Discussion of the Situation in Afghanistan
1. US foreign policy toward Afghanistan
After the withdrawal of US troops, the American policy toward Afghanistan can be summarized in three points: (1) rapid evacuation of American citizens remaining in Afghanistan, and Afghans who cooperated with US military operations and US companies; (2) containment of the activities of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State—Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), operating from remote areas; and (3) realization of moderate governance by the Taliban regime, assuring that policies include a recognition of the rights of women and a cessation of reprisals against former officials of the now-defunct Afghan government. The geopolitical objective of preventing China and Russia from expanding their influence in Afghanistan has been abandoned, acting as a point of recognition that US diplomacy with Eurasia has turned a corner.
All three points require reaching out to the Taliban, forcing the US to avoid confrontation with the Taliban. Since 2018, the US has been negotiating with the Taliban regarding the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and maintaining stability thereafter, and in February 2020 the two sides reached an agreement on withdrawal in May 2021. While avoiding confrontation and fostering cooperation with the Taliban is based on these cumulative negotiations, the outlook is not optimistic, and the US government is pinning its hopes on the phasecooperation with the Taliban with no other options available. The US government is also stepping up its efforts through Qatar, which has influence over the Taliban, and there is still the possibility of cooperation with China and Russia.
Abdul Gani Baradar, the leader of the Taliban’s political arm, was released from custody in Pakistan in 2018 after the US designated him a negotiation partner, and the US maintains high hopes for collaboration with him. On August 23, after the fall of Kabul, CIA Director Bill Burns reportedly entered Kabul and conveyed the above three requests, including cooperation in evacuating Americans.
The leverage the US has over the Taliban will be the Afghan assets frozen in the US and recognition of the Taliban regime.
The former Afghan regime is believed to have $7 billion in government accounts on deposit at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, $700 million in the Bank for International Settlements, $340 million in special withdrawal rights at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and $2.4 billion in World Bank investment programs for developing countries. These assets are currently frozen by the US Treasury, which allows the transfer of personal funds alone to Afghanistan. The Taliban regime is seeking to utilize its assets in the US to run the country.
However, the US does not recognize the regime as legitimate because it was established through a military coup of the former government, which was formed through democratic elections, and because of its demonstrated disregard for human rights. For this regime to be recognized internationally, the aforementioned three requests must be fulfilled to some extent.
The new government, which assumed control on September 7, has been dominated by the Taliban and is not the “inclusive government” that the US sought—one that would include a variety of ethnic groups and women. In addition, the US opposes the appointment of senior members of the Haqqani Group, which is believed to have carried out large-scale terrorist attacks on US facilities and is designated an international terrorist organization, to key posts such as Minister of the Interior, and there is virtually no likelihood that the government will gain recognition. There is also significant potential that the militants will become more anti-American and allow various terrorist organizations to operate in the country. If the Taliban is unable to utilize its assets held in the US, it will have to rely on support from China and other countries and Afghanistan’s domestic economy to cover its expenses—not to mention relying on poppy cultivation.
In the US, while the withdrawal itself is believed to be the correct course of action, there is growing criticism of President Biden, the US military, and the intelligence community for the hasty and confusing way in which the withdrawal was executed, and Biden’s approval rating is at its lowest since his administration took office. It is believed that Biden plans to regain public support by focusing on domestic policy, which is relatively highly regarded, such as measures against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and post-pandemic economic recovery. However, in the run-up to next year’s midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election, the Republican Party is repeatedly questioning Biden’s qualifications for the presidency by pointing to this debacle, especially to images of crowds swarming around a transport plane at Kabul International Airport.
The Republicans have positioned the remaining Americans and collaborators in Afghanistan as being held as “hostages” by the Taliban, and have drawn up a campaign strategy that equates it with the 1979 hostage crisis at the embassy in Tehran, which was a major factor in President Carter’s failed reelection. If the evacuation of these people does not proceed, Biden will find himself in further difficulties.
The Taliban has already demanded that Afghans who worked for the former regime’s technocrats and Western companies be prohibited from leaving the country, citing the need to rebuild the nation. The US is basking in the sense of liberation that the “longest war in US history” is over, and it is certain that Americans’ interest in Afghanistan will wane in the future, but it is unlikely that the US will be able to “get out of the way” easily, as it is expected that the Taliban will fail to govern the country, terrorist organizations will overrun it, the region will again be destabilized, and the US may suffer another terrorist attack.
2. Future outlook for Afghanistan
The Taliban seized control of the entire country of Afghanistan far earlier than anticipated due to the general public’s opposition to the graft, corruption, and deteriorating security of the former regime. For this reason, it is believed that there is considerable support for the Taliban in Afghanistan today. However, as was the case in the 1990s, “eradicating corruption” alone are not enough to govern a nation.
The Taliban’s centripetal force is the realization of a society based on Islamic Sharia law, and the conservative Afghan public has embraced the Taliban for this reason. Therefore, it can be assumed that if governance, including economic management, comes to a standstill, the Taliban will rely on the conservative segment of the population by further denying the advancement of women, etc., and strengthening its fundamentalist rhetoric. If this happens, it will be difficult for the international community to recognize the regime, it will not have access to assets held in the US, and there are concerns that it will deepen its ties with terrorist organizations and increase its financial dependence on the production of illicit narcotics.
If governance does not succeed, there is a strong possibility that the country will revert to civil war, as conflicts within the Taliban, non-Taliban Islamist militant groups, moderates, and ethnic groups other than the Pashtuns (mainstream Taliban) will erupt in discontent. There is no question that the fighting will be far more intense than the Taliban’s current advance.
3. Policy recommendations for Japan
Since hosting the International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance in 2002, Japan has been second only to the US in providing a massive amount of reconstruction assistance, amounting to 750 billion yen, and since 2003 has been leading the “disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration” (DDR) program for warlords and former national army soldiers, which was implemented until 2006 with positive results. Ideally, Japan, which is not regarded as an “enemy” by the Taliban, should provide various humanitarian and civilian assistance and also act as a bridge between Japan and the West. However, government-to-government assistance is difficult in the absence of state relations. Initially, humanitarian and civilian assistance will be on a small scale if the Japanese government does not recognize the Taliban regime. Japan also should not recognize the Taliban regime, since it has regressed in such areas as women’s rights.
In addition, Afghanistan is not of life-or-death importance to Japan’s national interests in various aspects, such as energy, alliance with the US, cooperation with Europe, strategy against China, anti-terrorism, and non-proliferation. Now that the US has withdrawn from the region, and “acting in coalition with the US” is no longer necessary, Japan will almost certainly find no further reason to devote resources to the country.
The US government has asked the Japanese government to help support the refugees who have been flooding into neighboring countries since the US military withdrawal began in earnest early this summer. The US is not requesting that Japan accept refugees within its borders. There have already been droves of Afghans who have fled to Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian countries, Turkey, and other countries as refugees following the Taliban’s coup. There is a clear need for support for these refugees through the UNHCR and local governments.
The fact that the Taliban is accepted by many Afghans as a force to fight corruption and bring stability should not be overlooked, and must be recognized when drawing long-term support. Although the Taliban is dismissed as “evil” by Western governments and media, Japan’s Afghanistan policy can be broadened by reaffirming that there are expectations for Islamism in the region that differ from the Western values.
In the future, China and Russia will position their support for the Taliban as a further failure of the “universal values diplomacy” envisioned by Biden, apart from the geopolitical move to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces. Japan, as a free democratic democracy, should take the same position as the US, but that does not mean that the 750 billion yen in aid and DDR achievements over the past 20 years should be allowed to go to waste. Instead of being entangled in China’s and Russia’s engagement with Afghanistan, Japan should devise a strategy to restart its support ahead of the US. If the hurdles to unilateral initiatives by Japan are too high, joint projects with Pakistan and Iran may be possible.
The US is looking for ways to stabilize and moderate the Taliban regime, as the turmoil in Afghanistan will be a further blow to the Biden administration. There will be more room for Japan’s activities to complement US policy in Afghanistan, which is currently in a bottleneck.
Japan’s search for activities in Afghanistan should also be aimed at gaining a foothold in the broader Eurasian region.
What is lacking is the ability to gather and analyze information. Experts who have mastered the local languages, have local knowledge of the land, and have human networks need to be cultivated for information gathering and analysis. Efforts advancing the selection of several geopolitical and geo-economic hotspots on the Eurasian continent and the training of experts should be enhanced. The development of such experts will not only accelerate Japan’s own intelligence gathering but also deepen intelligence cooperation with the US and with the countries of Europe.
Cooperation with the US will be paramount, and an expansion of cooperation with the US intelligence community will be necessary. Strengthening Japan’s systems, including the establishment of a security clearance system, will also be required.
(This is the English translation of an article written by SUGITA Hiroki, Columnist, Kyodo News Agency, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on September 10, 2021.)