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Afghanistan: Limited options for regional powers

This is not the first time that the speed of Taliban advances has caused amazement. In the past ten days, they have seized control of 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 regional capitals.

Shortly after they appeared on the world stage in 1994 the newly formed movement of radical students swept across Afghanistan. They took the key border town of Spin Boldak in October of that year and Kandahar in December and began to approach Kabul in February 1995. Then there was a pause. In September 1995 Herat fell to the Taliban and a year later, on 27th September 1996, they took Kabul. In just two years the religious students had overrun two-thirds of Afghanistan.

However the Taliban never successfully conquered the far north where the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum controlled much of the west, the Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud the east, and the Hazara Hezbe-Wahdat the centre. The loose alliance of these three groups formed the basis of the Northern Alliance which survived intact until 2001 and provided the United States with the ground forces which overthrew the Taliban government in the days and weeks following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The Taliban also found Kabul difficult to capture, as Hekmatyar had found in 1992 and 1993. Not only is it close to ethnic Tajik areas but it also is home to much of Afghanistan’s educated elite who had fared well under the Soviets and were alarmed by the prospect of Islamist rule. When the Northern Alliance held Kabul substantial support flowed in from Russia, Iran, and India. However, we are unlikely to see a return to this same formula in 2021. Why?

The Taliban have learned key lessons from the experience of 1994-1996. They have opted for a strategy of picking off key border towns with the aim of controlling incoming supplies from neighbours whilst also denying the government vital customs revenues.

Secondly, the Taliban have, over recent years, made impressive inroads in the former Northern Alliance strongholds. Northern Afghanistan can no longer be seen as a bastion of anti-Taliban opposition. Rural Afghans of Tajik and Uzbek ethnicity are disillusioned by the kleptocratic behaviour of the Kabul government and local warlords and no longer view the Taliban with the same odium as before. The exceptions are the Hazaras, mostly from the Shia tradition of Islam, who fear renewed Sunni persecution at the hands of the Taliban and still look westwards towards Iran for support.

And thirdly the Taliban are likely to leave Kabul to last. With few routes available for escape the Kabul government will either fall to a military attack or be forced to surrender. An alternative, which the Americans are pushing, is the idea of a last-minute negotiated settlement which would enable all parties to claim a degree of success although, in reality, there is no chance of power-sharing and any Taliban concessions might be limited to allowing key personalities safe-passage to go into exile.

It is hard to imagine that the United States negotiator Zalmai Khalilzad has any credibility left after a humiliating negotiation. However, Pakistan, China, and Russia may see value in a last-minute cosmetic compromise that would allow Kabul to be surrendered without fighting; enabling foreign embassies to remain and for the Turks to hold the airport until all those approved for evacuation have departed. It would look vaguely orderly and professional although it would not hide the extent of the defeat nor would it gloss over the human rights abuses already committed and those about to be inflicted on the Afghan people.

So what implications does this have for those countries, primarily Russia, Iran, and India, which supported the old Northern Alliance during the Taliban’s first spell in power?

Russia, through its veteran diplomat Zamir Kabulov, has already decided to “back the winner” and believes it has extracted undertakings from the Taliban not to export Islamism northwards into the Central Asian Republics (CARs). Sensibly the CARs and Russia are taking nothing on trust and are taking military precautions.

India too has judged that a new Northern Alliance is not feasible and has made contact with the Taliban in Doha. India will doubtless hope that the Taliban, once in power, will be willing to ignore pressure from Rawalpindi and allow sufficient space to discuss a few key concerns, especially the denial of bases for Kashmiri militant groups.

Iran has also developed its links to the Taliban since 2001 but will have few illusions about the risks to the Hazaras. Iran will not hesitate to intervene if required and knows that it can safely exert military pressure on the western provinces of Herat, Nimroz, and Farah if the Taliban returns to its old sectarian methods.

China is perhaps the best placed of all. It too has channels to the Taliban and can also exert pressure through Pakistan and through economic programmes and a potential role for Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In reality, the threat to China from Uighur groups using the long and narrow Wakhan corridor is relatively slight but Beijing will insist that the Taliban and Pakistan stick to their commitments. Unlike the Americans, they will take nothing on trust.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is a Visiting Professor at King’s College London and a former senior British diplomat. 

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Further reading:

[1] https://www.gatewayhouse.in/istanbul-summit-last-chance-for-afghanistan/ and https://www.gatewayhouse.in/2020-retreat-kabul/

[2] https://www.gatewayhouse.in/moscow-shifts-afghan-stance-what-next/

[3] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/iran-sets-its-eyes-afghanistan

[4] https://jamestown.org/program/amidst-taliban-gains-russian-strategic-assets-threatened-in-central-asia/

[5] https://warontherocks.com/2021/08/a-reluctant-embrace-chinas-new-relationship-with-the-taliban/

[6] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/07/13/india-is-scrambling-to-get-on-the-talibans-good-side/