been a gradual cutting down of cultivation in previous years, which presumably is what Mujahed is referring to, but that reduction was never implemented, as AAN colleague Kate Clark, then with the BBC, reported at the time. [8] Nevertheless, Mujahed said they were adopting the ‘2001 gradual model’ by allowing all farmers who had already planted cannabis to harvest their crops in 2020, but telling them they would not be allowed to cultivate cannabis in 2021.

In 2000/2001, the Taleban were able to ban poppy because of the uncompromising nature of their law enforcement practices and their unquestionable authority in areas under their rule. The 2020 decree carries a far less punitive tone than the counter-narcotic laws adopted during Taleban regime and there is also no explicit punishment for ordinary farmers and landowners who break it. Nonetheless, Mujahed insisted that, to enforce the ban, they would call on the military commission to help if force were needed.

Why did the Taleban ban cannabis – and not opium?

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told AAN there were several reasons why they had introduced the ban. First, he said, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) is against any drug production in the country and therefore, when the Taleban were in power in 2001, it brought drug production, including hashish, to zero.” The statement is questionable: the Taleban seek out benefits from the drugs trade, in particular by their systematic and rigorous taxation of opium (see, for example, AAN reporting here and here.

Mujahed also said the Taleban had been pushed to act by the increased use of cannabis among young men, given how widely available cannabis was. Farmers in Nangrahar, Logar, Paktika, Ghazni, Khost, Paktia and some districts of Zabul had been cultivating cannabis for commercial purposes, he said and it was being used as an illicit drug, not for medicinal or other (Islamically legal) purposes. He said the increased use of hashish among young men was an ongoing concern in communities and this was a significant driver behind the Taleban making the ban. Taleban local courts, he said, had consistently received complaints from people in different provinces about the use of hashish among young men in their communities. This may well be the case. On the author’s field trip, civil society activist Aminullah Bahar from Gilan district of Ghazni province, told AAN that drug use was pervasive not only in his district, but also in Moqur, Nawa, Aab Band, Giro, some districts of Zabul as well as neighbouring Paktika, where, Bahar said, communities have reported that there are girls, boys and women, as well as men, use hashish, heroin and other substances. News reports have also covered this issue, for example, on 4 April 2020, Azadi radio reported that residents in Ghazni province had complained about young people using hashish. The 2015 Afghanistan Drug Use Survey (the last year for which statistics are available) reported that between 2.5 and 2.9 million Afghans or 11 per cent of the population used drugs, with around one-third of them using cannabis. Speaking to AAN, the Taleban spokesman attributed the increased use of hashish among the young to the widespread cultivation of cannabis and the simplicity of producing hashish (see this AAN report about the process here and here.)

Mujahed said the harm done by cannabis was the reason given by local Taleban leaders to major landowners in areas under Taleban control in meetings held in 2020 to brief them about the ban: “We told them that if your economy is going to improve by destroying the lives of the youth, then you must forgo the financial benefits.” Again, however, the use of opium and other poppy derivatives is also a problem in Afghanistan and indeed is far more dangerous in its effects on individuals and communities. It is not clear, therefore, why the Taleban have singled out cannabis as particularly problematic.

Mujahed did say they would like, in the future, also to ban opium, but considered it too difficult to carry out a ban at this time because, he said, farmers had made significant investments in poppy cultivation. He argued that it was easier for farmers to stop growing cannabis because it does not need such investment. [9] He also said that, as the Taleban were neither in power, nor in a position to provide an alternative to farmers for poppy cultivation, they had decided not to ban poppy. However, again it is difficult to see how, in this instance, cannabis differs from poppy: where cannabis or poppy has been grown on previously uncultivated land with wells dug and solar panels bought, both have required an investment. Where cannabis or poppy was grown on land that was already irrigated and cultivated, each crop is as easy to stop cultivating as the other: both sown yearly, so are easy to start and stop cultivating, unlike, for example, orchard crops.

Indeed, all the reasons Mujahed gave for banning cannabis apply also to poppy. None of his answers were convincing as to why the Taleban have singled out one narcotic crop and not the other. However, in practical terms, it would make sense to start with the crop that is less widely grown and less economically important for farmers and traders. Banning poppy would be more destructive of people’s livelihoods, cut more deeply into Taleban revenues, require more political capital to implement and have far more potential to damage local support for or acquiescence to Taleban rule. Such reasoning would also explain why the Taleban did not enforce the ban in the 2021 growing season throughout Afghanistan; banning cannabis where it is a major source of revenue for farmers would have been difficult and required more political capital than the Taleban had.

A cannabis plantation in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, photographed on 13 October 2021. No ban here. Photo: Javed Tanveer / AFP

Why have farmers obeyed the ban?

During the author’s visit to the districts in Ghazni and Paktika in November 2020, interviewees reported that there had been no challenges to the ban. Those who had been growing cannabis said 2020 would be their last year and they would sow a different crop in 2021. The most common reason given was the Taleban ban. The farmers we spoke to felt that disobeying the ban was not an option for them. However, they also mentioned other reasons as influencing their decision not to grow cannabis: the low price of hashish, the returns not being as great as from other agricultural products, the hard work of turning dried cannabis into resin and being involved in something they already knew to be haram – although such claims of piety are typically given by farmers who have no choice but to stop growing a narcotic crop.

On what they said were falling prices, without specifying a time period, interviewees speaking in November 2020 said that, ‘in the past’, the price of a kilo of hashish had been far higher – they mentioned prices of between 20,000 and 28,000 Pakistani rupees (123 to 172 USD) per kilo and said it had dropped to between 4,000 and 10,000 Pakistani rupees (24 to 61 USD). In Nawa’s district town, where the author saw several shops selling hashish in the last week of November 2020, the price of one kilogramme of hashish was between 3,500 and 5,000 Pakistan rupees (roughly 22-32 USD).

Whether this price fall was local or national is an important piece of the puzzle, but difficult to determine. That the price of hashish has generally been falling is borne out by figures collected by the then Ministry of Interior and earlier the UNODC, although the trend appears to be on a much-longer time-scale, over the last decade (prices from 2005 to 2020 supplied to AAN by UNODC). The data does not show prices falling as precipitously as the interviewees suggested, although it only goes up to August 2020, so ending a little before the period when farmers would have been making their decisions on which crops to grow in 2021. However, illicit economies expert David Mansfield said he also had reports of falling hashish prices in places such as Nimroz (trafficked, rather than grown) – 48 USD per kilo in March 2021, down from 80 USD per kg in summer 2019 – and in Nangrahar – 50 USD per kilo for good quality hashish in 2021, down from 120 USD per kilo in 2019.

Surveying the price of hashish is tricky. As Mansfield pointed out to AAN, the price data collected by the Ministry of Interior between May 2020 and May 2021 showed “contrasting trends, with prices falling in Nangrahar and Baghlan, Badakhshan, while rising in Kandahar, Faryab, Balkh and Herat.” He said part of this could be to do with methodology and problems with collecting data reliably, but price also varies markedly between provinces, reflecting, he said, “the realities of differing qualities and markets.” In the five districts featured in this study, reporting on prices was consistent, that prices had fallen. One farmer who rented land from local landowners, for example, told AAN how he had lost money in 2020. He estimated that one kilogramme of hashish had cost him 10,370 Pakistani rupees (roughly 66 USD) to produce, but he could only sell it for 3,500 to 5,000 rupees (roughly 22-32 USD). Costs included paying workers and providing meals, renting land, buying fertiliser and tarpaulins and digging a well. When the author asked him whether he would cultivate cannabis next year, he covered his ears with his hands and said: “I regret it and I will not cultivate it next year because I cannot afford all the expenses. This is my last year of renting land and cultivating cannabis.”

Our interviewees could only speculate about the falling prices, that some producers were adulterating hashish, or legalisation of cannabis in the west – so that you can buy hashish “as easily as grapes”– both dynamics which, they thought would reduce demand and prices. Others spoke of the effect of the disruption to smuggling routes caused by the pandemic; again they thought this might make hashish more expensive for customers and therefore reduce demand – although the evidence is against this: Mansfield wrote in May 2020 that during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was still “business as usual” for the smugglers.

Whatever the reason behind the falling price of cannabis and its products, and the subsequent low profit margins in the areas the author visited, this does appear to be one reason why farmers in these districts decided to grow other crops in 2021. [10] Lower prices may have contributed to the success of the Taleban ban there, if there was disinclination to grow the crop anyway. Recalling the case of the highly effective 2000/01 Taleban ban on opium poppy, at that time, the price of wheat was high and opium low. These price dynamics supported the Taleban ban on growing poppy. Yet the movement still had to put political capital into banning the narcotic crop to stop all production. Of course, the opposite is also true: a ban that reduces the cultivation and supply of hashish should eventually push prices back up and encourage cultivation again.

Most of the farmers we spoke to, except those who had invested heavily in making desert land cultivatable, were fairly sanguine about the ban. Ghazni and Paktika are not known for growing cannabis, so it could be that farmers who had cultivated it for a few seasons when it seemed opportune found it relatively easy to switch to other crops. What was curious, however, was how much effort the Taleban had put into formulating this edict – getting the support of the ulema and the Taleban’s own commissions – and into implementing it in the districts visited in Ghazni and Paktia, while apparently shying away from demanding farmers in provinces with a longer, established history of growing cannabis stop growing the crop.

Days after capturing Kabul, Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told a press conference (media report here) that the Taleban would be banning narcotics: “There will be no drug production, no drug smuggling. We saw today that our young people were on drugs near the walls; this was making me very, very sad that our youth are addicted.”[11] However, there appeared to be a catch in his promise; would the ban only take place if there was support from international donors? Mujahed went on to say: “Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore, but we need international help for that. The international community needs to help us.”

Given the colossal economic shocks – the cut-off of aid, end to the dollar supply and freezing of state assets (see this AAN report) that have assailed Afghanistan since the Taleban takeover, it would be economic and political suicide for the new regime to ban one of the country’s few successful exports. No more has been heard about banning narcotics and Taleban spokesman Mujahed did not respond to AAN’s request for an interview about narcotics. [12] That having been said, the Taleban have begun their rule with a decree, supported by a fatwa, prohibiting cannabis and hashish already in place. Whether they will want to expend the political capital needed to maintain their ban in the southeast of Afghanistan, let alone extend it to more provinces, or, as seems more likely, quietly forget they ever enacted the ban in the first place is a topic to be followed.

Edited by Kate Clark and Jelena Bjelica

Annex 1: AAN translation of the Taleban decree banning cannabis cultivation

Date: 1441/8/4 (29 March 2020)

Serial No: 86/5

In the name of God

Instructions from the Islamic Emirate’s leadership for the prevention of cannabis cultivation. 

The increased cultivation of cannabis has resulted in many countrymen, particularly the youth, becoming addicted and the number is increasing daily, which is a tragedy for the community. The provisions below will be strictly implemented to protect the new generation from addictions of any kind and misdeeds:

Article One

(A) In all parts of Afghanistan, farmers are encouraged and motivated to refrain from planting cannabis and cultivating this destructive crop and instead to cultivate beneficial and harmless [crops].

(B) Tribal and local elders are encouraged to make decisions to comprehensively prevent cannabis cultivation and the hashish businesses in their areas through community-based agreements. As a result, the cultivation [of cannabis] is definitely banned. 

 (C) The commission for Dawat Ershad and the commission for recruitment, through the respected ulema, for the purpose of public awareness, will give evidence-based sermons to the general public about the harm done by cannabis, hashish and other intoxicants as well as about it being haram. 

Article Two

(A) Whoever is renting Emirati land (land belonging to the Emirate, or simply desert or state land) do on the condition that they do not cultivate cannabis. 

(B) People from one area who are renting land in another area for cannabis cultivation are absolutely banned from cannabis cultivation. 

(C) The commission for agriculture and livestock and the commission for usher and zakat should pay complete attention to this issue to ensure that the ban on cannabis cultivation is enforced. 

Article Three Emirati officials and members must keep themselves away from this bad bush, from its cultivation, business and its transportation. In case of violation, the officials involved should be removed from their positions and be introduced to the relevant Emirati entities.


References

References
1 For two in-depth reports on cannabis in Afghanistan, see “The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (1): A cultural history of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Afghanistan” report and “The Myth of ‘Afghan Black’ (2): The cultural history of hashish consumption in Afghanistan,” report.
2 These districts in Balkh are now under the complete control of the Taleban now: Chaharbulak district fell into Taleban’s hands on 18 June, Chimtal on 21 June and Balkh district on 22 June 2021.
3 By the time the local researcher talked with the author, the three districts were already under Taleban control: Maiwand fell on 23 June, Arghandab on 15 July and Panjwayi on 4 July 2021.
4 The third article had stated the decree is applicable from the day of its approval and should be published in the official gazette.
5 While overall, cultivation in Afghanistan fell by 94%, in Northern-Alliance controlled areas, it soared; in Badakhshan, it had been grown on 2,458 hectares of land in 2000 and 6,342 in 2001. See the 2001 UNDCP Annual Opium Poppy Survey.
6 David Mansfield reported that the 2000 ban was the Taleban’s sixth attempt at banning opium.
7 The text quoted is from a hadith: “The Messenger of God forbade every intoxicant and slanderer.” 

نَهَى رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ عَن كُلِّ مُسْكِرٍ وَمُفَتِّرٍ

8 On 9 August, 2000, Kate Clark reported, “Earlier in the year, Mullah Omar said there would be a one-third cut in production of opium. Although there was some public bulldozing of fields near major highways, the actual harvest rose significantly.”
9 On 28 March 2020, Nunn.asia reported that the Taleban leadership had officially prohibited cannabis cultivation, production and trafficking in the areas controlled by them. A day after the story was published, a Twitter account, which seems to belong to a Taleban associate, shared a photo of the decree. Although the media did not extensively cover the decree, the pro-Taleban social media users shared it widely (see for example and here).
10 Whether as a result of the Taleban ban or falling prices, not growing cannabis and producing hashish will have some knock-on effect on employment. The author saw multiple hashish-processing facilities in March 2020, employing 10 to 20 workers each, in Dela, Aab Band, Gilan and Nawa districts. The author also spoke to two workers taking care of a warehouse where cannabis was stored in Dela who said they received 25,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly 160 USD) per month. In some villages in Gilan district, Bahar said, he knew young men who received 1,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly six USD) for working night shifts, while during the day, they would do other jobs. He said such work is important in the autumn when the harvest of most other crops, such as grape and wheat, is already over and most youths have no other source of income.
11 Zabihullah’s reference to ‘the walls’ is to the places on the margins of city life where addicts gather, such as under road bridges and in the middle of dual carriageways, often amid rubbish and stagnant water. See a recent report from the Associated Press describing a Taleban raid on addicts here, and this piece from AAN from 2014 for more detail.
12 The latest figures for the value of Afghanistan’s cannabis harvest are from a decade ago: UNODC estimated the harvest was worth 95 million USD in 2011, or 0.6 per cent of legal GDP, and 65 million USD in 2012, or 0.3 per cent of legal GDP. UNODC’s latest opium survey from 2020, a year when prices were the lowest they had been since the UNODC began systematic monitoring, estimated the farm-gate value of Afghanistan’s opium harvest to be 350 million dollars. Even without the value added as it was smuggled across the borders, that still amounted to 1.8 per cent of Afghanistan’s total legal GDP. In 2017, a bumper year for opium, UNODC valued production at 1.4 billion dollars, or 7.4 per cent of legal GDP. (GDP data from World Bank can be found here.) The average value added of all licit agriculture and forestry, 2011-21, was 24.1 per cent (data from World Bank here).

What now for the Taleban and Narcotics? A case study on cannabis
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Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan

In the aftermath of the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, violence against the Hazara population has escalated. With a long history of persecution, including by the Taliban, the Hazaras are right to fear a genocide.

While the Taliban and other armed groups are targeting and committing human rights violations against the people of Afghanistan, the Hazara ethnic and religious population is especially at high risk. The international community must pressure the Taliban to guarantee the protection of the rights of the Hazara people, to ensure a genocide against them does not take place.

A history of atrocities against the Hazaras

As one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, the Hazara people have endured various forms of oppression from Pashtun rulers and governments, including slavery, systematic expulsion from ancestral homes and lands, and massacres. These experiences have led some to consider Hazaras to be one of the “most persecuted people in the world”.

In the late 19th century, Pashtun ruler Abdur Rahman Khan sought to bring the Hazara people in their homeland of Hazarajat under his rule. He waged a brutal war against the community, which resulted in bloody “massacres, looting and pillaging of homes, enslavement” and the transfer of Hazara land to Pashtun tribes. It is estimated that  Hazarajat lost some 60 percent of its population to ethnic cleansing, which has led some scholars to term the carnage a genocide.

Over the following decades, Hazaras continued to face repression, discrimination and socio-economic marginalisation. Many were forced to “conceal their identities” to obtain state identification. Until the 1970s, a large percentage of the Hazara population could not access higher education, enrol in the army or secure higher-level government jobs.

After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, Afghanistan descended into civil war between various armed groups. In 1993, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, worried by the positions that Hazara armed groups had taken in Kabul’s Shia-majority areas, decided to launch an offensive against them. Intense shelling, arbitrary killings of civilians and targeting of Hazara men resulted in hundreds killed and forcibly disappeared.

After the Pashtun-centric, ultra-conservative Sunni Taliban group took over Kabul in 1996, atrocities against the Hazaras did not stop. “Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan [graveyard],” was the mantra of the Taliban at the time. And its fighters made good on such threats.

In 1998, as the armed group was attempting to establish full control over Afghanistan, it laid a siege on Hazarajat, blocking supply routes and starving the civilian population. In August of the same year, Taliban fighters captured Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan, going on a rampage targeting Tajiks, Uzbeks and particularly, Hazaras.

Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 2,000 people of different ethnic communities, including Hazaras, were killed and according to estimates by Hazara groups, the death toll may be as high as 15,000.

Vulnerability of the Hazaras

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which toppled the Taliban regime, brought new hopes for the Hazara people. Although discrimination in the country continued, the community was able to participate in public life much more freely. Hazara youth were quick to embrace all forms of education and emerged at the forefront of social change initiatives, while Hazara women pushed for women’s emancipation.

These gains in education and social standing have encouraged the community to mobilise and demand an end to discrimination and a greater political space. When the post-Taliban governance of Afghanistan was being set up at the Bonn Conference of 2001, Hazaras were estimated to make up 19 percent of the country’s population. Yet in the following years, the political space they were given in the country did not reflect the proportion of the population they constituted.

After 2001, the Hazaras also continued to suffer targeted violence at the hands of the Taliban and other armed groups. Since 2015, the emergence of the even more extreme Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) unleashed an even deadlier wave of attacks on the Hazara population, with suicide bombers targeting schools, mosques and even hospitals in Hazara neighbourhoods.

In August, Amnesty International reported that at least nine Hazara men were massacred by the Taliban when its fighters took over Ghazni province in July. Then earlier this month, the organisation released evidence of another massacre in which 13 Hazaras, including a 17-year-old girl, were killed in late August in Daykundi province.

In late September and early October, reports in Western media emerged of mass “evictions” of Hazara people from their ancestral homes and lands in Daykundi province. Taliban fighters forced over 4,000 Hazaras from their homes, claiming they had no ownership over their land, leaving them stranded without food or shelter as harsh winter approaches.  In Mazar-e-Sharif, a local Taliban court decided to expel some 2,000 families, again based on false claims that they do not own their homes.

By now there is a clear pattern of Taliban atrocities being committed across Afghanistan, which could mean that the Hazaras may be facing imminent ethnic cleansing.

It is also not surprising that, despite the insistence by the Taliban that it can provide security and peace in Afghanistan, ISKP has continued its deadly attacks against the Hazaras. In October, the bombing of a Hazara mosque in Kunduz resulted in the death of more than 100 people. Another bombing of a Hazara mosque in Kandahar killed at least 47 people and wounded scores of others.

Protecting the Hazaras

Despite ample rhetoric on the need to protect religious minorities, regional players have also not stepped in to help the Hazara people. While it is presumed that Iran may come to the protection of Shia minorities, it did not come to the aid of Hazaras during the massacres of 1998 and has not taken any serious action since the Taliban took over Kabul in mid-August.

Tehran supported the Taliban in its fight against the US and even hosted some of its leaders; its policies towards Afghanistan are built on its perceived national interest. Therefore, it is unlikely that it would take any significant steps to protect the Shia of Afghanistan.

All Afghans face precarious and dangerous circumstances in their country, but the situation is particularly desperate for the Hazaras, who have been historically marginalised, dispossessed and massacred. The risk of ethnic cleansing and even genocide that they face should be a matter of international concern and international human rights bodies need to take action.

The newly appointed United Nations special rapporteur on Afghanistan must immediately investigate the systematic attacks and forced displacement of Hazaras to ensure those responsible are identified and held to account.

The international community has a legal, moral and political obligation to protect the Hazara people. It must honour the commitment of “never again” in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Sajjad Askaryis a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, has a BA graduate in International Relations, and is a current student of Juris Doctor (Law) at Monash University Law School in Australia. Due to the persecution of the Hazara people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in 2012 he sought asylum by boat in Australia.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Why the Hazara people fear genocide in Afghanistan
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A Remote Corner of Afghanistan Offers a Peek Into the Future of the Country

By Franz J. Marty

The Diplomat

October 19, 2021

In Kamdesh, Nuristan, where U.S. forces withdrew more than a decade ago, the American presence is a distant – and negative – memory for many locals.

KAMDESH, NURISTAN — In the dead of night on August 30, 2021, the last U.S. forces stepped off the tarmac of Kabul Airport onto a plane and left Afghanistan. It was almost 20 years after the first U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to go after al-Qaida and topple the Emirate of the Taliban that sheltered them. In a twist that would have been unimaginable back in late 2001, by the time the U.S. left the Taliban again held sway in the capital Kabul and practically in the whole of Afghanistan – a feat that they did not even achieve at the prior height of their power in September 2001.

What the future holds for Afghanistan is difficult to predict and depends on what exactly the Taliban and the international community will do in the next weeks and months. However, the situation in one remote corner of Afghanistan offers a peek into the future of the whole country.

Where the U.S. Left Long Ago

While the final departure of U.S. forces literally happened overnight, and without any fanfare or even a clear announcement, the full U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan was a long goodbye. Some provinces and outposts were already abandoned years ago, like Combat Outpost Keating in Kamdesh, a district in the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan, which was vacated by U.S. forces over a decade ago, in 2009.

In several aspects, Kamdesh epitomizes the whole U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Going to Afghanistan meant going to one of the most remote parts of the world and going to Kamdesh meant going to one of the most remote spots in Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers called Kamdesh “the dark side of the moon,” and Keating was arguably the most remote outpost in the whole U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. And while the mission in Kamdesh and the larger Nuristan-Kunar region was initially to hunt down al-Qaida and their allies, it turned, over time, into something that no one could exactly describe. Indeed, a U.S. military investigation into the final days of Combat Outpost Keating concluded that “the mission devolved into one of base defense and by mid-2009 there was no tactical or strategic value to holding the ground occupied by COP Keating.” Although focusing on other valleys in Kunar and Nuristan, this devolving of the mission is excellently dissected in Wesley Morgan’s book The Hardest Place.

In any event, as the United States had no clear objective in Kamdesh anymore, Combat Outpost Keating had already been earmarked to be abandoned by the summer of 2009. However, logistical reasons delayed giving up Keating – and provided the Taliban with an opportunity. On October 3, 2009, an estimated 300 Taliban fighters launched a full-blown attack against Keating and, temporarily, even breached its perimeter. U.S. soldiers manning Keating, with heavy air support, eventually managed to repel the Taliban. However, with eight U.S. soldiers killed and 22 more wounded as well as over 150 Taliban casualties, it was one of the bloodiest U.S.-Taliban battles of the whole U.S. war in Afghanistan and became the subject of books (see e.g. here and here) as well as the movie “The Outpost.”

In spite of the heavy casualties the Taliban suffered, when U.S. forces abandoned Keating soon after the Battle of Kamdesh, the Taliban were again in control of almost all of Kamdesh and felt victorious – a feeling now echoing through the whole of the country, and still persistent in Kamdesh.

The U.S. Legacy

Although the United States deployed troops to Kamdesh at least once more, for a very short stint in 2012, U.S. involvement in the district practically ceased to exist there more than a decade ago, meaning that what is playing out in the whole country now already happened years ago in Kamdesh.

By now, barely anything of the prior U.S. involvement remains in Kamdesh. Indeed, when The Diplomat visited the site of Combat Outpost Keating in early August 2021, the few shells of Soviet armored personnel carriers left rusting there for over three decades were more prominent than anything the Americans left behind. The former Combat Outpost Keating was practically invisible. What the U.S. bombardment that followed the U.S. withdrawal from Keating did not destroy back in 2009 is now overgrown by ferns and bushes whose leaves quietly rustle in the wind. The small peninsula protruding into the white water of the Landay Sin River, where once U.S. resupply helicopters landed, is now covered in small trees.

And while one might assume that the sturdy beton bridge spanning a tributary to the Landay Sin River, connecting the place of the former combat outpost with the former helicopter landing zone, was constructed by the Americans, this is not the case. “The bridge was built during the [first] Taliban era [before September 2001] by a non-governmental organization,” explained Mawlawi Abdul Reza, a teacher at a madrassa, a religious school, who hails from Ormor, the village only a stone’s throw away from what was once Keating. Another resident of Kamdesh confirmed this.

“The Americans built nothing here; only their base which they later destroyed,” Reza added with scorn in his voice.

The latter is not entirely true, as several other solid cement bridges – one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in valleys cut through by fast flowing mountain rivers – were built in the early 2000s with U.S. aid. “Since these bridges in the early 2000s, there have been no development projects at all here,” Obaid Rahmon, a resident of Kamdesh, told The Diplomat. This is not hard to believe. Roads in the district remain unpaved and bumpy, winding through difficult terrain. Basic clinics are far and few between, and the ones that exist and are open are regularly short of doctors and medicine.

In 2020, the then-government of Afghanistan, which was largely funded by the U.S., started to build several schools in Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, the district located upstream from Kamdesh, as Rahmon acknowledged. However, the school building that The Diplomat visited in early August 2021 remained an empty, unfinished shell and with the current uncertainties it is questionable when, if ever, it will be completed.

According to residents of Kamdesh, other promised development projects never materialized. “The Americans said they would construct a pipe system for drinking water for our village, but they never did,” Abdul Jalil an old school teacher from Ormor, told The Diplomat. “Back when the Americans where here, there were jobs here and a lot of money, but no security,” Jalil and other men from Ormor said, sitting on a wooden bench surrounded by the steep slopes peppered with small trees from which the Taliban used to regularly attack the Americans in Keating.

The Diplomat has heard similar feelings – disappointment over lack of basic developments and complaints about insecurity – in many other places across Afghanistan during the past months and years. Based on that trend, it seems likely that little of the existing U.S. investments in Afghanistan will be remembered in a few years from now.

An Elusive Peace?

“With the Americans gone, the money stopped and nothing was left behind; but the security problems continued,” Jalil added, which was seconded by the others. Given that the forces of the now toppled Afghan Republic did not vacate Kamdesh along with U.S. forces, clashes between the Republican forces and the Taliban continued in Kamdesh until the complete fall of the district in early August 2021. However, when the men from Ormor mentioned their concern regarding insecurity, they were not only referring to clashes between Republican and Taliban forces in the past.

“In the past 11 years, a total of 40 houses were burnt down in Ormor. The last incident only took place 15 days ago [in late July 2021],” Jalil stated. “No one knows who is behind these incidents and why they burn down the houses,” the residents of Ormor claimed.

“The U.S. presence here has split the local people,” one man from Ormor said, “and this split exists still now, long after the U.S. left.” While his comment implied that such a split is the reason for the numerous acts of arson in Ormor, in a country like Afghanistan where longstanding violent personal, clan, or tribal enmities are frequent, there are many alternative potential explanations. Either way, there are no indications that these arson attacks will stop now after the full Taliban takeover.

That said, not everyone is concerned about the security situation in Kamdesh. To the contrary, other people who live in parts of Kamdesh that have been de facto controlled by the Taliban for a decade stated that their villages are safe and that they don’t face any security issues. In view of this, the victory of the Taliban across the country will mean security in certain, maybe even many, parts of the country, but a complete end of violent acts will likely remain elusive.

Locals’ Problems With the Taliban

There are people in Kamdesh that are not too happy with the Taliban. Some people in Kamdesh contrasted the existence of job opportunities and money when Americans were around with the economic hardship they face under the Taliban.

“The extreme inflation of prices for common goods is all the Taliban’s fault,” one man with a short-cropped black beard and a pakool, the region’s traditional round felt hat, exclaimed. Given that the price hike in Kamdesh in August 2021 was mainly caused by the fact that a historic flash flood cut the only road into the district from lower Kamdesh, which disrupted supplies for the rest of Kamdesh and Barg-e Matal, this criticism was to some extent unfair. However, as examples from other areas that have been long under Taliban control show, a contracting economy and the lack of job opportunities are indeed frequently heard problems of life under Taliban rule and are now also reported countrywide.

The fact that the Taliban apparently only have limited financial resources was corroborated during the response to the flood in Kamdesh. “Some aid arrived from non-governmental organizations, but nothing from the Taliban,” a victim of the flood in the village of Mirdesh in lower Kamdesh told The Diplomat.

Other residents of Mirdesh mentioned that the Taliban had promised to help the flood victims with “5 million,” but this money had, at least as of mid-August, never arrived and it was not even clear whether the Taliban meant 5 million afghanis or Pakistani rupees. (The use of Pakistani currency is, despite an official ban, still common in a few border areas of Afghanistan.) A Taliban official was even inviting NGOs to help, while remaining silent on what the Taliban themselves would do to respond to the emergency.

Some residents of Kamdesh also complained about intrusive Taliban laws. Apart from the little island of the district center that was, until early August 2021, controlled by the former Republic, the Taliban have prohibited TVs, smoking, and music for over a decade in Kamdesh.

“While smoking and music are in theory outlawed, some Taliban smoke themselves and I and others listen openly to music without the Taliban interfering,” a resident from Kamdesh qualified this.

“However, with TVs and satellite dishes they are strict. I have asked several times to be allowed to have a satellite dish to get satellite-based WiFi, but they don’t let me,” the man added. “And this is despite the fact that the Taliban themselves regularly use the satellite-based WiFi of a shopkeeper in the center of Barg-e Matal,” which was until early August under the control of the former Republic.

This shows that Afghans are – contrary to Taliban claims – not living blissfully under Taliban rule. Given that residents of Kamdesh have been living under the Taliban for over 10 years, their voices show that complains and worries about the economy are not mere transitional issues.

The district center of Kamdesh, Nuristan province, perched high above the main valley on a mountain slope (August 12, 2021). Photo by Franz J. Marty.

Outlook

In view of all this, it is likely that, as in Kamdesh, little of the U.S. investment from the past two decades will remain across Afghanistan – and what does remain won’t be remembered as having been provided by U.S. aid. Instead, if Kamdesh offers any preview, Afghans across the country will probably continue to blame the United States for not having fulfilled its promises and – among Afghans who were amenable to the U.S. intention to develop Afghanistan into a modern state – for having abandoned them.

That said, while some are already appreciating or will appreciate the level of security provided by the Taliban, others affected by continuing acts of violence will not. And while Afghans are already worrying about the tumbling economy, this will likely further increase in the months and years to come, with the Taliban continuing to rely on international aid to fund basic services rather than try, at least partly, to tackle such problems themselves.

“We had a chance to develop our homeland, but we missed it and now more difficult days lie ahead,” one resident from Kamdesh said, by way of summing up the situation. Many other Afghans no doubt feel the same way.

Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan; he tweets

A Remote Corner of Afghanistan Offers a Peek Into the Future of the Country
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Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.

Opinion by Shabana Basij-Rasikh

Global Opinions contributing columnist
The Washington Post
20 Oct 2021
People exchange money in Kabul on Oct. 7. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

Furniture being sold on the streets of Kabul by desperate, cash-strapped families. Farmers in Afghan provinces walking a T.S. Eliot-esque wasteland of withered crops and soil turned to dust. Afghanistan, my homeland, is staring into the eyes of its worst humanitarian crisis in well more than a generation — a monster with multiple heads.

Our people are enduring an economic meltdown spurred by the Taliban’s takeover in August, coupled with an ongoing drought some experts classify as our worst in 35 years, one that has already put a third of our population into a state of food insecurity. One that is prompting some parents, out of work and out of options, to sell their daughters to pay off debt.

Imagine writing that last sentence about your own country. Imagine what that feels like.

Last week, I watched the members of the Group of 20 pledge humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan to the tune of more than $1 billion. Although the pledge-makers will not recognize the Taliban’s government, they acknowledged that there is no realistic way to get this full assistance to the Afghan people without involving the Taliban in some way.

This is the same Taliban whose return brought about this financial ruin. The same Taliban that opened schools for boys in grades 7 and up, but not for girls.

I listened to powerful language from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said “to stand by and watch 40 million people plunge into chaos because electricity can’t be supplied and no financial system exists, that cannot and should not be the goal of the international community.”

No, it cannot. The goal must be to give a nation’s people the necessary assistance to allow them to build equitable and self-sustaining structures of resilience, structures that can then be strengthened by the alloy of international will.

In this geopolitical “Sophie’s choice,” it is difficult to see the G-20’s decision as anything other than an abhorrent but necessary one. But I also see it as one that must encourage global policymakers to seek out new solutions to head off economic and environmental crises before they can metastasize.

My suggestion to them is two words: Educate girls.

Extremists know the economic power an educated girl can wield; policymakers know — or should know — it, too. A girl who completes secondary school and enters the job market can earn almost twice as much as a girl who never receives an education. This girl becomes a woman with a true level of financial independence: a woman with agency in any male-dominated society.

Educated girls are far less likely to be married at early ages and are far more likely, when they do marry, to raise smaller and healthier families with a smaller environmental footprint. Their ability to weather and withstand the shocks of climate change increases, and they pass these skills on to their children. Climate scientists have known these facts for years, and activists, including me, have written about them regularly.

Educated girls can heal economies and heal the planet. They can spin the world in new directions, becoming teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs. Sometimes they can become the chancellor of Germany.

In Afghanistan, families with nothing to fall back on are ripping themselves open, selling their daughters because these girls are the last valuable asset they have. It’s not due to the employment they may someday hold or the societal change they may someday make. It’s due to the children they may someday bear.

Tell me: What is the value of a girl? What is her education worth?

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres recently warned that if the international community did not “help Afghans weather this storm, and do it soon, not only they but all the world will pay a heavy price,” adding that he was “particularly alarmed to see promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban not being honored.”

When we educate a girl, we create economic and environmental benefits that go far beyond the boundaries of her family. They go beyond the boundaries of her nation. They are benefits that all of us, every woman and man, every citizen of Earth, can share.

Millions of girls are out of school in Afghanistan. At least 130 million girls are out of school worldwide. This cannot continue.

Educate girls. Two words that must become a central pillar of global policymaking. Two words to change the world.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan.
Opinion: Afghanistan needs aid, but that won’t fix our broken nation. Uplifting girls will.
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Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Problem

The New Yorker

If the Administration fails to help stabilize the beleaguered country, a withdrawal that appeared politically deft could prove damaging.
Joe Biden bows his head as he speaks at a presidential lectern in the East Room of the White House.
Analysts say that the botched withdrawal contributed to doubts about the central premise of Biden’s Presidency: that he can govern effectively.Photograph by Drew Angerer / Getty

When President Joe Biden announced in the spring that he planned to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, it appeared to be a politically deft decision from an Administration rapidly replacing the chaos of the Trump years with competence. The nearly twenty-year war had long faded from American headlines and consciousness. Voters on the left and the right were eager to end a largely forgotten conflict that Biden’s predecessors had allowed to become, through a combination of inattention and shoddy strategy, America’s longest war.

Yet the manner in which the withdrawal was conducted and also the Taliban’s triumph have had a political impact on Biden that has surprised me and other journalists who covered the conflict and long ago assumed that the general public had lost interest in it. Polls and pollsters now say that Biden’s handling of Afghanistan is one of two issues—the other is his response to the Delta variant—that have played a role in his approval ratings approaching those of Gerald Ford and Donald Trump at the same stage of their Presidencies. The majority of Americans favored ending the war, but the Taliban’s barring Afghan women and girls from attending school, the abandonment of Afghans who allied themselves with the American effort, and continued violence from isis seem to have taken a toll. On Friday, an apparent isis attack, the second in a week, killed more than forty minority Shiite Muslims as they prayed in a mosque in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar—the latest of several signs that the Taliban are struggling to govern the country.

Biden’s decline in approval is among crucial voting groups for Democrats, such as womenindependents, and young people. Despite years of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant fear-mongering by Trump (and a long American tradition of xenophobia), nearly seventy per cent of Americans polled support the resettlement of Afghan allies, after they undergo security screenings, in this country. Americans have not been this welcoming in decades: a majority opposed the resettlement of allies from Vietnam, Cuba, and Hungary, and of refugees from nations brutalized and buffeted by dictators and disasters, from Syria to Haiti.

The political importance of Afghanistan, of course, may fade if the nation stays out of the headlines. Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy, and whether Congress enacts his domestic agenda, will clearly be more important to voters in the midterm elections. But analysts say that the botched withdrawal contributed to doubts about the central premise of Biden’s Presidency: that he can govern effectively. “Many Americans were enjoying the sense of calm that had fallen over the government after four tumultuous years under former President Donald Trump—and approved of Biden because, to them, he represented a more competent leader,” Nathaniel Rakich, a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, wrote this week. “But Afghanistan, and also the delta variant, shattered that calm and raised questions about whether Biden really was that competent after all.”

Democratic members of Congress and U.S. aid workers—nominal allies of the Administration—say that the poor planning and lack of coördination that beset the withdrawal continues. They said that the State Department and other federal agencies have responded slowly or haphazardly when asked to help evacuate Afghan allies on private charter flights. Three weeks ago, the Taliban barred female police officers, judges, pilots, and scientists, among others, from doing their jobs, a service member organizing evacuations as a private citizen told me: “Female college students who planned to return to campus this fall now have to deal with forced marriages, as they’re told their only place in society is in the home.” Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut and usually a stalwart supporter of the Administration, said that dozens of Americans and thousands of Afghan allies remain trapped in Afghanistan, six weeks after the American troops left. He said the Administration was not doing enough to aid them and that their safe departure should be a precondition of any talks with the Taliban. “There is more that can be done,” he said. “I’m still unconvinced that it is a sufficiently high priority. Actions speak louder than words.”

At rallies and in television interviews, Trump has signalled his intention to distort events in Afghanistan and turn it into another Benghazi-like wedge issue to motivate his base. On October 9th, at a rally in Iowa, he mentioned Afghanistan thirteen times and falsely claimed that Biden and U.S. military commanders had abandoned the bodies of American soldiers and left behind eighty-five billion dollars’ worth of military equipment. “These guys are major losers,” Trump said, later adding, “Afghanistan is the most embarrassing event in the history of our country.”

A journalist who was recently in Kabul told me that, at this point, the Taliban do not have the necessary expertise to govern a modern state. Thousands of Afghans, many of them women and educated professionals, still want to flee their rule. This week, the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that an immediate injection of funding from the U.S. and other nations is needed to prevent the collapse of the Afghan economy. Government workers have not been paid, food prices are spiking, and banks are running out of cash. “The crisis is affecting at least eighteen million people—half the country’s population,” Guterres said, adding that the international community is in a “race against time” as temperatures drop. International officials warn that, as winter approaches, the Biden Administration must engage more intensively to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. European leaders fear that Afghanistan, a nation of some thirty-eight million people, could produce a refugee crisis reminiscent of the one precipitated by the war in Syria.

The Taliban, meanwhile, appear emboldened. This week, after the group’s first meeting with American diplomats since the withdrawal, Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the regime, said that it would not coöperate with Washington on containing the Islamic State. “We are able to tackle Daesh independently,” Shaheen said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified last month that a “reconstituted Al Qaeda or isis with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility” in Afghanistan within the next twelve to thirty-six months.

Human-rights advocates warn that the turmoil in Afghanistan exemplifies a broader pattern: the norms and the multilateral organizations that the U.S. and European countries put in place after the Second World War, to aid refugees and to defend human rights, are steadily weakening. They said that the Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines the credibility of Biden’s promise to restore U.S. support for international law and internationalism, after Trump spent four years denigrating them. “You can’t say you stand for human rights and do this,” Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, the founder and C.E.O. of the International Civil Society Action Network, a nonprofit that promoted peace talks and women’s rights in Afghanistan, said. “You can’t say you stand for multilateralism and do this.”

She argued that the U.S. is abdicating its responsibility for the crisis in Afghanistan, leaving it to private citizens and organizations to rescue Afghans. Her group alone has received requests from several thousand people for evacuation. “Who are we to be the lifeline for over two thousand Afghans?” she asked. She predicted that the withdrawal is “not the epilogue to the end of the war on terror: you’re actually creating war forever, because you’re not doing it in a responsible way.” Whatever Biden’s intentions, the U.S. pullout from the country is having unintended consequences. Afghanistan, of course, may again fade from Americans’ consciousnesses. Or abject sexism, brutality, and hunger in the country may cause it to linger there.

Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Problem
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The Khalid Payenda Interview (2): Reforms, regrets and the final bid to save a collapsing Republic

Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapoir

Afghanistan Analysts Network

9 October 2021

In this second part of this interview, former Minister of Finance Khalid Payenda talks to AAN’s Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour about the reaction of the Republic’s leadership to his plans to get the economy back on track and fight corruption and whether it was already too late to effect meaningful change. He gives a candid account of his interactions with president Ghani, including what ultimately led to his resignation, and speculates about the veracity of rumours that Ghani fled Afghanistan with 169 million USD in cash. He looks at how much the Taleban could potentially raise in customs revenues, the future outlook for the Afghan economy and what can be learned from the donors’ engagement over the past 20 years. He discusses the fragmentation, the short-termism and how some of their policies sustained the inclusion of grafters in the country’s leadership structures.

Khalid Payenda addressing the Government of Afghanistan and United Nations joint humanitarian appeal on 11 July 2021. Photo: Khalid Payenda Twitter (@KhalidPayenda), 11 July 2021

Khalid Payenda announced that he was stepping down as minister of finance after only seven months on the job on 10 August 2021, in what turned out to be the dying days of the Republic. While he was criticised at the time for abandoning the government at such a critical time, he told AAN he had no idea that the government was about to fall. In this part of the interview, he recounts a last-ditch effort to get the economy back on track and explains why he decided to resign. His insider’s view on why reform efforts failed and how donors were sometimes part of the problem are important for not only understanding what went wrong with the Republic but also the dynamics that powered the previous government’s engine. This, in turn, helps draw important and nuanced lessons from the past that can help inform the future as Afghanistan enters a new era of Taleban rule.

This is part 2 of our interview with Khalid Payenda. Part 1 can be found here.

AAN

Do you know if there is any money left in the treasury? I just wondered how much the Taleban may have to play with now.

Khalid Payenda

Before the collapse, there was around six or seven billion afghanis [approximately 90 million dollars] of unrestricted money. But then there was some restricted money, meaning money in ‘special accounts’ that the government could not spend until the respective donor okayed it. It was mostly for security by CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan] and World Bank projects. I don’t know the exact amount; about 260 million dollars of the World Bank/ARTF’s [Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund] money, mostly project funds. This money was sitting in designated [bank] accounts waiting for documentation and invoices so that the funds could be released [to the project partners]. In total, the World Bank had to receive documentation and reporting for almost 600 million dollars from the government, but only 260 million was in cash with the treasury. The rest [of the money] had already been disbursed, but the documentation and reporting had not yet been sent to the World Bank [when the government fell]. The World Bank was very worried about it. I believe they are still worried about making sure the money is accounted for.

So in total, there was around 260 million dollars of the World Bank/ARTF and six or seven billion Afghanis of unrestricted funds, as the treasury [reported] to me, so based on that [the total] estimate would be around 350 million dollars.

AAN

I’m asking because I’m sure you’ve seen the Twitter thread that [former governor of the Central Bank] Ajmal Ahmady posted. [1] According to Ahamdy, on the day of his departure, DAB had nine billion dollars in assets, mostly (seven billion dollars) on deposit at the US Federal Reserve.)) Is that a realistic accounting?

Khalid Payenda

Yes, it’s close enough. He’s talking about the international reserves, but the six or seven billion Afs [approximately 90 million dollars] of the government’s [money] on deposit with the Central Bank is also part of the nine billion dollars [accounted for by Ahmady]

AAN

Does the government have deposits elsewhere, other than the Central Bank?

Khalid Payenda

We shouldn’t, but I know that a few ministries had accounts with private commercial banks. The government has money with the state-owned commercial banks; I don’t know how much. It depends on how you define ‘government’. If it is the central government and on-budget [2] [funds], then mostly no. But if you include broader government, the state-owned enterprises, for example, DABS [Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, the national electricity provider], Afghan Telecom and Ariana, and municipalities, then yes.

AAN

What do you think the state of the customs revenue will be for the Taleban?

Khalid Payenda

The Taleban were not implementing the [official] tariffs initially. They used a very simplified rudimentary tariff for how much should be collected per truck. Let’s say you were trading in fuel; you would have had to pay, for example, 50,000 afghanis per fuel tanker. I have heard that they started implementing the official tariffs as of 11 September [2021]. Which should bring in significant customs revenues, assuming the trade doesn’t shrink significantly and that there is no corruption and collusion with the traders.

A while back, I said that if there were no trade diversions [smuggling] and all goods were assessed with 100 per cent transparency, then customs could potentially collect up to seven or eight million dollars a day. But now, with the economic collapse and uncertainty, trade has drastically reduced to basic necessities, food and fuel, so the potential custom revenues have also gone down. I would say, if the old [tariff] rates are used, customs revenues could potentially amount to at least 200 to 300 million Afs [about 2.5 to 3.7 million USD] a day. I hear that, right now, the Taleban are collecting between 100 to 200 million afghanis [about 1.2 to 2.5 million USD] per day. I am not going you give you dollar figures; when the banks closed [on 15 August], the official rate was around 81 afghanis to the dollar. The more the afghani depreciates, the more customs collections increase because imports are mostly in US dollars.

AAN

You launched an ambitious PFM [public financial management[3] plan to get the economy on track when you were a director-general and then a deputy minister. This plan was disrupted when Qayoumi became minister and you left the finance ministry. I know one of your priorities was to get this back on track, with anti-corruption being one of the main components. I heard that you presented a plan to the president and others, including the first VP and that the reaction was quite startling. Could you tell us what happened?

Khalid Payenda

We had developed an extensive diagnosis for national accountability based on one of the ten state functions that the president identifies in his book Fixing Failed States. [4] It was aimed at seeing corruption through a public finance lens and by following the money through the budget cycle to see where and how misuse happens. [5] We wanted to present it to the president first and then to everyone else in his core team. But he called for a meeting in July with all of them, and even a wider [group] than that. I think we were a bit too technical, so maybe understanding it was an issue, but we did not get the support [we expected]. It was seen as a plan to reform the Ministry of Finance. But it wasn’t about reforming the Ministry of Finance. I tried to explain, but the president would not allow it. The reaction was that it’s the Ministry of Finance’s problem and they told me to go fix it. They said: If you don’t have the political will, don’t complain to us. It was a weird meeting. I don’t know what was going on in the president’s mind. He was under a lot of pressure from the security sector. The first VP said some well-intentioned but completely irrelevant [things]. Our presentation was named “A Ceasefire on Corruption”. After the meeting, the Chief Justice said: Remove this title. It has a very bad connotation, it means there hasn’t been a ceasefire on corruption for the previous 20 years. I responded: Sir, this is exactly what we meant by that title.

After the meeting, I met with the president and he said: You were too technical. I’m with you. We’ll fight this, but you [have to] work on communicating this better. I get his point, but it wasn’t too technical. Most of these people knew what we were talking about, but I think they thought: [It’s] not my problem. We could see that it was going to be extremely difficult to create political consensus. It was our last effort to save the Republic, but I think the seriousness wasn’t there. They either did not see [corruption] as an existential threat or had their escape plans ready or had already given up. Maybe they saw the handwriting on the wall; I don’t know. But I still believe that the president was caught off guard. He sincerely wanted reforms, and on most issues, he was a staunch supporter of reforms regardless of the political costs, but he did not know most of the realities and the facts and the overall environment was very tough and he was under pressure.

AAN

Do you think it was already too late anyway by then?

Khalid Payenda

I don’t know. But I don’t think it was too late – we still had control over almost all the provinces, at least their centres, and all the border crossings. However, I did not see any urgency in my colleagues’ ‘business as usual’ approach or maybe they did now show their emotions. It was 20 years late, but not too late. I still believe that the situation could have been salvaged. The moment I thought it was not doable, that’s when I resigned. Let’s not forget that the US government’s deal with the Taleban without the involvement of the Afghan government had already sealed the fate of the Republic.

AAN

You said you feared being scapegoated. What exactly did you think that would involve – just reputational damage or something worse?

Khalid Payenda

One of the issues with the president, unfortunately, was that it was never his fault. When he was the minister of finance, it was all Karzai’s fault. When he became the president, it was [Eklil] Hakimi’s fault, then it was Qayoumi’s fault, then it was Arghandiwal’s fault and it was going to be my fault. In my first meeting with the president, I told him my reservations about the unrealism of the budget, especially the unrealistically high revenue target. I also told him I didn’t think it was the right time to make substantial changes to the budget because it had already been rejected twice by the parliament. My game plan was to adjust it downwards in the mid-year review. He agreed.

Then in my last week in office, he criticised my team and me for the budget that he himself had prepared at the start of the year. He was proud that he had chaired all the budget hearings, but now he was criticising the budgeting process and calling the budget an eftezzah [catastrophe]. People who were not involved in the details [of the process] saw me as the problem. The midyear review had come at a difficult time when we had lost 3 or 4 key custom houses. We had extensive discussions on the budget and the mid-year [budgetary] review. We discussed different scenarios with him. He chose the worst-case scenario, the one with almost no custom revenues for the rest of the year. He said: Assume that all your custom offices will fall and you won’t have revenues, slash the development budget and leave me some room for additional security sector spending. We did that. Before tabling the mid-year review budget at the cabinet, I sent him a ten-page document, with every major decision, for him to approve, not approve, and provide guidance. This briefing detailed the impact of the midyear review on the NTA [National Technical Assistance] staff, [6] reducing the development budget, stopping payments against contracts with contractors and accumulating arrears. He read and signed every single one and told me to go ahead. It was going to be tough. We would have had to lay off 12,000 to 13,000 NTAs across the government. People would not have received [their] salaries on time. We would have had to cut the development budget to zero and give priority to security spending. He said: Fine – this is a matter of our existence and we must make these tough choices. However, the following week, when we stopped payments as we were running out of cash, he was shouting: Why have you stopped payments? I said: But you knew we were stopping payments; we will run out of cash otherwise.

At the same time, the reforms were starting to take hold. The treasury, while it still had massive problems, had never been as effective, efficient or transparent in the previous 20 years. I could share with you the system-generated reports that we gave to the president. 96 per cent of payments were made on the same day. You could bring your payroll [to the ministry] and it would be paid by the end of the day. Everything was either paid or, if there were problems [with the documents], rejected within 72 hours. 98 per cent of all payments were [processed] within two days. Only two to three per cent were rejected. But in the very last meeting that I had with him – the deputy finance minister and aid management director were there – he said: We lost 40 commandos in Herat because of the Ministry of Finance. I thought he’d completely lost it because they had never had any budget issues in Herat and the finance ministry had nothing to do with commandos.

He also asked about an invoice from this Lebanese company that had not been paid for one and a half years, Khatib & Alami. [7]) This was a problematic payment. People said the firm had links with Rula Ghani and her brother, who had brought this design company [to Afghanistan]. I believe somebody had complained to the First Lady’s office and that’s why the president was angry. But the invoice was not with the Ministry of Finance; it was stuck [first] at the Ministry of Urban Development and Land and then the AoP [Administrative Office of the President]. But he said: You guys are damaging my reputation. Actually, he said something sad and funny. He said: You’re damaging my reputation back home. He was referring to Lebanon, and here I was thinking that he was Afghanistan’s president and not Lebanon’s.

My dad, who is not a PFM [public financial management] expert, told me: You’ve lost all your custom offices. What kind of a finance minister are you [going to be] from now on? Leave this job. No matter how well you perform, you will be scapegoated. People will be angry and who are they going to be angry with? The Minister of Finance.

But the situation was totally out of my control. The security sector did not even make an in-vain attempt to re-take one of these customs offices – not Islam Qala, not Torghondi, Aqina, Shirkhan Bandar or Farah. I knew I was going to be scapegoated because, with the president, it was never his fault. It was always somebody [else] who’d done him wrong. Unfortunately, he never took responsibility. We saw this in his speech from exile. There was still no remorse, no apology, nothing. He justified and rationalised his escape by saying that he was taken out, not even allowed to wear his shoes. All nonsense. It’s true that some of these people around him misused [their positions], but he was a dictator. He didn’t listen to anybody, so for him to say he was pushed out or say that the minister of finance did not provide him with the right information is hard to stomach.

It’s horrible that the Republic collapsed. In retrospect, I should have been very clear [about] why I resigned – publicly. But I did not want to damage the government which was already in a fragile situation. I kept silent. I said that it was personal priorities, but it wasn’t entirely personal priorities. I should have said that the president and his close group [of advisors] were the issue. We all pay the price of our loyalty. I did too.

AAN

If you had an opportunity to say why you resigned, what would you say?

Khalid Payenda

I knew the challenges that the job entailed before I took it [and I stayed] as long as I had the president’s backing. But in the very last week, I felt that [his] support was not there anymore. The trust that the president had in me had been eroding. He didn’t see me as his minister. I think he saw me as a competitor and compared what he did as a [finance] minister against what I was doing. The punch in the gut came from the president’s office asking for the corrupt deputy minister that I had fired to be made CEO of the state-owned airline. I no longer believed the president was incorruptible. Interference from the Palace and a lack of urgency and seriousness on corruption reforms were also getting tiring. The president’s micromanagement in personally following up payments of the Lebanese company and blaming MoF for the death of 40 commandos in Herat was the final nail in the coffin. Then and there I decided that I could not work one more day and that is why I sent my resignation that night. I also sent a personal note to the president. I wrote that I was sorry that I could no longer do the job or fulfil his expectations. Maybe I didn’t even know what his expectations were or maybe what he was expecting was unrealistic.

AAN

Almost immediately after President Ghani left the country, there were allegations and media reports that he had taken 169 million dollars with him. [8] This was followed up in recent days with reports that the Taleban had recovered vast sums of money, I think over 12 million dollars, from the homes of former senior officials. [9] Do you think there is any truth to these reports? And if true, why would somebody have that amount of cash on hand?

Khalid Payenda

There are two parts to this question. First, I want to clarify the 169 million [dollars] which, based on what I know, could not have come from the national budget. It’s a very large sum. Even [the budget’s] contingency code 91, which was at the president’s disposal, carried only a billion [afghanis, or approximately 12 million USD] at the start of the [financial] year. So 169 million [dollars] is far more than what would have been available in contingency code 91. Also, there is no other place in the budget where this [amount of] money could have come from. I signed off on all major payments until I left and I don’t recall anything of this magnitude. Four or five days after I left, my successor made one payment to the National Directorate of Security for two billion afghanis. It was for the fight in the provinces – the Popular Uprising Forces – but that money should have gone to the NDS, and it was not more than 30 million dollars. If the 169 million dollars figure is correct, it could not have come from the budget even over one year.

Assuming that the 169 million figure is correct, there might be other sources, like some of the shady appointments and problematic contracts. A lot of funds were channelled from [line] ministries to the National Development Corporation [10] that had serious transparency problems. But honestly, until the day he left, I never thought the president would leave everything and flee, and I also never thought he could be financially corrupt. A part of me still strongly believes that the president would not be involved in financial corruption. It could be that he took some money because, if based on the manifest disclosed by some media channels, 53 people left [Afghanistan] with him, [11]) he would have needed some money to sustain expenditures when abroad. The fact that he first went to Uzbekistan tells me that he did not know where exactly he was going. So, he needed some money, but 169 [million dollars in cash] is a bit of a stretch.

To answer the second part of your question about the sums of money [recovered] from officials’ homes. I have doubts [about] the money they [the Taleban] say was recovered from Amrullah Saleh’s house in Panjshir. Even if he had access to that sort of cash, he would have taken the bag of money [with him] when he fled. I think it’s part of Taleban propaganda to defame him. Regardless of what he did in the government and how he played the game, I think his move, even if it was symbolic, to show resistance, salvaged his reputation. I think the Taleban and the ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] wanted to damage his reputation. I don’t believe that the amount of money that they reported was right. They also reported, for example, that they recovered many bottles of wine from a cellar in Rabbani’s house; it turned out to be a western embassy. [12] So this is part of a propaganda campaign. But having said that, people who were involved [in corruption] were very savvy. [They would] not have kept large sums of cash in [their homes] nor [would they have] used the banking system. The money was already transferred [out of the country], possibly through the money service providers, the sarafs [hawaladars or currency brokers] who would keep it for them.

AAN

A lot has been said about the role of the donors – proponents point to the achievements of the past 20 years and detractors argue that ill-conceived donor policies and programmes were largely to blame for the failures of the past 20 years, including corruption. Where do you land in this discussion?

Khalid Payenda

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, let’s not forget that a lot was achieved in Afghanistan in 20 years with the help of donors that has not been achieved elsewhere when you look at it globally. Obviously, when you have 40 donors and everyone has their own interests and beliefs and thinks their approach is the right one, it becomes very difficult to have a coherent overall strategy even with the best intentions. Having said that, I believe the amount of money that flew into Afghanistan with few checks and balances in place was obviously going to be difficult to account for. The effectiveness of aid and making sure that it [was used for its] intended purposes could have been improved. The ownership could have been improved. One important thing, while it’s all over now, it’s still important to note that not every donation that came to Afghanistan went through the government. So, holding the government accountable for all of it, which is mostly the case, is unfair.

Donors chose to funnel large sums of development assistance outside government channels. This not only undermined the legitimacy of the government but also caused serious issues with alignment with national priorities, priorities that were prepared in consultation with and endorsed by the donors. While on-budget financing was put under so much scrutiny, off-budget was not subject to the same level of examination. A few years back, the Ministry of Finance carried out an institutional assessment with USAID to help identify the problems and weaknesses in our systems to be fixed, so that more budget could be channelled through the national budget. SIGAR got a hold of this assessment and this was used as an excuse not to channel funds directly through the national budget, instead of it being used as a baseline to build upon and improve.

There were programmes [about which] there was clearly no consultation or engagement with the government. The donors chose to do it through their contractors. What comes immediately to my mind is the 300-million-dollar USAID women’s empowerment PROMOTE programme. [13] The government introduced a 20-million-dollar national programme for women’s empowerment [which was] presented and endorsed by the donors at a big conference. But the US had already started PROMOTE and its funds went through off-budget mechanisms, which meant that the [government’s programme] was not funded and neither programme achieved very much. [14] So donors also bear part of the blame.

At times, the government was confused between fighting corruption and the coalition [building] that the big donors stressed. Some people, especially the warlords whom the government was encouraged to bring in, had a background of corruption, abuse and human rights violations, and most of it was overlooked – for example, the strongmen in the north or south and their role in siphoning off revenues. But [the donors] still pushed for them to be part of a coalition, even though they all knew how corrupt and involved in illicit trade these men were. Coalitions forces, in some cases chose to overlook allegations of child abuse made against some Afghan allies because they were staunch supporters in the fight against the Taleban.

The more structural issue, which I think was a missed opportunity, was caused by focusing more on the prosecution side of corruption rather than system-building, which could have prevented most of it [the corruption] from getting a foothold. We talked of accountability and reporting, but not much was done to develop the government’s capacity to report, audit and hold people to account in a holistic manner. The donors chose to sort of ringfence their own donations and financing that they channelled through the government. But trying to ringfence [part of the funds] in a bigger budget doesn’t really work. For example, in a four or five billion dollar budget, it didn’t mean much when the ARTF monitoring agent only looked at ineligible expenditures for [their own] one billion dollars.

In all my ten years of engagement with the World Bank, I don’t recall them telling us: Okay, let’s talk about fixing the whole accountability system so that [in the future] we will not need the monitoring and supervisory agents. I think building better systems should have been part of it. We advocated looking at corruption through a public finance lens. The donors were interested in projects rather than [fixing] the whole system. So fixing some parts of the budget process, amending the external audit law was all the donors wanted to do. They did not see the entire picture – how things worked and did not work – and whether it [the system] worked for the people. These things were overlooked and it was where the donors could have played a stronger, more assertive role.

Some donors tried to ‘projectise’ institution-building based on their own internal organisational arrangements and priorities. For example, there was a time when the ministry of finance had four different projects financed by the World Bank/ARTF – one department at the World Bank managed the treasury and audit [project], another department the customs [project], a third department oversaw civil service reforms and administration and a fourth worked with the budget department. Each department had its own PIU (project implementation unit) working with the relevant department. This [approach] caused a lot of fragmentation and did not help us create state institutions that functioned as a whole. With so many different donor projects, government institutions, such as the Ministry of Finance, had become a collection of fiefdoms. But this was the case in nearly all key ministries. For example, in 2018, the Ministry of Agriculture had around 48 PIUs. The Directors-General saw the World Bank’s TTL (Task Team Leader) or the UNOPS Project Director, not the minister, as their immediate supervisor.

In 2016, we eventually managed to convince the World Bank and the ARTF donors to support a holistic government approach covering all of the finance ministry and even the Supreme Audit Office and the National Procurement Authority. But it quickly became evident that the World Bank’s different departments were not very good at getting along with each other – every TTL wanted [his or her] own separate project.

Key appointments were also a place where a more assertive role [for the donors] was warranted. Unfortunately, all these 20 years, some people, some ministers, with bad reputations were tolerated by the donors, especially since their salaries were coming directly or indirectly from donor funds. I know that it’s really difficult for some donors and they [don’t want to] overstep into political issues. Still, their embassies who deal primarily with politics could have [taken it on] and given feedback to the government that this person is not acceptable or that person has an issue in his background. These were the things that the donors unfortunately tolerated in Afghanistan.

AAN

What about all the incentives from the donors, the mutual accountability frameworks and the conditionalities? Were they effective or helpful in addressing these issues?

Khalid Payenda

Some programmes were very effective, for example, the World Bank’s ARTF Incentive Programme. It was isolated from wider politics, focused on key reforms and conditioned financing to [achievements]. Doing it for not one year only, but over three years, allowed us to take a systematic, chained and sequenced approach to reforms. If you wanted [to implement] a big reform that needed three steps, it was possible to use an ARTF incentive programme because you could deliver the first condition in year one and then build on it in the second and third years. The IMF was also very important. They supported a limited area – macroeconomics, monetary and fiscal stability and some  specific anti-corruption measures, such as asset declarations of senior government officials. The EU’s [European Union] State and Resilience Building Contract is another good example.

But when it comes to the big conferences and aid based on mutual accountability [frameworks], that’s when things started to get murky because some of these benchmarks and indicators were too vague and became a bit meaningless. They were political. When we look at the very last one in Geneva, [15] you read the [commitments] and it’s difficult to understand how you would measure them and if you can’t measure [something], then it’s vague and not useful. So, the accountability [framework] and conditioned financing was a mixed bag. In some places, specific ones worked brilliantly, but it became a bit difficult when politics got involved.

AAN

If you had to do it all over again, what would you recommend to the donors? How could they be more effective in their support to system building, fighting corruption and getting state institutions on track?

Khalid Payenda

Honestly, I don’t know how to give an answer that takes the entire picture into account. Anyone who says that they have an across-the-board answer to this [question] is deluded. One thing that is not primarily an aid or development issue but a prerequisite to getting it right was the political structure after [the 2001] Bonn [conference]. [16] Leaving out the Taleban and giving it all to the Northern Alliance was a big, missed opportunity. That could have been the basis for a more inclusive [government]. The cost of development with an ongoing conflict became incredibly high. Another critical area was decentralisation of authority. The presidential system in Afghanistan gave so much power to the centre and the presidency. On fiscal matters, the provinces had little or no say in the revenues collected or allocation of budgetary expenditures. Everything was controlled from the centre. Governors were appointed from the centre. But when you come to these specific issues, I don’t think anyone [in the international community] thought they would be engaged in Afghanistan for 20 years. So, the programming was usually very short-term. For most donors, programming was seen from within their assignments – a USAID chief wanted to see results by next July when he was leaving. In retrospect, you can see that [while] we had 20 years, we did not have the longer horizon thinking and perspective that I think was needed [because] when you have that perspective, you invest more in state institutions and try to fix systems rather than create parallel structures that become problematic in the long-term because they siphon capacity away from existing institutions.

In the first few years, a lot of money flew into Afghanistan and the problem was how to spend it – the burn rate was an issue. Maybe keeping it in a trust fund such as the ARTF or another pooled fund [for the long-term], rather than trying to burn as much as you can in the short-term, would have been a better idea. Too many priorities were pursued in an incoherent manner with every donor doing it themselves. Some of these are lessons that you [can] pick up from any international aid development [text] book. Unfortunately, [these lessons] – building systems of accountability, investing in the government, holding the government to account – were not applied, or applied too late, in Afghanistan. Just to summarise, a long-term perspective was needed.

AAN

Do you know how much of the aid was off-budget? What percentage?

Khalid Payenda

We don’t know the exact amount because the off-budget was never fully reported, but it was always more than the on-budget [support], which never went above 50 per cent [of the total amount]. Some years, the [combined] ODA [official development assistance] and defence expenditures were 100 times more than the national budget, for example, during the surge in 2009 and 2010, the US spent 108 billion [dollars] on security in Afghanistan but [contributed] less than 3 million to the [national] budget. In recent years, it’s been maybe 40:60, with 60 per cent off-budget.

AAN

I think the question on everybody’s mind is the future of aid to Afghanistan. Since the government fell and the Taleban took over, Afghanistan assets have been frozen and the donors have suspended aid. They’re re-thinking the scope of their assistance to Afghanistan. 1.2 billion in humanitarian aid has been pledged, but development funding hangs in the balance. How do you think the donors should proceed with their future support to Afghanistan?

Khalid Payenda

We are facing an unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan. So many people have been plunged into poverty. Let’s not forget the harsh impact of Covid-19, particularly in the third wave, the drought and [conflict] displacement all hitting the country at the same time and finally, the total collapse of the state. It’s a really bad situation. Some of our achievements and the gains, the ones we’ve been saying should be preserved and built on – the human development indices for education and health – were entirely dependent on donors. The basic package of health services that [provides medical] care to all Afghans in all 34 provinces and the education services to get nine to ten million Afghan kids into schools were all financed by donors. I believe those need to be continued. Any disruption will harm ordinary Afghans. They [the donors] do not have to go through the Taleban government. The community development, health services and education could still be done through non-governmental organisations. The government only supervised and made payments [using] ARTF funds. This could still be done by the World Bank directly or maybe by a UN agency. I think it’s very important to keep these.

But on the reserves and monetary issues, I have a slightly different view than many experts, who think funds and assets should be unfrozen. I don’t support an immediate unfreezing of all assets because I don’t see a clear and direct link to the people and their wellbeing. Then there is the morality of giving our country’s assets to an organisation [many of whose] members are designated as terrorists and are on watchlists.

Given that the donors and West seem to have abandoned Afghanistan, our reserves and financial assistance are the only leverage we have [in the absence of] soldiers and a military. These [funds] should be released against some measurable benchmarks that relate to [improvements for] the Afghan population and, in particular, women’s rights. For example, why are girls not allowed to go to school? We could unfreeze a portion of the aid and reserves based on the Taleban’s willingness to restore those rights. The inclusivity of the government, which was apparently agreed between the US and the Taleban, is another issue. You could use [the funds] for that as well.

These key services, like getting food and medicine to people, are critical, and you don’t need to go through the government or the Taleban. What you need is an assurance that they will not hinder your operations as service providers. If they give you these assurances, then we should get food, healthcare and [other] key services to the population. That is what the international community should do, but I’m a bit sceptical about what percentage of the 1.2 billion will eventually benefit the recipients – because the overhead costs of these operations are sometimes unreasonably [high]. So much goes on procuring Land Cruisers, big salaries and flights first and only what’s left goes to the people. It is crucial to have a mechanism to ensure transparency.

Also, I need to look into the details of the pledges – for how long and for what purpose. But when a national budget of three to four billion and another four to five billion in off-budget security and development spending have totally collapsed, then 1.2 billion is sufficient only for a few months. But it’s a start before more could come. Afghanistan still has, I believe, the commitments from Geneva that could continue. It’s only the matter of changing the modality of [the aid].

AAN

In your opinion, what’s the future outlook for the economy in Afghanistan in the short and medium-term?

Khalid Payenda

I think it’s going to get worse because everything is slowing down. I haven’t run any forecasts, but it would not be an exaggeration to say there will be a 30 to 40 per cent contraction in the economy this year. Next year could be worse. A thriving economy cannot run on subsistence imports and donations from neighbouring countries. There has to be more than that. Purchasing power is an issue, people don’t have money and they are going to suffer. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this movie before in the late 1990s. If you visited Kabul, then, as I did during the Taleban regime, you would have seen extreme poverty and destitute. We could expect the same but hope that the humanitarian assistance continues and that the international community uses its leverage to make sure that some sort of a coalition government that is acceptable to Afghans and the world is built. Otherwise, the current trajectory does not provide for an optimistic forecast for the future.

AAN

Do you have any regrets?

Khalid Payenda

Yes, taking the job. But I also think had I not taken the job [of finance minister] I would have had regrets later at an old age and it would have been too late by then. At the end of my life, I would have thought that I could have done something for my country and I didn’t. At least I won’t have that regret. I tried to do as much as I could in the six or seven months [I was minister]. But when you look at it now, I failed. We started a lot of fundamental reforms that needed time and the results were not yet visible. The customs and also budget reforms were crucial and fundamental. We had a digitalisation project to integrate our fragmented systems. We had a new revenue system to replace SIGTAS [Standard Integrated Government Tax Administration System] and a new AFMIS [Afghanistan Financial Management Information System] ready to go, fully developed by Afghans. My team worked with NSIA [National Statistic and Information Authority] for hours, my team and I did a lot of technical work that had not been done before by my predecessors. We were going to fundamentally overhaul the budget process to address serious rent-seeking opportunities and ensure that the budget worked for the people and not the elite. The new budget process for 2022 was going to introduce unprecedented transparency and accountability. We had recently abolished repetitive processes that caused confusion and provided opportunities for corrupt practices such as the allotment process. [17] We abolished the allotment process and reduced the payment process from 18 steps and many weeks and months to a few days and just four steps.

The Ministry of Finance was starting to set an example for public access and accountability by an open door [policy] and walk-in public meetings for the minister and the leadership group to hear people’s complaints and address them on the spot. I had dedicated Tuesday evenings to do live Facebook sessions and answer questions from citizens. But we have nothing to show for it. It was all undone in a matter of days and weeks. It does not mean there weren’t issues at the ministry; the corruption in revenue collection, the quality and speed of service delivery and the corporate backbone all needed a lot of improvement.

When I see the bigger tragedy, I think the importance of my work and my team’s work pales in comparison – people are losing their lives, people are losing their rights. Millions went from a respectable living standard to into abject poverty overnight.

My heart is shattered for the youth of Afghanistan. These bright young women, who had ambitions and were going to make a difference for the whole country, are now confined to their own houses. In one week, they suddenly went from young hopeful Afghan females to nobodies who cannot go outside without a chaperone. It’s devastating. By choosing to flee, the president might well have secured a particular hatred in history for himself, but we all bear responsibility. Everyone who had a hand in the affairs of the past 20 years bears a responsibility. It’s true, the end was shockingly fast and unpredicted, but it was in the making for 20 years. Every donor agency, every political office, every minister and governor had a role to play. I see myself as part of the problem, part of a corrupt bureaucracy that had 20 years and all the world’s attention to secure a better future for Afghanistan but instead betrayed its people.

References

References
1 See former governor of Central Bank Ajmal Ahmady’s 18 August 2021 Twitter thread that provides a breakdown of national reserves managed by DAB (Da Afghanistan Bank).
2 On-budget funds are included in the national budget and processed through the state’s planning, expenditure and accountability mechanisms. Off-budget funds bypass the national budget altogether. This type of aid does not allow for any government control and often weakens the state’s ability for ‘whole of government’ planning and action.
3 The Transparency International topic guide defines PFM as:

Public financial management (PFM) is a central element of a functioning administration, underlying all government activities. It encompasses the mechanisms through which public resources are collected, allocated, spent and accounted for. As such, PFM processes comprise the whole budget cycle, public procurement, audit practices and revenue collection. Sound, transparent and accountable public financial management is a key pillar of governance reform and of vital importance to provide public services of good quality to citizens, as well as to create and maintain fair and sustainable economic and social conditions in a country.

4 See Ghani, Ashraf, and Clare Lockhart. Fixing Failed States. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
5 See Andrew Laing’s Development Practice Note “Follow-the-Money Corruption Cycle: Revealing National Accountability Failures,” Institute for Effectiveness here.
6 The National Technical Assistance (NTA) programme was established alongside the Capacity Building for Results (CBR) facility and both were funded by the World Bank managed Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). The programme was designed to build technical capacity in Afghanistan’s civil service by hiring skilled technical staff contracted outside the formal civil service structure to work at state institutions. Individuals engaged under the NTA scheme were paid donor-funded ‘super-sized’ salaries, which according to the government and donors, were market-competitive and designed to attract highly skilled workers to the public sector (see the original 2012 plan here and the harmonised plan here). In 2018, there were some 20,000 staff working for the government, prompting the World Bank to raise the alarm on potential issues in financing the wage bill of this “Parallel Civil Service”. The NTA programme was a perennial source of controversy, especially during the standoff for the 1400 (2021) national budget, with MPs citing it as a barrier to creating parity in the salaries of civil servants. For its part, the government, while acknowledging the need to reform NTA hiring practices, argued that NTA staff provided critical technical know-how to the government (see, for example, this Tolo News programme).
7 Khatib & Alami is a Lebanese “multidisciplinary design consultancy which operates primarily across the Middle East & Africa, Levant, Central and South-East Asia, and Europe” (see here). Its founding members Dr Zuheeri Alami and Professor Mounir Khatib, were both faculty members at AUB. In 2017, the Kabul-based news website Pajhwok reported that seven high-ticket infrastructure projects were awarded to Khatib & Alami without being put to tender. Allegations that then president Ghani’s brother in law, Raid Saada, had a beneficial relationship with Khatib and Alami were strongly refuted by the technical deputy minister of public works, Ahmad Wali Sherzai. According to Tolo News, Sherzai and Riad Ghani met when they were both students at AUB and have remained friends since (see here) (See also this Tolo News programme.
8 In an 18 August 2021 press conference, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Mohammad Zahir Agbar, claimed that Ghani had fled the country with 169 million dollars. The former president of Afghanistan has denied the allegations (see here and here).
9 On 13 September 2021, pro-Taleban social media accounts started reported that 6.5 million USD in cash had been found in Amrullah Saleh’s home, including video footage of men counting two suitcases filled with US dollars and gold bars and money scattered on the floor. The footage, which could not be independently verified, went viral on social media and was reported in the Afghan and international media (see, for example, herehere, and here). A Central Bank source confirmed that the “mentioned cash and gold have been turned over to Da Afghanistan Bank,” according to a report by Pajhwok news.
10 The Operation and Support Office of the President for National Development (commonly referred to as the presidential operations unit, see the archived website here), and its subsidiary the National Development Corporation (NDC), were managed by president Ghani and involved in major development projects, from building dams to rebuilding monuments. The creation of the NDC in January 2020, when the then president merged eight state entities into a single one, drew strong condemnations from the parliament and the construction sector, including the Afghanistan Builders Association (ABA), who accused the government of impeding their ability to successfully bid for infrastructure projects in a process that they say is already rigged “against them”. (see ToloNews here). The controversial allocation of 9.7 billion Afs (about 1.2 million USD) to the Presidential Operations Unit and the National Development Corporation was one of the issues raised by lawmakers when they rejected the 1400 (2021) national budget. MPs claimed these units compete with the government proper and the private sector, taking away precious government jobs and weakening the private sector. They also said that because these entities were not budgetary units (a ministry or other state entity that, by law, can have allocations in the national budget), they were not obliged to account to parliament for their spending. The speaker also accused the Palace of undermining government institutions by transferring “All projects from sectoral ministries to the [presidential] operations unit.” (see video here and ToloNews’ Mehwar here).
11 On 18 August 2021, Afghanistan International television released what it said was the manifest for the flight that took president Ghani and 51 others from Afghanistan to Tajikistan (see Sobbh-e Kabul news website’s report here and a copy of the purported manifest here.
12 On 13 September 2021, Pamir News tweeted video footage of what it said was a cache of alcohol discovered by Taleban fighters in the home of former foreign minister and Jamiat-e Islami leader Salahuddin Rabbani. This claim was later refuted AFP Fact Check, which reported that the location was the Czech embassy in Kabul.
13 See the USAID website here and this Christian Science Monitor report.
14 See this 2018 SIGAR assessment of the USAID PROMOTE program, the New York Times report about the assessment and SIGAR’s February 2021 report “Support for Gender Equality: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan.” For more information on the Women’s Economic Empowerment national priority programme, see this World Bank report.
15 See the Afghanistan Partnership Framework adopted at the 2020 Geneva Afghanistan Conference in Geneva 23-24 November 2020 here.
16 See the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (Bonn Agreement) here.
17 The allotment process was a second budgetary allocation system used for cash management purposes after the national budget had been approved by parliament to give funds to line ministries. Under this process, a ministry’s annual allocation was not released in one go but in tranches whereby the state entity would make multiple requests throughout the financial year for funds. This process gave grafters multiple opportunities to seek bribes and led to financial losses for the government.
The Khalid Payenda Interview (2): Reforms, regrets and the final bid to save a collapsing Republic
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Will Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours engage the Taliban?

Zahir Sherazi

Pakistan, China, and Iran are yet to recognise the Taliban government, but they all have an interest in doing so.

The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is inevitably leaving a political vacuum in South and Central Asia. The question that many are asking is who will step in to fill it. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours – Pakistan, Iran and China – all have special interests in the country that they are likely to pursue with renewed vigour.

None is likely to play the same significant role the US did in shaping the future of the country but all three want to see a stable government in Kabul and security established across the country in view of their own national security interests.

The Taliban, for its part, is looking to establish positive relations with its neighbours to earn international legitimacy and attract investment for much needed economic development. So what does this mean for relations with Pakistan, China and Iran?

Pakistan

Pakistan, which shares a 2,670km-long (1,659-mile) border with Afghanistan, has suffered a lot during the past four decades of turmoil. It has had to pay a heavy price for acting as a launching pad for Washington’s and its allies’ “Afghan jihad” on the USSR after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “war on terror” only worsened the security situation in Pakistan.

The instability has enabled armed groups along the Pakistan-Afghan border to flourish. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban) and Baloch insurgents have been attacking targets in Pakistan for years, killing more than 83,000 and inflicted billions of dollars worth of losses on the Pakistani economy. Islamabad has often alleged that violent attacks on Pakistan have been planned and executed from Afghan soil with the active support of Indian intelligence. At the same time, Pakistani security agencies have been accused of backing the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network.

In this context, the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the withdrawal of US forces were perceived as a positive development by policy and military circles in Islamabad. Their attitude has been: “We are happy because with the Taliban in power, our western borders will be secured as archrival India will be out of the game.”

This optimism about a friendly government in Kabul is also strengthened by the fact that the Taliban never retaliated with violence for Pakistan providing support for the US-led military operation which dislodged them from power in 2001 or for handing over some of its members to western forces. Some have even speculated about a prominent role that Islamabad may play in Kabul, specifically after news of a September 4 visit to the Afghan capital by Pakistani intelligence chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed emerged.

In the international arena, Islamabad has also been actively campaigning for international engagement with the Taliban. In his video messages to the UN General Assembly aired on September 24, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the world community to support the Taliban government and help the country with much-needed humanitarian aid.

However, Pakistan may not enjoy an unrivalled authority over the Taliban, as some have speculated. Well-placed sources divulged to the author that during an August 16 National Security Council meeting in Islamabad, the military commanders clarified to the parliamentarians that the Taliban may not listen to Pakistan, as it used to in the past. That is why, Islamabad is also cautious and not going for a solo flight to quickly recognise the Taliban government, as it did in the 1990s.

Although it still has not formally recognised the government in Kabul, Pakistan has high hopes for engagement with it on the economic front. During former President Ashraf Ghani’s time in office, the flow of imported goods through Pakistani ports to landlocked Afghanistan dropped by 80 percent, as Kabul started favouring Iranian ports, funded by India. Bilateral trade also declined from $2.8bn in 2011 to $1.8bn. Islamabad would like to see the use of Pakistani ports for Afghan imports restored and bilateral trade boosted.

Pakistan also hopes that increased security under the Taliban would allow it to intensify its trade with Central Asia, where there is potential for significant growth. It is eyeing the completion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to the three South Asian nations. The construction of the pipeline stalled in recent years, as the Afghan government was unable to provide security for the project works on Afghan territory.

Moving forward, Pakistan can expect a friendly government in Kabul only if it develops a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the Afghans.

China

The April announcement of US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan increased concern in China about border security in the Wakhan Corridor, where it shares a 92km (57 miles) border strip with Afghanistan, but also encouraged the Chinese government to approach the Taliban leadership for preliminary talks.

Beijing fears a chaotic Afghanistan may cause a spillover of violence to Xinjiang province and hurt its strategic regional investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Taliban takeover has opened a strategic door for China into Afghanistan that could turn out to be laden with risks.

On July 28, Mullah Ghani Baradar and a nine-member Taliban delegation met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, which resulted in the Taliban giving assurances that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used for attacks against China in exchange for Chinese economic support and investment for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

This meeting was a turning point for the Taliban, as Mullah Baradar was able to earn the backing of a superpower that could play a major role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. In an August 16 statement on the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is “ready” to develop further relations with Afghanistan.

And China made good on its promise. While other powers shunned the Taliban government announced in early September, China responded to its calls for humanitarian aid and pledged $31m worth of assistance. On September 23, Yi criticised the US for freezing Afghan assets during a virtual conference of G20 foreign ministers. Less than a week later, the first batch of Chinese aid landed at Kabul airport.

China is also eyeing to cash in on the untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan, which are estimated to have a value of $1 to $3 trillion. Apart from rare earth elements, the country also has vast reserves of gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, lithium, uranium, and aluminium as well as precious stones. The Taliban appears to be willing to give access to these resources and use the revenue to solidify its rule.

However, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also worries China. If the Taliban government fails to control the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or other violent groups on Afghan territory, this could destabilise Xinjiang province. Furthermore, an unstable Afghanistan could harbour other militant groups that could undermine or sabotage China’s BRI initiatives in the region. Insecurity in the country would also prevent any Chinese mining or other economic projects from kicking off.

Other regional and global players are also eyeing Afghan resources and they might end up using local militant groups or warlords to secure their interests. This could undermine Chinese economic interests in Afghanistan and the region.

So Beijing will likely approach relations with the Taliban government with caution and take its time in making investments in the country.

Iran

Iran, which shares a 921km (572-mile) border with Afghanistan, has also suffered from the instability ravaging its neighbour for decades. In the 1990s, Tehran was backing the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces and did not recognise Taliban rule in Kabul.

Worried by the vast US military presence in the region after 2001, Iran established ties with the group and tried to undermine US interests by covertly supporting it.

Overall, the Iranians were pleased with the US withdrawal, which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi termed a military “failure” in an August 16 statement. But his government has also been worried about security and political developments in the country ever since. In early September, it reacted sharply to the Taliban offensive against the opposition stronghold in Panjshir valley.

Tehran also criticised the Taliban for not including minorities in the cabinet it announced. One of its main concerns in Afghanistan is safeguarding the Hazara Shia community, which faced severe persecution during the last Taliban rule.

Apart from political interests, Iran also looks to Afghanistan for economic opportunities. US sanctions severely hurt Iranian global trade, but Afghanistan under the Taliban would not shun economic engagement with it to please the US.

Iran will strive to maintain its access to the Afghan market, which in recent years has been flooded with Iranian goods. In 2018, Iran became Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, with its exports reaching nearly $2bn, in addition to a large volume of Afghan imports passing through Iranian ports.

While maintaining high trade volumes, Iran will also seek to stem the flow of narcotics through its porous border with Afghanistan. Iran is a major market for Afghan opium and an important corridor for shipping narcotics to Europe and the Persian Gulf. The Taliban has been repeatedly accused of benefitting from the drug trade and encouraging it. Therefore, establishing effective mechanisms with the Taliban government to solve the narcotics problem will be a major challenge for Iran.

Another contentious issue between Kabul and Tehran are militants threatening Iranian security. Iran’s border regions of Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan have seen a number of terrorist attacks in recent years blamed on extremist groups operating along the Afghan-Iranian and Pakistani-Iranian borders. The Taliban has given assurances that it will not allow armed groups on Afghan soil to threaten other countries, but Iran will expect more than just words.

The more than two million Afghan refugees on Iranian territory also worry Tehran. With its own economy in tatters and socioeconomic tensions within Iranian society rising, the Iranian government is hardly in a position to provide for them or welcome more newcomers. That is why Iran wants to see stability in Afghanistan that would allow some of these refugees to return.

Thus, Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan, China and Iran – all have a vested interest in a stable government in Kabul that can secure Afghan borders and economic activities. They will likely cooperate with each other, as well as Russia, to see that through. In this way, the Taliban government will be under the influence of an emerging anti-US axis, which will seek to eliminate US influence in the region and determine its new security infrastructure.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Will Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours engage the Taliban?
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