The regional fallout of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

 

 The regional fallout of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan

By Samir Puri*

 

There will be much soul-searching in the coming months in Washington, London and the capitals of other NATO-member states as they reflect on why their long effort to hold the Taliban at bay ultimately failed. And yet it is no longer in Western capitals, but in the cities, mountains and deserts of Afghanistan and its neighbours that the history of the fallout of the Taliban’s victory will now be written.

Afghanistan’s neighbourhood is a different place compared to 2001, when the US military intervention began after 9/11. The dust was still settling from al-Qaeda’s devastating attack on the US homeland when then-US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, issued a threat to Pakistan’s then-president Pervez Musharraf: sever Pakistan’s support for the Taliban (who had hosted al-Qaeda) or be treated like the Taliban by the US militarily. Whether Pakistan’s armed forces complied with this threat, or whether they surreptitiously supported some Taliban factions, is one of many factors that bedevilled the 20-year US-led campaign to support the Afghan state against the Taliban.

The salient point today relates less to Pakistan’s perfidy and more to its basic strategic calculation: its adjacency to Afghanistan is permanent, while the US was never going to be in Afghanistan indefinitely. Now that the moment of full US withdrawal has come, and the Taliban is victorious, all of Afghanistan’s bordering states must react to these developments. Iran shares a long border with western Afghanistan; China has a comparatively small border to the northeast; while Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are to the north.

Foundations for regional cooperation

All of Afghanistan’s neighbours will be concerned about a strong Taliban regime that purposefully spreads instability across its borders. Another concern is that Afghanistan slides back into civil war, and that its domestic instability prevents any of its neighbours from meaningfully projecting their influence across its territory. It is, therefore, worth considering whether Afghanistan’s neighbours will seek collaborative ways to stem instability emanating from Afghanistan and what their incentives are for doing so. Much will become clearer in the coming months as the nature of Taliban rule becomes clearer, and as its neighbours choose whether to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Unlike in 2001, today all but one of Afghanistan’s neighbouring states belong to the multilateral body the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while Iran holds observer status. Afghanistan has also held observer status since the 2012 SCO summit, and Pakistan and India joined as member states in 2017. At the latest SCO summit held in July 2021 in Tajikistan, the instability in Afghanistan was a subject of discussion. It is an open question as to how the SCO now responds to the Taliban takeover in Kabul. Even if Afghanistan’s formal membership may be delayed or off the cards entirely, the SCO still offers a diplomatic mechanism through which to coordinate a regional response to the evolving realities of Taliban rule. 

The SCO is a multilateral club that has often been overlooked by those beyond its purview. It was formed in 1996 in reaction to Afghanistan’s civil war and to the regional consequences of the dissolution of the USSR. For its largest founding members China and Russia, the SCO offered ways to foster economic cooperation with the Central Asian republics, as well as opportunities to track further secessionist threats. The SCO has identified a trio of security concerns, as spelt out in the title of the 2001 Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism.

In common with the US and its NATO allies, the responses of SCO member states to the Taliban takeover will be determined by whether it again abets regional or international terrorism. If al-Qaeda or other internationally minded jihadists use Afghanistan as a future base to strike targets around the world, it is even possible the US could intervene militarily once again in some form. But if the Taliban regime does not abet terrorism outside of Afghanistan’s borders, then the management of the country’s future may well remain a regional concern, even if the Taliban remains a threat to some Afghan citizens.

Afghanistan’s neighbours will have their own bilateral responses to the Taliban, as evidenced by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s hosting of a Taliban delegation in the Chinese city of Tianjin in late July. China is concerned that the Taliban’s victory could prompt instability to spread into the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, perhaps inspiring separatist ambitions among the Uighur Muslim populace. Similarly, Pakistan and Iran will have their own bilateral responses to the Taliban victory that prioritise their respective national interests.

There are other regional factors at play that could help to pave the way for a coordinated approach to Afghanistan. In April 2021, Iran and China signed a 25-year bilateral cooperation programme, with Chinese assistance being promised in sectors such as telecommunications, banking and energy in return for big discounts on the purchase of Iranian oil. While there is well-placed scepticism about how much the programme can deliver in reality, the very fact that Tehran and Beijing have pulled closer together may also accelerate Iran’s entry into the SCO, deepening the opportunities for these countries to pursue overlaps in their foreign and commercial policies regarding Afghanistan.

Whether it is bilateral or multilateral ties that increasingly bind Afghanistan’s neighbours to each other, one thing is clear: regional cooperation without Western involvement is more developed now than it was in 2001. There is still every chance that Afghanistan’s neighbours may yet fall out over how to manage the tricky realities of Taliban rule; or the Taliban blundering into incurring the wrath of a neighbouring state; or even of one neighbouring state trying to turn the Taliban against another neighbour. Even if any of these situations don’t come to pass, the immediate future of Afghanistan is very likely to be dictated by regional states.

Common purpose

There is something else that binds Afghanistan’s neighbours and the Taliban: a shared antipathy towards the US military presence in the region. Beijing and Tehran are each in varying degrees of dispute and estrangement from Washington. Even the government in Islamabad, so long the recipient of generous financial assistance as part of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’, has grown weary of the inconsistent nature of its bilateral security partnership with Washington. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Kahn was critical of the US last week, saying that ‘Pakistan is just considered only to be useful [to the US] in the context of somehow settling this mess which has been left behind after 20 years of trying to find a military solution when there was not one.’ 

Afghanistan could yet slide back into all-out conflict. But there is also now a clear diplomatic yield on offer to its neighbours if they can stop this from being the case, if not for the sake of the Afghan people, then at the very least to burnish their own credentials as offering a viable alternative to the failed US-led occupation. They also face an imperative to protect their borders from what will remain a simmering post-conflict zone, even if hostilities do not resume. The extent to which Afghanistan’s neighbours cooperate over managing the realities of Taliban rule could serve as an indicator of the relevance of the SCO, and whether the instabilities of Afghanistan’s future following the US departure can be minimised.

 

 

 

*Dr Samir Puri is based in the IISSAsia office in Singapore. He is responsible for furthering research within the IISS on hybrid warfare, urban security and armed conflict. The article was first published by the IISS(17/8/2021).


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