Then-PTI Party Chairman (now prime minister) Imran Khan talks with parents of students killed in Taliban attack on an Army Public School in December 2014 in Peshawar. 149 people including 132 schoolchildren were killed in what became of the the deadliest school massacres in Pakistan history. (Shutterstock/Asianet-Pakistan)
Neighbors position themselves as Taliban gains momentum in Afghanistan

How do Russia, Pakistan, China, Iran and India view what seems to be an inevitable Taliban rise? A regional expert weighs in.

In light of the Taliban’s gains and growing speculation about the government’s collapse in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, Responsible Statecraft asked Fatemeh Aman, non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has written on Iranian, Afghan, and Pakistani affairs for over two decades, to respond to several questions.

The Pentagon has talked about establishing some sort of military base in the region to monitor terrorist activity within Afghanistan. It says this presence would mainly focus on groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but hasn’t entirely ruled out continued airstrikes against the Taliban. Can the Taliban accept an ongoing U.S. regional presence, and have any of Afghanistan’s neighbors been amenable to working with the U.S. military on such a project?

The United States is looking for a neighboring country to house a military base close to Afghanistan. The Taliban is threatening neighbors that it will retaliate if they accommodate U.S. demands. Pakistan has refused to let the CIA operate from its territory, arguing that “it would make Pakistan part of the conflict.” Central Asian countries are also hesitant for fear of Taliban retribution. This means the U.S. will have to operate from bases far from Afghanistan. Reports, if confirmed, show that things may take an interesting turn. Apparently, at the June 16 talks in Geneva, Putin has proposed to Biden that the U.S. uses Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to help Afghanistan.

How are Afghanistan’s neighbors positioning themselves to cope with the U.S. withdrawal and what may follow in the weeks and months to come? 

Among the actions that have made the Taliban seem strong and unbeatable were seizing control of Afghan border crossings, including with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. One of the busiest crossing s— between Afghanistan and Pakistan — was recently taken and the Taliban flag raised above it. 

Neighboring countries increasingly feel the need to forge ties with the Taliban to secure their borders and protect their interests inside Afghanistan but they have no guarantee that the Taliban will cooperate. 

Iran and Pakistan, along with other regional players, blamed the U.S. for its presence in Afghanistan and now fault Washington for its “irresponsible” withdrawal. Neighbors regard Taliban rule as imminent, and they seem to be competing to get cozier with the Taliban in order to secure their borders and their other interests. 

Pakistan, with a large Pashtun population, worries about the prospect of a new civil war in Afghanistan.The  Pakistani military recently deployed troops along the Afghan border. Iran also recently opened a large military base along the border, preparing for possible spillover of Afghanistan’s conflict into Iran and a massive new influx of refugees. 

What’s the worst-case scenario for the region?

A new civil war in Afghanistan is the worst outcome. It would precipitate a new refugee crisis and could create a haven for terrorist groups such as IS-K or the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) as well as Central Asian jihadis.

How does Iran view the possibility of a Taliban takeover and how has it responded to the Taliban’s advances?

There appears to be broad confusion in Iran about how to deal with the Taliban.  Hardline media and some conservative analysts suggested recently that the Taliban has changed and that the group would not be as rigid as it was in the 1990s and might even protect religious minorities. However, there was strong criticism of this analysis and the hardline Kayhan newspaper, the most prominent medium that gave voice to it, has since changed its tune. 

There has also been the suggestion that the Fatemiyoun Brigade — Afghan Shi’ites who fought in Syria in support of the Assad regime — could be deployed against the Taliban. But an Iran-based senior member of the Fatemiyoun denied this, and called it “a new game played by American-Israeli media against Fatemiyoun.”  Deploying Fatemiyoun would be a recipe for civil and sectarian war since the vast majority are Shi’ite Hazaras, who faced bloody persecution by the Taliban in the 1990s. 

Pakistan has a historic relationship with the Taliban, but there are tensions over claims that each is supporting insurgents in the other’s country. How much influence does Pakistan still hold over the Taliban and how would it view a complete Taliban takeover? 

The Taliban have changed since the 1990s and are now a multi-factional organization, with different factions leaning toward different neighbors. So, even a Taliban takeover could lead to more internal fighting. It is also possible that the Taliban could continue without Pakistan’s support as it has gained recognition from other countries, such as Iran, China, and Russia, all of which have recently hosted high-level delegations from the Taliban.

Afghans generally believe that the Taliban would not have been able to advance so quickly without support from Pakistan. According to (Afghanistan President Ashraf) Ghani, “Intelligence estimates indicate the influx of over 10,000 jihadi fighters from Pakistan and other places in the last month, as well as support from their affiliates in the transnational terrorist organization.”

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called the accusations “extremely unfair.”

 “I can assure you that no country has tried harder to get the Taliban on the dialogue table than Pakistan.” He admitted the existence of links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Haqqani network — a Taliban network in Pakistan’s North Waziristan— but denied that ISI controls it and suggested that the U.S. should use ISI-Haqqani network connection “to actually get them on the negotiating table.”

India, on the other hand, has been supportive of the Afghan government, and its rivalry with Pakistan is well-documented. Has India’s approach toward the Taliban changed in light of the group’s recent successes? 

India has always viewed the Taliban as Islamabad’s proxy, alongside Pakistani terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e Taiba and Lashkar Jhangavi. However, in May 2020, Taliban spokespersons Suhail Shaheen and Zabiullah Mujahid stated that India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy was an “internal affair.”

 “The statement that has been circulated in certain media regarding India does not belong to the Islamic Emirate. The policy of the Islamic Emirate regarding neighbor states is very obvious that we don’t interfere in their domestic issues,” a tweet from Shaheen clarified. In June this year, India’s Ministry of External Affairs confirmed reports that India has reached out to the Taliban in an apparent recognition of the likely fall of the Kabul government. How much influence India could have in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is unclear, but its focus appears to be on limiting Taliban support for anti-India extremists in Kashmir and elsewhere.

What are the chief concerns of Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors, especially Tajikistan?

Afghan neighbors and other big regional players, such as Russia and China, are focusing their attention on the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan. Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan is a major gateway to Central Asia and a nexis  for several extremist groups.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of a Soviet-backed Afghan government, a civil war also began in Tajikistan. During the 1992-1997 Tajik conflict, armed men entering Tajikistan from Afghanistan fueled the fighting.  

Today, Tajikistan faces immense challenges, including border security, an under-developed health system, extremism, drug trafficking, and high levels of poverty.  In short, it is vulnerable to a resumption of civil strife.

How are Russia and China viewing the situation?

A delegation of the Taliban visited Moscow on July 8 to reassure Moscow that its quick advances in Afghanistan should not be seen as a threat to Russia and its Central Asian neighbors. The Taliban made similar promises to China to not involve China’s Muslim population in the fighting. Both countries are nervous but hope that the Taliban will refrain from embracing Central Asian insurgents.

What role if any can Afghanistan’s neighbors play in helping to broker a negotiated settlement to the conflict?

By attacking major cities, the Taliban seems to be in violation of the 2020 agreement it signed with the U.S. in Qatar. The Taliban feels empowered and doesn’t seem to see any need to continue intra-Afghan peace talks. There is no doubt that the neighbors would like to see a negotiated agreement, but none seems to enjoy real leverage over it at the moment, and they have so far failed to press the Taliban in a concerted effort. 

The brutality it is showing in the territories it has seized is reminiscent of its past actions, including the terrible treatment of women and girls. Afghan neighbors hope the Taliban will not export extremism and instability, but they may come to regret their efforts to improve ties with this seemingly unrepentant group.

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