Abandoning Afghanistan is dangerous for its neighbors

Following the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in August last year, the Taliban-led schismatic government in Kabul appears to have reached a diplomatic impasse. It seems like its neighbors, who had previously been eager to restore normalcy to the turbulent region, have given up on the Islamic Emirate.

More than a year after the country was handed over to the Taliban, not a single Afghan neighbor has officially recognized the Taliban’s government. But they do not seek to undermine it either, primarily because a power vacuum brought on by proxy battles could be advantageous to both the US and the foreign terror outfits – the two major players that Afghanistan’s neighbors consider their greatest threats.

The main reason for the ongoing diplomatic impasse is that the Taliban has failed miserably in honoring its commitments to the international community, and continues to harbor foreign militants accused of attacking its neighbors from across the border.

Instability begets insecurity

The world, and in particular, Afghanistan’s neighbors did not want to recognize the Taliban government because it could not form a “government for all” that included representatives from all religions, sects, ethnicities, and social groups.

Today, Afghanistan’s socioeconomic development is at risk from instability and inept governance which has had devastating geoeconomic and geopolitical ramifications for the entire region.

A number of key investment projects that sought to improve economic connections, trade, and transit between South and Central Asia – and stabilize Afghanistan in the process – have been put on hold or slowed down.

Large-scale regional projects that have suffered due to security concerns include the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission Project, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Gas Pipeline, and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Power Interconnection Project.

Failing to stop foreign terrorists

The Taliban leadership appears reluctant to abide by the international standards outlined in the Doha peace accord, despite the major security challenges facing Afghanistan’s bordering states. The Taliban were urged by the Doha deal, which was signed earlier in 2020, to stop “foreign terrorist groups or individuals” such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K from utilizing Afghan territory to pose a threat to the US, its allies, and other nations.

The Doha Accord also underlined the significance of securing a comprehensive and long-lasting ceasefire before starting intra-Afghan engagement and talks. The Taliban, however, broke their promise of a ceasefire to start negotiations and instead took over Afghanistan through a military offensive.

China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and other surrounding nations have all encountered real challenges with the terrorist organizations that operate out of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, Jamaat Ansarullah, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic State of Kurdistan (IS-K), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have all established strongholds in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s dilemma

Mansur Khan Mehsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told The Cradle that taking concrete action against the TTP, ETIM, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Baloch insurgents will cause problems for the Taliban government.

For this reason, Kabul is unable to uphold promises to the international community that Afghan territory will not be used to spread terrorism and host militant groups that attack neighboring states.

“The fact is that these groups have been fighting the Afghan war alongside the Taliban for more than ten years against NATO and the Afghan National Army, so if the Taliban took action against them, they would run into problems with their foot soldiers and commanders,” Mehsud explained. “The Taliban leaders would interpret this as a ruse to placate the US and other western nations.”

International Recognition

According to Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based geopolitical analyst, “no country recognizes the legitimacy of the Taliban’s leadership over Afghanistan, but all regional stakeholders still pragmatically engage with it.”

“Russia even signed a commodity deal with them in September, which the group agreed to due to its desire to have Moscow function as a key player in its envisaged geo-economic balancing act, especially vis-à-vis Islamabad,” he added.

The majority of Afghanistan’s neighbors have begun to form bilateral relationships with the Taliban for geostrategic, geoeconomic, and personal security assurances, despite using the umbrella of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Korybko explains that Russia’s present stance has been to express disappointment with the Taliban’s failure to assemble a truly ethnically and regionally inclusive government and meaningfully fight against the drug trade:

“Russia thinks that the US freezing of several billion dollars of Afghan assets has contributed to this regrettable outcome. At the same time, it has always praised the Taliban for doing its best to keep ISIS-K in check.”

Concerning Islamabad’s deteriorating relations with Kabul, which have resulted in several border clashes with casualties on both sides of the divide, Korybko warns that Afghanistan’s unofficial support for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is spiraling out of control and risks becoming the most significant source of regional instability.

“As it stands, the Pakistani-Taliban security dilemma is brought about by Islamabad’s rapprochement with Washington, especially in its military dimension, and given the dearth of trust between Pakistan and the Taliban, there is little hope that it will be resolved anytime soon,” he said.

Carnegie Corporation, a US think tank, revealed in a recent study that Afghanistan’s neighbors are concerned about several issues, the foremost being the influx of foreign terrorist groups into the country.

Among other concerns are the Taliban’s weak and unstable power base, the country’s regressive social policies, the economic and humanitarian crisis brought on by the suspension of aid, the freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign assets, sanctions against Taliban leaders, and the government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with these issues.

Dushanbe Declaration

In mid-September 2021, just a month after the US pullout from Afghanistan, the SCO rushed to hold a summit meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to discuss the Taliban’s ascension to power and the regional implications for the neighboring countries.

The Dushanbe Declaration observed that the security and stability of SCO space hinged on the earliest possible settlement of the situation in Afghanistan. Chief among its requests was for the Taliban to form a government that included people from all of the country’s ethnic, religious, and political groups. The SCO also stressed that Afghanistan needed to be free of terrorism, war, and drugs to become an independent, neutral, united, democratic, and peaceful state.

The primary objective of the Eurasian alliance’s geopolitical initiatives was to take over the watchdog function from the US-led NATO forces so that Afghanistan would not once again serve as a refuge for terrorist organizations. However, the SCO’s own internal differences, and its members’ efforts to negotiate with the Taliban on a bilateral basis, seem to have emboldened terrorist groups to regroup in Afghanistan.

The institutional strength of the SCO was weakened by some divisions within its purview, and attention was diverted from the imbroglio in Afghanistan to geoeconomic and geopolitical self-interests.

Overlooking differences

India, for instance, planned a regional meeting in 2020 to discuss the Afghan issue with SCO members. China and Pakistan did not attend the meeting and instead met in Islamabad with the US and Russian representatives of the “Troika Plus” group.

Similarly, in December 2021, Pakistan invited Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, as well as representatives from the US, EU, China, and Russia to a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Afghanistan held in Islamabad. India was not issued an invitation to the conference.

The third India-Central Asia Dialogue was held on the same day, and it brought together the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan to discuss the evolving security situation in Afghanistan.

The summit’s attendees stressed the importance of “the creation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and ensuring that Afghan land is not used for sheltering, planning, or funding terrorist activities.”

In order to secure their own respective internal borders, Afghanistan’s neighbors must collaborate effectively to address their mutual security concerns.

Their inability to work together to develop a coordinated plan and push the Taliban to negotiate will worsen an already dangerous situation. Afghanistan will continue to bleed until its neighbors abandon their conflicting policies and objectives and establish a common framework to deal with the Taliban.

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