The Taliban Will Govern Afghanistan. What Does the Future Hold for China and the Central Asian Region?

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Getting a stable government in place together with support and assistance could usher in a more reasonable Taliban 2.0 and truly redevelop the country. Much depends on China, Russia, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.  

Taliban Officials at the Presidential Palace in Kabul

With the announcement that the Taliban have overthrown the Afghanistan national government and are now about to declare an “Islamic State of Afghanistan” the question now becomes what happens next? And how will this impact on China and regional security? Could a Taliban government be the best available option?

Who are the Taliban?

The Taliban, known in Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), are a hardline Islamic group who previously ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban have been condemned internationally for the harsh enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, which has resulted in the brutal treatment of many Afghans. During their incumbency as Government, they were recognized only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all of which have been covertly funding the organization.

The Taliban’s ideology has been described as combining an “innovative” form of sharia Islamic law based on Deobandi fundamentalism combined with militant Islam and Pashtun social and cultural norms. Past Deobandi philosophers have discussed the unity of Hindu’s, Christians, and Muslims, in addition to multiculturalism, however since the 1970’s has splintered into various factions – not all are militant and espouse violence. However, many were aligned with expelling the Soviet military out of Afghanistan in the late 1970’s and were provided with US weapons by Washington to weaken and distract the Soviet Union, events which eventually lead to its dissolving in 1992. Much of that weaponry was then used by now battle-hardened Islamic militants against US troops. The main goal of the Taliban has been to govern, while at the same time for much of the past 40 years it has been fighting what essentially amounts to a civil war to do so.

Crucially however, they are a regional tribal group made up of Pashtuns, an ethnic group from the South and West of Afghanistan, educated in Madrassas (Islamic schools) and whose background stems from their fighting (and being supported by the United States to do so) the Soviet armies in the 1980’s. Pashtuns make up about 48% of the total tribal demographics of Afghanistan and are its largest ethnic group. There are also Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and a smaller number in India. This tribal make-up of Afghanistan is the primary reason why a diplomatic rather than military solution to the issue needs to be found. However, tribal conflicts and differences remain and while the Taliban wish to control the entire country, the marginal majority are not Pashtun and prefer to see a proportionate government representing all fourteen major ethnic groups. The Taliban however claim authority over all Afghan Muslims – but not others, a crucial difference between them and Al-Qaeda. 

The Al-Qaeda Issue

Al-Qaeda ideologues envision the removal of all foreign influences in Muslim countries and believe a Christian-Jewish alliance is conspiring to destroy Islam. It represents a more violent form of Islamic militancy than the Taliban, as being jihadists, they believe that killing civilians and other Muslim sects is religiously sanctioned and wishes to take this fight to other countries. It also wishes to impose strict forms of sharia law. As a result of these doctrines, Al-Qaeda has carried out many attacks on people whom it considers enemies or non-Muslim and is also responsible for instigating sectarian violence among Muslims. Following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Al Qaeda has been led by Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. From 2021 however it has reportedly suffered from a deterioration of central command over its regional operations, which more recently have concentrated on Egypt and African operations. Most Al-Qaeda members are not Afghans.

The Afghanistan Al-Qaeda issue is that in the past they have infiltrated the Taliban and been treated as ‘guests’ in the country. It was this arrangement that led to Al-Qaeda using Afghanistan as a base from which they launched numerous terrorist attacks worldwide including the 9-11 destruction of New Yorks World Trade Centre. It is understood there are Al-Qaeda groups operating in Afghanistan, although the Taliban have said they are not welcome. It is the potential of Al-Qaeda that worries the West, and it remains to be seen whether the Taliban, itself some politically and tribally fractured, can resist any interference from Al-Qaeda warlords. Al-Qaeda claim authority over all Muslims worldwide. 

Recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate Government

This process is also globally divisive and is likely to remain so, which will not be helpful in helping Afghanistan achieve any settled peace. Both Russia, with its strong military presence, and China have stated that there cannot be peace in Afghanistan without the diplomatic involvement of the Taliban. Representatives of the Taliban Government have met with both Russia and Chinese foreign Ministers, and it appears both countries will formally recognize the Taliban as the ruling Government. It can be expected that neighboring Pakistan will also do so, and possibly Turkey. Afghanistan’s bordering Governments of Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan may in time also recognize the Taliban as the ruling authority if they can be persuaded the Taliban mean no harm. All these countries are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation whose Council of Foreign Ministers met in Dushanbe two weeks ago to discuss the Afghan issue.

What is becoming apparent however is that official recognition of a Taliban government may only be restricted to these countries, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The United States and United Kingdom, along with France and several other Western nations have stated they will not recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government in Afghanistan. The problem with this attitude is it evades reality – the Taliban are about to be in power, and it would be advantageous to provide support to them to enable a stable government to take shape. China and Russia both recognize this – the West does not. As a result, political decisions made in the West to delegitimize the Taliban will mean no financial or other support will be given to the country and no diplomatic contact will be made. This is extremely unhelpful when what is required, whether one likes the Taliban or not, is to establish an Afghani government with stability. In not doing so, the Western powers make the return of a group such as Al-Qaeda more, rather than less likely.

With the United States and NATO leaving Afghanistan, who will provide military support and security?

The responsibility for Afghanistan’s internal security will now fall on the Taliban, who appear to have ‘inherited’ large parts of the US-trained Afghan military in addition to large quantities of American military hardware, including items such as Black Hawk helicopters and a large arsenal of weaponry. Assimilating the Afghan military into Taliban governance will take time.

On a regional basis the security issue appears to now fall on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Security Council, which through its member states China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan possesses access to numerous military and airbases, and has been trained, mainly by Russia, to deal with terrorist and security matters. Crucially, this body did not exist 20 years ago at the time of the Al-Qaeda attacks in New York. Now it does and has been active in preparing for this eventuality. While Russia will take the military lead, it remains to be seen the extent to which the Chinese military will be involved.

Which Countries are keeping their Embassies open in Afghanistan?

So far, China, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey have committed to keep their Embassies open and staff are there. They will be working with the Taliban to provide support and assistance to negotiate terms for a sustainable Government to be put into place.

The United States, United Kingdom and French, along with the incumbent Afghan President have either all fled Afghanistan and closed their missions or are about too. Some smaller nations have ‘relocated’ their Embassies, meaning that diplomatic channels remain open but are now based in a third country such as Uzbekistan. The United States now has no diplomatic contact with the Taliban.

US officials being evacuated from the US Embassy in Kabul. Despite the images being almost identical, the US Secretary of State dismissed any comparisons with the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War when US helicopters conducted the exact same operation.

What does the Taliban say it will do once in power?

The Taliban have said they want peace and stated early this morning from the Afghan Presidential Palace in Kabul that ‘The war is over’. A Taliban spokesman has also stated that the type of rule and its format ‘will be announced soon’. The Taliban have made various promising statements in recent weeks, such as that they do not intend to attack any other country, and that Taliban forces had been instructed “not to scare civilians and to allow them to resume normal activities”.

The question now is whether the Taliban, with assistance from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, can structure a viable government that will not wage war on its own people – as mentioned the Taliban are Pashtun’s, and have had conflicts with previous Afghani tribes – who make up 52% of the total Afghanistan demographic. In a sense, the Taliban are being given a second chance to govern following their failings 20 years ago. Whether they can manage this depends upon whether internal divisions with the Taliban, suppressed during the common goal of defeating the Western powers, can maintain stability or whether they will descend once again into factional fighting. The country is awash with weapons and any division of the Taliban into different groups will see a civil war erupt with devastating consequences.

If the Taliban can hold the peace, what does the future hold?

If the Taliban can hold together and construct a viable, long serving government, then the longer-term prognosis is better. The Taliban has already stated they intend to govern Afghanistan in a manner ‘that is good for Afghanistan’ although it remains to be seen how far this extends to extremist Islamic tendencies to please Allah, at the expense of commerce and trade. But there are encouraging signs. To maintain peace and in the likely event Western countries will shun their government, the Taliban need to raise funds. They can do this in several ways:

  • Import-Export & Customs Duties
  • The Taliban already hold all the land crossings with its neighboring states and can collect the applicable duties on imported goods. In 2020, imported goods into Afghanistan were worth an estimated US$6.537 billion with duty payable on these products.
  • VAT 
  • Afghanistan passed laws in June that will see VAT at 10% come into effect from December 22, 2021. Assuming this happens, this will generate another source of fiscal income for the government.
  • Transit Fees 
  • The Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline is already operational and earns the Afghanistan government transit fees.

Each of these revenue sources are capable of being developed. If the Taliban can hold the peace, the economy will start to recover, consumer demand increase, and supply chains re-emerge. Imports and exports will improve, while several notable infrastructure projects are also at the development stage. These include extending rail connectivity from the Iran border (part of the INSTC network linking India with Iran and onto Russia via the Caspian Sea) through to Kabul.

Then there is the Trans-Afghan Railway which Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan have agreed to. This route will run from Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan to Kabul, then head east to the Pakistan border near Peshawar before heading south to Pakistan’s seaports at Karachi and Gwadar. This gives both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan seaport access for the first time. The route itself has been operational via road, hauling goods from Gwadar to Kabul and can be expected to reopen once the situation in Kabul stabilizes. Rail connectivity would hugely boost volumes.

Afghanistan’s Mineral Resources

If the Taliban can hold together, and Afghanistan peace and security be maintained, then these projects can be expected to go ahead. Afghanistan will become part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and become an effective extension of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China, for its part has stated it is prepared to invest billions into redeveloping and industrializing Afghanistan. That will mean the Taliban providing access to the estimated US$1 trillion worth of minerals that remain in the ground in the country and can be mined. In this respect, Afghanistan is not resource poor – it has significant mineral deposits, with huge unexploited reserves of copper, coal, iron, gas, cobalt, mercury, gold, lithium, and thorium, valued at over US$1 trillion. Lithium is an important component in the next generation of electric batteries.

Easing of Sanctions

Afghanistan has faced extreme, US led sanctions on its economy, which have been upheld by the United Nations. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met a Taliban delegation last month in Moscow, where the Russian Foreign Ministry was given a request to ease sanctions upon them. That extended not just to Russia but a request that such a message was passed to the UN Security Council – of which Russia and China are full members.

There are mechanisms to lift sanctions on the Taliban – UN Security Council Resolution 2513 explicitly frames the possibility of lifting sanctions and pushing forward an Afghanistan peace process. These were passed last year and welcome a Taliban commitment to prevent any group or individual, including Al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of other countries. It also emphasizes the importance of the group’s commitment to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations with all sides to discuss and agree on a political settlement. In addition, the Security Council resolution opens the door to sanctions against the Taliban being dropped given the right circumstances and progress in peace talks, stating “Readiness upon the commencement of the intra-Afghan negotiations to consider the start of the review of the status of designations of individuals, groups, undertakings and entities on the list.” Interestingly, India is the current Chair of the UN sanctions committee as concerns Afghanistan until 2022.

What will happen next?

The Taliban will be sitting down with Afghanistan leaders as well as with diplomats from China, Russia, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to look at how best to restructure the government, the economy and maintain peace. Western media and governments will be dismissive and unhelpful. The key issue now however is to put into place a sustainable government that does not fracture into differing tribal squabbles.

The Chinese government have stated that “The Taliban are quietly transforming into a political organization focusing on the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” If true, and assuming a Taliban government can develop internal stability, then Afghanistan may yet be able to live up to its strategic potential in Central Asia – the first time it would have had such an opportunity since war first broke out in 1979.

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