Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-22

Chinese ambassador Wang Yu met Acting Foreign Minister of Taliban Mawlavi Amir Khan Muttaqi, Kabul, September 26, 2021 

22. US, UK prepare to re-engage Taliban  

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has written yet another opinion piece in the Washington Post, sensing a turning point lies ahead with the Biden Administration assembling a sustainable, durable policy toward Afghanistan taking into account the new reality of the Taliban government. 

Quintessentially, Imran Khan revisited his argument in the earlier WaPo piece in July where he had concluded: “I believe that promoting economic connectivity and regional trade is the key to lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. Further military action is futile.” 

Of course, the June article was written some six weeks before the Taliban captured Afghanistan in mid-August, but his argument is even more compelling today, six weeks after the tumultuous events in Kabul. This time around, Imran Khan persuasively argues with the benefit of hindsight that the right thing to do is to engage with the new Taliban government so as to ensure peace and stability. 

He endorses the international community’s expectations from the Taliban and supplements them by underscoring that the best way to leverage the new government’s policies will be by extending “the consistent humanitarian and developmental assistance they need to run the government effectively.” 

He warns that if the US abandons Afghanistan, “it will inevitably lead to a meltdown. Chaos, mass migration and a revived threat of international terror will be natural corollaries.” 

Imran Khan seems to be emboldened by the consensus between the US, Russia and China that Ashraf Ghani’s nominee will not address the UN GA. It is an implicit signal that nobody is interested to create new facts on the ground. A necessary first step has been taken to address the so-called ‘legitimacy aspect’. 

Imran Khan has not made an issue of the sanctions against Taliban or the recognition of the Taliban government. That is also the Russian and Chinese approach. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, while addressing the media at the UN Hqs in New York on Saturday, “There is no need for this (sanctions) for us to be able to engage with the Taliban movement at this stage. We all expect the Taliban to honour all the good-minded promises they made.” 

Lavrov added, “There is a sufficient number of exemptions from sanctions imposed on the Taliban. This has been made on purpose to enable [the international community] to have a dialogue with them. It means that the UN Security Council recognises the Taliban as an inalienable part of Afghan society… 

“We have mentioned the unfreezing of the assets. We think that this matter should be given a practical consideration… Serving in Moscow today is the ambassador appointed by the previous government. No one is urging an international recognition of the Taliban.” 

Lavrov stressed, “We believe, and we did believe from the outset, that what has happened there [Afghanistan] is a reality… The reality on the ground is based on statements made by the Taliban… What matters the most at the moment is that they fulfil their promises… The Taliban claim to be moving in this direction, and the current architecture is only temporary. What matters the most is to make sure that they keep the promises that they made in public… We will do everything we can to support the Taliban in their determination… to fight ISIS and other terrorist groups, and to try to make sure that this determination paves the way to some practical progress.” read more

There is no more talk in Washington about “out-of-the-horizon” attacks on Afghanistan. Locus has shifted to diplomacy. The Biden Administration is at an inflection point. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with Imran Khan’s narrative.

Meanwhile, the regional tour by the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman next week includes Tashkent, New Delhi and Islamabad. Sherman is the ace negotiator in the Biden Team — low-key, highly skilled professional with the patience for filling in details. Clearly, Afghanistan is her main agenda. 

The inclusion of Tashkent in Sherman’s itinerary is particularly noteworthy. Uzbekistan has stepped out to signal that it is ready to not only talk but do business with the Taliban government. Only last week, Uzbek president’s special representative on Afghanistan, Ismatulla Irgashev, called for the restoration of road and rail links with Afghanistan in order to help ship “food and medical supplies.”

Uzbekistan is practically the gateway and a viable transit route from Afghanistan to Central Asia, China and Europe. Significantly, last week, the UK Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey visited Termez, the transit port on the Uzbek-Afghan border. 

There is yet another dimension to regional connectivity. In July, the Biden Administration had announced a Quadrilateral Diplomatic Platform “focused on enhancing regional connectivity”, predicated on the political assessment that peace in Afghanistan and regional connectivity “are mutually reinforcing.” The four countries had “agreed to meet in the coming months to determine the modalities of this cooperation with mutual consensus.” read more

There is growing acceptance of the idea by the international community — the UN, in particular — that engaging the Taliban government is a far better approach than ostracising it. The path pursued in the 1990s —  refusing to recognise the Taliban government and giving the country’s seat to the warlord-dominated Rabbani government — proved counterproductive.

The Biden Administration’s stance that the international community should remain united on a range of commitments before granting legitimacy or support beyond humanitarian aid to Taliban is not disputed by anyone but there’ll be misgivings that Washington may start dictating the road map ahead. 

However, there is also grudging acceptance by Washington that while the US may have leverage on the Taliban, as the State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Friday, “But we have all the more leverage when we work in coordination and in harmony with our allies and partners around the globe.” Conversely, on the part of the Taliban too, their restrained behaviour so far signals their desire for recognition. 

The trend toward re-engaging the Taliban may accelerate following the talks today by the visiting British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss in Islamabad. The British Foreign Office readout said the two top diplomats discussed the situation in Afghanistan “and the need for the international community to work together to ensure a coordinated approach. They reaffirmed their commitment to preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terror and providing vital humanitarian assistance for ordinary Afghans.” 

On October 6, Sherman will be in Islamabad on a two-day visit. Britain has been urging Washington for a proactive policy and was the brain behind the meeting of the P-5 last week in New York to reconnect with Russia and China following their rejection of a similar G7 overture earlier. 

Stalemate doesn’t suit the US and the UK. Chinese ambassador Wang Yu met The Taliban Foreign Minister Mowlavi Amir Khan Muttaqi twice during the past fortnight, including on Sunday. Earlier, the special envoys of Russia, China and Pakistan jointly met the Acting Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund.

Evidently, there is some heartburn in London and Washington that the Sino-Russian caravan is on the move on the Silk Road while they are stuck up in New York. This happens when you ride a high horse. The overall climate of relations between the US and the UK on one hand and Russia and China on the other is very poor. Pakistan cannot be unaware of it.