With Afghanistan, control is much harder than victory

Members of the Mumbai Press Club remember their colleague Danish Siddiqui, killed while covering a clash between Afghan security forces and the Taliban near a border crossing with Pakistan. Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
Members of the Mumbai Press Club remember their colleague Danish Siddiqui, killed while covering a clash between Afghan security forces and the Taliban near a border crossing with Pakistan. Photo by Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

While some of Afghanistan’s neighbours – China and Iran particularly, along with Russia – may enjoy the West’s discomfort, the Taliban’s takeover is unlikely to fill them with optimism for the longer-term.

All the neighbouring states have specific concerns regarding the threat of cross-border militancy, and each of them is known to have reached out to the Taliban as the US withdrawal approached, in the hope of strengthening their leverage.

Both China and India worry about Muslim minorities, in Xinjiang and Kashmir respectively, Russia worries about the threat to stability in Central Asia, Pakistan – despite nurturing the Taliban – fears blowback from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Iran questions the extent to which the Taliban has toned down its hostility towards Shias.

Economic change brings less fear

The country’s bigger economy now offers evidence, or certainly logic, to suggest they may have less to fear this time from a Taliban rule. Afghanistan’s economy in the late 1990s scarcely existed, and the Taliban had to rely heavily on the opium economy, largesse from major Arab donors in the Gulf, and individuals keen on global jihad such as Osama bin Laden.

In recent years, the Taliban has become much less reliant on external funding, instead generating income from taxing transit trade including, but not limited to, narcotics. But now it faces a triple whammy.

First, it generated enough funding to run an insurgency but almost certainly not enough to run a state. Second, much of the domestic demand stems from those in government employment with funding from external sources which have now been frozen. Third, many young, entrepreneurial, and educated Afghans have now fled the country.

The only obvious upside is that a potentially more secure political environment may provide a peace dividend which enables various connectivity initiatives to take off and mineral resources exploited. But the prospects of either occurring seem slim for now.

If the Taliban is to run a state as opposed to simply meting out medieval punishments for those that break its conception of Sharia law – as it did last time – it needs international recognition, which requires the Taliban to help prevent terrorism overseas.

Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan

Of Afghanistan’s nearest neighbours, India has an additional concern regarding the earlier incarnation of the Taliban, as it was brought to power with the active help of the Pakistan military.

The two countries had a symbiotic relationship back then and, consequently, the Taliban was more than happy to support Pakistan’s anti-Indian agenda. While the Taliban tolerated the presence of militants from Central Asian republics, it actively encouraged anti-Indian activities.

The low point for India was the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane which was forced to land in Kandahar. To secure the release of the plane, India had to release three known militants who subsequently were linked both to the murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl and the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

But now, despite some Pakistani triumphalism, the years of imprisonment for many Taliban leaders in Pakistan means the relationship will certainly be more strained, suggesting an overtly anti-Indian stance is less likely.

Even if the Taliban leadership really does want to stop Afghanistan being used by international terrorists, several other issues remain unclear, most notably whether the leadership controls the rank and file.

The leadership announced there was to be an amnesty for those who worked against the Taliban but reports from the provinces suggest this is far from the case. So, whether the leadership is deliberately lying or simply not in control is up for debate – and this also applies to the issue of hosting militants.

In addition, whether the leadership truly wants to prevent extra-territorial terrorism or not, simply saying that it does enables it to be outflanked by more extreme groups, most obviously the Islamic State-Khorosan. Groups such as the Islamic State have no concerns about hosting like-minded groups intent on global jihad.

There is also a fundamental distinction between someone feared by the international community – such as Osama bin Laden – and those militants which are feared in the region.

Bin Laden planned spectacular far-flung attacks – prior to 9/11, Al Qaida had already attacked a US naval ship off the coast of Yemen and bombed two US embassies in Africa. He boasted loudly to the world about his hatred of the West, and did so from a secure location in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Militants seeking safety

It should be relatively easy for the Taliban to ensure Afghanistan does not host someone like Osama bin Laden if that is what they want. But most militants – certainly those feared in the neighbourhood – are not like Osama bin Laden, but groups of angry men who need a safe haven.

Pakistan’s tribal areas provided this safety for more than a decade following 9/11. Despite assurances from that leadership, it is difficult to imagine Afghanistan will not once again become a safe haven for militants from South and Central Asia – especially given the ethnic overlap across each border.

In an era of greater self-interest, this raises concerns about whether the West should tolerate the Taliban because it successfully prevents anti-Western terrorism, but then be agnostic towards militants from India or Central Asia.

This should be an issue on which international consensus is both feasible and desirable but, given the asymmetric nature of the threats faced in the region and further afield, it may prove to be anything but.

Dr Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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