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The Taliban’s chance

Point of View 2021, 01.09.2021 Research Areas

The Taliban will find a more favourable international environment in Afghanistan today than when they first took power 25 years ago. With support from neighbouring states, they could stabilise their power. Andrea Schmitz and Christian Wagner outline the conditions.

The Taliban's second takeover since 1996 is taking place in a regional context that poses challenges for the regime, but also opens up new opportunities. Twenty-five years ago, the Taliban took a country largely destroyed by civil war; today they find a reasonably functioning state. At that time, the Taliban regime was recognised internationally by only three states: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan. Iran, Russia and India, on the other hand, supported the armed resistance of the opposing Northern Alliance. Even after 2001, Afghanistan remained the scene of regional disputes. While Pakistan backed the Taliban, India became a strategic partner of the Afghan government. The common enmity against the USA even made cooperation between Iran and the Taliban possible – despite their ideological differences.

Recognition and cooperation in exchange for security guarantees

The stability of the new Taliban regime will depend on the extent to which it succeeds in avoiding renewed international isolation and proxy wars in Afghanistan. Central to this, both in relation to the Western states and to the neighbours, is the question of security guarantees for the Taliban in return for political recognition and economic support.

Not only the USA and other Western states, but also Afghanistan's regional neighbours have called on the Taliban to take action against terrorist groups that supported the Taliban's conquest from their safe havens in Afghanistan in early summer. The Western community of states has its sights set on groups such as “Al Qaeda” and the “Islamic State (Khorasan Province)” (ISKP). Russia and the Central Asian republics fear a direct spillover of Islamist militancy onto their territory, whether by the ISKP or by extremist groups such as the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan”, the “Jamoat Ansarullah”, which recruits mainly from Tajiks, or Chechen groups. China's security interests in Afghanistan are also directed against the ISKP and against militant Uighur groups such as the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM). Pakistan, considered the Taliban's closest ally, is demanding that the new leadership in Kabul take action against the Pakistani Taliban of the “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan” (TTP), which carries out attacks in Pakistan from Afghanistan. For its part, Shia-majority Iran has turned its attention to groups like the Sunni ISKP-affiliated “Jundollah”, which operates out of Afghanistan.

In order to stabilise their rule, the Taliban must thus find ways to credibly limit the radius of action of foreign militant groups in Afghanistan, to the extent that they take into account the security concerns of the respective neighbouring states. This appears easiest with regard to the ISKP, considered a threat by the neighbours as well as the Western states. However, since the Taliban and the ISKP are enemies, further fighting between the two groups is to be expected. It could be even more difficult for the Taliban to dissociate themselves from other militant groups such as the “Haqqani Network”, which is considered the military backbone of the Taliban and has close ties to “Al Qaeda”. Other Islamist groups are linked by different loyalties to individual factions within the Afghan Taliban.

Consequently, the enforcement of security will probably not happen peacefully and is likely to become the starting point for new violence in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Taliban could benefit in several ways. First, they will gain political recognition from neighbouring states in return, which will increase their international legitimacy. Second, this may contribute to the country's economic development. Afghanistan is central to a number of large-scale economic projects that would facilitate trade and transfer of energy between Central and South Asia and could also benefit the Taliban. Pakistan is interested in implementing these projects, as are Uzbekistan and China. Beijing could also increase economic cooperation with Afghanistan in the medium term as part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”. Third, the Taliban would benefit militarily from such cooperation as it would minimise the risk that an armed opposition like the Northern Alliance in the 1990s would again receive support from neighbouring states.

The Taliban benefit from geopolitical rivalries

At the same time, the different geopolitical environment and the Western states' geostrategic rivalries with Russia and China now offer the Taliban more options for cooperation. The US and Europe will make their future relations with the new regime conditional on concessions on security issues, human rights and the participation of women. In contrast, neighbours such as China, Russia, the Central Asian states, Iran and Pakistan, while also emphasising their security interests vis-à-vis the Taliban, will place less emphasis on human rights issues. This constellation is likely to significantly limit the West's ability to influence Afghanistan's future political and social development.

This text was also published at fairobserver.com.