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Four Key Questions in Afghanistan

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Welcome to South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The questions shaping Afghanistan’s future, the Taliban and Turkey could be nearing a deal on securing the Kabul airport, and India sees record GDP growth despite its COVID-19 surge.

What will the government look like? The Taliban administration in Kabul will soon be finalized, and its composition will provide the first indication of how the group plans to govern and project itself to the world. Governments, especially in the West, will pay close attention to its level of inclusivity as they consider whether to formally recognize the Taliban regime.With the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan complete, uncertainty abounds about the country’s future under the Taliban government. Four questions will be key in the coming weeks, with their answers serving as signposts for the country’s possible trajectory.

It’s a matter not just of how many women and non-Taliban figures will be included in the government, but also of how much power they’re given and which positions they hold. Initial signs are not encouraging. A senior Taliban leader said on Wednesday the new government will not include officials from the previous government, and that women won’t hold senior positions.

As FP’s Lynne O’Donnell reports, the Taliban will form a 12-man leadership council. One of the most senior positions will go to Khalil Haqqani of the Haqqani network, the Taliban faction implicated in multiple mass-casualty attacks in Afghanistan.

Will the international community assist Afghans? Afghanistan faces an economic crisis that stands to worsen because of new sanctions imposed by the West on the Taliban regime. The Taliban lacks the policy experience to tackle the crisis alone. But if it isn’t addressed soon, the group will struggle to consolidate its power. Violent resistance could ensue, and unrest and economic stress could trigger new refugee flows. International financial assistance is critical.

So far, there are some good signs. Reuters reported this week that the U.S. Treasury Department issued a license that allows Washington and its partners to send humanitarian aid directly to the Afghan people, without going through the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban has not prevented aid groups from delivering supplies, likely to avoid jeopardizing recognition prospects.

But such assistance can’t make up for the Afghan central bank’s $10 billion of foreign reserves denied to the Taliban government. Nor can initial aid from capital-rich countries, such as China, that decide to move quickly to recognize the new government.

What is Washington’s counterterrorism capacity? The Biden administration plans to monitor terrorist threats without boots on the ground, acting with air strikes if necessary. Since it has no basing arrangements with any of Afghanistan’s neighbors, it must use existing military facilities in the Middle East. U.S. officials have been vague about how willing they’d be to cooperate on counterterrorism with the Taliban, although Washington may pursue intelligence-sharing agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

U.S. counterterrorism is likely to focus on targets that may pose a threat to the United States. This means Washington will focus on al Qaeda and the Islamic State, rather than on South Asian jihadist groups—such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba—that don’t threaten it directly. But these latter groups, galvanized by the Taliban’s victory, will be inspired to step up their own attacks. Even if Washington succeeds with its over-the-horizon objectives in Afghanistan, regional terrorism threats will endure if not intensify.

Finally, counterterrorism strikes come with serious risks. They could kill civilians. And if they target al Qaeda, they could provoke tensions with the Taliban, a close al Qaeda ally.

What will happen to the Panjshir resistance? Panjshir is the only Afghan province currently not controlled by the Taliban. In recent days, fighting has intensified between the Taliban and the resistance. The resistance—with only several thousand members and little chance of external support—isn’t likely to win an extended fight, boosting the Taliban. If a settlement is negotiated, the Panjshir could gain some autonomy—an outcome that would deliver a win to the resistance, but also to the Taliban as it could earn goodwill from the international community.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Friday, Sept. 3: The Middle East Institute hosts an event on the implications of the Afghanistan withdrawal for Iran.

Friday, Sept. 10: The Wilson Center hosts an event on the implications of the Afghanistan withdrawal for China and Russia.

FOLLOWING

India makes contact with the Taliban. On Tuesday, India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, the head of the Taliban political office, in Doha—the first known official meeting between the two sides. Although most regional players opened channels of communication with the Taliban years ago, New Delhi kept a distance because of the group’s relationship with Pakistan.

New Delhi established contact with the Taliban for the first time in June, helping pave the way for this week’s meeting. New Delhi will be cautious in its approach to the Taliban, but the meeting does signify a change in policy. It’s also notable that Taliban leaders have started giving interviews to Indian television stations. On Tuesday, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told India Today that the Taliban government would pose no threat to New Delhi.

According to New Delhi’s readout, the Taliban requested the meeting in Doha, which was likely an effort to make the rounds with key regional players and build international legitimacy. India sought assurances on two core concerns: the safety of Indians trying to leave Afghanistan and the risk of terrorism havens. The latter issue will continue to be a tension point with New Delhi.

Kabul airport security negotiations. Talks are underway between the Taliban, Turkey, and Qatar about managing the Kabul international airport. Securing the airport is crucial, as it will facilitate the departure of remaining evacuees and the arrival of humanitarian aid. Qatar has offered to provide technical assistance. And while the Taliban rejected Ankara’s previous offer to provide troops for airport security, it has apparently not ruled out a Turkish security presence of some kind.

Last week, Middle East Eye revealed the Turkish government was considering an arrangement that would involve recognizing the Taliban regime and giving airport security responsibilities to a private Turkish firm. If there is one NATO country security force the Taliban would be willing to host on its soil, it would be that of Turkey—a country often praised by the group.

India’s economy sees record growth. New Delhi has released economic data for the April-June quarter that showed 20.1 percent GDP growth—a new record. It is also a major spike from the same time last year, when economic activity ground to a halt due to a pandemic-induced lockdown and the GDP contracted nearly 25 percent.

This growth is particularly impressive given that it coincided with India’s devastating pandemic surge. However, New Delhi didn’t impose a full-scale lockdown in 2021, as it did in 2020. Economists attribute the strong performance to strengthened manufacturing and agricultural sectors.

UNDER THE RADAR

After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration faces many difficult negotiations with the Taliban—ranging from evacuating U.S. citizens and Afghan allies to ensuring airport security and delivering humanitarian aid. One less-discussed issue is the fate of Mark Frerichs, the only known U.S. citizen held hostage by the Taliban. (The author Paul Overby Jr. disappeared in 2014 and remains unaccounted for, while aid worker Cydney Mizell was kidnapped in 2008 and is assumed dead).

Frerichs, a contractor, was kidnapped in Kabul in January 2020, and U.S. officials have repeatedly pressed for his release, including in recent weeks. With U.S. forces gone from Afghanistan, there is no apparent reason for the Taliban to hold Frerichs as a bargaining chip. But the Taliban insists he can only be released as part of a prison swap with Bashir Noorzai, a drug kingpin who was arrested in the United States in 2005 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.

The United States won’t easily give up Noorzai, whose stature in the narcotics world has been likened to that of Pablo Escobar. But it may be Washington’s best shot to bring Frerichs home. Its next best option—asking the Taliban to unconditionally release Frerichs as a gesture of goodwill—may not be enough.

REGIONAL VOICES

Nalin Abeysekera, a professor at Open University of Sri Lanka, writes in the Island about a wildly successful Sri Lankan pop song, “Manike Mage Hithe,” which has generated about 80 million YouTube views in just over three months. “The globalisation of the song … marks the first major success story of viral marketing in Sri Lanka,” he writes.

Constantino Xavier and Nikita Nayar of the Center for Social and Economic Progress, located in New Delhi, write that India has opened or reopened 13 new consulates in its immediate neighborhood in the last 20 years, in a piece jointly published by South Asian Voices and 9dashline. “These new consulates and other missions are the most visible aspect of India’s subnational footprint across the region,” they argue.

Pakistan Today editorial discusses a possible comeback by a Pakistani opposition alliance that split in April: A “well-attended Karachi rally and the tenor of the speeches delivered indicated that the alliance was again showing signs of animation.”

That’s it for this week.