What a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan means for the rest of the world

August 17, 2021, 5:13 PM UTC

After almost 20 years and more than a trillion dollars spent after the U.S. entered Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Afghanistan has effectively fallen under Taliban rule once more.

In a shocking end to America’s longest-running war, the Taliban took over Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Sunday with little pushback. It was a moment weeks in the making, although one that happened much faster than officials had expected. But as President Joe Biden’s Sept. 11 exit deadline loomed in the distance, the number of American troops dwindled, making room for the Taliban to work its way through Afghanistan, city by city.

Now, with the Taliban in control for the first time in 20 years, Afghanistan is looking at an uncertain future, one that has prompted throngs of questions over human rights, terrorism, and regional power, with surely more unasked.

“What happens in Kabul will not stay in Kabul. And there will be ramifications,” said Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who was Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2008 to 2011, in an interview with Fortune. “The region is not going to find much comfort or stability from having an unpredictable group in power whose objective is not to run a modern state but is to try and re-create what it sees as the Islamic state of several centuries ago.”

Europe, for starters, will likely face a stream of Afghans looking for safe shelter from the Taliban. French President Emmanuel Macron has already said that France will push the European Union to develop a plan to handle the exodus out of Afghanistan, saying Monday, “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds.”

China could also cement its status as a “power broker” in central Asia, as a result of the Taliban taking control, with American influence in the region now significantly weakened, according to Philip Potter, an associate public policy and politics professor at the University of Virginia, where he is also the director of the National Security Policy Center. That could help China export “digital authoritarianism” even further. “The more the U.S. withdraws from that region,” Potter said. “The more unimpeded China will be.” Others, however, view the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan as a plus for its NATO allies, considering it will allow the Americans to refocus their attention on the expansion of Russia. “The Afghanistan situation will be a blip to the U.S. commitment made to NATO,” University of Mary Washington political science professor Jason Davidson recently told Fortune‘s Vivienne Walt.

Then there is the question of how much footing the Taliban’s taking control of Afghanistan will provide for other extremist organizations like al Qaeda to grow in the region. On Sunday, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told senators and administration officials that the Taliban’s quick incursion in Afghanistan had sped up the threat of terrorist groups establishing new presences there, according to Axios. And stateside, the Department of Homeland Security has already signaled that al Qaeda is showing signs of renewed life, having recently published the first edition of its English-language magazine in more than four years ahead of the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11.

“Give them the right soil to work within, they will flourish,” said Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, in an interview with Fortune. “That’s what we have to be concerned about, even if it’s not a short-term issue.”

Inside the country’s borders, the Afghan people face a likely return to the repressive society that existed there two decades ago when music was banned, women’s clothing and movements were closely regulated, and public executions were commonplace. Weinbaum, who joined the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research when the Taliban was first in control, called Kabul “a graveyard” while referring to a visit there after the Taliban gained control in 1996: “In all my times there, I never saw a woman walking the streets [alone].”

The Taliban has spent the past weeks trying to paint the picture of a more modern organization, albeit an extremist one nonetheless. In an Aug. 16 interview on CNN, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said Afghan citizens “should not be terrified” and that the group poses no risk to “their property, to their lives, to their honor.” It is critical for the Taliban to convince the world of its changed demeanor, if it is going to have a chance of getting Afghanistan recognized on the international stage under its rule. On Monday, the United Nations Security Council, a body whose 15 members include the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia, France, India, and others, called for a new government to be established that is “united, inclusive, and representative—including with the full, equal, and meaningful participation of women.”

Few are buying it, though. “Nobody changes their core beliefs, especially when those core beliefs are relative to nature,” said Haqqani of the Hudson Institute. “It has always been a fantasy in the United States to try and change people who have firm faith and beliefs. It did not succeed in the Shiite theocracy in Iran, and it will not succeed with the Sunni theocracy of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Even before the fall of Kabul, stories began to emerge of an undeterred Taliban whose members were executing Afghan soldiers and looking to marry girls as young as 15 years old. And when Kabul did go to the Taliban, the group spent much of its first day in power searching people’s phones, painting over advertisements featuring women with exposed hair, and raiding the homes and offices of government officials, according to the Wall Street Journal—painting a harrowing picture of what may be to come.

“It is literally a little more than 24 hours after they’ve taken over Kabul,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with Fortune, late Monday. “I would be very wary and very skeptical of where this is going to go.”

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