How regional powers are preparing for the Taliban regime
Analysis: As the Taliban move towards establishing a governance framework in Afghanistan, regional powers will watch with concern.
On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was restored almost two decades after his overthrow in November 2001.
Although no country has recognized the Islamic Emirate as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s triumph has polarized the international community.
The United States, Britain and the European Union (EU) have refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban. Countries in Afghanistan’s regional neighborhood, such as China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, have left the door open to engagement with a Taliban regime.
India, on the other hand, has adopted an ambiguous policy of political change in Afghanistan, which contrasts subtly with its decades-long policy of viewing the Taliban as a totally illegitimate supporter of terrorism.
“The future of the Taliban’s interactions with its regional districts will ultimately depend on its conduct”
China has been particularly explicit about the flexibility of its Afghan policy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying vowed to deepen “friendly and cooperative” relations with the Taliban after their triumph in Kabul.
While the Chinese media has promoted anti-American rhetoric to accompany this position, Beijing’s adherence to the Taliban is not primarily driven by anti-Westernism.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s claims that China’s role in Afghanistan could be positive, and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s claims that China and Russia could moderate the Taliban underscore this point. Instead, China’s involvement in Afghanistan is driven by national security and geostrategic imperatives.
From a national security standpoint, China wants to ensure that the Taliban do not collaborate with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or promote extremism in Xinjiang. From a strategic point of view, two factors stand out.
First, China believes that cultivating positive relations with the Taliban will allow the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to enter Afghanistan and guard against Taliban-sponsored attacks on the China Economic Corridor. Pakistan (CPEC).
To achieve this goal, China regularly engages with the Taliban, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the Taliban as a “decisive military and political force” during a meeting with Mullah Baradar last month in Tianjin.
Second, China is keen to enter the Afghan mining sector and sees cordial relations with the Taliban as the easiest route to preferential contracts. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid refused to rule out giving China priority access to lucrative Afghan investments, saying “these issues will be discussed later, so it is too early to tell.”
“China has been particularly explicit about the flexibility of its Afghan policy”
China is particularly interested in Afghanistan’s reserves of rare earth metals, as control of those reserves gives it leverage over U.S. tech companies should the U.S.-China trade war escalate. Chinese company Metallurgical Group Corp has also secured a contract to develop the Mes Anyak copper mine, which will take effect if Beijing recognizes the Taliban’s legitimacy.
Russia is less likely than China to quickly forge a partnership with the new Afghan authorities, as it designated the Taliban as a terrorist organization in 2003 and wishes to address concerns among Central Asian countries about an overflow of terrorism.
Earlier this month, Russia hosted a series of military exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which included 2,500 troops and 500 military vehicles. Russia has also pledged to fund a new outpost on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, which is a particularly insecure area.
These exercises further strengthen Russia’s influence in Central Asia, which has faced potential competition from China and has been bogged down by the disappointing progress of the Eurasian Economic Union towards regional integration.
Russia also hopes that its active role in dealing with the Taliban’s threat to regional security will be appreciated by Western powers. Since the Taliban took Kabul, Moscow has underscored its commitment to regional security in consultations with France, the United States, Italy and Germany.
Nonetheless, Russian officials have signaled their intention to establish positive relations with the Taliban. Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitri Zhirnov praised the Taliban for improving the security situation in Kabul and said resistance to the Islamic Emirate was futile.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, hailed the Taliban as a more trustworthy partner than the Afghan government. These overtures reflect six years of regular diplomatic interactions, which began with Russia’s intelligence sharing with the Taliban against the Islamic State (IS) in 2015 and were reinforced by the Moscow-format negotiations.
“Russian officials signaled their intention to establish positive relations with the Taliban”
Iran appears poised to welcome the Taliban takeover and has celebrated the US withdrawal as a victory for the Afghan people. Iranian reformists have been much more critical of the re-creation of the Islamic Emirate and pressured President Ebrahim Raisi to accept more Afghan refugees.
The negative rise in tensions between Iran and the Taliban during the 1990s, which included the August 1998 assassination of 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist by the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif, continues to spark the ill will in Tehran.
While Raisi will endeavor to sidestep these internal disagreements, he will likely attempt to expand Iran’s diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan and potentially leverage its relations with Russia to enter the larger troika. Iran’s imminent membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could further amplify its role in managing the security fallout from the war in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s response to the Taliban takeover has been characterized by bubbling official rhetoric and behind-the-scenes alarm. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claims that Afghanistan has broken “the chains of slavery” and the praise of his special assistant Raoof Hasan for Afghanistan’s smooth transition from a “corrupt Afghan government” to Taliban have sparked controversy.
Pakistan also sees its participation in the enlarged troika meetings, which include the United States, Russia and China, as an opportunity to underline its indispensable nature in Afghanistan for the great powers.
However, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan carries considerable risks for Pakistan, and Islamabad is unlikely to emulate its full support for the Islamic Emirate from 1996 to 2001.
Beyond the risk of terrorism, the triumph of the Taliban has reduced the value of Pakistani bonds, which worsens the Pakistani debt crisis and discourages foreign investment.
“Pakistan’s response to the Taliban takeover has been marked by bubbling official rhetoric and behind-the-scenes alarm”
India viewed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a very pernicious development, as New Delhi had close ties to Ghani and views the Taliban as a proxy for Pakistan. Unlike Russia, which trusted the Taliban for the tutelage of its diplomats, India immediately took steps to evacuate its embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban’s shutdown of land trade between India and Afghanistan via Pakistan, which has been widely condemned in the Indian media. Still, there are signs that tensions between India and the Taliban may ease over time.
Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar stressed India’s ties to the Afghan people and remained ambiguous as to whether New Delhi will engage with the Taliban.
The Taliban, for their part, have described Kashmir as an internal bilateral problem and have insisted that they do not wish to be drawn into the Indo-Pakistani rivalry.
This rhetoric suggests that the Taliban might not try to escalate tensions with India in the short term, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi is chairing UN Security Council meetings on Afghanistan.
The future of the Taliban’s interactions with its regional neighborhoods will ultimately depend on its behavior.
“India viewed the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan as a very pernicious development, as New Delhi had close ties to Ghani and views the Taliban as a proxy for Pakistan.”
If the Taliban keep their promise to create an inclusive government in Afghanistan, regional powers led by China, Pakistan and Russia could officially or unofficially recognize its legitimacy.
If the Taliban attempt to consolidate their power through coercion and reestablish their links with transnational terrorist groups, they will suffer from acute international isolation.
As the Taliban move towards establishing a governance framework in Afghanistan, regional powers will watch with concern.
Samuel Ramani is professor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he obtained a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @ SamRamani2