WHEN LEADERS of the G7, a club of rich countries, met in Cornwall, in south-west England, in June, Afghanistan was an afterthought, meriting three sentences in a 25-page document. The leaders demanded an “inclusive political settlement” and airily declared their determination to maintain support for the Afghan government. Two months later that government does not exist and Western countries are scrambling to evacuate their citizens and allies from Kabul before America’s self-imposed deadline of August 31st.
On August 24th, with a week to go, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, convened a virtual meeting of leaders from the G7, which is still chaired by Britain. They were joined by António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Jens Stoltenberg, who leads NATO, and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Mr Johnson’s primary aim was to persuade President Joe Biden to extend the deadline, allowing more time for evacuations. He came away disappointed—Mr Biden would not budge.
That is in part because the Taliban had already rejected the idea of an extension, declaring it to be a “red line”. Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence secretary, acknowledged on August 24th that the militants “could make life incredibly difficult, should they wish to”, for example by restricting access to the airport or attacking its runway. Another growing concern was the threat from the local branch of Islamic State, a terrorist group that is opposed to the Taliban and has repeatedly struck in Kabul. Mr Biden ultimately decided that it was not worth risking a military confrontation with the Taliban in and around a crowded airport where 20 Afghans have already died in shootings and stampedes, nor a terrorist attack that might kill Americans.
Mr Biden’s decision sets the clock ticking. In order to leave by August 31st, American forces will begin packing up on August 27th, to ensure sufficient time to extract soldiers and equipment, along with more than 500 Afghan commandos who have helped. The evacuation has been a prodigious effort. American officials said that in the 24 hours to 3am on August 24th, a remarkable 21,600 people left Kabul on 37 American flights and 57 others. America has now evacuated more than 48,000 people, with over 10,000 of those leaving in a frenzied 12-hour burst on August 23rd. Britain has extracted more than 7,000.
Kabul airport is swarming with what may be the largest and most cosmopolitan collection of special forces ever assembled. The operation is thought to be the largest such airlift since America’s departure from Vietnam in 1975. That may be enough to bring home almost every foreigner who wishes to leave (though even America has acknowledged it has little idea of how many of its citizens are in the country). It will certainly fall short of rescuing the Afghans who served as their interpreters, drivers and guards over two decades of war. Mr Wallace and Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, have both acknowledged that many Afghan allies will be left behind, forced to seek commercial flights out of the country.
Whether they will be allowed to leave is another matter. America and Europe have already been forced to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure that the evacuation can proceed unhindered, a predicament that Mr Maas described, vividly, as “worse than the world turned upside down”. But once foreign troops depart, the Taliban will take over the facility and assume control of all departures.
They have already begun tightening their grip. On August 24th a spokesman for the Taliban complained that America was encouraging doctors, engineers and other educated professionals to leave. Only foreign nationals would henceforth be allowed to go to the airport, he said. “We are not in favour of allowing Afghans to leave. We need their expertise.” Some officials fear that the situation might come to acquire the flavour of a slow-motion hostage crisis, with the Taliban using their control over any stray foreigners or refugees to secure concessions, or deter outsiders from trying to exert pressure.
That sets the stage for a standoff. After the G7 summit Mr Johnson said that the club had agreed a “joint approach” and “roadmap” for engagement with the Taliban. It had “huge leverage”, he insisted, pointing to the roughly $7bn in Afghan foreign reserves, held in New York, that the Biden administration froze last week. Though the G7’s joint statement laid out a series of demands—spanning human rights, women’s rights and an inclusive government—its “number one condition”, according to Mr Johnson, was “safe passage” for Afghans to leave beyond the 31st. Mrs von der Leyen emphasised the need for “safe pathways” for the most vulnerable Afghans, including female teachers, judges and lawyers.
On the face of it, the G7 does indeed have weighty inducements. Last year, aid flows made up over two-fifths of Afghanistan’s GDP. In practice, though, the Taliban’s cashflow may be less dire than assumed. A report published this month by the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank in London, showed that the movement of goods through one border town alone, Zaranj, would yield $176m annually in off-the-books revenue, and more in official trade. The Taliban now hold every such border crossing. “International donors have less leverage than they think,” concludes Graeme Smith, the report’s co-author and an expert on Afghanistan. “The world would be fooling itself to think that the Taliban leadership could be crippled by sanctions,” he adds.
Although neither Mr Johnson nor the G7 statement mentioned formal sanctions on the Taliban, they have been discussed by diplomats in recent days. But they present another problem: they might have inadvertent and serious consequences for ordinary Afghans. “The humanitarian situation has gone from bad to worse,” says Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a humanitarian organisation. He points out that conflict, drought and the pandemic had already taken a terrible toll; the huge flow of refugees from outlying areas into Kabul adds to those challenges. 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 humanitarian work has been in hibernation now for quite a few days, in very many zones where we should have scaled up,” says Mr Egeland.
Adam Smith, a former sanctions official in the Obama administration, notes that American financial sanctions, which tend to apply widely, could cause a balance-of-payments crisis in Afghanistan and “potentially cataclysmic microeconomic effects as food and medical supplies dry up”. Food prices in Kabul are already rising. “In a sense the G7 members and Taliban are in a morally obscene standoff,” observes Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “The G7 can use their financial clout to hasten the collapse of the Afghan economy. But an economic collapse would lead to exactly the outcomes the Europeans fear most: more violence and more refugees.”
These transatlantic differences, along with intense European frustration at America’s handling of the withdrawal, were papered over at the G7 meeting. There, allies agreed that “the legitimacy of any future government depends on the approach it now takes to uphold its international obligations,” implying that formal dealings with the Taliban would be conditional on its behaviour. But in the short term, at least, the imperatives of evacuation may eclipse human rights and other concerns. “I think it’s a pretty clear indicator of where European leaders think this is headed,” says Mr Gowan. “An eventual recognition-for-refugees trade-off.”
Yet the club’s seven members may not be the ones who set the pace. The power to lift international sanctions on Taliban leaders, for instance, rests with the UN Security Council, which is currently chaired by India. Yet unlike the G7, the council includes Russia and China, both of which wield veto power as permanent members. Any resolution there must satisfy both countries, which have fewer vulnerable citizens in Afghanistan, warmer ties to the Taliban and—in China’s case—bigger economic interests.
Neither country, nor Iran, which has resumed fuel exports to Afghanistan in recent days, nor Pakistan, an ally of the Taliban, is likely to be as squeamish about dealing with the Islamists as the G7. “You have to compare it to 1996 when only three countries recognised the Taliban regime for five years,” says Mark Lyall Grant, a former British national security adviser. “It’ll be very different this time: there’s likely to be well over 50 countries immediately engaging with the Taliban regime, without any major conditions, including all the neighbours.”
Reflecting on Western efforts in Afghanistan, Mr Johnson held out the prospect of a “different path forward and a better future” for the country—“for the Pashtun to sit down with the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Turkmens, for all factions to get together”. Yet he ultimately struck a pessimistic note. “It is very difficult for Western powers to try and impose that sort of order on a country, if a country is unwilling to do it itself.”