As West puts Taliban on hold, Kabul eyes future in China, Russia

The killing of al-Qaeda leader in Kabul will add to mistrust between the Taliban and the West, prolonging the group’s diplomatic isolation.

Taliban fighters celebrate the first anniversary of the fall of Kabul [Ali Khara/Reuters]

Monday marks a year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan after almost 20 years of US occupation.

But the Taliban rulers have much work left to do as they struggle to revive the country’s lifeless economy and address the dire humanitarian situation.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s international isolation has not helped its cause.

Despite repeated appeals and efforts by Taliban leaders, no country in the world has recognised the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), as the country is officially known under Taliban rule.

The West has demanded that the Taliban ease curbs on women’s rights and make the government more representative as a condition for recognition. The Taliban says the United States is violating the 2020 Doha Agreement by not recognising its government.

Last month’s killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike in Kabul has led to Western governments accusing the Taliban government of failing to live up to its commitments under the Doha Agreement, which required the Taliban to deny safe haven to al-Qaeda and other armed groups in Afghanistan in exchange for the US withdrawal.

Several deadly attacks attributed to the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K) have further raised concerns in the Western capitals about post-US Afghanistan’s security landscape.

Washington will find it hard to trust the Taliban in the wake of al-Zawahiri’s killing, with the West likely taking a hardened stance towards the Taliban government amid growing support for sanctions imposed on it.

The US’s dwindling trust in the Taliban could prove disastrous from a humanitarian standpoint as the negotiations held between the two sides in Doha, the Qatari capital, for the release of funds to Afghanistan have come to a screeching halt.

Nathan Sales, the former US ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism, said after al-Zawahiri’s killing that “the risk is substantial that money released to [the Taliban] would find their way inevitably and directly into al-Qaeda’s pockets”.

Although engagement between the West and Afghanistan is “likely to slow down” in the wake of al-Zawahiri’s killing, “so far it is unclear if this development will impact regional engagement with the Taliban’s de facto government”, said Ibraheem Bahiss, an analyst with the International Crisis Group focusing on Afghanistan, in an interview with Al Jazeera.

“Al-Qaeda is not a key consideration for many of the regional countries and it is possible they may continue their engagement despite this development.”

Non-Western countries’ approach

It is important to examine how non-Western countries approach the Taliban government. Several of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China, Pakistan, and Iran, have accepted Taliban diplomats, along with Malaysia, Qatar (which hosts the Taliban office in Doha), Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkmenistan. In fact, Ashgabat, Beijing, Islamabad, and Moscow have even formally accredited Taliban-appointed diplomats, underscoring how the Taliban’s international isolation is relative.

Given how China, Russia, and Iran see ISIS-K as a far graver threat than al-Qaeda, these countries will “have at least some sympathy” for the IEA “as long as the Taliban continues to fight against [ISIS-K]”, Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute of Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera.

“Hostility to [ISIS-K] helps explain why Russia and China reached out to the Taliban in the years before their victory [in August 2021]. However, these links stop well short of the kind of financial support that the Taliban urgently needs. Russia does not have it to give, and China has always been extremely cautious about this kind of handout,” Lieven said.

Although Tehran has carefully engaged the rulers in Kabul, the exclusion of the Hazara Shia minority from governance has not impressed Iran, which has also experienced border clashes and disputes over water rights with the Taliban since August 2021.

Pakistan, a long-term Taliban ally which was one of only three governments to recognise the Taliban government in the 1990s, has also had major problems with post-occupation Afghanistan. Taliban rule has emboldened Pakistan Taliban, known by the acronym TTP, in its attacks against Islamabad, which has responded by carrying out cross-border air attacks.

For China’s government, a primary concern pertains to questions about how the Taliban will deal with armed Uighur groups which have a history of being based in Afghanistan in the 1990s.

China worries that the Taliban might give such organisations the freedom to operate against China. Beijing has offered the Taliban economic and development support on the condition that Afghanistan cooperates with China vis-à-vis such armed factions and avoids targeting Chinese interests, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative – a global infrastructure project funded by Beijing.

“While Moscow and Beijing do have more contacts with the Taliban than do Western countries, they are nevertheless also weary of the leaders in Kabul,” Claude Rakisits, an honorary associate professor in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera.

“The confirmation that the Taliban was protecting the al-Qaeda leader, will further strengthen these sentiments.

“Accordingly, despite the Taliban’s promises that they would not allow their territory to be used by non-state actors to attack other countries, the Russian and Chinese leaders would be worried that, indeed, the Taliban would do nothing to prevent various non-state actors, such as the Uighurs’ [East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM] and other central Asian militant groups from launching terrorist attacks into China and Central Asian countries – Russia’s soft strategic underbelly,” Rakisits said.

Human rights

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last year, it has taken draconian actions that lead observers to see its approach to women and minorities being as extreme as it was during its first stint in power during 1996-2001.

Such human rights violations drastically decrease the chances of any Western government recognising the Taliban or easing sanctions. Yet the Taliban believes that time is on its side and that the West and the rest of the international community will eventually come to terms with its rule irrespective of its governance.

“The Taliban are principally about the Taliban rights, not human rights, and they generally perceive the concept of ‘rights’ as less about being equitable and more about redemption,” Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera. “And so, they frankly are unconcerned about the world community and believe the world will eventually bow.”

Moreover, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours and other countries throughout the region are far less likely to make decisions about how to engage the Taliban based on human rights-related issues.

“Many of the neighbouring countries and regional powers appear to be continuing their engagement and in some rare cases, even offering cover for the Taliban’s actions by framing these matters as Afghanistan’s sovereign prerogative,” Bahiss, the analyst from the International Crisis Group said.

Emerging anti-hegemonic axis

As great power competition intensifies while East-West bifurcation increases in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia war, Afghanistan could become more important to China and Russia’s strategies for challenging the US.

Moscow and Beijing seem to have embraced a mostly wait-and-see approach to the Taliban government for now, before they embrace Kabul.

But if the Taliban rulers successfully convince Moscow and Beijing of their commitment to fighting ISIS-K and denying ETIM a haven in Afghanistan, these capitals could help the Taliban circumvent Western sanctions.

For example, Chinese companies investing in Afghanistan could decrease the harm caused by the West’s financial warfare, which in turn would benefit China in terms of its ability to access the war-torn country’s prized rare-earth mineral reserves, copper, lithium, iron ore, and other natural resources.

As China, Russia, and Iran grow increasingly cooperative in their efforts to challenge US hegemony, these powers might come around to viewing the Taliban as a partner through which they can expand their influence in Greater Central Asia.

Within this emerging anti-hegemonic axis, China is probably the power that can do the most for the Taliban as it continues grappling with major domestic, regional, and global challenges. Although foreign companies are unlikely to quickly reap rewards in Afghanistan given the extent to which the country lacks stability, Chinese firms are known for their patience and long-term vision.

“Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors – Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States,” wrote Zhou Bo, an expert on global security who previously served as a senior colonel in China’s People’s Liberation Army, five days after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year.

“Now China enters – armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken.”

Source: Al Jazeera