The annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) this year took place in virtual format as geopolitical headwinds amongst both the members of the grouping themselves and an increasing ‘West vs East’ narrative test New Delhi’s own diplomacy and posturing. This is particularly important as India prioritises its presidency of the G20, with the summit slated to take place in September.
The joint statement released at the end of the summit, titled the ‘New Delhi Declaration’, offered a glimpse of both the challenges and opportunities that this geographically critical forum is going to have to deal with in the time to come. While this includes newer challenges brought in by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, older, unresolved issues such as the security and stability of Afghanistan under Taliban rule remain a critical point of cooperation and resistance alike.
The New Delhi Declaration on the issue of Afghanistan says, “The Member States consider it essential to establish an inclusive government in Afghanistan with the participation of representatives of all ethnic, religious and political groups in Afghan society.” This call for inclusivity is not new, and neither is it exclusive to the interests of Russia, China, or other neighbouring or regional states. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States (US), the joint statement between him and President Joe Biden also highlighted the importance of the formation of an “inclusive political structure” in Afghanistan.
However, what is an “inclusive government” in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule? Does the West share the same ideas of inclusivity with those called upon by the likes of Beijing (which has gone as far as calling for a ‘moderate’ government in Kabul) and Moscow? On paper, there seem to be no answers to this, perhaps by design. The overarching idea is that the Taliban-led political hierarchies should not be dominated by the Pashtuns. Scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown highlights that Pashtun-centricity of the ‘new’ Kabul has “turned highly repressive to all forms of opposition”.
The push for ethnic inclusivity in Afghanistan is a double-edged sword. In 2021, the Taliban, as an extremist ideological insurgency, came out on top, when the US signed an agreement with the group in 2020, effectively ending the 20-year-long war. The old adage often attributed to the Taliban, ‘you have the watches, we have the time’, did come true. And as victors, the Taliban movement is split on what level of cooperation it seeks with the international community. The Kandahar-based Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada is often found to be at odds with his colleagues in Kabul on giving ideological concessions in exchange for political legitimacy from the powers that they fought against over decades to preserve their ideological choice.
Calls for inclusivity, for now, have an idealistic and realistic differentiation to them. To begin with, no state or confluence, such as the SCO, has defined what kind of ‘inclusivity’ is being demanded. Considering the region is home to various ethnic backgrounds, many of which are represented in some shape or form within Afghanistan, the expectation of this inclusivity is at odds with prevailing realities. It is also highly unlikely that many states, or political leaders, will step forward to underscore what kind of political construct they would want.
For example, in November 2021, Maulvi Mahdi, a Shiite commander belonging to the ethnic Hazara group and who was also the intelligence chief from the Hazara-dominated Bamyan province in central Afghanistan, was appointed as a shadow district governor by the Taliban. This was marketed widely as the Taliban being more open to ‘others’ and allowing them positions of power in the new interim government, albeit being at the peripheries of said power. This offered a positive narrative to both the international community and Afghanistan’s neighbour Iran, the seat of power for Shiite Islam.
However, the arrangement did not last long, as Mahdi fell out with the Taliban ranks over the control of lucrative mines, and was killed in August 2022 while trying to escape to Iran. Tehran has been one of the most vocal in calling upon the Taliban for giving all ethnic groups political equity considering 10-15 percent of the country’s population is Shia.
Going beyond Afghanistan’s internal dynamics, geopolitically, most countries in the region do not have overlapping interests, making it difficult for a regional-consensus-driven agenda whether within the SCO or beyond. Most regional capitals are approaching the advent of Afghanistan—once again under Taliban rule—from their own national security perspective. For example, many states in Central Asia opened channels of diplomacy and trade with the new Islamic Emirate (IEA) leadership with the immediate aim to maintain peace on the border and avoid an inward collapse of the Afghan state, which could spark an intra-ethnic and intra-tribal civil war. Such a conflict would be difficult to stay out of for the likes of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Pakistan, amongst others and would also unleash a humanitarian and refugee crisis.
Considering that there are no viable alternatives on the horizon, calls for inclusivity may well be the best mode of applying strategic pressure without tactical fallouts. Iran does this as part of its strategy in dealing with the IEA, where it calls for political cohesiveness but also maintains full diplomatic and political contacts with the Taliban rank and file. On the other hand, Pakistan, which has honed Islamist groups as a state strategy, including in Afghanistan, is facing blowback that many had repeatedly warned about. The pro-Pashtun Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s ability to target Pakistan while being a protectorate of the Afghan Taliban has now forced Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to declare terrorism as a ‘hydra-headed monster’ at the SCO summit. This was, expectedly, done without a hint of irony.
The rush towards demanding political inclusivity from the Taliban has been downgraded to a mere talking point while realpolitik takes charge. More than anyone else, the losing side remains the Afghan people as illustrated by the Taliban’s continued push to sideline women from the country’s workforce amongst other issues. For the moment, if Taliban can deliver an acceptable level of regional security, which is a mammoth task in itself considering the movement’s history of taking help from and attracting a variety of other jihadist groups, which includes the likes of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, it will in the interim at least ward off any immediate challenge to its hegemony.
About the author: Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation.
Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation.