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Taliban 2.0 in Kabul: Challenges and Expectations within the Countries of the Region

2021 / 09 / 07

Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
 

So, after a 20-year pause, the Taliban is back in Kabul. It can be stated with confidence that the world is still in a state of serious shock by how fast the Taliban managed to defeat the Afghan army, expel the legitimate government and institute control over almost the entire territory of Afghanistan (the former Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, and the son of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, Ahmad Massoud, are still holding out in the Panjshir Valley, refusing to recognize the Taliban and bravely resisting much more numerous Taliban forces at the outskirts of the valley).

Among the most hotly and intensively discussed topics is, of course, the decision by the President of the United States, Joe Biden, to move the date of the removal of US military personnel from Afghanistan from September 11 to August 31 while the last stage of the evacuation of the army, US citizens and Afghan interpreters has been subject to heavy criticism both within the United States itself as well as outside of it. Chaos, panic and heavily emotional camera shots from the Kabul airport will continue to be circulated on the front pages of the world’s leading publications and social media; however, the terrorist act performed by the ISIS-Khorasan terrorist group that took the lives of 13 US soldiers while killing more than 200 people in total was the heaviest blow both for the current US administration as well as for the 20-year international security operation in Afghanistan as a whole.

The last stage of the removal of US forces from Afghanistan will definitely influence its relations with its partners and, especially, its domestic politics (over the years, the US had been reducing its presence in Afghanistan while it only had 2,500 troops there at the last stage of the 20-year). As already pointed out, the evacuation of thousands of US contractors and Afghan interpreters (together with their families), who had been working with the Americans and the coalition, in general, over two decades, turned out to be especially problematic. Tens of US citizens and thousands of Afghans remain in Afghanistan. However, Washington states that it has an agreement with the Taliban for these people to leave the country without hindrance.

All of that notwithstanding, the 20-year presence of the US, NATO and the democratic community, in general, in Afghanistan is now concluded with the Western embassies and consulates evacuated from Afghanistan and discussions now underway about how to continue relations with the new Taliban government of Afghanistan as the Taliban is, to this day, recognized as a terrorist organization. It seems that neither the US nor its Western partners are in a hurry to recognize the Taliban and, hence, they remain in observation mode. Politicians and diplomats of the highest authority are stating that they will be observing how the Taliban governs. They expect that the Taliban will protect internationally recognized basic human rights, not hinder Afghan women, not stop Afghan children from getting an education and facilitate the creation of an inclusive government in which women will be represented together with men. Blessed are those who believe! Especially when the Taliban’s initial decisions to exclude women from the government, re-introduce restrictions in schools for girls, make decisions according to the Sharia and ban music, among others, have already practically buried the hopes expressed by the officials mentioned above in their statements.

To begin with, however, the US froze USD 9 billion belonging to Afghanistan, which was placed in US banks, prohibited money transfers to Afghanistan and halted all financial assistance projects that had been operating up until now. About USD 1.5 billion annually was designated for Afghanistan’s security alone. Of course, the US will not be the only one to take such measures against the Taliban government. As a result, Afghanistan, which has the population of about 40 million people and was largely dependent on international support, will have serious financial problems. This will cause the share of revenues from the illegal drug trade in the Afghan economy to increase with the scale of trade with weaponry and human trafficking also being bolstered and, last but not the least, the armed groups within the Taliban will definitely start thinking about spreading their influence and strengthening their positions in the neighboring states.

Hence, however important the new threats coming from Afghanistan may be for the US and Europe, whether it is the arrival of the Taliban in power or the strengthening of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda operating in Afghanistan, it is the neighboring states that have the most thinking and work to do.

With regard to the neighbors, it must be pointed out that each one of them, some to a greater extent and others to a lesser extent, had been prepared for the arrival of the Taliban to power. When it comes to the return of the Taliban to power and new relations, the primary case for discussion is, of course, Pakistan which, beginning from 2001 when the war on terror began to the exile of the government from Kabul, was playing a double game with regard to the Taliban. Expert circles believe that the return of the Taliban to Kabul is no less of a victory for Pakistan than it is for the Taliban itself. Even though Pakistan was once considered the main US foothold and partner in its fight against the Taliban, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, it is still an open secret that the I.S.I. security service of Pakistan was actively working with the Taliban in parallel, supplying it with finances, manpower and providing shelter on the territory of Pakistan for gathering strength and healing wounds. Pakistan used to have and still has, especially now, close relations with the most influential leaders of the Taliban. The primary leader among them is Khalil Haqqani who is considered as the head of security of the Taliban government. He is, it can be stated, the protégé of Pakistan and its main foothold in the leadership of the Taliban. Haqqani often visited the offices of Pakistani special forces in various cities and had direct communications with high-ranking officials of Pakistan. The leader of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, went to negotiations in Qatar as well as to meetings with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, in China with a Pakistani passport.

The chilling of relations between Pakistan and the United States started when the Americans killed Osama Bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in Pakistan in 2011. The operation took place without prior arrangement and agreement with the Pakistani special forces and caused a severely negative reaction of the government of Pakistan. Despite the fact that the US continues cooperating with Pakistan on its nuclear program; more specifically, the US Department for Energy is assisting Pakistan in ensuring the safety of nuclear weapons and fissile materials, it is otherwise quite difficult to classify the currently existing relations between Pakistan and the US as a partnership or an alliance.

In terms of the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has its own interests. One of the main objectives for it is to weaken India’s presence in Afghanistan and stop it from acquiring influence. This is why when India, together with the Western states, decided to close down its embassy in Afghanistan, Pakistan celebrated this as yet another victory over its historical rival.

Pakistan also has an ambition to be an ally and mediator for the Taliban on the international arena. More specifically, its role could grow significantly in terms of building relations and cooperation between China and the Taliban which also determines its interest towards Afghanistan. Like others, China is also openly celebrating the US departure from Afghanistan, yet it does not plan to fill the vacuum left after this exit. Moreover, despite the fact that China responded to the Taliban’s arrival to power with positive signals, Beijing is also seriously considering the challenges associated with the victory of the Taliban. A primary challenge for China is, of course, Islamic radicalism on its own territory, specifically its spread to the autonomous region of Xinjiang. Extremist sentiments could be strengthened significantly in China’s regions settled by Muslims if the Taliban fails to control various armed and terrorist organizations on its territory. China also needs security guarantees in order to invest in Afghanistan, specifically in large infrastructural projects in terms of the One Belt, One Road initiative as well as getting involved in mining mineral resources in Afghanistan, most notably lithium. The Chinese still have bad memories of how the terrorists shot Chinese contractors in Afghanistan. Therefore, Pakistan, which claims to have, in its own words, as close of a relationship with China as the upper lip has with the lower one, can play an important role as well as benefit greatly.

The situation with regard to Iran is a more difficult one. Iran’s Shia government had a very serious confrontation with the Sunni Taliban movement not too long ago. The Iranians still remember the story of 11 Iranian diplomats and one journalist shot in Mazar-i-Sharif 26 years ago, almost bringing Iran to a state of war against the Taliban; however, the situation changed over the past couple of years. The government of Iran opened communication channels with the Taliban and significantly moderated its tone towards it. Moreover, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Javad Zarif, hosted a high-ranking delegation of the Taliban approximately one month before the fall of Kabul while the newly-elected President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, practically welcomed the Taliban’s victory and the exit of the United States from Afghanistan. The current leader of the external Al Quds unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Ismail Khan, also has close contacts with the Taliban. For years, he gathered ethnically Khazar Shia Muslim fighters in Afghanistan to fight in Syria. Due to this, the US and Afghanistan often accused Iran of cooperating with the Taliban.

Of course, all of this does not mean that Iran will immediately start developing a close cooperation with the Taliban and, as pointed out, Iran looks at it more with fear and distrust. Namely, Iran has a fear of intensified terrorism and trafficking from Afghanistan but very specific and pragmatic reasons also exist for normalizing relations with the Taliban. The thing is that given the maximum pressure of sanctions from the US towards Iran, the latter’s trade relations with Afghanistan became somewhat more important. It is sufficient to remind everyone that the trade of non-oil products between Iran and Afghanistan was USD 2 billion annually. The inflow of dollars from Afghanistan was also important, exceeding USD 5 million per month. And finally, Iran had serious plans of implementing transport infrastructure projects of regional importance which covered Afghanistan as well. Even a railway project was implemented between Iran and Afghanistan which was concluded not too long ago. The international isolation of the Taliban could create serious problems for the actualization of these interests. More specifically, the currency flows from Afghanistan to Iran will soon reduce significantly. The lack of hard currency will necessarily influence the growth of inflation in Afghanistan which, in turn, will affect the volume of purchased non-oil products from Iran. Also, the isolation of Taliban will mean that getting loans from international financial institutions for implementing transport infrastructure projects will be quite difficult. Hence, to summarize, Iran still looks at the arrival of the Taliban to power more carefully with some fear and distrust and, like other countries of the region, remains in a state of observation and waiting.

If the return of the Taliban to Kabul may be worrying for someone, these are primarily the Central Asian states. It must be pointed out that Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were also seriously preparing for the return of the Taliban to power. Much like the others, Tashkent and Ashkhabad had officially disseminated information about meeting and contacting the representatives of the Taliban. However, at the same time, they had been actively strengthening their security forces along the entire stretch of their borders with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan even put up barbed wire, running electricity through them and introduced mines to certain stretches of the border. Compared to Uzbekistan, it is much more difficult for Turkmenistan to control its border; however, this problem is the most acute for Tajikistan which has the longest stretch of border with Afghanistan among the Central Asian states. In general, the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, considers the Taliban to be the biggest challenge for its country’s security. To begin with, over 20% of the population of Afghanistan is ethnically Tajik. Apart from this, not counting Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is the weakest among the Central Asian states in terms of the economy as well as military capabilities. Therefore, Tajikistan has the most to worry about in terms of the growth of the flow of refugees, radical sentiments, increasing terrorist threats and expanding the trafficking of drugs. However, if the Taliban has changed, as members themselves claim, the situation in the Central Asian states has also changed over the past 20 years. Also, the strengthening of extremist sentiments in Afghanistan could also be used by Central Asian leaders to bolster their power, something which has happened before in these states. Apart from this, the factor of Russia is also important as it ensures serious support for Uzbekistan and, especially, Tajikistan both bilaterally as well as in terms of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). We must also not forget that at least at the initial stages, the Taliban will attempt to present itself as a partner with which cooperation is possible. Hence, it is not to be expected for it to reveal its true face at these initial stages and become more active in the neighboring states. 

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