Reflections on Events in Afghanistan-35

Visiting high-level Iranian officials (L) and Taliban authorities chaired by Deputy Acting Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (C) discussed institutional underpinnings of Iran-Afghan cooperation, Kabul, November 15, 2021 

35. Taliban government is steadily consolidating 

The acknowledgement of “shared interests” with Russia regarding Afghanistan by the new US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West following his discussions in Moscow on November 14 with the Kremlin’s Special Presidential Representative Zamir Kabulov and Security Council’s Deputy Secretary Alexander Venediktov is an important step forward. 

Kabulov later disclosed that Russia and the US are in agreement that the interim government of the Taliban has got its act together in terms of governance and control over the country. Although a week has passed since Kabulov’s disclosure, Washington has not disputed it. 

Of course, West’s consultations in Moscow followed the meeting of the extended troika in Islamabad on November 11 (which he attended) and therefore, it stands to reason that there is a nascent consensus now amongst the principal external protagonists — Russia, the US, China and Pakistan — that the six-week old Taliban Government is now a veritable reality in regional politics and internationally. 

Clearly, that puts the “Extended Troika” format as the lead platform for the international community’s engagement with the authorities in Kabul.

Where do things go from this point? First and foremost, the international community will no doubt keep nudging the Taliban to move faster toward an inclusive government and to liberally interpret Shariah law. There are things the Taliban can do and things that it cannot and will not. The announcement in Kabul this week that all girls will resume their school education all over Afghanistan by the appointed date in March 2022  and the commitment that there are no plans to restrict women from working in schools are steps in the right direction. 

The level of violence has palpably declined compared to the rule under Ashraf Ghani’s regime. Afghanistan has never been a Switzerland or Bhutan, at peace with itself. There is bound to be residual violence after four decades of a bitterly fought civil war and forever will there be doomsday predictions by interest groups and countries that see advantages in continued anarchy in Afghanistan, but the US’ stance is crucial. 

Without American support, another regime change project in Afghanistan cannot fly and even the garrulous “resistance” figures from Panjshir Valley (and their mentors abroad) would know that. 

The sense that the US is gradually and steadily shifting into a pragmatic gear vis-a-vis the Taliban government will act as catalyst for other Western countries to engage with the authorities in Kabul. Germany and the Netherlands have joined Britain in that direction. 

No doubt, this has rubbed on the latest report by Deborah Lyons, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to the Security Council in New York on November 17. 

Lyons acknowledged that her engagement with the de-facto Taliban administration over the past three months in Kabul and the provinces have been “generally useful and constructive”, with the authorities seeking to have a UN presence and international recognition, as well as looking to overcome the trust deficit between them and the international community. 

On governance, Lyons reported, the Taliban government have started raising revenues from customs, which they have used to address pressing issues such as paying civil servant salaries.  Further, the Taliban continue to provide security to the UN presence and allow broad humanitarian access, including for female humanitarian workers.  

In a huge statement that spoke volumes, she pointed out that the changed security situation has permitted UNAMA to visit parts of the country they have not accessed in 15 years, and to provide vital assistance.  

Lyons said “difficult issues” have been raised with the Taliban and while “they have taken cognisance of such concerns, they make clear that for now there are limits to concessions they are willing to make on some issues.” This comes as no surprise and the Western world must come to terms with the realities of Afghan culture, history and traditions of a deeply observant Muslim society. 

Most important, Lyons underscored that the dire humanitarian situation in the country is “preventable”, as it is largely due to financial sanctions that have paralysed the economy. She exhorted the international community to urgently find a way to provide financial support to health-care workers in State hospitals, staff in food security programmes, and eventually to teachers.” 

Lyons concluded that UNAMA will aim to play a vital role in a sustained and structured policy dialogue between the de facto authorities, other Afghan stakeholders and the wider region and international community, with the goal of establishing a pathway towards forging constructive relations between Afghanistan and the world at large. read more

Overall, Lyons presented a realistic but cautiously optimistic picture. We can now safely, conclusively bury the scepticism whether the Taliban have “really changed” since the 1990s. The definitive answer is, ‘YES, they indeed have  changed beyond any doubt.’

The ball is now in President Biden’s court to lift the sanctions. But the US is a house divided house chaffing under under the humiliation suffered in the war and is still in a punishing mood. Alas, the Congress’ focus is on pillorying Biden politically with an eye on the mid-term elections next year. 

Biden’s heart is in the right place alright and he is capable of the milk of human kindness but he is an increasingly distracted leader today and is becoming politically weak to assert. As for his team in the state department, they are far too bureaucratic and in any case immersed in the cold war era strategic culture. 

However, the plain truth is that the initiative lies ultimately only with the region. There is a possibility that the Taliban will be invited to attend the next ministerial of neighbouring countries — and possibly the extended troika meeting — in Beijing early next year. 

Iran has shown the way on the art of the possible without waiting for the green signal from the extended troika. On Thursday, the Ministry of Finance announced in Kabul that Afghanistan and Iran have created several committees to expand cooperation in various areas between the two countries such as the economy, agriculture, railways, trade and the investment sectors. 

By the way, one of the proposals discussed is the creation of a trilateral committee between Afghanistan, Iran and China to build and fund the Herat-Mazar and Wakhan-Kashgar railways, which would have profound impact on regional connectivity. 

There are indications that a Taliban government delegation is hoping to receive an invitation visit Moscow for similar discussions. Clearly, the Taliban realises the pivotal role Russia can play in the stabilisation of the situation in Afghanistan. (here, here, here and here)