A political and economic intervention by the international community could drive the conflict to a stalemate in favour of the Kabul government, giving it space to create a new strategy.
The current security situation in Afghanistan is undeniably disconcerting. The Afghan government had labelled their lack of resistance in the districts as a tactical retreat, with a promise to focus its forces on protecting the cities. President Ashraf Ghani, in his address to the Afghan parliament, called for war and declared that he had a military strategy in place to counter the Taliban advances.
That being said, we were witness to the fall of three cities within a day. The large swathes of territory captured by the Taliban either points towards the absence of a tangible military strategy or one that is going horrendously wrong.
With the Taliban emboldened by their gains while escalating the violence to atrocious levels and the Afghan government’s failure to contain them, it becomes paramount that the international community devise a clear and active policy towards the current conflict.
Two-faced or not in control?
The Taliban have been exhibiting irrational behaviour. This can be attributed to their attempts to veil their true intentions, the non-homogenous nature of their movement or their indifference towards the consequences of their actions.
Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, stated in an interview that women under Taliban rule would be allowed to work and go to school. When asked why that was not the case in the territories the Taliban held, he blamed the insubordination of local commanders who were being punished for their actions.
The sheer scale of restrictions imposed on women in Taliban-held territory is then either a reflection of their true intentions or the leadership's lack of control over their fighters.
Despite the Taliban leadership’s Eid message ordering its fighters not to destroy or loot public property, looting has been rampant throughout the territories they have captured. Though the Taliban maintain that they do not intend to march on Kabul, their current military strategy proves otherwise.
The Taliban have claimed targeted assassinations of non-combatants, executed surrendering troops and attacked the UN compound in Herat, among other war crimes, demonstrating a flagrant disregard for international law.
The Taliban, at best, is a group of loosely affiliated elements fighting for the same cause with little regard for central authority, or they are blatantly disregarding the norms of engagement and the deal they signed with the US. Consequently, it is highly likely, if the status quo persists, that the Taliban will push for a military takeover and commit mass atrocities in its wake.
International community’s role
Despite the Taliban’s actions, the international community is still trying to incentivise the Taliban into behaving with promises of international recognition and support. Such incentives only work with rational actors that are homogenous.
The international community has not spared its warnings to the Taliban and its current military campaign, including the recent UN Security Council declaration condemning the conduct of the Taliban. Even US Secretary of State Blinken signalled that Afghanistan would become a “pariah” if the Taliban attempted a takeover by force.
However, it is likely that President Biden is starting to see the futility of these warnings as he ordered B-52 bombers to engage in Afghanistan to thwart Taliban advances this weekend. It might be time to take bolder political measures if the Taliban fortunes are to be reversed.
The international community, including the United States, needs to define a clear threshold for their tolerance of Taliban defiance of international law and violations of their agreement with the United States. By doing so, the international community would know when to walk away from its obsession with pushing for a political settlement in Afghanistan despite the complete absence of good faith from the Taliban’s side.
The international community was more than half a million murdered people too late in taking action on Rwanda and Afghanistan should not see the same fate. By clearly defining and communicating their walkaway points to the Taliban, the international community can take action once those conditions are violated.
While the Taliban may not have much to lose from Afghanistan becoming a pariah state, its sponsors are bound to feel the hurt of UN sanctions.
Rather than taking the Afghan government for its word, the United Nations Security Council would have to investigate the involvement of regional countries in the funding and arming of the Taliban. The identification of these international sponsors and subsequent warnings, if not complied with, can be followed by sanctions on the states so as to cut off the supply and reinforcement routes of the Taliban.
Other measures by the United States could include President Biden revoking the US-Taliban deal. Such a step would strip the Taliban of the legitimacy offered to them by the peace deal. A travel ban on Taliban leaders would limit their travels to regional countries and show them the isolation they will face even if they take power in Afghanistan.
Qatar and the international community could also close down the Taliban’s Doha office to pile pressure on the movement and hold it responsible for the actions of its fighters. A political office for the Taliban can be set up and a restart of negotiations can happen once the Afghan government has the upper hand in battle and the Taliban are willing to negotiate in earnest.
The international community should help actively contain and de-escalate the conflict, not just out of obligation towards the Afghan people, but for its own benefit as well.
The fragile nature of the Taliban-run emirate and the security vacuum created by the regime twenty five years ago birthed international terrorism as we know it today.
A non-military intervention by the United Nations will give the Afghan government some breathing space to plan a new strategy and attempt to restore some symmetry to the conflict.
Ideally, Afghanistan would want the fighting to end. But for now, the Afghan government would settle for a stalemate in its favour.
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