Will Afghanistan’s powerful neighbours engage the Taliban?

Pakistan, China, and Iran are yet to recognise the Taliban government, but they all have an interest in doing so.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in Tianjin, China on July 28, 2021 [File: Li Ran/Xinhua via Reuters]

The withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan is inevitably leaving a political vacuum in South and Central Asia. The question that many are asking is who will step in to fill it. Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours – Pakistan, Iran and China – all have special interests in the country that they are likely to pursue with renewed vigour.

None is likely to play the same significant role the US did in shaping the future of the country but all three want to see a stable government in Kabul and security established across the country in view of their own national security interests.

The Taliban, for its part, is looking to establish positive relations with its neighbours to earn international legitimacy and attract investment for much needed economic development. So what does this mean for relations with Pakistan, China and Iran?

Pakistan

Pakistan, which shares a 2,670km-long (1,659-mile) border with Afghanistan, has suffered a lot during the past four decades of turmoil. It has had to pay a heavy price for acting as a launching pad for Washington’s and its allies’ “Afghan jihad” on the USSR after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent “war on terror” only worsened the security situation in Pakistan.

The instability has enabled armed groups along the Pakistan-Afghan border to flourish. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban) and Baloch insurgents have been attacking targets in Pakistan for years, killing more than 83,000 and inflicted billions of dollars worth of losses on the Pakistani economy. Islamabad has often alleged that violent attacks on Pakistan have been planned and executed from Afghan soil with the active support of Indian intelligence. At the same time, Pakistani security agencies have been accused of backing the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqani network.

In this context, the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the withdrawal of US forces were perceived as a positive development by policy and military circles in Islamabad. Their attitude has been: “We are happy because with the Taliban in power, our western borders will be secured as archrival India will be out of the game.”

This optimism about a friendly government in Kabul is also strengthened by the fact that the Taliban never retaliated with violence for Pakistan providing support for the US-led military operation which dislodged them from power in 2001 or for handing over some of its members to western forces. Some have even speculated about a prominent role that Islamabad may play in Kabul, specifically after news of a September 4 visit to the Afghan capital by Pakistani intelligence chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed emerged.

In the international arena, Islamabad has also been actively campaigning for international engagement with the Taliban. In his video messages to the UN General Assembly aired on September 24, Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the world community to support the Taliban government and help the country with much-needed humanitarian aid.

However, Pakistan may not enjoy an unrivalled authority over the Taliban, as some have speculated. Well-placed sources divulged to the author that during an August 16 National Security Council meeting in Islamabad, the military commanders clarified to the parliamentarians that the Taliban may not listen to Pakistan, as it used to in the past. That is why, Islamabad is also cautious and not going for a solo flight to quickly recognise the Taliban government, as it did in the 1990s.

Although it still has not formally recognised the government in Kabul, Pakistan has high hopes for engagement with it on the economic front. During former President Ashraf Ghani’s time in office, the flow of imported goods through Pakistani ports to landlocked Afghanistan dropped by 80 percent, as Kabul started favouring Iranian ports, funded by India. Bilateral trade also declined from $2.8bn in 2011 to $1.8bn. Islamabad would like to see the use of Pakistani ports for Afghan imports restored and bilateral trade boosted.

Pakistan also hopes that increased security under the Taliban would allow it to intensify its trade with Central Asia, where there is potential for significant growth. It is eyeing the completion of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to the three South Asian nations. The construction of the pipeline stalled in recent years, as the Afghan government was unable to provide security for the project works on Afghan territory.

Moving forward, Pakistan can expect a friendly government in Kabul only if it develops a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the Afghans.

China

The April announcement of US troops withdrawal from Afghanistan increased concern in China about border security in the Wakhan Corridor, where it shares a 92km (57 miles) border strip with Afghanistan, but also encouraged the Chinese government to approach the Taliban leadership for preliminary talks.

Beijing fears a chaotic Afghanistan may cause a spillover of violence to Xinjiang province and hurt its strategic regional investment in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Taliban takeover has opened a strategic door for China into Afghanistan that could turn out to be laden with risks.

On July 28, Mullah Ghani Baradar and a nine-member Taliban delegation met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, which resulted in the Taliban giving assurances that it will not allow Afghan soil to be used for attacks against China in exchange for Chinese economic support and investment for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country.

This meeting was a turning point for the Taliban, as Mullah Baradar was able to earn the backing of a superpower that could play a major role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. In an August 16 statement on the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China is “ready” to develop further relations with Afghanistan.

And China made good on its promise. While other powers shunned the Taliban government announced in early September, China responded to its calls for humanitarian aid and pledged $31m worth of assistance. On September 23, Yi criticised the US for freezing Afghan assets during a virtual conference of G20 foreign ministers. Less than a week later, the first batch of Chinese aid landed at Kabul airport.

China is also eyeing to cash in on the untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan, which are estimated to have a value of $1 to $3 trillion. Apart from rare earth elements, the country also has vast reserves of gold, platinum, silver, copper, iron, chromite, lithium, uranium, and aluminium as well as precious stones. The Taliban appears to be willing to give access to these resources and use the revenue to solidify its rule.

However, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan also worries China. If the Taliban government fails to control the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) or other violent groups on Afghan territory, this could destabilise Xinjiang province. Furthermore, an unstable Afghanistan could harbour other militant groups that could undermine or sabotage China’s BRI initiatives in the region. Insecurity in the country would also prevent any Chinese mining or other economic projects from kicking off.

Other regional and global players are also eyeing Afghan resources and they might end up using local militant groups or warlords to secure their interests. This could undermine Chinese economic interests in Afghanistan and the region.

So Beijing will likely approach relations with the Taliban government with caution and take its time in making investments in the country.

Iran

Iran, which shares a 921km (572-mile) border with Afghanistan, has also suffered from the instability ravaging its neighbour for decades. In the 1990s, Tehran was backing the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban forces and did not recognise Taliban rule in Kabul.

Worried by the vast US military presence in the region after 2001, Iran established ties with the group and tried to undermine US interests by covertly supporting it.

Overall, the Iranians were pleased with the US withdrawal, which Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi termed a military “failure” in an August 16 statement. But his government has also been worried about security and political developments in the country ever since. In early September, it reacted sharply to the Taliban offensive against the opposition stronghold in Panjshir valley.

Tehran also criticised the Taliban for not including minorities in the cabinet it announced. One of its main concerns in Afghanistan is safeguarding the Hazara Shia community, which faced severe persecution during the last Taliban rule.

Apart from political interests, Iran also looks to Afghanistan for economic opportunities. US sanctions severely hurt Iranian global trade, but Afghanistan under the Taliban would not shun economic engagement with it to please the US.

Iran will strive to maintain its access to the Afghan market, which in recent years has been flooded with Iranian goods. In 2018, Iran became Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, with its exports reaching nearly $2bn, in addition to a large volume of Afghan imports passing through Iranian ports.

While maintaining high trade volumes, Iran will also seek to stem the flow of narcotics through its porous border with Afghanistan. Iran is a major market for Afghan opium and an important corridor for shipping narcotics to Europe and the Persian Gulf. The Taliban has been repeatedly accused of benefitting from the drug trade and encouraging it. Therefore, establishing effective mechanisms with the Taliban government to solve the narcotics problem will be a major challenge for Iran.

Another contentious issue between Kabul and Tehran are militants threatening Iranian security. Iran’s border regions of Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan have seen a number of terrorist attacks in recent years blamed on extremist groups operating along the Afghan-Iranian and Pakistani-Iranian borders. The Taliban has given assurances that it will not allow armed groups on Afghan soil to threaten other countries, but Iran will expect more than just words.

The more than two million Afghan refugees on Iranian territory also worry Tehran. With its own economy in tatters and socioeconomic tensions within Iranian society rising, the Iranian government is hardly in a position to provide for them or welcome more newcomers. That is why Iran wants to see stability in Afghanistan that would allow some of these refugees to return.

Thus, Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan, China and Iran – all have a vested interest in a stable government in Kabul that can secure Afghan borders and economic activities. They will likely cooperate with each other, as well as Russia, to see that through. In this way, the Taliban government will be under the influence of an emerging anti-US axis, which will seek to eliminate US influence in the region and determine its new security infrastructure.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.



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