The fall of the Ghani regime like a house of cards was the most significant political event in recent times. The swift political and fast-changing ground realities in Afghanistan threw up a lot of surprises and challenges for the people of Afghanistan, the international community, and countries of the region. To stabilize the deteriorating situation, strong regional collaboration is essential. Afghanistan’s neighbors do not have the luxury of a ‘wait-and-watch’ approach. Representatives from regional states like China, Russia, Iran, Central Asia, India, and Pakistan have engaged with the Taliban, to avert undesirable outcomes and achieve their vested interests.
Interests of the Regional States vis-à-vis Afghanistan:
The foremost of China’s core concerns shaping its policy towards Afghanistan is the issue of cross-border terrorist activities by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the separatist group from China. They have maintained contacts with other transnational terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and are always trying to penetrate Xinjiang. Second, China is concerned over whether the Afghans will establish a truly inclusive political setup (meaning inclusion of non-Taliban leaders and women) to stabilize their domestic political situation and to avoid a new wave of civil war and violent conflict. Third, there is a question as to whether the new Taliban regime will they adopt more moderate and rational policy in the future to protect the basic human rights for women, opposition groups, and ethnic minorities. The fourth concern is the risk of a humanitarian disaster due to an economic meltdown, a refugee crisis, famine, chaos, and the pandemic. Such a scenario poses a direct threat to regional peace and long-term stability.
China has expectations from the Taliban to crack down on all transborder terrorist groups including ETIM, because it is directly linked with China’s national security. They also pressed the Taliban through diplomatic means to prevent the continued use of its territory as a hub for global terrorist groups. Apart from that, China’s policy and approach reveals their strong intent for political stability. They are supporting steps to ensure an inclusive coalition government (for the sake of political stability and reconciliation) through bilateral and multilateral channels. On the other hand, they are supporting the people of Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance. They have delivered $31 million worth of humanitarian aid to the interim Afghan government. China again took the lead when on 1st November, a flight carrying 45 tons of Afghan pine nuts landed in China, a move widely considered as an effort by China to reopen Afghan trade lifelines. These developments reveal that if the situation improves, China will help Afghanistan by means of infrastructure development, security and stability, and economic cooperation.
Russia and the Central Asian Republics have shared interests with respect to an undesirable spillover of refugees and terrorism from Afghanistan over the last two decades. They have very rigid policies related to refugees, extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking, and separatism due to their own concerns and experiences. Russia fully supported the US initiative of peace talks with the Taliban. As the CARs are land-locked like Afghanistan, they are keenly interested in peace and stability to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). They want to engage with the Taliban due for ethnic, geo-economic, and geo-political reasons. Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian states, like other regional powers advocated for an inclusive government as there is a significant Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara population in Afghanistan.
Russia, China, and the CARs consider the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as the most viable forums in going forward with respect to security in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also willing to engage and demonstrate that they have changed. There is a desire to engage from both sides to resolve key security concerns with reference to extremism, refugees, and terrorism. Time will show to what degree the Taliban are willing to be flexible enough to address concerns of regional states to keep their engagement alive with them.
Pakistan over the period of the last two decades had been telling the world to engage with the Taliban, because at the end of the day they are the political reality in Afghanistan. Pakistan kept on telling the international community that they are not coming with viable alternatives which could provide good governance. Unfortunately, western countries, along with the US, ignored these warnings and blamed Pakistan for its alleged role in bringing back the Taliban. Pakistan denied the allegations and maintained that peace in Afghanistan is critical for Pakistan to realize its vision of regional connectivity, economic integration, and security. Pakistan has maintained that in the absence of peace in Afghanistan, the biggest implication will be the refugee crisis. Pakistan shared its fears with the world that they are already hosting 3.5 million refugees from Afghanistan and they are in no position to cope with another wave. Security is also a concern; Pakistan and Afghanistan’s security has been so deeply interlinked that despite the border fencing and security measures, there remain grey areas which are yet to be resolved. Pakistan also fears that if the Afghan situation further deteriorates, the illicit economy is going to thrive. Border zones are the most vulnerable areas when it comes to the illicit economy of trade and trafficking of goods and services. Despite, Pakistan’s mainstreaming of FATA (inclusion of FATA into KPK) and border fencing, the people centric movement via Afghanistan is something Pakistan, in case of humanitarian crises, may not be able to fully check or ensure.
Pakistan’s peace efforts:
Pakistan has had a lead role when it comes to the Afghan issue, given its geographic proximity, historical linkages, and connections with the Taliban. It includes securing women rights, children rights, not going for illicit trade, poppy cultivation, an inclusive political setup, a governance system, and adopting a more moderate & rationale policy. Pakistan is also crafting major consensus with regional states through diplomatic endeavors to help them understand the complex dynamics of Afghan society, the failure of the corrupt Ghani regime, and the security profile of the region. In the recently held ‘Extended Troika’ meeting held in Islamabad on 11th November, the special envoys of Pakistan, Russia, China, and the US first held deliberations on rallying a consensus message and later conveyed collective message to the visiting interim Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. It was a successful regional moot with real stakeholders, including the main party Afghanistan. India also organized ‘Delhi Regional Security Dialogue’ on 10th November with the Central Asian states, Iran, and Russia to discuss the evolving situation in Afghanistan and threats arising from radicalization, drug trafficking, terrorism, and the need for humanitarian assistance. Pakistan’s NSA rejected participation in the New Delhi led conference and stated, “Spoilers cannot be peace builders”. Experts consider the Indian moot as unsuccessful and a mere effort to stay relevant in regional politics. The forum was irrelevant due to the absence of key actors China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Till now, not a single country formally has recognized the Taliban regime because there are a lot of steps that need to be covered legally as well as politically for the Taliban to be recognized as a legitimate government in Afghanistan. But still, there is a possibility that regional players will recognize the new political realty. Recognition would facilitate cross-border trade, enhance border security, economic cooperation, and infrastructure development. Pakistan should up its game in making the domestic audience and regional countries understand the dynamics of Afghanistan; and for that matter Pakistan needs to be bit more transparent. Pakistan should project its soft diplomacy to its maximum; that is something we have always done for Afghanistan. Last but not least, our narrative should be precise, well-conveyed, and clear and we should not compromise on our security at any point.
Regional countries should continue their meaningful engagement with the Afghan Taliban to stabilize the volatile situation. That is the right option to move forward in bridging the trust deficit and to achieve a sustainable peace.