The Taliban Government Takes Shape

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Taliban government consolidates power in Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal, New Zealand grapples with an outbreak of the delta variant, and a new report reveals the deadly toll of air pollution in India.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Taliban government consolidates power in Afghanistan post-U.S. withdrawal, New Zealand grapples with an outbreak of the delta variant, and a new report reveals the deadly toll of air pollution in India.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

What Will the Taliban’s Afghanistan Look Like?

When the last U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan on Monday, the Taliban celebrated with a victory parade that displayed their new spoils: dozens of U.S.-built armored vehicles and weapons. Now, the group is consolidating power and cementing its rule across the country.

There are still some holdouts: Fighting broke out in parts of northern Afghanistan late Tuesday, as the Taliban moved to eliminate opposition and capture remaining provinces. The conflict, perhaps one of the group’s final clashes with resistance fighters during the takeover, comes as the Taliban prepare to establish their new government.

A new leader. The Taliban are set to name Haibatullah Akhundzada, the group’s top religious leader, as Afghanistan’s new supreme leader. A hard-line cleric in his 60s, Akhundzada rose to power in 2016, after his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Once in position, Akhundzada will have the final say over political, military, and religious decisions.

Cascading crises. But as the new Taliban government takes shape, the Afghan people face mounting challenges, including soaring inflation rates and lengthy queues outside of banks. Severe droughts, fueled by climate change, have added to growing food insecurity and a potential humanitarian crisis. Afghans who worked with the former government or Western militaries have also reported facing deadly reprisals in spite of the Taliban’s promises of amnesty.

“A humanitarian catastrophe looms,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday, warning that the Afghan people are in “their darkest hour of need.”

International allies—or not. How will the world handle the new Taliban government? Some have answered with economic punishments: The World Bank and International Monetary Fund froze aid while the United States suspended billions of dollars in reserves. The European Union is also considering sanctions to protect human rights and cut terrorist links.

But by freezing the reserves while still trying to deliver humanitarian aid, U.S. President Joe Biden faces a serious conundrum, as FP’s Michael Hirsh writes in Foreign Policy. Bypassing the Taliban in aid delivery will be difficult—even impossible—given the group’s total oversight over agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Political threat. Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s Afghan branch that claimed responsibility for last week’s attack at Kabul’s international airport, poses a challenge for the new Taliban government and Washington. On Wednesday, U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told reporters it is “possible” Washington will work together with the Taliban to combat Islamic State-Khorasan.

However, Milley’s overall assessment of the Taliban remained pointed. “This is a ruthless group,” Milley said. “Whether or not they change remains to be seen.”

What We’re Following Today

Defeating delta? New Zealand went largely unscathed by the first few waves of the coronavirus pandemic, thanks to strict self-isolation regulations and border closures. But the delta variant is testing the long-term viability of the government’s strategy as the country wrestles with its worst COVID-19 outbreak since last year.

After a single case of the delta variant was detected in mid-August, New Zealand entered a three-day lockdown that has lasted for weeks. The strategy has mostly worked: The country has successfully eased restrictions in regions with lower infection rates. But it has also raised questions about how long the plan can go on. “Delta has changed the rules of the game, and that’s why we changed our game plan,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. “No one wants to use lockdowns forever. And I can tell you now, that is not our intention.”

Deadly pollution. Air pollution in India may reduce the life expectancy of 480 million people in India by nearly nine years, according to a new report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “Alarmingly, India’s high levels of air pollution have expanded geographically over time,” the institute said.

In India, the costs of high pollution levels are dramatically greater than those of other public health issues. Compared to the impacts of air pollution, smoking reduces life expectancy by an average of 1.8 years, unsafe sanitation and water takes off 1.2 years, and alcohol and drug use shortens life expectancy by one year.

Keep an Eye On

China’s manufacturing woes. Chinese manufacturing activity has contracted for the first time since April 2020, as export demand drops. The metric—the Caixin manufacturing purchasing managers’ index—fell to 49.2 in August, under the 50-line that determines expansion versus contraction. It wasn’t entirely a surprise: Officials have warned of weakened demand resulting from extreme flooding and increased pandemic restrictions.

North Korea’s looming catastrophe. North Korea has rejected almost 3 million Sinovac vaccines offered under the COVAX program, which is designed to help poorer countries secure vaccines. Pyongyang also declined a shipment of an estimated 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in July.

North Korea’s vaccine resistance could point to a looming catastrophe, as Pratik Jakhar wrote in Foreign Policy last month. Although North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country hasn’t experienced COVID-19 infections, his rhetoric comparing current hardships to the Korean War suggests otherwise.

Texas abortion ban. Early Wednesday morning, a Texas ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy took effect. The legislation, which is the nation’s strictest abortion law since Roe v. Wade, does not allow exceptions for rape or incest. Although reproductive rights groups urged the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law, the court did not immediately act.

The Supreme Court’s decision to let the law stand may open the door to similar laws being passed in other conservative states.

Odds and Ends

A fake Banksy non-fungible token (NFT) sold at auction for 244,000 pounds ($337,000), highlighting the dangers of trading digital assets. The piece, titled Great Redistribution of the Climate Change Disaster, was bought by a collector on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace, for a fraction of what Banksy pieces usually fetch at auction.

Banksy’s official website featured a page that has since been removed with a link to an auction site with a piece with the same name, lending further legitimacy to the elaborate hoax. The buyer said his money was returned, aside from the nearly $7,000 transaction fee. “I did not expect anything to be returned. It seems the hacker had more intentions than money,” the collector said.