Taliban and its potential international partners: What’s in it for them?

As the Taliban pushes forward with the troubled process of forming a new set-up to govern Afghanistan, much of the speculation has centred round which countries would be invited to an inauguration ceremony and whether this dispensation will be recognised by the international community.

An unnamed Taliban official was cited by Al-Jazeera on Monday as saying that the group has invited China, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia and Turkey to participate in a ceremony to announce the composition of the new regime. Later in the day, spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed that several countries, including Turkey, China and Russia, had been invited to the ceremony.

If the six countries were to accept the reported invitations, the new regime would be recognised by exactly double the number of countries that accepted the last Taliban dispensation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which, along with Pakistan, were part of the small group that recognised the Taliban emirate of the 1990s, have not scored an invitation to the ceremony.

Also Read | Taliban say they ‘desire’ to join China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects

Here is a look at what stakes these six countries have in Afghanistan and why the Taliban would be keen to engage with them.

China is the new player on the block in Afghanistan, with reported interests ranging from security to natural resources. A presence in Afghanistan would dovetail with China’s desire to expand its influence in the region further, while at the same time countering India, with which it is currently locked in a military standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

China has spoken of the need to ensure that Afghan soil isn’t used for terrorism, but from the narrower focus of countering the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing claims poses a threat to the Xinjiang region. Pakistan sees its all-weather ally China as the perfect partner in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and there have been numerous reports of China eyeing Afghanistan’s natural resources, including copper, gold and an estimated 1.4 million tonnes of rare earth minerals.

The Taliban feels recognition by China would give their regime in Kabul a semblance of respectability and legitimacy, and leaders of the group have been busy praising China as a potential development partner. China has been coy on the issue of recognising the Taliban, with a foreign ministry spokesperson on Monday trotting out the usual line of Beijing backing the Afghan people in independently choosing a development path and in forming an open, inclusive and representative government.

Iran is looking at the possibility of expanding its presence in Afghanistan after having been one of the first countries in the region to secretly open channels of communication with the Taliban more than three years ago. It has hosted several high-level Taliban delegations for talks, and Iranian officials have privately spoken of their need to communicate with the Taliban to ensure stability in key border provinces such as South Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchestan. Iran is also keen to protect the interests of Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority, which accounts for about 10% of the population. The Hazaras have been targeted by the Taliban in the past, and more recently, they have been the focus of devastating suicide attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan.

For the Taliban, recognition by or cooperation with Iran is likely aimed at reducing the possibility of interference by Tehran as the group sets about consolidating its grip on power. Last year, the Taliban even resorted to the token step of appointing its first Shia Hazara commander.

However, Iran has been indicating that its support cannot be taken for granted. President Ebrahim Raisi told Iranian state television on Saturday the Afghan people should have a say in determining the future of their country through elections that should be held as soon as possible, while the foreign ministry spokesperson on Monday condemned the Taliban attacks in Panjshir, the lone holdout province in Afghanistan, and said Iran is investigating “foreign intervention” in the region.

Pakistan has for long been the only supporter and benefactor of the Taliban, especially after the ouster of the group’s regime in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001. It has sheltered the top military commanders of the Taliban, including those from the Quetta Shura and the Haqqani Network, and the Pakistani military has trained and supported the group as part of a relationship going back more than two decades. Indian and American officials believe advice and logistics support from the Pakistani military played a key part in the Taliban’s recent victory after lightning advances in the rural areas of Afghanistan. Pakistan has backed the Taliban as part of its long-standing and flawed strategy of “strategic depth” that was largely aimed at eliminating India’s presence in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military’s belief that it has scored a victory in Afghanistan was reflected in the very public way Inter-Services Intelligence agency chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed held court in a hotel lobby in Kabul this week.

The Taliban, according to experts, doesn’t behave in a monolithic fashion in its relations with Pakistan. In recent years, there have been efforts by some Taliban leaders, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, to reach out to other regional countries to reduce the group’s dependence on Pakistan. These leaders apparently believe such new relationships will create space for the Taliban to manoeuvre in a complicated neighbourhood. However, most of the commanders on the ground have strong links to the Pakistani military and there have been reports of Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, the eldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar, personally coordinating with fighters from Lashkar-e-Taiba in recent operations.

Qatar has played a key role in influencing developments in Afghanistan by resorting to the unusual step of hosting the Taliban’s “political office” in Doha since early 2012. The move created the grounds for the Taliban to start engaging various countries, including the United States (US), Russia and China, even while it continued its campaign of terrorism in Afghanistan and the group’s top leaders remained on various global lists of sanctioned terrorists. It is widely believed Qatar helped swing the controversial US-Taliban peace deal of February 2020 in return for the American help to Qatar in patching up its strained relations with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The peace deal with the Taliban, although now seen as flawed, also helped embellish Qatar’s credentials as regional player in the Arab world.

For the Taliban, Qatar remains an essential base from which to reach out to the Arab world and to the wider world community. The Taliban is also looking to Qatar to help resume operations at Kabul airport. Qatar was among the first countries to send flights to Kabul with humanitarian aid after the US completed the drawdown of its forces on August 30.

Russia, which has made no bones about its delight at seeing the end of the US presence in Afghanistan, had been reaching out to the Taliban and even launched the “troika” format for talks on Afghanistan with China and the US. The group subsequently became the “extended troika” with the inclusion of Pakistan, which Russia has very publicly embraced as a partner for shaping developments in Afghanistan. Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, even went to the extent of hinting that India wasn’t made a part of the extended troika as it had no influence over the Taliban. Publicly, Russian officials contend that their engagement with the Taliban is aimed at fighting the Islamic State, especially the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan, though experts believe the move is part of Moscow’s efforts to expand its influence in a region it has eyed since the days of the Great Game.

The Taliban perceive Russia as another international partner that is less likely to be swayed by concepts such as ensuring the rights of women and preserving the gains made in the past 20 years under the democratic and constitutional order backed by the US and its partners. However, there are reports that even Iran remains suspicious about Russia’s plans and role in Afghanistan.

Turkey has, for long, eyed a presence in Afghanistan for a variety of factors, including the presence of sizeable Turkic groups that account for a little more 10% of the population. Recognising the Taliban would fit in with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-standing plans to fashion a great role for his country in the wider Muslim world. Turkey’s long-standing close ties with Pakistan also have helped it in Afghanistan, and Erdoğan has appreciated what he described as the Taliban’s recent “moderate comments”. Turkey, he said, is making plans “in line with new realities in the field” and is open to cooperation as the Taliban have been “very sensitive towards relations” with Turkey.

In the short-term, the Taliban is looking to Turkey to resume operations at Kabul airport, where a Turkish technical team is already carrying out repairs. Qari Din Mohammad Hanif, head of the Taliban’s political office department for Turkey and Russia, met the Turkish ambassador in Kabul on Sunday to discuss the reopening of Kabul airport and mutual cooperation. Turkey, which was part of the NATO mission, was responsible for security at the airport for the past six years. Keeping the airport open is key to keeping Afghanistan connected with the world and maintaining the inflow of humanitarian aid.

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