In the previous part of “The Rise, Fall and the Resurgence of the Taliban” we had provided a short history of the Taliban in the region and analysed why the resurgence of the Taliban was inevitable. Subsequently we had also explained the various concerns and what could be the implications of US withdrawal are for domestic security in Afghanistan. In this part we will examine how Iran, Pakistan and Russia have reacted to the US withdrawal decision, with a special emphasis on the worrying rise of the new Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan). It will probe the role of China in this rising threat to regional security. Eventually we will also explore how the Taliban has soured peace in Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan); focusing on how these “stans” can act as bridges to regional security. We will then study the implications of this decision on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) by understanding the purpose of the SCO Contact Group. Finally, this article will scrutinize India’s role in this issue.
USA’s exit is a full-circle for Russia as the Soviets also had to withdraw from Afghanistan three decades ago, and Russia has since then acted as a peacemaker in the territory. This has included hosting the pioneering high-level Afghan peace council attended by regional powers and the Taliban in 2018, and an intra-Afghan dialogue in 2019 with Taliban representatives, Afghan politicians and the Afghan diaspora. Moscow, on March 18th, 2021, hosted a meeting between the USA, China and Pakistan, also attended by Taliban representatives that worked to “complement all other international efforts” including the USA’s parallel negotiations toward the Afghan peace process. The resolution of this meeting was the same as the one of the Doha talks, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov extending Russia’s support to make the negotiated peace settlement and the reduction of violence “sustainable and long-lasting’. Russia also committed itself to the US-Afghan agreement of 2021 as a permanent member of the Security Council. Russia has its own security concerns and geopolitical interests that make it a regional stakeholder intent on backing conditions of peace in Afghanistan. The instability, violence and extremist-radical ideology of the Taliban could spill-over into Central Asia and onwards toward the Caucasus into mainland Russia, which could threaten to destabilize Russia’s borders. The resurgence of the Taliban also exacerbates the increasing illegal drug-trafficking crisis plaguing Moscow, even as it still maintains its policy of non-intervention through military means, Russia’s principle is to deny the resurgent Taliban any scenario where it seeks the total seizure of power. This is also why Russia has engaged in a “more diversified and multi-level approach” to involve all regional stakeholders and expand its contacts beyond the traditional Northern Alliance Uzbeks and Tajiks to include the Pashtuns.
Iran shares its immediate borders with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, faces security threats from both, and its active diplomacy could play a critical role in the regional security implications with the withdrawal of the US troops. Iran approaches Afghanistan in a two-pronged manner: as a regional stakeholder and in the context of the conflictual US-Iran relations; both of which may be aided by Blinken’s proposal of a UN-led regional security system involving Iran (and other regional stakeholders) to formulate a blueprint for a future Afghanistan. The Shia-majority Iran has ideological differences with the Sunni Taliban. However, the USA’s intervention driving the military closer
to Iran’s border, as well as Trump’s aggressive “maximum pressure policy” applied to Iran, has caused Iran to find a common ground with Taliban on the matter of USA’s presence in the region, as it balances its bets between the Taliban and the probable Afghan government. Indeed, in recognition of this, the Taliban has also appointed a Shia Hazara shadow district chief, Mawlavi Mahdi. Maysam Behravesh views Iran’s blinkered perspective on foreign policy as unpopular and based on strategic hedging that will produce questionable gains and losses, and Colin P. Clarke and Ariane M Tabatabai hold that Iran is viewing this as an opening to exert influence in Afghanistan, as evidenced by the creation of the Fatemiyoun Brigade (Iran-backed Shiite group in Afghanistan consisting of Shia Hazaras fighting in Syria on behalf of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards). Iran’s approach to Afghanistan is also tempered in the international community by the fact that despite official denial, it has provided refuge to the Al-Qaeda over the years and has found common ground with the Al-Qaeda hierarchy with the objective of undermining the USA’s regional presence. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan coupled with the presence of the Al-Qaeda in Iran could spell doom for regional peace and security. To Timor Sharan and Andrew Watkins, Tehran is utilizing both soft and hard diplomacy in “coldly pragmatic, multifaceted and often seemingly contradictory” ways to free the region of American interventionism.
The Taliban were supported at one point by Pakistan’s ISI, and when the USA had invaded Afghanistan, several of the Taliban’s leaders had found safe havens and established the Taliban High Council in Quetta in Baluchistan. Pakistan also views the Taliban as an ally imparting “strategic depth” in its hostility with India, with Taliban’s victory dealing a blow to India’s friendly relationships with the Kerzai and Ghani governments. Analysts believe that Pakistan’s strategy of preferring an unstable but friendly Afghanistan to a stable but allied-to-India one is less pragmatic than Iran’s. It has also persuaded the Taliban to enter into a deal with the Trump administration. Thus, Pakistan has reasons to be vindicated by the USA’s withdrawal. However, at a time when Pakistan’s economy is struggling and it is surviving only on the IMF loan with strict conditionalities, it is concerned that if there is a civil war again, the chaos and the flow of refugees into Pakistan will overburden the national economy. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are factions in the Taliban that are hostile to Pakistan as well. Pakistan is also concerned about the increased illegal flow of drugs and cross-border terrorism due to the resurgence of the Taliban, and is worried that this would motivate Islamic terrorists and an insurgent Pakistani Taliban in its rural belt. In fact, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan amalgamating various Taliban militant groups under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud also threatened to overthrow the Pakistani State and unleash a terrorist campaign against the population, government and army. Pakistan’s assertions that it will prevent the Taliban from capturing Kabul and coming back into power, has not convinced the international community given its long history of supporting the Taliban regime, its expelled leaders, and militant groups rather than the elected governments. USA has not exerted significant economic sanctions or coercive diplomacy on Pakistan or provided with a clear set of expectations on how to deal with the Taliban, and thus it is unlikely that Pakistan will either wash its hands off the Taliban or change its strategy toward Afghanistan to which the Taliban are integral. Pakistan, however believes, that the right change in US policy would “outsource” regional security regarding the Taliban to Pakistan, which will also reward it with economic, strategic and political dividends as the regional hub for the main transit and trade routes to Central Asia. The Haqqani Network already holds sway in the Taliban’s elite and Pakistan has also managed to secure the Taliban’s assurances on connectivity and energy projects through Afghanistan, which would have consequences for regional security, regardless of whether the outcome is favoured by the USA. Indeed, the withdrawal of US forces provides Pakistan with the opportunity to reorient its international image by playing an important role in regional security cooperation and confidence-building, although it will have to work towards building trust with all Afghan ethnicities, not just those supported by the Taliban.
China is concerned that the instability and crisis in Afghanistan could impact its ambitious initiative of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and foment unrest in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region inhabited by the persecuted Uyghur minority; though as Pakistan’s ally, it also looks toward playing a more significant role in the region. It has sought to bolster its cooperation with the Central Asian countries on security and terrorism issues to counter the resurgence of the Taliban and the threat to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China will work with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to “crack down on terrorist forces, prevent transnational crime and create a safe Silk Road”, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement to the foreign ministers of these Central Asian States. It seeks to ensure that East Turkmenistan separatists do not grow contacts with the Taliban as the US withdraws. China also blames the USA’s decision of the “abrupt announcement of complete withdrawal of forces” as the reason behind the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan and the region, and intends to prevent the resurgence of the Taliban. China has maintained a longstanding and evolving engagement with Afghanistan comprised of assistance in military and counterterrorism efforts, COVID-19 relief, and offering connectivity institution-building alongside Iran and Central Asia through the BRI. It has urged the United Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to “play its due role” and “pay active attention” to evolving security threats in the region connected to Taliban’s resurgence. China has been interested in initiating communications with the Taliban since the violence in the Xinjiang Province began to precipitate in the 1990s, with contravening accounts surfacing. Some sources believed that the Uyghur militants brutally repressed by the Chinese government were receiving military training in Taliban camps in Afghanistan despite Mohammad Omar’s reassurances contrary to that. Others believe that Chinese companies and sources were also aiding the Taliban. Now, however, as reports of Uyghur repression have found significant attention in the global jihadist discourse, with the Al-Qaeda releasing a statement in April 2019 expressing solidarity with the Uyghurs and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), China is keen to ensure that the Uyghurs do not continue to access transnational support from Islamic extremist forces (especially as the Taliban have a continued relationship with the Al-Qaeda). China is also perturbed by the drug-smuggling into Chinese soil facilitated by the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), which would be worsened if security conditions in Afghanistan sour due to the rising Taliban. They are also afraid that a strong Taliban would contravene their energy investments in the Aynak copper mine and oil and natural gas sector in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also held a telephonic conversation with the Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar as well as his Pakistani counterpart, and has expanded China’s diplomacy efforts to offer to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, as well as constructing the necessary conditions for negotiation with China. It has also vowed to cooperate with the Afghan government to play an important role in the peace-building, reconciliation and conflict transformation process in the region.
Taliban and Central Asia
Scholars and journalists believe the resurgence of the Taliban is a visceral threat in Central Asia. The Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan is not paid adequate attention to by the Central Asian States, and there is no comprehensive and integrated economic plan to foster development in the region. The Ferghana Valley has population from different cultures and ethnicities who are undergoing a severe economic and unemployment crisis (with a 90% unemployment rate), making the region vulnerable to extreme instability and crisis. The growing appeal of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir-al-Islami (HT), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), deriving their ideological base from the Taliban and Saudi Arabia’s extremist Wahhabi doctrine, and trained by military madrasas in Pakistan – all comprise a grave threat to Central Asian regional security. When the USA had invaded Afghanistan and caused the military forces of the Taliban to flee as their financial, arms and drugs networks were destroyed; they relocated and reorganized themselves amidst the HT and the IMU in Central Asia. Their common slogan was one of anti-Americanism, in opposition to American bases at Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
They mobilized a host of public support toward their belief that the Americans were building dictatorial regimes and economically devastating Central Asia. The fact that after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, America provided the cooperating Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with military training and support was not enough to thwart the violent extremism in the volatile demography of these States. Without a proper action plan for economic reconstruction, these States became more repressive to Muslims domestically, providing a more fertile space for the Taliban to grow. In the recent years however, several Central Asian States, especially Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been working towards supporting the peace process in Afghanistan through a variety of economic assistance. Indeed, for Khalilzad and the USA, Central Asia is rapidly being viewed as the bridge to regional stability. In 2018, Uzbekistan (which is a top-10 trading partner of Afghanistan) conducted a meeting of 21 countries, the United Nations and the European Union to strengthen the Tashkent Conference’s peace process and reiterated its commitment to supporting unconditional intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban. Uzbekistan also supplies electricity to Afghanistan, and is increasing its supply to help reinforce Afghan employment and productive capacity. A major share (more than $80 million) of Kazakhstan’s foreign aid budget (KazAID) is utilized to fund humanitarian aid, gender equality and infrastructure development initiatives in Afghanistan. Its pioneering ‘Balashak’ education program in Kazakhstani universities has trained more than 1000 Afghan students. In 2018, it hosted a regional conference discussing the empowerment of women in Afghanistan. Indeed, Central Asia and Afghanistan are bound not only by historic ties of the Old Silk Road, but also by modern interrelationships today. Central Asian analysts agree that if the connectivity issues between Central Asia and South Asia are resolved, coupled with advancements in agriculture, technology and electricity; Afghanistan could be developed into the main hub connecting Central Asia with the huge South Asian market. The USA also believes that integrating Afghanistan into the US State Department’s C5+1 Initiative (US and the five Central Asian States) would build a blueprint for regional peace, stability and coordination. Though economic development is an essential incentive for peace, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev also stated post-Tashkent Conference that the vicious cycle of underdevelopment, insecurity, instability and violence must be broken by effectively instituting intra-Afghan dialogue and key principles of avoidance of violence, holistic ceasefire, preparedness for dialogue, and compromises on both sides. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar termed Central Asia as India’s “extended neighbourhood” and in the Joint Statement of the India-Central Asia Dialogue (28th October, 2020) all the Ministers “condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and reaffirmed the determination of their countries to combat this menace by destroying terrorist safe havens, networks, infrastructure and funding channels”. India also joined the Central Asian States to express its support for the Afghan peace process to counter the resurgence of the Taliban; announced an additional $1 billion Line of Credit to Central Asian States; and was praised for its investments in modernizing the Chabahar port in Iran which could connect Central and South Asia and bring peace and development to the region. The India Central Asia Business Council also formed working groups with all the key Chambers from the Central Asian States to better coordinate this development-grant financing.
Shanghai Cooperation Organization
At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) video-conference meeting in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, S. Jaishankar reiterated the need for collective SCO action to eradicate terrorism from the region. He was joined by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in reaffirming the need for coordinated mechanisms to mitigate the trade, economic and social consequences of the pandemic that had affected all the countries in the SCO. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that political stability and peace in Afghanistan after the USA’s withdrawal would only be possible if it considered the perspectives of the crisis-ridden neighbouring countries, adding that the critical challenge that the resurgence of the Taliban exerted on Afghanistan and the SCO could be alleviated by coordinated effort such as the Moscow Format or the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group.
This group consists of the Permanent Representatives of all SCO Member States to the SCO Secretariat (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, China), Secretariat officers, and senior diplomats of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to the People’s Republic of China, and is well-placed to coordinate the peace process as it consists of all the major regional stakeholders. Lavrov also emphasized that SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) needed to be strengthened and it needed to adapt a blueprint for action aided by the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, to better manage the new and evolving environment in Afghanistan. Lavrov stressed that peace in Afghanistan post-US withdrawal, and effective eradication of the resurgent Taliban, would only be possible if the interests and identities of the Afghan people and the neighbouring States are adequately considered.
The United Nations Security Council will have its quarterly debate on Afghanistan on June 15th, 2021, and the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expires on September 17th, 2021, with the mandate of the Monitoring Team assisting the Afghanistan Sanctions Committee also expiring on December 17th, 2021. Foreign guarantors of security in Afghanistan are gradually pulling out from the territory, with the Monitoring Team signaling concern that the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda still “remain closely aligned and show no indications of breaking ties”. To replace the exiting US troops, the Biden administration has initiated the induction of a regional security cooperation between Afghanistan, USA, Pakistan, India, Russia and China through the United Nations, although it is unclear what their specific roles are, and how they will work to prevent instabilities from plaguing Central Asia. This new model of cooperation must actively involve the Afghan government and public to construct a security structure that would repel the embedded social, tribal and cultural ties of the Taliban, and institute development aid measures directed by the specific needs and the active participation of the Afghan political authorities and common public.
Scrutinization of India’s role
India is apprehensive especially about the development and mushrooming of the Pakistani Taliban and the dangers it poses to security within Indian territory. Though the US State Secretary’s proposal recognized it as a regional stakeholder, the ISI-backed Haqqani group playing a significant role in the Taliban regime is a concern for India, as is the fear that the Lashqar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohamed have already begun to relocate its bases to Afghanistan. However, India has also been striving for years (alongside Russia) to provide humanitarian assistance, infrastructure development and capacity-building programs in Afghanistan, with the total monetary value of Indian assistance as the largest regional contributor exceeding $4 billion. In a momentous shift from New Delhi’s prevailing policy to not negotiate with terrorists, in 2021, India has opened lines of communications with Taliban’s leaders, including Mullah Baradar and others in the Taliban’s factions that are outside the influence of Pakistan and Iraq, and are “nationalist”; though differences do persist between them and the Indian authorities regarding the importance of democracy, women’s rights and minority rights. These communications would certainly not include the Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura, which India recognizes as proxies of Pakistan’s ISI. India’s goal is to build people-to-people relationships between Afghanistan and itself. It hopes that this strategy of combined soft and hard diplomacy will bear its fruit in the future and prevent another civil war and Taliban takeover of Kabul in the absence of a political settlement or an effective conflict transformation process.
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