Uncertainty and instability in contemporary Afghanistan

Islamic State fighters executed a Taliban fighter in the city of Jalalabad, Afghanistan (Credits: HatabKhurasani, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 15
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

Since the U.S. troops’ withdrawal and the Taliban’s rise to power, Afghanistan has witnessed huge uncertainty, instability and destabilisation due to the terrorist threat and criminal activities, economic problems, interethnic confrontation aggravated by the Taliban interim government, and regional and international geopolitical interests.

Terrorism and illicit drug trafficking as destabiliser factors in Afghanistan

On Monday, June 20th, 2022, an explosion rocked the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar in the market in Ganiheil. The violent attack killed two people and injured 28 others.[1] Previously, on Saturday, June 19th, 2022, an explosion hit a Sikh temple in Kabul and killed two people. The Islamic State took responsibility for the attack and reported that Abu Mohammed al-Tajiki, a member of the terrorist group, killed the security guard of the temple before going inside and targeting local worshipers with a machine gun and grenades.[2]

Recent violent attacks in Afghanistan confirmed the country’s instability due to terrorist organisations and activities and jihadist propaganda. Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, the Islamic State has increased its actions and attacks against civilians, the Taliban, and ethnic and religious minorities.[3] According to the Global Terrorism Index, Afghanistan was among the top five countries affected by terrorism and violent attacks from 2011 to 2022.[4]

Afghan instability can be a source of risks and threats for most regional countries, including the Central Asian republics, Pakistan, Russia, and China. In this regard, Russia, China, and Central Asian governments are constantly monitoring the situation in Afghanistan since the Islamic State has conducted jihadist propaganda to promote its ideology and recruit Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Uighur.[5] Indeed, in the event of the rise of extremists and the weakening of state institutions, Afghanistan has every chance of becoming a potential springboard for creating bases for terrorist organisations.

Drug production and trafficking remain a primary threat to Afghan security and stability. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the illegal production and smuggling of drugs are still one of Afghanistan’s leading sources of income. In 2021, the country’s drug revenue amounted to 1.8-2.7 billion dollars.[6]

Afghan economic problems, foreign interests in local resources and national stability

After the Taliban took power, Western countries imposed sanctions against the Taliban interim government, and the United States froze the Central Bank of Afghanistan’s assets and banned the supply of dollars to the country. Consequently, the socio-economic situation in Afghanistan deteriorated while the banking and financial system were paralysed, causing the depreciation of the national currency, a restriction of imports and an increase in prices for essential products and fuel. Rising unemployment and an increasing number of refugees in bordering countries were the direct consequences of the difficult socio-economic situation of Afghanistan under Taliban rule.[7]

To contrast the economic crisis and avoid deterioration of human conditions in the Afghan society and, therefore, contrast possible protests and internal chaos, the Taliban have adopted a foreign policy whose purpose is to attract foreign direct investments (FDIs) from regional actors (China, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia) and implement several ambitious transport and energy projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline,[8] the Central Asia-South Asia power project (CASA-1000),[9] and the Trans-Afghan Transport Corridor.[10]

All these infrastructural projects and the possibility that foreign investors might participate in exploiting local mineral deposits need stability and security. In this framework, external pressures and internal problems such as interethnic and intertribal relations/confrontations might influence the future of Afghanistan. Although the Taliban took power in August 2021 and started their interim government, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan led by Ahmad Masoud still represents a challenge to the Taliban leadership in the Panjshir region while in the entire country, ethnic minorities such as the Hazara, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek might contrast the central Taliban government and cause severe socio-political consequences.[11]

Over the past three decades, the importance of inter-ethnic rivalry in Afghan political life has only increased, which has actualised the ethnic-tribal nature of the political system. Furthermore, since the Taliban established their interim government, the opposition of Afghan civil society has intensified, especially women’s activities against the strict impositions and prohibitions.[12]

External and domestic pressures against the Taliban might cause further division inside the movement. After the Taliban took power in August 2021, internal tribal and factional contradictions escalated between the so-called radical wing of the Haqqani clan and the moderate wing from Kandahar.[13]

Conclusion

The future of Afghanistan is uncertain and marked by the terrorist threat, socio-economic problems, citizens’ disappointment, ethnic rivalry, and contrast inside the Taliban movement. During the last months, Afghanistan has been one of the main topics discussed among Central Asian republics and regional actors such as India, China, and Russia, promoting security cooperation to avoid any regional destabilisation, the spread of jihadist propaganda and terrorist activities in their territories.

The Taliban must demonstrate to the international community, especially regional partners, that they can guarantee stability and security and avoid the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations that might exploit Afghanistan as a logistic hub and training centre for their activities.

Although the Taliban have often promoted their leadership and success in fighting terrorist groups and criminal activities and have invited foreign actors to be more involved in the national economy and infrastructural projects to contrast socio-economic problems, the situation on the ground appears to be more complicated, the Islamic States is a consistent and permanent threat for the Afghan society. Indeed, this terrorist organisation has proven that it can interest Afghan ethnic minorities in conducting violent attacks in the country. Furthermore, the interim government is not internationally recognised after more than 10 months since the withdrawal of the U.S. troops and the Taliban’s rise to power. The social situation related to ethnic and religious minorities and women has hugely deteriorated, creating great disappointment.

In conclusion, if the Taliban will not soon improve economic conditions, attract FDIs and manage the security situation by fiercely contrasting the Islamic State, also considering the permanent threat coming from the National Resistance Front of Masoud, Afghanistan could sink into an internal crisis characterised by an increase in violence, sectarianism and internal power struggles whose consequences will be dramatic for the entire region.

Sources

[1] IA Regnum (2022) Два человека погибли и ещё 28 пострадали при взрыве в Афганистане (Two people killed and 28 injured in Afghanistan explosion). Link: Подробности: https://regnum.ru/news/polit/3624259.html.

[2] Rahime Faiez (2022) IS claims attack on Sikh temple in Afghan capital of Kabul, The Associated Press. Link: https://apnews.com/article/islamic-state-group-afghanistan-politics-taliban-kabul-9c5cb3b7fcec182eb6ec55fac5de2a20.

[3] Giuliano Bifolchi, Silvia Boltuc (2021) Mapping and monitoring terrorist activities in Afghanistan in 2021, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 11, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/11/26/afghanistan-terrorism-2021/.

[4] Institute for Economics and Peace (2022) Global Terrorism Index 2022. Link: https://www.economicsandpeace.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/GTI-2022-web-09062022.pdf.

[5] Riccardo Valle (2022) Islamic State Khurasan Province threatens Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and neighbouring countries, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 19 Issue 4, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/05/05/islamic-state-uzbekistan/; Giuliano Bifolchi (2022) Uyghur militants in Afghanistan: a possible threat for China, Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 12, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2021/11/29/uyghur-militants-afghanistan/.

[6] UNODC (2022) UNODC Drugs Monitoring Platform Brief: Latest patterns and trends in drug trafficking modi operandi of heroin and methamphetamine originating in Afghanistan. Link: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Afghanistan/briefs/Afg_Heroin_Meth_modi_operandi_dmp_brief4.pdf; Giuliano Bifolchi (2022) In Afghanistan drug trafficking and terrorism are increasing among regional concerns, Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 16 Issue 4, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/02/20/afghanista-drug-terrorism/;

[7] Human Rights Watch (2022) Afghanistan: Economic Roots of the Humanitarian Crisis. Link: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/01/afghanistan-economic-roots-humanitarian-crisis#:~:text=or%20repay%20debts.-,What%20makes%20the%20humanitarian%20crisis%20the%20result%20of%20an%20economic,of%20the%20country’s%20banking%20sector; Richard Weitz (2022) Afghanistan’s economy: Collapse and chaos, Middle East Institute. Link: https://www.mei.edu/publications/afghanistans-economy-collapse-and-chaos.

[8] Silvia Boltuc (2022) India and Turkmenistan discussed the Afghanistan situation and the TAPI natural gas pipeline project, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/04/06/india-turkmenistan-tapi-pipeline/; Giuliano Bifolchi (2022) Russian companies’ interests in Afghanistan and TAPI, SpecialEurasia. Link: https://www.specialeurasia.com/2022/03/17/russia-afghanistan-tapi/.

[9] Tolo News (2022) BAZAR: CASA-1000 And Its Benefits For Afghanistan. Link: https://tolonews.com/bazar/bazar-casa-1000-and-its-benefits-afghanistan-0.

[10] Marat Aitov (2021) Трансафганский коридор – мост между Центральной и Южной Азией (Trans-Afghan Corridor – a bridge between Central and South Asia), Adolat Sotsial-Demokratik Partiyasi. Link: https://adolat.uz/ru/uzbekiston/transafganskij-koridor-most-mezhdu-centralnoj-i-yuzhnoj-aziej.

[11] Edith M. Lederer (2022) Taliban Faces Threat From Islamic State, New Resistance, The Diplomat. Link: https://thediplomat.com/2022/06/taliban-faces-threat-from-islamic-state-new-resistance/;  Diane Villemin (2021) Afghanistan: Escalation of Ethnic Tensions While the US Prepares to Evacuate its Troops, OrientXXI. Link: https://orientxxi.info/magazine/afghanistan-escalation-of-ethnic-tensions-while-the-us-prepares-to-evacuate-its,4755; Henrik Larsen (2021) Misreading Afghan ethnic conflicts cost two decades and trillions of dollars, The Hill. Link: https://thehill.com/opinion/international/562961-misreading-afghan-ethnic-conflicts-cost-two-decades-and-trillions-of/.

[12] Deepa Parent (2022) Afghan women activists protest against Taliban’s new burqa decree, OpenDemocracy. Link: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/5050/afghanistan-taliban-burqa-women-protest/.

[13] Georgi Asatryan (2022) A Taliban divided, Observer Research Foundation. Link: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/a-taliban-divided/; ANI (2022) Internal conflict fracturing Taliban leadership, raising steep concerns for volatile Afghanistan. Link: https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/internal-conflict-fracturing-taliban-leadership-raising-steep-concerns-for-volatile-afghanistan20210829114604/.