News with respect to Afghanistan is never in short supply. Be it of the real or fake variety of news. Be it the country’s crippling economic situation, the invitations to foreign conferences tentatively extended to the country’s representatives, or occasional tensions with neighbours. Irrespective of perspective and persuasion, few would argue that the first half of 2023 was not eventful for Afghanistan. Opium is banned, the country grinds through a painful economic recalibration, and international engagement (and tensions) persist.
Here is 2023, so far.
It’s been a busy six months for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially for Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi himself. In addition to penning an op-ed for Al Jazeera English, Muttaqi has also attended his customary fair share of foreign conferences. Whilst official recognition of Kabul’s new rulers has not (perhaps unsurprisingly) been forthcoming, Muttaqi’s invitation to and involvement in international gatherings reflects an appetite, at least limited, to engage with Kabul. Principal amongst these foreign meetings have been multilateral summits involving Afghanistan in Samarqand and Islamabad.
The meetings at Samarqand and Islamabad were noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly, no Western nations were present. Samarqand drew the representatives of China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Islamabad was the site of a tripartite meeting involving China and Pakistan alone. No Western representatives were present.
Whilst undoubtedly indicative of an enduring recognition amongst the regional countries of the need to engage with Kabul, to construe it as a total victory for Kabul would be a superficial reading. The joint statements following both Samarqand and Islamabad did indeed highlight the importance of engaging with the Afghan government, deepening economic cooperation and respecting Afghan sovereignty.
Yet they also highlighted the usual human rights concerns. More importantly, however, they explicitly alleged the presence of armed groups including Al-Qaeda, the TTP, the East Turkistan Islamic Party in Afghanistan. This flies directly in the face of Kabul’s long standing position as to the non existence of these groups in Afghanistan and subsequent iteration that its territory does not constitute a threat for others.
Wherever the truth may lie, the regional approach toward Kabul could best be summarised per the Persian adage: friendship, but [still] at a distance.
Meanwhile, the involvement of Afghan officials in the Oslo Peace Forum highlighted what is now an age-old tradition when it comes to Afghan foreign policy: balancing east and west. The representatives met Afghan exiles as well as Western diplomats behind closed doors. Western sources revealed that they had made ‘tangible progress,’ in talks, though the practicalities of these remain unclear.
On 31st May, reports emerged that Prime Minister Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani had met the Afghan Amir Hebatullah Akhundzada. The meeting was first reported by Reuters, and had taken place earlier in the month on 12th May. Al-Thani had met the Afghan Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund in Qandahar, but the meeting with Hebatullah was only revealed later. The ‘very positive meeting,’ primarily focussed on the need to reverse the ongoing moratorium on girls’ education as well as the country’s humanitarian crisis.
This was a significant development for a multitude of reasons. Qatar had engaged publicly and repeatedly with the Afghan government. Yet it had never done so via the Amir, but through the Kabul-based Cabinet, whose influence and authority on key policy issues has come under growing question as the Amir’s edicts from Qandahar have demonstrated his unquestioned sway and increasing assertiveness. Indeed, it happens to be the first known that Hebatullah has also had with any foreign official.
The meeting’s secretive nature and lack of subsequent read-out to accompany the announcement of it only highlighted the unquestioned authority of the Amir.
It remains, typical of matters involving Qandahar, to deduce the after-effects, if any, of the meeting. On 17th May, days after the reported meeting but whilst it had still not been disclosed, Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund was announced to have been replaced by his Deputy, Mawlawi Abdul Kabir. The official reason given for Hassan Akhund’s replacement was his ill-health. Yet Taliban sources had long reported his ill-health when his replacement was not on the agenda, and this was hardly a new development.
That led many to surmise, in the aftermath of the meeting in Qandahar becoming public knowledge, that Abdul Kabir appointment reflected a drive toward diplomatic engagement. Abdul Kabir was, after all, noted for his diplomatic acumen. Whilst plausible, it also assumes Doha’s ability to affect Afghan cabinet appointments. Secondly, Hassan Akhund was never prominent as Prime Minister in diplomatic engagements. Abdul Kabir, as Deputy Prime Minister, had been. If diplomacy were the aim, why would the replacement then be necessary?
On 18th May, Iranian President Raisi publicly warned Kabul to not violate the 1973 Helmand River Agreement, which stipulated shared water resources between the two countries. Afghan spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid duly responded to Raisi: drought had afflicted many areas of Afghanistan, including those in proximity to the Helmand River, and Raisi’s remarks were ‘inappropriate,’ and ‘damaging.’
The tensions and war of words reached their climax on 27th May 2023. Armed clashes between the border guards of both countries took place, with both sustaining casualties. Who fired first is unclear as both sides blamed each other. The firefights ended quickly and, following a flurry of diplomatic activity, the border was reopened. Afghan officials called for diplomatic means to resolve disputes in the aftermath.
Pakistani delegation to Kabul
Afghan-Pakistan relations are always a hot topic. With that in mind, a high-level Pakistani delegation, led by the Pakistani Minister of Defence Khwaja Asif, visited Kabul on 22nd February 2023. The delegation met with Asif’s Afghan counterpart, Mawlawi Yaqub, as well as the Afghan Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Interior.
This is where things diverge, and with divergence eyebrows are raised. The official statement from the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the meeting included discussions on ‘Matters relating to the growing threat of terrorism in the region,’ going further and mentioning by name the ‘TTP and ISKP… The two sides agreed to collaborate to effectively address the threat of terrorism posed by various entities and organi[s]ations.’
The statement from Afghan spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, however, steered clear of specifically naming any organisation. The Afghan statement added that the meeting had been attended by GDI (Afghan intelligence) chief Abdul Haq Wasiq. ‘Extensive talks were held,’ it stated ‘on a number of issues of interest to both countries.’ These covered ‘security threats, including drone flights in our region and the activity of armed opponents,’ whilst there had also been ‘beneficial discussions,’ on ‘economic and commercial ties, issues relating to passage across the [Durand] Line and the problems of Afghan refugees [in Pakistan].’
That was that. Soon thereafter, though, reports started to emerge on Pakistani media, on the basis of unnamed sources within the Kabul delegation, that the meeting had been far from cordial. Pakistani officials had threatened to, per an unnamed official from the delegation, to close crossings along the Durand Line, and do ‘more,’ – the practical meaning of which was not expounded upon.
The ANI similarly quoted an official (again unnamed) who claimed that Afghan officials were ‘warned that any further [TTP] attack[s] would result in a tough response from Pakistan.’ What that tough response could be was clarified; the same source told ANI that, in the instance of continued TTP attacks, military operations against alleged TTP havens inside Afghanistan were being considered.
Sources in Kabul, however, rubbished claims that the meeting had been tense or included any of the threats alleged above. The meeting had been cordial, and, whilst the TTP had been discussed, sources revealed to the Afghan Eye that Afghan officials had raised the issue of Pakistan’s alleged hosting of Daesh fugitives. They added that the meeting had been followed by a lower profile GDI visit to Pakistan to pursue the matter further.
Later in April, Asif this time publicly threatened operations inside Afghan territory in an interview with VOA. This came after his previous allegation that Afghan territory constituted a safe haven for TTP fighters engaged in a protracted insurgency against the military.
Whether or not the actual meeting in Kabul in February entailed threats delivered by the Pakistani delegation is unclear. One thing, however, is clear. There were the near rehearsed and choreographed revelations of entirely anonymous sources alleging threats. These were followed by Asif’s public threats. What can be gauged is the image that Pakistani officials wanted to convey: of Islamabad chastising and disciplining the Afghan government. At least to a segment of its domestic audience.
In any case, with Pakistan’s interrelated political and economic crises ongoing, mapping out Afghan-Pakistan relations is no easy endeavour.
A near total-ban on opium cultivation has been successfully implemented in Afghanistan. That is according to Afghanistan expert David Mansfield’s findings, which were followed by others, including the BBC, finding similar. The ban follows an edit by Amir Hebatullah from April 2022. Speculation followed the edict that the ban’s announcement was less about implementation and more about publicity. Apparently not.
The success of the ban is, plainly put, staggering. Helmand province, which on its own once produced 50% of the world’s opium, has seen poppy cultivation slashed by 99%. Drugs, with opium at the helm, have long constituted one of the primary industries of Afghanistan. During the occupation, even the Taliban benefitted handsomely from the trade, widely being known to levy the Islamic tithe [ushr] tax on its cultivation. The ban reflects not just astounding success, but, quite clearly, serious determination.
The effects of the ban are yet unclear. USIP was prominent in saying the ban was ‘bad for Afghans and bad for the world,’ as little alternative existed to poppy cultivation. That, it reasoned, would result in greater poverty, economic depression, and migratory flows. Notwithstanding, there is the possibility of any costs relating to banning opium being offset by increased humanitarian assistance or diplomatic engagement that would translate into sustainable economic development.
As you, by now, have probably heard hundreds of times, Afghanistan has suffered from a sharp economic contraction following the end of the US occupation in August 2021. Interrelated deeply is the humanitarian crisis it is undergoing and its reliance on foreign aid to stave off a potential famine.
It was in this context that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivered a bleak picture accompanied by a stark warning at the latest High Level Pledging Event on Afghanistan at the UN Headquarters. In addition to thanking the State of Qatar, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Germany for hosting the event, Guterres acknowledged that many lives had been saved due to humanitarian assistance during the past harsh winter in Afghanistan. The humanitarian crisis was worsening, however, with ninety-five percent of the population left without enough food. ‘Nine million people are at risk of famine,’ he warned. Guterres also took the opportunity to criticise Afghan officials, blaming the closure of girls’ schools as one of the reasons for its depressed economy. Not missing the opportunity to strike a delicate balance, the Secretary General also focussed words toward the international community. ‘We cannot,’ he implored, ‘use [girls’] education as a bargaining tool.’ A shame that Western diplomats in Oslo did exactly that.
Data and reports on the dire straits of the Afghan economy are in no short supply. There are, notwithstanding, other observations to be made on what is a transitory, albeit painful, economic recalibration. In many respects, following the end of the occupation, that recalibration was inevitable. The severity of it, however, was not.
In late January, the World Bank published its monthly ‘Afghanistan Economic Monitor’. Whilst winter had brought with it a fall in demand for skilled and unskilled labour, all was not bleak. Afghan exports had increased year on year from 2020 during the occupation, and the overwhelming majority of civil servants were being paid on time. The national currency had remained ‘substantially stable.’ Inflation was falling and tax revenue collection was ‘strong,’ which was also the finding of another report on how the Taliban had centralised its revenue collecting apparatus as a government.
Late June’s Afghanistan Economic Monitor made note of the trends from January’s report. Inflation had not just continued to fall, but had ceased to exist. Afghanistan was now seeing negative inflation, or deflation, at a rate of -0.95%. This once again tied into the strong performance of the Afghan currency, whose appreciation in value relative to other regional currencies had brought down food and fuel prices. The winter slump in demand for labour had, as forecast, been reversed, and demand for labour had increased. Female employment had increased in small-scale manufacturing businesses. Liquidity problems relating to cash withdrawals from banks, however, persisted.