Kabul at crossroads
WHEN the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, they were international pariahs, recognised only by two oil rich Muslim countries—Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates— and a poor Pakistan.
But after the September 11 attacks in 2001, orchestrated by al-Qaeda from Afghanistan even these three had turned against them. But today, it is a different story. Almost unrecognisable.
Not only have the Taliban leadership been negotiating a peace deal with the world’s sole super power, the Americans in Doha, Qatar since 2018 like some highly sophisticated and worldly wise experienced negotiators to end the 20-year long war but actually won a highly favourable deal in February 2020.
Not only that. Today they are being wooed by the two global challengers of American global hegemony, Russia and China plus Iran and poor Pakistan is already in tow. However, for the time being even these countries, seem extremely wary of ‘victorious’ Taliban.
And on the face of it, as if twenty years on, the Taliban seem intent on ensuring that their second regime will be on a sounder diplomatic footing.
Having largely avoided bloodshed in their takeover of Kabul, they are presenting themselves as a moderate, stabilizing force.
China and Russia have kept their embassies in Kabul open, and indicated they are ready to deal with the new regime.
On August 17th the Russian ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, was the first foreign official to sit down with Taliban leaders in Kabul. The Russian government has long had contacts with the Taliban. In July Russia played host in Moscow to a Taliban delegation.
That same month a Taliban delegation, led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the group’s de facto leader, was also in Beijing, where it was accorded a well-publicised meeting with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi. Iran, too, has maintained a diplomatic presence both in Kabul and in Herat, close to its border.
Its long-standing hostility to the Taliban has moderated in recent years, with its leaders holding meetings with them.
Pakistan has for decades balanced its close ties with America with support for the Taliban. Osama bin Laden went into hiding in Pakistan after he was forced to flee Taliban protection.
And the group’s leading council is still known as the “Quetta shura”. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has said he “views positively” the messages the Taliban have been sending, and that Turkey is in dialogue with all sides.
Even India, which has opposed the Taliban as strongly as Pakistan has backed them, is reported to have opened discreet talks with the group.
All of this suggests that it will be hard for America and its allies to prevent Taliban from achieving diplomatic recognition.
In a conversation with President Joe Biden on 17 Aug, Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, agreed to convene next week a virtual summit of G7 group of rich countries (which Britain currently chairs) to discuss how to approach the new order.
He has argued against “anybody bilaterally recognising Taliban”. That, however, may be hard to stop.
But America and its allies still have ways to exert influence. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Biden administration, besides stopping shipments of cash that it had been sending to the ousted government, is also blocking the Taliban’s access to Afghan government accounts managed by the Federal Reserve and other banks, and is trying to prevent them gaining access to foreign-exchange reserves held at the International Monetary Fund.
The Taliban, meanwhile, insist they will soon announce what they call an “inclusive Islamic” government.
If the Taliban keep that promise, and the government they unveil includes a variety of allegiances and ethnicities, it will make it hard to withhold recognition, especially if it includes women.
It is not surprising that America failed to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Nation-building is difficult, and few imagined that it could become Switzerland. Nor was it unreasonable for Joe Biden to hasten the withdrawal.
The Taliban ‘victory’ against world’s sole super power is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere, who will take the Taliban’s victory as evidence that God is on their side.
The chaotic withdrawal does not, however, reduce the obligation of America and its allies to ordinary Afghans, but increases it. They should use what leverage they still have to urge moderation on the Taliban, especially in their treatment of women.
It appears that at the regional level there will be normal relations with the Taliban very soon. China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states have long since come to terms with the Taliban.
The Taliban have built good bridges with these actors in recent years. Most Muslim-majority states are likely to readily recognize the Taliban.
Poorer people and the rural population in particular are expected to be glad that Afghanistan – if that is what happens – will have some peace and quiet that a certain degree of security will be guaranteed, even if it is by the Taliban.
Many will be relieved not to have to be constantly afraid of bomb attacks and military operations. Although the Taliban was a regime of terror, many people remember it as having been safe.
On the other hand, of course, many people are tremendously afraid of the regime. The female population, by and large, feels insecure.
They don’t know what will happen to them, whether they will be allowed to go to school, university, or work.
Therefore, one cannot give the regime a free pass for the time being. In regions that have been controlled by the Taliban for a long time, puritanical conditions prevail again in some cases.
Often, these are rural areas that one doesn’t see much of. Revenge actions have already taken place there, although the Taliban claim in their press conferences that there is an amnesty for all except known war criminals and warlords.
A more important actor in Afghanistan is the IS. It has carried out devastating attacks in recent months and years.
The IS and the Taliban are fighting each other. This has ideological and political reasons, but of course it is essentially about power.
The way the Biden administration is acting at the moment, the “War on Terror” seems to be over; they want to focus more on China and Russia.
But if the IS in Afghanistan becomes a serious threat to the West, one cannot rule out far-fetched possibility of the US and Europe working together with the Taliban to fight it.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.