Ousted Afghan president Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan on August 15th when the Taliban reached the outskirts of the capital Kabul. At the time, a source close to Taliban stressed that the two sides reached an agreement whereby Ghani should step down and hand over power to a transitional administration.
While the United States and the European Union might well consider the use of sanctions as a weapon against the Taliban, if the movement does not live up to its commitment not to target US and European citizens leaving Afghanistan, it should be noted that most of Afghanistan’s neighbors expected the collapse of the Afghan government – although not this fast- and even began to open up to the Taliban.
Irreversible US Withdrawal
The United States defended its decision to pull out of Afghanistan rebuffing criticism both at home and abroad. It reiterated that kept forces in Afghanistan twice as long as the Soviets. The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said remaining in Afghanistan is “simply not in the national interest.” He added that the US succeeded in the mission of reducing attacks on its soil and interests.
The US withdrawal will leave wide repercussions both regionally and internationally.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the US Administration does not have the luxury of just feeling disappointed by the declining performance of the Afghan army.
The assertions are clear signs that Washington blames the Afghan government. Blinken spoke in the same spirit reiterating that “the idea that the status quo could have been maintained by keeping our forces there I think is simply wrong.”
Clearly, US military commanders expected the fall of the Afghan government due to chronic issues that have never been addressed. These include deep-rooted corruption, Kabul’s inability to pay salaries to pay salaries of troops and police officers for several months. On top of this came the defection of troops sent to the fronts because they were left without enough food and water and even arms.
Realizing, amid this situation, that even if the US troops remained there for additional years will neither resolve the issue, nor prevent the Afghan army from crumbling, US President Joe Biden thought that the best option was to withdraw the troops immediately.
It is worth noting that the former administration of President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in Qatar in 2020, which laid out a roadmap for the complete withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan, if the Taliban honors its commitments including not to turn Afghanistan’s soil into a haven for terrorist organizations. But the Biden Administrations ignored this provision and pushed for withdrawal at any cost.
The result was that, according to the United Nations, Afghanistan is now haven to some 10000 terrorists from al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terror groups.
European Concern Over Afghan Refugee Influx
Europe’s concerns over Afghanistan are stoked by two major issues: terrorism and refugees. For Europe, the issue of refugees poses the most serious threat, because Afghan refugees already started to flow to neighboring countries, especially Iran, in an attempt to reach Turkey and from there to Europe.
The issue of immigration is among the causes of deep divisions among the European Union members. While some members, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, suspended repatriation of Afghans whose asylum applications were rejected, other members insist on sending them back so as they don’t get the wrong message that they can be accommodated.
Europe has shortage of tools to influence the Taliban, especially after the departure of the US troops. That is why the EU may seek again to manage this issue in cooperation with Turkey, and through offering a package of economic assistance to accommodate the refugees within Turkey and prevent them from moving ahead to Europe.
European countries are also expected to wield sanctions. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, said in a statement on August 12th that “if power is taken by force and an Islamic Emirate re-established, the Taliban would face non-recognition, isolation, lack of international support.” But despite this EU’s threat, and even if the EU carries it out, it would not be serious enough for the Taliban to prompt them respond to European demands.
Backing Pakistan’s Gains
Islamabad has been the main supporter of the Taliban after the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the civil war in the early 1990s. Afghanistan’s neighbor also provided a haven for the Taliban Leadership Council, or Shura council, which is still based in Pakistan. The families of several Taliban commanders and soldiers still live in Pakistan’s western provinces to date.
Additionally, Pakistan was among the three states that recognized the Taliban regime when it captured the Afghan capital city in 1996, and even further bolstered ties with the movement to confront India’s influence in the region. Pakistan extended its rule even further to convince the Taliban to engage in talks with the former US administration in 2020.
While the Taliban was making its swift advance and capturing major cities in the Afghan provinces, the Afghan president claimed that Pakistan allowed more than 10000 jihadis to cross the border into Afghanistan to back the Taliban. He also accused Islamabad of not placing sufficient pressure on the Taliban to accept the course of peaceful settlement. Pakistan, normally, denied providing such support, but the United Nations’ report mentioned earlier emphasizes that militants from Pakistan’s Taliban supported Afghanistan’s Taliban, and gives credibility to Kabul’s allegations.
On the other hand, Pakistan refused to allow Washington to use its military bases for launching strikes against the Taliban after the withdrawal of US troops. Pakistan’s refusal represents its indirect support to the Taliban.
It should be noted that Pakistan will move to further bolster its strategic gains after the Taliban took over all of Afghanistan. That is, in addition to having a loyal government in Kabul, Pakistan will be capable of backing the Kashmiri resistance of which some groups were based in Afghanistan. This is likely to earn Pakistan more instruments of pressure against India.
Besides security and strategic considerations, geo-economic calculations factor in. Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will ruin India’s plans to connect the country to the International North–South Transport Corridor, an ambitious project to connect Central Asia to Mumbai seaport through Iran. Furthermore, Pakistan, in collaboration with China, will be able to connect Afghanistan to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Potential Chinese Cooperation
China is expected to recognize the Taliban after the movement took control of Afghanistan. A delegation from the Taliban visited China on July 28th and reassured Beijing that Afghanistan will not be a launchpad for attacks against China as the two countries share a 76 kilometers of land border, mainly towering heights without any border crossings.
Beijing’s source of concern is the borderline along China’s Xinjiang, a majority Muslim region, where it fears that separatist Uyghurs will use Afghanistan to launch attacks. For their part, the China vowed not to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
Relations between China and the Taliban began several years ago through Pakistani mediation. According to China’s considerations, good relations with the Taliban will pave the way for further expanding the Belt and Road Initiative into Afghanistan, through the Central Asian republics. Taliban view China as a highly important source of economic investments and support, whether directly or through Pakistan.
India Coping with the Taliban
India was among the first regional powers to announce support to the government led by Ashraf Ghani, and before that, in 2001, was among the first countries to welcome Washington’s ousting of the Taliban. Despite this, it opened official communication channels with the Taliban for the first time in July 2021 in anticipation of the collapse of the Afghan government.
Currently, India seeks to coordinate with Iran to face the developments in Afghanistan especially because the two countries share concerns over the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul. As a result, New Delhi recently intensified consultations with Tehran.
Cautious Russian Cooperation
Moscow is trying to present itself as a guarantor of the security in Central Asia following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. That is why the Russian army is working on expanding its presence at its military base in Tajikistan, while also conducting joint military wargames with both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to counter any potential security threats posed by terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan.
Despite its concerns over the rising danger of terrorism coming from Afghanistan, Russia is working to establish ties with the Taliban, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described as “wise people”. This indicates that the movement is keen on showing its ability to rule Afghanistan and reach understandings with neighboring states that guarantee their security.
Turkey’s Search for Bargaining Chips
During intensified talks with the United States, Ankara offered to guard and run Kabul International Airport after the departure of the US troops so as to help protect US and other Western diplomatic missions in Kabul as well as American intelligence agents and military commanders.
Ankara offered to play this role in exchange for diplomatic and logistic support, according to the Turkish president. In its bid, Turkey relies on several factors. Most importantly, it has good relations with some former warlords, like The Express Tribune Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-e-Islami of Afghanistan, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Abdul Rashid Dostum, leader of the political party Junbish-e Milli and an influential popular figure of the Uzbek community.
Additionally, Ankara reliance on supporting Islamabad was evidenced by a visit to Pakistan on August 11th by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar where he asked Pakistan to place pressure on the Taliban to accept Turkey’s offer to secure Kabul International Airport. Moreover, in a bid to establish peace in Afghanistan, Erdogan offered to meet the supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada.
The Taliban turned down the request for Erdogan’s meeting with its leader, and, referring to Turkish forces, reiterated its rejection to allow any foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan.
Besides, in light of the Taliban’s success in taking over all of Afghanistan within three months, as expected by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Ankara will not be able to play a role in Afghanistan.
Iran’s Management of Developments in Afghanistan
Tehran dealt with the development in Afghanistan on two levels. On the diplomatic level, former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif previously met several times with a number of Taliban leaders in Teran. Member of the Iranian parliament Ahmed Naderi described the Taliban as “the noble movement”, while the Iranian foreign ministry, on the eve of Taliban’s capture of Herat on August 13th, stressed that the Taliban is fully committed to the security of Iran’s Consulate General, diplomats and staff in Mazar-i-Sharif.
On the military level, Iran previously involved itself in providing military support to the Taliban in a bid to put the American presence in Afghanistan under pressure. Moreover, Tehran formed a number of shi’ite militias comprising fighters from the Shiite Hazaras. These include the Shaheed Baba Mazari, a 5000-strong militia, according to former foreign minister Zarif.
Before that, Iran created the Liwa Fatemiyoun militant group and deployed them to take part in battles in Syria. Additionally, Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, recently visited the Syrian city of Boukamal several times, where the Liwa Fatimiyoum deploys. According to assessments, the reason behind these visits is Iran’s plans to move the militants to Afghanistan.