Connecting Regions of Asia.

The Afghanistan Outlook


Following a fortnight of targetted conciliatory statements issued by Taliban spokespersons Zabihullah Mujahid and Suhail Shaheen on mainstream English-language Indian TV channels, the Taliban’s head of political office in Doha, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai in an audio-visual Facebook post in Pashto spoke about the end of the war in Afghanistan and plans for forming an Islamic Emirate based on Shariah. Here is his message:

He also spoke about relations with key countries in the region, including China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. “India is very important for this subcontinent. We want to continue our cultural, economic and trade ties with India like in the past… Trade with India through Pakistan is very important for us. With India, trade through air corridors will also remain open.” Interestingly, Stanekzai did not say anything about Afghanistan’s support for or participation in the  International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project, which brings together India, Iran, Russia and recently Uzbekistan. Perhaps Akhunzada will bring up the INSTC project whenever he broadcasts his detailed views on the future of Afghanistan-Iran ties.

India’s Imperatives

Unfortunately, for most New Delhi-based commentators (especially former Indian diplomats and retired senior military officers), the Taliban’s ascendancy in Kabul continues to be seen through the lens of the India-Pakistan conflict and India’s friction with China, making the fall of the India-friendly Ashraf Ghani government a significant challenge to India’s national security imperatives. Many of them in New Delhi are describing the US military withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban takeover of Kabul as a triumph of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. India chaired the special session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier last week and pushed for a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of all hostilities in Afghanistan and the establishment of a new government that is united, inclusive and representative. Before the Taliban takeover, there was discussion in New Delhi about possible full-spectrum engagement with the Taliban at Doha, while maintaining support for the Ashraf Ghani government. However, with the fall of Kabul on August 15, India is now primarily concerned about regional fallout. India’s principal concerns regarding the Taliban revolved around the future of the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, whether the group ceases violence and how it manages its links with trans-national terrorist groups that threaten India. It is my considered assessment that India evacuated all her diplomatic personnel and Indian nationals (based in Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Jalalabad) by special military flights from Kabul rather prematurely. While it is acceptable that India withdrew the bulk of its diplomatic staff and citizens, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) should have left the door half-open by maintaining a Charge d’Affaires there along a skeletal support staff at the Embassy, since India as an all-inclusive democracy is rightly to be expected to place a premium on enduring people-to-people ties. India has also offered special emergency visas for Afghan nationals, with the priority of Hindu and Sikh Afghans. India has also offered to allow Afghan citizens to stay in India as refugees while being processed for resettlement to third countries.

Another widespread falsehood is that India has not maintained any communications channel with the Taliban. It may be recalled that the former Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef was granted a visa by the Govt of India to attend the the TEHELKA Group-organised annual THiNK festival in Goa November 2013 in Goa:

And here is Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef again spelling out the Taliban’s perception of India last week:

Needless to say, the Doha-based Zaeef has been used by India as an unofficial interlocutor since 2013. Looking to the future, India’s expectations from Afghanistan are likely to be similar to those of Russia, i.e. both want the Emirate of Afghanistan to adopt, at the very least, MINIMALLY CIVILISED attitudes and governance norms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described the recent events in Afghanistan as constituting “the revenge of history” over “modernity and globalism.” After all, both India and Russia have full diplomatic ties with countries like Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and the People’s Republic of China—countries that are not exactly ‘model’ states as far as the human rights records go. However, both India and Russia will not establish formal diplomatic ties with Kabul until the 135 members of the Taliban gouping are removed from the UN Sanctions List. Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and many other similar groups, the Taliban is not specifically listed on any UN sanctions list, but it remains sanctioned nonetheless. In 2011 the sanctions regime established in UNSCR-1267 was split up to create separate tracks for the Taliban (UNSCR-1988) and Al Qaeda (UNSCR-1989) in part to provide momentum to the Afghan-led peace process by creating incentives for the Taliban to improve its behaviour. This split, however, has created some of the confusion. The original criteria for listing Al Qaeda were for supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and it strains credulity to think that the UN Security Council had not intended to impose sanctions on the Taliban itself via UNSCR-1267, given that the asset freeze language is clear. Therefore, statements from the Security Council and key member-states support the existence of the broader assets-freeze on the Taliban.

Pakistan’s Conundrum

As far as Pakistan goes, on August 16, Pakistan’s National Security Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi, reiterated Islamabad’s commitment to an inclusive political settlement representing all Afghan ethnic groups as the way forward. The Pakistani Foreign Office’s official statement also lauded the fact that the Taliban had averted major bloodshed and violence in Afghanistan, and it called on all parties in Afghanistan to respect the rule of law, protect fundamental human rights and ensure that Afghan soil is not used by any terrorist grouping against any country. Pakistan has not yet officially recognised the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan and has largely evacuated its diplomatic personnel. In contrast to the careful official statements, there is a sense of triumphalism within Pakistan that its policy of hedging and supporting the Taliban has paid off. Through the lens of its rivalry with India, the Taliban victory is seen as the defeat of a pro-India Afghan government. Also, many right-wing Pakistani politicians are painting the Taliban ascendancy as a pan-Islamist victory over the superpower United States, a theme that plays well to right-of-centre domestic politics. In recent remarks, PM Niazi said that the Afghans are breaking “the shackles of slavery,” referring to Western cultural imposition and democratic values on Afghanistan. His comments have been controversial and seen as a tacit approval of the Taliban’s preference for an Emirate that does not tolerate any form of elections and democratic processes, but Pakistan insists that his statements were taken out of context. Within the Pakistani intelligentsia, there are pragmatic voices worried about the future security implications. There is significant worry about the extremist religiosity’s spillover into Pakistan, especially amid the re-emergence of the TTP and the emboldening of other violent sectarian groups. With Pakistani leverage over the Taliban evolving, Pakistan continues to push for a political settlement that allows for Taliban legitimacy but includes other Afghan groups like the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Early last week, a group of non-Pashtun former Northern Alliance Afghan Tajik politicians met with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad to discuss the possibilities of engaging with the Taliban to form a new “inclusive” government. Worried about a spillover from the fighting, Pakistan had shut its side of the border prior to the Taliban’s takeover. But after a brief closure, it was re-opened for trade and restricted pedestrian movement.

Despite all this, it has always been and continues to be Afghanistan that constitutes the principal existential threat to Pakistan. After all, Afghanistan was the only country that had formally opposed the creation of Pakistan at the UN. And this was due to the geopolitical cartography drawn by the then British Colonial administrator led by Sir Henry Mortimer Durand in 1893 through a pact with the then Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman, covering a vast stretch of terrains both rugged as well as plains (though strategically significant) of over around 1,519 miles. One of the major legal implications of the Durand line Agreement of 1893 is that the delimitation of territories which created a de facto frontier (not boundary) between Afghanistan and India. As part of the Agreement, the Amir retained his position in the Wakhan Corridor, thus separating the Tzarist Russian and British troops. At the same time, he also ensured his control over the “Asmar district and the Wazir district of Birmal”. On the other hand, the Amir as part of the Treaty had agreed to transfer Pashtun-dominated regions like “Chitral, Swat, New Chaman, Khabiar Pass, Chagai, North Waziristan”, etc. The Treaty was not ratified by any legislative bodies of either sides, and hence it is legally untenable. The Durand Line and the boundary (administrative border) between the Tribal Agencies and Settled Districts of the North-West Frontier Province (now Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province) were simply delineating zones of influence and responsibility. Thus, it can be stated that it was not a legally-binding demarcated and delineated international boundary (IB) at all, but was rather a de-facto arrangement keeping the geopolitical developments in mind at that point of time. In 1921 Afghanistan and British Colonial administration signed another agreement that provided a three-year term for the Treaty and “revocation” of the Treaty if “both the parties agree”. In addition, legal luminaries and scholars have stated that the British colonial administration “signed the treaty using duress” in 1893, hence any law which was signed “under duress is invalid” in the domain of International Law.

Up until 2017, Pakistan tried in vain to legalise the status of the Durand Line by making it a legally-binding IB by requesting the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, to issue a statement to this effect. But the Taliban rebuffed Islamabad and instead told Pakistan to settle this issue with the Ashraf Ghani government. Kabul too refused to acknowledge the legality of the Durand Line and only after this did the Pakistan Army begin to fence the 2,611km-long (1,622-mile) Durand Line. The physical barrier between the two countries comprises two sets of chain-link fences separated by a 2-metre (6.5-feet) space that has been filled with concertina wire-coils. The double-fence is about 4 metres (13-feet) high. The Pakistan Army has installed surveillance cameras to check any movement along the fence.

In a further blow to Pakistan, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has stated that Kabul will not hand over TTP and Baloch separatists residing within Afghanistan to Islamabad and will instead encourage reconciliation negotiations between Pakistan and its separatist groups.

Iran’s Leverage

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s top concerns include stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, containing narcotics trafficking, maintaining cross-border trade, mitigating the threat from the Islamic State Wilayat Khorasan (IS-WK) branch, sharing water resources and ensuring the safety of Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority. To deal with the influx of Afghan refugees, Iran has set up temporary camps in three border provinces—Razavi Khorasan, South Khorasan, and Sistan-Balochistan. As of 2020, Iran already hosted some 950,000 documented Afghan refugees and at least 2 million more undocumented Afghans. Iran had already taken precautions on the ground. Earlier this month, Teheran reduced staff at its Embassy in Kabul and evacuated staff from three out of four of its Consulates to the capital. Only guards and local workers remained in Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif. Diplomats remained in the Herat Consulate after the Taliban took control of the western city, but are safe. However, Teheran has enough reasons to feel confident about the cards that it holds, i.e. with each passing day, as Afghanistan’s stockpiles of perishable commodities and foodgrains gets reduced to dangerous levels and Kabul’s purchasing powers get greatly diminished, the Taliban will will have no other choice but to ask for humanitarian assistance from any and all quarters, especially through Iran’s Chabahar-based FTIZ. Consequently, India can confidently expect such a request to emanate from Kabul anytime now and India is likely to reciprocate by sending emergency shipments of foodgrains to a grateful Kabul.

The CARs’ Collective Stance

The Central Asian Republics of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan lived with the Taliban in the 1990s and will adjust to living with them again. Leaders of these four countries had no particular interest in maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan and no motivation for supporting the weak, fragmented and corrupt government in Kabul. An Afghanistan engulfed in civil war would pose serious security and economic challenges to Central Asia. A descent into chaos could return Afghanistan to a hub for Jihadist and criminal groupings that would greatly destabilise the entire region and impede any progress on South-Central Asia economic connectivity, trade and transit. The Taliban, on the other hand, are trying to position themselves to be a centralised and strong government in Afghanistan—something that the Central Asian, Russian and Iranian leaders are very familiar with. As long as the Taliban are willing and able to fight the IS-WK group and eliminate or contain other transnational violent extremist groups such as Al Qaida and the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; secure their borders; and provide for safe passage of goods and trade between Central and South Asia, the Central Asian Republics are likely to adjust to working with them again, of course after Russia’s approval. The Taliban has even promised to eliminate the narcotics trade. The frontline Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have all reacted with a demonstrative flexing of military muscle by shoring up border security. Afghan Army special operations forces and Afghan Air Force pilots have fled in large numbers to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as have several bureaucrats dealing with internal security, national defence and civilian provincial governors. Tajikistan has already accepted Afghan refugees and has also requested support from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in anticipation of more refugee flows across the IB. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, have been very cautious in opening up their IBs for refugees, with the Uzbek authorities even turning back Afghan Army personnel who had escaped to Uzbekistan after their bases were overrun by Taliban combatants earlier this month.

China’s Predictable Mercantile Attitude

On the heels of the Taliban takeover, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China desired a “soft landing” for Afghanistan. What did Beijing’s top diplomat mean? Wang’s words highlight China’s paramount priority for Afghanistan: stability above all else. What Beijing fears most is a period of uncertainty during which the country devolves into protracted chaos marked by widespread violence, a humanitarian catastrophe of epic scale and an Afghanistan that is once again an epicenter and exporter of transnational terrorism. While never comfortable with the US military presence in Afghanistan—which via the Wakhan Corridor abuts China’s westernmost and sensitive frontier province of Xinjiang—Beijing had privately hoped that Washington DC’s efforts would bring lasting stability to the troubled country. However, today, Beijing’s leaders view the abrupt US exit from Afghanistan with mixed emotions. Beijing’s Communist totalitarian rulers are pragmatists and have long been agnostic about who governs Afghanistan as long as China’s vital interests are safeguarded. Today, these vital interests boil down to a smooth transition to a new national-unity government that can maintain stability and domestic order. Over the years Beijing has shrewdly continued to engage diplomatically with the Taliban, most recently welcoming a high-level delegation to Tianjin last July. Beijing is actively pursuing an accommodation with the new authorities in Kabul as it seeks assurances that a Taliban administration will neither foment trouble in Xinjiang nor disrupt China’s Belt & Road Initiative-related economic endeavours in Afghanistan.

Courtesy –

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