Afghanistan’s neighbours react cautiously to Taliban takeover

Print edition : September 10, 2021

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. He has said the Taliban victory has restored the Afghan people’s self-respect. Photo: MOHAMMAD ISMAIL/REUTERS

Zamir Kabulov (left), Kremlin envoy on Afghanistan, with Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (second from left) and other members of a Taliban delegation in Moscow in May 2019. Kabulov, who has been interacting with the Taliban leadership for many years now, has said that the Taliban does not any more pose a threat to Russia’s Central Asian allies. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Afghan refugees gathered at the Iran-Afghanistan border between Afghanistan and the south-eastern Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan Province as they try to enter the Islamic republic following the takeover of their country by the Taliban. Handout picture made available by the Iranian Red Cresent on August 19. Photo: MOHAMMAD JAVADZADEH/AFP

India stands out in the region as Afghanistan’s only neighbour to steadfastly refuse to do business with the Taliban, the new rulers in Kabul.

The international community has reacted in different ways to the fall of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban after a gap of 20 years. Countries like China, Russia, Iran, Turkey and the Central Asian republics have all indicated that they are willing to do business as usual with the new government in Kabul. Pakistan, of course, welcomed the change in government in Kabul: Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the Taliban victory had once again restored the “self-respect” of the Afghan people. The governments in the West are still grappling with the reality of a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan and are in the process of framing a coherent diplomatic response.

In 1996, Pakistan was among the three countries that quickly gave recognition to the Taliban regime after the militia took over Kabul for the first time. The other two were Saudi Araba and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Today, the kingdom of Qatar is among the countries in the West Asian region that have the closest relations with the Taliban. It gave the Taliban diplomatic heft by hosting it in its capital Doha and facilitating talks with the United States.

According to reports, the UAE and the Saudis were also interested in hosting the Taliban office on their soil, but the Taliban leaders chose to set up their de facto embassy in Doha in order to distance themselves from their former mentors. Some senior Taliban leaders have been critical of the fundamentalist ‘Wahhabi’ ideology that the Saudis tried to spread in Afghanistan. While trying to initiate talks with the West in the last decade, the Taliban leadership has been stressing that it will not revert to the harsh rule that marked the group’s first stint in power.

Pakistan as patron

Pakistan remains the Taliban’s biggest patron. It provided refuge to its top leadership and cadres when the movement was under tremendous pressure from the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) led by the United States after the events of 9/11. But according to many analysts, Islamabad has lost much of its influence over the Taliban in the past decade. The Pakistani Taliban, which has its own agenda, has been targeting state institutions and launching large-scale suicide attacks against civilian targets inside Pakistan since the middle of the last decade.

The suicide attack on a Chinese technical team engaged in building a dam in Balochistan in July has been blamed on the Pakistani Taliban and fighters from the Uyghur terrorist group affiliated to the Al Qaeda. The Pakistani Taliban is committed to the overthrow of the Pakistani state and has safe havens along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The home-grown has launched spectacular suicide missions inside Pakistan and has caused a large number of civilian and military casualties.

All the same, Islamabad has reason to be happy with the Afghan Taliban’s ascendancy. There is a long-held view among strategic thinkers in Islamabad that a friendly government in Afghanistan provides “strategic depth” to the Pakistani military in case of an all-out conflict with India. The Pakistani military establishment views India as its only serious military threat.

Indian investments

As Afghanistan’s largest regional donor, India invested over $3 billion in the country in the last two decades to build roads, dams and hospitals. Afghan army officers and security personnel were trained in India. The Kabul government allowed India to set up four consulates strategically located in cities near Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. One of the first provinces that Taliban fighters overran in the first week of August on their way to Kabul was Nimruz near the border with Iran. Its capital Zaranj, which was also overrun, is an important commercial hub. India had built a 215-km-long road connecting it to Delaram on the Kabul-Kandahar highway. While construction work was under way, Indian engineers and workers faced regular attacks from the Taliban—six Indians and over 140 Afghans were killed in these attacks.

Zaranj is located near the Chabahar port in Iran, which is being developed by India. India had hoped to use the port mainly to transport goods from India to Afghanistan and the wider Central Asian region. With the Taliban in control, this avenue for bilateral trade will remain closed unless relations improve between Delhi and the new regime in Kabul.

As the Taliban forces rapidly made gains throughout Afghanistan, India withdrew its staff from its consulates in Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and Mazhar-e-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan. All the rest of Afghanistan’s neighbours kept their embassies open after the Taliban moved into the Afghan capital. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also recalled their diplomats and closed their embassies in Kabul. Most of the European countries politically aligned with the United States have also decided to pull out their personnel from Kabul. (President Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul the day the Taliban took the city, was granted permission to stay in Dubai after he surfaced in the Emirates.)

Eurasian countries are all worried about instability in Afghanistan, fearing that it would once again give a fillip to terrorism in the region, lead to a rise in narcotics smuggling, and increase the flow of refugees. But all of them have now developed a working relationship with the Taliban. India is the only outlier.

India chose to evacuate its diplomatic staff from Kabul with the help of the Americans who had taken charge of the Kabul international airport. This was in spite of the assurances given by the Taliban about their safety. But India had to request the Taliban to provide an escort as its ambassador and his entourage left for the airport. Many commentators are questioning India’s decision to close shop in Kabul at this critical juncture. India has made no efforts as yet to reach out to the Taliban, although after the fall of Kabul the Taliban leadership said that continued development assistance from New Delhi was welcome.

Instead, New Delhi has taken to lecturing the international community about the dangers that the Taliban still poses and urging it to adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards all forms of terrorism. Senior functionaries of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have said that the Taliban poses a grave national security threat to India. In Uttar Pradesh, sedition charges have been filed against a 92-year-old Samajwadi Party Member of Parliament for praising the Taliban’s military victory over the U.S. occupation forces. There are indications that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to make the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan an election issue to further polarise the Indian electorate. The Indian government’s decision to prioritise e-visas for Afghan Hindus and Sikhs has also sent a wrong signal to other Afghans desperately seeking to get out of the country.

Possible repercussions

Though unstated, India’s main concern about the dramatic resurgence of the Taliban is its possible repercussions on the situation in Kashmir. The victory of a ragtag militia over the world’s biggest power will no doubt enthuse radical Islamist groups worldwide. The last time the Taliban was in power in the late 1990s, groups like the Lashkar-i-Taiba and other Kashmiri militant groups were openly training in the country. The Al Qaeda has praised the Taliban victory, saying that it is a precursor to the overthrow of other “puppet” governments in the region.

This time, the Taliban is expected to be more discreet about its interactions with the Al Qaeda. Counter-terrorism experts say that the assertion by the former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last year that the Taliban had cut all ties with the Al Qaeda should not be taken seriously. The United Nations in a July report stated that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”.

Not the same Taliban

The Taliban is however at daggers drawn with the Islamic State (Daesh) and has fought pitched battles with the group in the country. It has assured Washington that it will not allow Afghan territory to be used for terrorist activity. Jean Pierre-Filiu, an expert on Islamic militancy, told the French media that the Taliban of 2021 is different from that of 2001. He said that “it’s not because they have moderated their religious obscurantism, but because they don’t want to make the same strategic error, which was their blind support for Al Qaeda which cost them power”.

At his first press conference in Kabul after the takeover, the Taliban’s long-time spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that though the group’s ideology remained the same, “there are many differences” on account of “experience, maturity and insight”. He assured the international media that there would be general amnesty for all Afghans; women would be assured of the right to work and education; the media would be allowed to function freely; and an inclusive government representing all ethnic groups and sects would be set up. After its return to Kabul, the Taliban for the first time sent a delegation to the Shia ceremony marking the beginning of Moharram. In its previous incarnation, the Taliban considered the Shias to be “heretics” and targeted the minority Hazara Shia community. The Taliban has also assured the international community that Afghan soil will not be used against the interests of other nations.

Although no country has formally recognised the Taliban government so far, it is now only a question of time before many governments in the region bite the bullet. The West is adopting “a wait and watch” position. Washington has frozen the Kabul government’s deposits worth around $9.4 billion held in banks of the U.S. The United Kingdom has also said it is considering financial sanctions “to put pressure” on the Taliban. Western commentators have opined that the biggest losers in the region after the Taliban’s victory are the U.S. The Indian government kept on urging the U.S. and NATO forces to stay on until the bitter end. The Modi government is still complaining that it was not kept in the loop about the timing of the U.S. military exit.

Russia and China

Russia and China have already sent positive signals to the Taliban leadership. Both Moscow and Beijing, however, insist that they will only recognise a Taliban regime after a tolerant, open and representative government is formed in Kabul. (About the role of the West in what happened in Kabul, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that this was a “group of countries” that “in a very painful and difficult way is giving up on positions in the world which they were used to for many decades”.) Pakistan, too, seems to be in favour of a more inclusive government. In the third week of August, Islamabad hosted the leaders of the former Northern Alliance.

Top Taliban officials visited all three countries assuring their governments that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. In the last week of July, when it became clear that it was only a matter of time before the Taliban returned to power, a high-level Taliban delegation visited China, where it received a red-carpet welcome. Mullah Ghani Baradar, the most likely candidate to head the Taliban government in Afghanistan, headed the delegation. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while describing the Taliban as a “pivotal military and political force”, also urged the Taliban leadership to “hold high the banner of peace talks”.

China at the time was urging the Taliban to not seek a military victory but negotiate to form an inclusive government. China has consistently argued for “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” solution to the conflict. Beijing has got a commitment from the Taliban that it will no longer allow Uyghur terrorists to use Afghan territory to stage attacks across the border in Xinjiang. China shares a short border with Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor. The Taliban has said that it wants to encourage more Chinese investments and has indicated that a Taliban-led government will join China’s ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing has already committed $3 billion to develop a copper mine in the country. According to reports, Beijing is planning to invest in the mining of rare earths like lithium in Afghanistan.

Taliban delegations have been visiting the capitals of all the neighbouring countries. Iran is worried about the flow of refugees and narcotics from Afghanistan and wants a stable regime to be established there at the earliest.

The previous Taliban government had a testy relationship with Tehran. In 1998, when Afghanistan was under Taliban rule, 11 Iranian diplomats were kidnapped from the Iranian consulate in Mazhar-i-Sharif and nine of them were killed. The Taliban had blamed “renegades” within the movement for the act. Iran moved its armed forces to Afghanistan’s borders, threatening war. But this time around, Iran has cautiously welcomed the return of the Taliban. President Ebrahim Raisi said that the “defeat” of the U.S. should be transformed into an opportunity “to revive life, security and lasting peace” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has announced that it will ban the production of opium and heroin. When it was in power the last time, it cracked down on poppy cultivation. U.N. agencies had praised the Taliban government for its efforts. But after 2001, opium production started hitting record highs, with both the Taliban and warlords close to the government profiting from the highly lucrative trade. The Taliban used the taxes it levied on opium producers and smugglers to bolster its fight against the Americans.

During the Taliban rule in the1990s, there were terror attacks emanating from Afghanistan against targets in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban delegations visiting these countries in recent months have given assurances that this time around they will keep a tight leash on militants from Central Asian republics. Some of these militants have been fighting in Afghanistan for more than three decades, first with the U.S.-supported Mujahidin and then alongside the Al Qaeda.

Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special representative to Kabul, has been interacting with the Taliban leadership for many years now. He has said that the Taliban does not anymore pose a threat to Russia’s Central Asian allies.

The Taliban leadership has said that today the best relationship it has is with “Russia, China and Pakistan”. Kabulov said that the Taliban leadership has reiterated that it has “no extraterritorial ambitions and that it has learnt its lessons from its experiences in the last three decades. Kabulov revealed that Moscow and the Taliban had been in a dialogue for the last seven years. All the other countries in the region had also established contacts with the Taliban, knowing that their comeback was inevitable once foreign forces left the country.

Only the Indian government steadfastly refused any meaningful conversations with the Taliban.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor