Dr. Joshua Sinai, a Professor of Practice, Intelligence and Global Security Studies at Capitol Technology University, in Laurel, MD.
More than a year after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, its impact on the Middle East and Europe continues to exacerbate ongoing related problems in both regions. This article examines these repercussions with a brief look at the effects of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and how it has spilled over into the Middle East and Europe.
Under the Taliban’s harsh rule, Afghanistan continues to experience a state of general lawlessness, instability and human rights abuses. In fact, the takeover sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, engulfing the country’s population. The country’s economy has practically collapsed, with an estimated 23 million people (out of a population of 38.9 million in 2020) facing acute hunger. The level of violent internal conflict has decreased compared to the situation prior to August 2021 when the Taliban were the primary insurgency. However, recent targeted killings and systematic attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan (Daesh-Khorasan, IS-KP) against religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Shia Hazara community, and revenge killings by the Taliban against former government and military officials, have significantly increased.
State Sponsor of Terrorism
With the Taliban offering sanctuary to Al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, was killed by America in his hideout in Kabul on July 31, 2022, the Taliban are, once again, considered a state sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, the Taliban have continued their previous harsh practice of persecuting women by limiting their civil liberties and equal rights to education and employment. All of these negative trends have contributed to the outflow of an estimated five million internally displaced refugees, with another seven million Afghan refugees worldwide fleeing into the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran, as well as to other countries in the European Union.
With the international community concerned that Afghanistan is, once again, defying international norms in areas such as human rights, narcotrafficking, and turning into a safe haven for terrorists and criminal networks, the EU and the United States continue to impose economic and political sanctions against the Taliban regime. The Afghan government’s funds in Western banks have also been frozen. It is against this background that the impact of the current Taliban rule on the Middle East and Europe needs to be examined.
The impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on the Middle East is two-fold. Some countries are benefiting from the Taliban’s takeover, while others are damaged by it. The biggest beneficiaries of the Taliban’s takeover are Qatar and Iran. In fact, Qatar was the Taliban’s long-time benefactor, working as a mediator between the Taliban and the US since 2013 by formally hosting the Taliban’s political delegation in Doha where peace negotiations aimed at ending the Afghan conflict were held. It is likely, as a result, that Qatar will benefit diplomatically, economically, and in the security realm, from closer ties with the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Iran is also benefiting from the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Iranian and Taliban rulers share common geo-strategic interests, which were lacking under the former Afghan government. These common interests are likely to result in mitigating any instability across their common border in the form of refugee flows into Iran, although the large influx of Afghan refugees is putting a strain on the country. Iran hosts an estimated 780,000 UNHCR-registered Afghan refugees — second to Pakistan which hosts an estimated 1.4 million. Iran, however, also reportedly hosts an additional three million illegal Afghan refugees.
For other Middle Eastern countries, however, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has numerous negative repercussions, especially in the realm of anti-government insurgencies. With the Taliban hosting transnational terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda, concern exists that Afghanistan is reemerging as a safe haven for these groups which might use the country’s lawless regions to re-group and launch attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is concern among Middle Eastern governments that the Taliban’s spectacular success in taking over Afghanistan is emboldening terrorist groups in the Middle East to mobilize new recruits and operatives into carrying out more ambitious attacks, as they seek to emulate the Taliban’s strategy of insurgent warfare.
A parallel concern is that Middle Eastern insurgent groups will now seek to emulate the Taliban in politically legitimizing their territorial gains, since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has not led to any international military actions against it. Examples include the Palestinian Hamas, which immediately congratulated the Taliban on its takeover. Additionally, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Yemeni al Houthis have been encouraged by the international acceptance of the Taliban’s takeover. They hope for the same global acceptance of their state takeovers, if they succeed in doing so.
To counter the emboldening of Middle Eastern insurgent groups, Arab countries, such as the Gulf States, are becoming more assertive in pursuing their own interests. They are strengthening their military and economic ties with Israel as a hedge against attempts by Iran and its proxies such as Hezbollah, al Houthis, and others like the Taliban, to potentially carry out aggressive attacks against them.
Meanwhile, the impact of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has impacted Europe in several concerning ways, which differ from the way it has impacted the Middle East. One difference is that several European countries had made major investments in support of the previous Afghan government in terms of military troops and supplies, as well as humanitarian assistance personnel and resources, which were wasted once the Taliban took over the country. The need to quickly evacuate or protect their remaining humanitarian assistance personnel in Afghanistan has greatly added to the catastrophic end of their intervention enterprise in the country. This has involved, in particular, managing the most efficient way to get their citizens, and the Afghans who had worked with them, out of the country and into Europe in the safest way possible.
The second impact of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan on EU countries has been the enormous burden that the large influx of Afghan refugees into Europe has placed on these countries’ economic and social resources. As discussed earlier, the Taliban’s harsh rule has resulted in a major refugee crisis in the form of internal displacement and international outflow. The UNCHR estimates that 90 percent of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees live in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, while the rest have sought refuge in Europe. This has led European governments to seek solutions to manage the influx of Afghan asylum seekers. As of April 2021, for example, the number of Afghan asylum seekers in EU countries reached an estimated 100,000. In one hopeful sign, the cases of 28,700 Afghan refugees have been closed, with the majority settling in Germany, among other countries. This fulfills the majority of the EU’s promise to admit 36,000 Afghan refugees who had worked with the Western coalition in Afghanistan and were at risk of being targeted by the Taliban regime.
However, EU countries still face the dilemma of how to most efficiently manage the massive influx of Afghan refugees. Refugee resettlement issues need to be resolved, such as how to facilitate family reunifications, establish community sponsorship programs for the new arrivals, and provide education and employment opportunities for them. On a positive note, several EU-member countries, such as Germany, Sweden, and Turkey, welcomed Afghan asylum seekers, despite facing problems in managing their entry into their societies. Turkey, for example, hosted an estimated 300,000 Afghans who had arrived prior to and after the Taliban’s August 2021 takeover. By mid-2022, however — with Turkey already home to some four million Syrian refugees — accepting an additional massive influx of Afghan refugees began to pose a problem, particularly given the country’s high inflation rate and economic problems.
Other EU countries, however, sought to restrict their entry. Austria, Greece and Hungary, in particular, due to various reasons sought to restrict their entry into their countries as “gateways for irregular flows into the EU.” This was due to their negative experience in managing the influx of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who had fled their country’s civil war after 2014, as well as their rising rates of inflation and unemployment. In fact, with anti-refugee immigrant sentiments rising in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, prospects increased for such right-wing political parties to form governments in those countries, resulting in further limiting the entry of Afghan (and Syrian) refugees.
Finally, these issues have led the European countries to consider the lessons of the Afghan experience on their policies on security, stabilization, relations with the US and other regional powers, migration, and other issues. The EU is now mulling the repercussions of future interventions among NATO states and whether such interventions are geo-strategically effective in the long-term. Another lesson in foreign intervention concerns the feasibility of establishing humanitarian assistance missions, particularly in countries such as Afghanistan given their high levels of unceasing internal disorder and violence.
With the Taliban struggling with high levels of internal disorder while continuing with their harsh theocratic governance, the outflow of refugees from the country is likely to grow, thereby exacerbating the capacity of neighboring countries, as well as Europe, to absorb them. The Taliban’s success in taking over Afghanistan is already emboldening Islamist insurgent groups in the Middle East and elsewhere to intensify their insurgencies.
The overall failure of the Taliban in leading Afghanistan is a source of concern to neighboring states, Europe and the greater Middle East. Organized crime, narco-trafficking, and massive outflows of refugees will continue to affect the Middle East, Europe, and other regions. The trajectory of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the coming years points to a hotbed for terrorism and safe haven for terrorist organizations. Afghanistan remains a country whose people, especially women, are deprived of their basic rights, while being forced to live under a failed economic and social system.