The Taliban in the region – one year on

As the group looks to engage with the wider world, Afghanistan's neutral neighbours can play a key role

Taliban representative Mutiul Haq Nabi Kheel arrives for a meeting in Oslo in January. Reuters
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The Taliban lack many things – a functioning economy, healthcare system, internal consent and stability – but they do not lack countries willing to pay for them to climb aboard executive jets and be treated as a government abroad. Taliban leaders have been to Russia, China and Norway, as well as frequent trips to the Middle East, and to an international conference on Afghanistan in Tashkent at the end of last month, where they were treated as the de facto administration by representatives of more than 20 countries including the US.

Engagement will not necessarily lead to recognition. No country is willing to confer this without the Taliban moving towards a more inclusive government. But far from becoming more inclusive, the Taliban administration has less representation from Afghanistan’s many minorities than in the early months of its rule. All key members of the administration are Pashtun, the largest ethnic minority, and that does not look as if it will change any time soon. The most high-profile non-Pashtun military commander, Mehdi Mujahed, who is a Hazara, defected with his fighters this year, and his home district has recently faced brutal Taliban reprisals.

The Taliban know the two international demands that would make recognition more likely – a more broadly based representative government and the re-opening of girls’ schools – and they have turned their backs on both.

In this vacuum of legitimacy, the Taliban are increasingly falling into the embrace of regimes the West considers to be its rivals, according to Tamim Asey, who co-founded the Institute of War and Peace Studies in Kabul. “If you see statements from the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they're increasingly raising voices on positions aligned with China, Russia and Iran,” he said.

That’s what makes the engagement of other Central Asian powers, in particular Uzbekistan, so important, as a more neutral venue for wider international engagement with the Taliban than is possible in China and Russia. The Tashkent conference was only the latest move from a government keen to avoid a repeat the mistakes of the 1990s, when lack of engagement with Afghanistan during its civil war and the first Taliban administration led to an upsurge in extremist violence in Uzbekistan.

Taliban leader Abu Do Jana, centre, gets ready to compete in a buzkashi game at Qara Shabagh last October. AFP
Engagement with the Taliban will not necessarily lead to recognition of it

Uzbekistan walks a narrow tightrope of neutrality. Since breaking free of Moscow at the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it has twice been part of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that Russia put in place as an attempted replacement, but it resigned both times – the last in 2014. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is an enthusiastic member of China’s main initiative in the region, the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and hosts its counterterrorism committee.

His relations with the Taliban are complex. He wants the group to cut links with international terrorists, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has bases inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban’s promises look valueless after the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in downtown Kabul, in a house believed to have been under the control of the Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.

At the same time, Mr Mirziyoyev has the delicate problem that the Taliban want him to return Afghan air force planes, many of which ended up in his country as pilots fled for their lives, saving their planes from the Taliban last August. His landlocked country stands to benefit if he could unlock the huge potential of better connectivity, with road and rail links across Afghanistan, plans discussed with the Taliban at the Tashkent conference.

Both Uzbekistan and its eastern neighbour Tajikistan have strong links with large ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. Tajikistan has remained a member of the CSTO, and it hosts India’s only overseas airbase. It is now playing a more assertive role than Uzbekistan in providing a home for opposition to the Taliban, as it did in the late 1990s during the last Taliban administration, when Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, held a long narrow wedge of land in north-eastern Afghanistan, across the river from Tajikistan. His son Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the most active armed opposition group today, is based there, and Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan President since 1994, has told all other opposition groups that they are under Mr Massoud’s leadership.

The growing potential threat from these Tajikistan-based groups has led to strengthening of border defences on the Taliban side of the border, which runs along the Amu Darya river, here very narrow and easy to cross. Fawzia Koofi, who was member of the Afghan parliament for the border region until the fall of Kabul last August, asks “where are they finding the money to build military bases?” She is concerned that her former constituents are joining the new border force as they have no other job opportunities.

Ms Koofi was one of the government negotiators in the failed peace talks with the Taliban last year. She wants the international community to support a “government-in-exile” just as it housed the Taliban in Doha. “I am not a woman from the diaspora,” she said. “I am an Afghan woman who had to leave for a short period of time. I still have good contacts and am amplifying the voices of women in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban’s main regional backer, Pakistan, has been trying for 40 years to install a compliant government in Kabul, but is finding the reality complex. The Taliban still provide a haven to thousands of fighters from the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, a group fighting against Islamabad. And there have been border clashes between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani forces.

But for all the problems, Pakistan wields significant influence, particularly through its madrassa system, which informs the brand of Islamic thought now taking centre stage as the Taliban administration imposes its will. The analyst Andrew Watkins reported that when the Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada made a speech recently demanding a return to harsher punishment for offenders, including stoning and amputations, there was an upsurge of support on Taliban social media. Keeping girls’ schools closed and imposing harsh punishments are both valuable tools as the Taliban compete for recruits with other extremist groups.

Given these tighter restrictions, it is hard for the Taliban’s opponents to stay hopeful a year after the fall of the republic. “I was more hopeful last year,” said Ms Koofi. In the early days, it seemed that the Taliban would open girls’ schools and not be so strict. But now “we are further away from a political solution”. Conflict rather than dialogue now looks the likeliest way forward for Afghanistan.

Published: August 11, 2022, 5:05 AM