Taleban’s triumph rattles the neighbourhood

Posted: August 31, 2021 in Straits Times
Tags: , , , , ,

Still catching up on posting from the past few weeks, this one for my local paper here in Singapore the Straits Times, looking at what has been happening in Afghanistan through its regional lens. Given my interests in Central Asia and China’s impact across its western borders, this question is likely to be one that will bounce back again and again.

Taleban’s triumph rattles the neighbourhood

Afghanistan’s neighbours in Central Asia and Pakistan will be the first to be hit by the fallout but geography may also temper the Taleban’s radical ambitions

Taleban fighters patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug 17, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

We tend to view the arc of history through the lens of great power politics. This and the chaos of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place in Kabul have dominated the international conversation around Afghanistan. Almost entirely missed is the impact on the country’s immediate neighbours in Central Asia as well as Pakistan.

Refugee flows into Iran and Pakistan have started to grow once again, while in Uzbekistan a new tent city has appeared near the border. In recent weeks, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have had Afghan soldiers (and in Uzbekistan’s case pilots of military airplanes) cross into their territory seeking sanctuary from the Taleban. In Turkmenistan, the shelling across its border got to the point that the country had to send in negotiators to talk to the Taleban to ask it to restrain itself.

What happens in Afghanistan is first and foremost going to affect its immediate neighbours. While China’s presence within this group tends to draw the focus of the Taleban triumph into the wider debate about the implications of the Sino-US clash, this slightly irrelevant focus misses the more significant immediate fallout on the country’s front-line neighbours.

The global lens is understandable. The initial American decision to go into Afghanistan was a response to the terrorist atrocities of Sept 11, 2001, directed by Al-Qaeda from camps in Taleban-controlled territory. As a result, one of the primary concerns people are now worried about is the possibility that this could happen again despite the Taleban’s assurances about not exporting terrorism.

BROKEN PROMISES

There are good reasons for this trepidation. The Taleban made similar promises pre-Sept 11, 2001. China, in particular, through its Pakistani allies, reached out to the Taleban government asking it to do something about groups of Uighur militants that were using bases in Afghanistan to plan attacks against China. While it is not clear how many attacks actually resulted from these camps, there is little evidence that the Taleban actually did much about trying to move the Uighur militants gathered there. Similarly, the Taleban was said to have told Al-Qaeda to refrain from causing trouble – a message that was clearly not heeded.

Second, the logic behind this concern about the gap between the Taleban’s words and actions is fairly clear – from the Taleban’s perspective, groups like Al-Qaeda are fellow ideological travellers. While their specific goals may sometimes vary, they are all fighting for what they believe to be God’s greater glory and a similarly warped interpretation of their religion. Not only is it difficult to imagine the Taleban turning on fellow believers, but it is also even harder to imagine it will do so after it has fought alongside them for 20 years in a war that culminated in a glorious victory against the world’s main superpower.

However, the US pullout does not mean that Muslim radical groups would immediately launch attacks in the West. While there is no doubt that a warm wind of victory is blowing through the global militant movement – as seen, for example, in videos of Hayat Tahrir al Sham fighters in Syria giving out sweets to celebrate the Taleban victory – the most immediate impact is likely to happen in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. These two regions north and south of Afghanistan are the ones that have most substantially suffered from terrorist activities emanating from the country in the past.

MILITANT MOVEMENTS

In the decade prior to Sept 11, 2001, Tajikistan had faced a brutal civil war which involved cross-border insurgent groups using Afghanistan as a base. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, southern Kyrgyzstan was invaded by groups of militants with links and bases in Afghanistan. And in February 1999, a series of bombs went off in downtown Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, that were linked to terrorist networks operating from Afghanistan.

While accurate information is hard to come by, there are reports that Tajik militants have been seen taking over border posts or establishing encampments across the Tajikistan border in Badakhshan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has long fought alongside the Taleban and is believed to be re-grouping in the north.

The Taleban and Al-Qaeda United Nations Monitoring Group reports suggest that there has been a flow of Central Asian militants from Syria back to Afghanistan. And Kyrgyz security officials have voiced concern about the return home of nationals who once fought in Afghanistan.

It is also notable that some elements of the former Afghan government have moved to Central Asia. The Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan appears to have decided to resist the Taleban takeover by declaring a former first vice-president the country’s new president. It is also trying to issue an Interpol Red Notice for former president Ashraf Ghani, now in the United Arab Emirates, for stealing from the Treasury.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that northern Afghan warlords Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Atta Noor have both fled into Uzbekistan. Central Asia is increasingly looking like a haven for deposed Afghan officials and leaders, a development that could lead to future friction with the new leadership in Kabul.

Even more grim is the roster of incidents that have taken place in Pakistan. As violence and militancy in Afghanistan have escalated, we have seen similar growth in Pakistan. Militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) with links across the border have emerged in Pakistan, fighting against the state. In December 2014, heavily armed TTP fighters stormed a Pakistan army-run school in Peshawar, killing 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.

Groups that have traditionally had links to the Pakistani state, like Lashkar-e-Toiba (infamous for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a brutal sectarian organisation, have long had bases in Afghanistan, fighting alongside the Taleban. While elements in the Pakistan security establishment have developed links with these groups to provide them with “strategic depth” against India, they have also been linked to attacks within Pakistan. It is never entirely clear how much Islamabad or Rawalpindi, where Pakistan’s army is centred, actually control these groups.

Shia Iran too has cause for concern. In the late 1990s, the Taleban was responsible for the massacre of a group of Iranian diplomats that it captured.

REASON FOR MODERATION

But in much the same way that it is in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood that we are most likely to see trouble, it is from these countries that the longer-term answer to Afghanistan’s instability is going to come. An entirely landlocked state, Afghanistan is reliant on roads, rail and routes through its neighbours to get to international markets. And broadly speaking, the neighbourhood recognises that it offers the best chance for Afghanistan’s future development.

Uzbekistan has taken the lead in trying to bring Afghanistan into the Central Asian space, hosting most recently a large conference in Tashkent, shortly before the collapse of the Ghani government, which brought together officials from around the world to discuss South and Central Asian connectivity.

Afghanistan is clearly the lynchpin that ties this all together. This is an idea that the United States and international financial institutions like the World Bank have long championed. In 2011, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even spoke of establishing a New Silk Road linking Afghanistan to its neighbours. Beijing blanched at the American use of the name but little resource was put behind the idea which largely withered on the vine.

The World Bank and Asian Development Bank have invested vast amounts in regional connectivity, with large parts of it focused on tying historically underdeveloped Afghanistan back into its neighbourhood.

Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA1000 scheme to bring Tajik hydropower to electricity-poor Afghanistan and Pakistan have started though progress has been slow.

And the most practical move to advance China’s Belt and Road Initiative push with Afghanistan is not going to come through mining concessions, but from linking Chinese investments in Pakistan, being done under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, to Afghanistan. As the communities and local economies across that border are already deeply interlinked, it would make sense for the infrastructure to catch up.

None of the Central Asians (or Chinese) are entirely happy with the Taleban takeover. They have seen trouble emanate from this kind of regime before, and are always fearful of the inspiration (and physical succour in the form of training camps) it might provide extremists within their own communities.

Pakistan may appear happier about the Taleban’s return to power, believing it controls the situation through its longstanding links to the Taleban, but the Pakistanis have a habit of miscalculating their level of control. The TTP is a perfect example of this, and even the militants in Pakistan that the government does have some sway over have little long-term affection for the corrupt and ideologically corrupt institutions they engage with in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Iran has made no pretence of being happy that a violent Sunni organisation has taken power in Kabul. But crucially, all of these neighbours have accepted the reality of the situation and all will have to live with the consequences. We should not mistake engagement for happiness. It is purely pragmatic.

With the Americans out of the picture, the geopolitical conversation around Afghanistan takes on a different perspective. It is its immediate neighbourhood that is going to feel the most dramatic fallout, and it is similarly from there that the long-term answer to Afghanistan’s stability will come, with or without the Taleban in power.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

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