Afghanistan’s evacuation deadline is a deadly countdown

Two weeks after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the country remains in a state of suspense. With little information about the shape of a new government, Afghans are waiting to see how harshly the Islamists will rule and how severe an economic collapse they face. Kabul’s airport is thronged with Afghans attempting to flee. Western countries are trying to evacuate their citizens, and as many local employees and sympathisers as possible, before August 31st, the deadline for American troops to leave the country. Western leaders, especially Joe Biden, are desperate to get out without further disasters. But the Taliban hold all the cards.

For Mr Biden the greatest nightmare would be a terrorist attack against Americans. The debacle in Kabul already threatens to cripple his presidency. The evacuation is one of the largest airlifts in history: 82,300 people were flown out between August 14th and 25th, the White House said. The airport teems with soldiers and special forces from two dozen countries, including 6,000 Americans. Some are already packing up to get out on time, and flights carrying civilians may largely stop by August 27th. Despite Mr Biden’s insistence that America is “on a pace to finish” by the deadline, many vulnerable people will certainly be left behind.

The Pentagon has extracted most of the 5,000 to 10,000 Americans it reckoned were in country. But about a thousand were believed to be left as of August 26th, when America, Britain and Australia told their citizens to stay away from the airport because of a high risk of a terrorist attack. Even a handful of stray Westerners would present attractive targets for Islamic State’s local branch or the Haqqani network, a hostage-taking ally of the Taliban.

That leaves the thousands of Afghans. The most vulnerable, such as intelligence operatives or senior government officials, are being given priority. But those with larger families or a lower profile are struggling. “We are going to leave quite a lot of people behind, there’s no doubt,” says an insider familiar with the operation. Britain hopes the Taliban will allow Afghans to leave after August 31st on commercial flights, but it may not be able to keep the airport running—many of the Afghans who can do so are trying to get out. On August 24th the Taliban complained that America was encouraging doctors and other professionals to leave, and said they would no longer allow Afghan nationals to take the road to the airport.

The Taliban’s leaders have yet to announce who will run their government. For years the group has made honeyed promises of a broad-based, inclusive regime. Indeed, since the takeover they have consulted prominently with grandees from the Afghan regime they deposed. Hamid Karzai, a former president, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former chief executive, have tried to position themselves as power-brokers. The Taliban have also sent envoys to the Panjshir valley, to try to negotiate a settlement with government holdouts led by Ahmad Massoud, the son of a famous anti-Taliban commander.

Yet much of this may be for show. The magnitude of the Islamists’ victory puts them in a stronger position than even they expected, says Nematullah Bizhan of the Australian National University: “Other players do not have any leverage.”

The Taliban are clear that they are not interested in a democracy. The new system, they say, will be based on their own draconian interpretation of Islamic law. A figure familiar with the group’s deliberations said that Afghanistan would be overseen by a ruling council while the movement’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, would remain in overall charge, though he has not been seen since the Taliban’s victory. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s first deputy leader (who met Bill Burns, head of the cia, when he visited Kabul on August 23rd), is thought to be in line for a senior post. So are Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, a son of the Taliban’s first leader, and Khalil Haqqani, a leader in the Haqqani network.

The militants are desperately short of people with experience of running a country, yet early appointments do not suggest a broad tent. According to Pajhwok, an Afghan news agency, Gul Agha, a member of the Taliban’s finance commission, has been installed as minister of finance and Sadr Ibrahim, a former military chief, as interior minister. Many names circulating for ministries and governorships are from Helmand, a southern province, raising the prospect of disquiet among northern groups and ethnic minorities.

Yet the regime’s most pressing crisis will be economic. Even before the Taliban takeover almost half of the population, some 18m people, needed aid. In the past two weeks the number of internally displaced people has risen by 53%, to 550,000, according to the International Rescue Committee, an ngo.

Most important, under the previous government international aid amounted to an astounding 40% of gdp and three-quarters of the government budget. That tap has been shut. The Taliban are adept at collecting taxes in the provinces they control, but their revenues cannot come close to replacing the lost aid. The central bank’s $9bn in foreign reserves has been frozen, mostly by America. Without this Afghan businesses will be unable to finance imports, in a country that in 2020 ran a trade deficit of more than a quarter of gdp.

The result will be inflation, unemployment and a crash in income, says Ajmal Ahmady, the former central-bank chief. Already the price of wheat is reported to have risen by 20% or more. “This is going to destroy the economy,” said one expert.

International donors would like to use that prospect to exact concessions. An emergency meeting on August 24th of the g7, a club of rich countries including America and Britain, exhorted the Taliban to treat former government employees leniently, respect women’s rights and above all allow more evacuations.

But it is not clear that such inducements carry much weight. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, said on August 24th that the group had no list of targets for reprisals. Reports of house searches of ex-government employees belied that. He also asked women to stay home from work until the group’s less enlightened troops had been taught to treat them with dignity. Afghan women fear that may take a long time. 

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The final countdown”

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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