Afghanistan risks being “completely destroyed as a country” unless the Taliban and Western powers reach a swift political agreement, leading academics have warned.
A humanitarian disaster is imminent, including a major refugee exodus, unless a rapid deal is struck allowing financial assistance to pour back into the country, the Chatham House think tank heard.
Furthermore, without aid, the Taliban’s patience with current Afghan protests could “snap” and they could carry out mass genocide similar to the horrors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Saad Mohseni told the webinar.
The chief executive of Moby Group, the largest media company in Afghanistan, warned of an impending catastrophe that could have worldwide ramifications.
“There is no sense of urgency,” he said. “You've got this political crisis but then you have this humanitarian crisis and economic crisis that's going to completely destroy the country.”
With Afghanistan dependent on 43 per cent of its gross domestic product - about $8 billion - from foreign aid, having that cut off overnight coupled with a countrywide drought will have an “extraordinary impact” on the country, he warned.
It was “scary” that the international community did not “realise how serious this is”, as there was no sense of urgency for a deal, said the media entrepreneur, who has been labelled the "Rupert Murdoch of Afghanistan".
There was also a lack of urgency from the Taliban, who did not fully understand the implications or impact a crisis would have on their rule, he suggested.
“My concern is that the Taliban are going to snap and they will go back to the way they used to be in the 1990s and it's going to be more Khmer Rouge,” he said. “The world needs to take notice … what happens in Afghanistan doesn't stay in Afghanistan. If you get two million refugees coming out of the country they're two countries away from Europe, to Iran and Turkey and then into the EU.”
He added that it would not just be bad for Afghanistan; “it's going to be bad for the world when you see mass refugees coming out of Afghanistan, mass genocide and ethnic cleansing.”
The former government’s inability to create a sophisticated PR machine had also led to a crash in public confidence in it, suggested Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, an international development consultant.
By comparison, the Taliban were well versed in “power performance” in which they made visceral demonstrations of their strength, such as the public execution of President Najibulla in 1996 or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.
“The message comes across very clear about the power that they hold and that nobody can go against this power,” she said. “They recently put on the clothes of special forces soldiers and stood face to face with the coalition soldiers who were leaving. This was a very big power message saying ‘I'm standing here you know and you can't do anything about it’.”
But after 20 years of Western support, much of Afghanistan’s youthful population has become more sophisticated, with literacy approaching 70 per cent, compared with 8 per cent in the 1970s, and greater understanding of social media. A society that has become more liberal could conflict with the Taliban and it would then become a question of how much they would tolerate, the London-based think tank heard.
The country has been further transformed by lower child mortality, greater life expectancy and improved infrastructure.
However, the rampant corruption seen during President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure — where even to get notebooks for schoolchildren meant a bribe to the education ministry — suggested the administration was doomed.
Assessing the West’s two-decade impact overall, Mr Mohsensi said he believed that it had been a “net positive”, with greater freedom and education for Afghans, particularly women.
“The big question is that is Taliban 2.0 different to the earlier version?” he said.