WASHINGTON – The Taliban face a frontal challenge in cementing control of Afghanistan: Money.
Despite their dominant military blitz over the past week, the Taliban lack access to billions of dollars from their central bank and the International Monetary Fund that would keep the country running during a turbulent shakeup. Those funds are largely controlled by the U.S. and international institutions, a possible leverage point as tense evacuations proceed from the airport in the capital of Kabul. Tens of thousands of people remain to be evacuated ahead of the United States’ Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw its troops from the country.
But the Taliban also do not currently have institutional structures to receive the money — a sign of the challenges it might confront as it tries to govern an economy that has urbanized and tripled in size since they were last in power two decades ago. The shortfall could lead to an economic crisis that would only fuel a deeper humanitarian one for the roughly 36 million Afghans expected to stay in the country.
“If they don’t have jobs, they don’t get fed,” said Anthony Cordesman, who advised the U.S. government on Afghan strategy and works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Taliban has to find an answer.”
The stranded funds are one of the few potential sources of pressure that the U.S. government has over the Taliban. But Cordesman added, “To have a pressure point, you have to be willing to negotiate in ways the Taliban can accept.”
As of now, the Taliban government cannot access almost all of the Afghanistan central bank's $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held by the New York Federal Reserve. Afghanistan was also slated to access about $450 million on Aug. 23 from the International Monetary Fund, which has effectively blocked the release because of a “lack of clarity” regarding the recognition of a new Afghan government.
While the money would make it easier for the Taliban to govern, government officials have indicated that it's unclear who would be the points of contact within Afghanistan on financial issues. President Joe Biden conceded that he doesn't know whether the Taliban want to be part of the broader global economy — which means it might be comfortable going without any funds.
“I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government,” Biden told ABC News Wednesday. “I’m not sure they do.”
Even if the Taliban could get money from the IMF, Douglas Rediker, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the process “would take, I think, months at the earliest, if at all.” But he also anticipates that the United States would find a way to block the release of any money through the IMF system.
“The U.S. still retains a lot of political heft in the global, political and economic systems to twist some arms,” Rediker said. “The Taliban are not going to be popular.”
When the Taliban last ran Afghanistan two decades ago, the average Afghan survived on less than a dollar a day. Per capita gross domestic product has increased nearly three-fold during the war, according to the World Bank. Afghanistan gained mobile phones, Coca-Cola and Airbnb listings — all of which need access to global economic institutions. The war effort also left the country highly dependent on trade with imports of $8 billion annually, almost 10 times more than what was being exported.
The extent of the problem could be seen at the shuttered Afghan money exchange market. Currency trading stopped Sunday when the Taliban took control of Kabul. Without the ability to exchange or the backing of dollars flowing into the country, the value of the Afghan currency could collapse, inflation could accelerate and the mix of violence and chaos could be prolonged.
Aminullah Amin, a currency changer, said Friday there are concerns about looters and the structure of the new government. That sense of insecurity felt by Afghans would flow through the economy like a virus.
“We have not decided to reopen the markets yet.” said Amin, who witnessed the looting of a district police headquarters in northern Kabul after the seizure of the capital by the Taliban.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Thursday reaffirmed that the group wants good relations with other countries and will not allow Afghanistan to be a base for attacks. But he said the Taliban would not tolerate any threat to “our principles and our independence.”
Laurel Miller, director of the Asia program at the Crisis Group, an international think tank, said Afghanistan remains “a very poor country suffering a complex set of humanitarian issues and challenges.”
The Taliban still have access to revenue streams that sustained the insurgency, but that won’t be enough for a centralized government that can assert fuller control on the country. The movement has to balance its image globally with maintaining support among their own rank-and-file, the ultraconservative Muslim fighters who brought them to power.
“There are reasons to think that when push comes to shove the internal dimensions of this are going to be prioritized over the external dimensions,” Miller said.
The Taliban could have more success with other nations eager to project influence in the region. China wants stability in Afghanistan and also maintains close relations with neighboring Pakistan, which itself has long worked to shape events there. A 2010 U.S. government report estimated that Afghanistan contained about $1 trillion worth of metals and minerals, including lithium and rare earths that are valuable in an increasingly computerized world.
“I think a real question mark in the financial picture is what is China going to do,” Miller said.
AP reporters Tameem Akhgar contributed to this report from Istanbul and Joseph Krauss from Jerusalem.