The United States’ chaotic departure from Afghanistan has left the region with mounting security questions and uncertain alliances as key countries take a cautious stance toward the new Taliban government, regional experts said in a recent online East-West Center discussion panel.
Experts speaking in the “The New Geopolitics of Afghanistan” webinar predicted that Pakistan likely will be the only country in the region to recognize the new government in the near term, while countries like China and Russia take a wait-and-see approach. Security concerns have heightened, they said, as jihadists—potentially emboldened by the Taliban’s return to power—continue to target the region and areas beyond it.
“If 9/11 changed the world, and that happened because of one man and his organization sitting in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul is certainly going to have very wide ramifications,” said the panel’s moderator, Nirmal Ghosh, US bureau chief for Singapore’s The Straits Times.
The Taliban’s professed openness to negotiating a more inclusive government has been increasingly challenged as news breaks of its emerging hardline approach. “The narrative has changed,” said Harsh V. Pant, head of studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Places such as Central Asia and Russia, which “at one point were much more optimistic about Taliban 2.0, have suddenly given up those ideas.”
Of all the countries in the region, India has perhaps the lowest expectation of meaningful change from the Taliban government, Pant said: “India’s position has always been that it’s unlikely that the Taliban are going to fundamentally alter either their ideological predispositions or their operational realities on the ground.”
Pakistan ‘can’t afford not to engage’
When the Taliban was previously in power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, only three countries recognized them as the country’s legitimate government: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has already expressed support for the new Taliban government this time around, said Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and it is unlikely to apply serious pressure for reform. Pakistani officials believe they simply can’t afford not to engage with their neighbor, he said.
For Pakistan, India continues to pose the primary existential threat, and Pakistani leaders have worked to block relations from developing between India and Afghanistan, Haqqani noted. While Pakistan has concerns over its own “Pakistani Taliban” known as the TTP, whose attacks have killed thousands of civilians in the country, it is nonetheless willing to continue engaging with the Taliban government in Kabul, he said.
Friction with China
China and Afghanistan have been at odds over a Muslim separatist organization based in China’s Xinjiang province, leading to “not very warm” relations between the two countries, said Niva Yau Tsz Yan, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and researcher at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. This coolness comes despite China’s efforts over the past 10 years to build an alliance with Afghanistan: “It hasn’t worked, and we shouldn’t exaggerate this kind of friendship,” said Yan.
China’s international and domestic statements have also conflicted, she said. On one hand, officials want to present a narrative that the Taliban defeated the United States, casting the US as a loser. But the word “Taliban” is widely associated with terrorism in the minds of the Chinese public, leading the government to avoid the term in favor of the “new government.”
“China doesn’t want to take the lead in recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government,” Yan said her sources have told her. “It actually has been asking Russia officials to do that first so that China can follow.” But Russia has basically declined, she said, because it is not interested in engaging the Taliban government so quickly even though it has kept its embassy in the country open, along with Iran.
South Asia terrorism worries
Other than Pakistan and India, few South Asian countries have made public comments in recent weeks about events in Afghanistan, according to Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Their relations with the Taliban mainly have been limited to issues like negotiating evacuations and humanitarian aid, he said.
“Certainly, there’s a very real concern that the Taliban takeover will lead to a more conducive environment for international terrorist groups to reconstitute themselves and pose greater threats in the region,” Kugelman said, pointing out that Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka have all faced Islamic terrorism. “No country in the world has sent more fighters on a per capita basis to Iraq and Syria than has the Maldives,” he said. “So there’s a history there.”
Regional security vacuum
Psychologically, at least, the US withdrawal symbolizes the end of the post-9/11 world, said international relations professor Murat Somer from Koç University in Istanbul, Turkey, but a new paradigm hasn’t yet emerged to take its place. The Biden administration’s handling of the hasty US departure did not look good, he said, and some Turkish commentators have emphasized the regional security vacuum it has left behind. Any Chinese or Russian influence in Afghanistan has implications for Turkey, and is something the country would like to balance, he said.
With the opposition now gaining popularity, the Turkish government is transitioning to a more pro-secular approach, Somer added, which could be reflected in the country’s future stance toward the Taliban regime.
Leveraging recognition for reform
The big question over the next few months and possibly years, Haqqani said, is whether the international community can leverage offers of recognition and humanitarian aid to influence the Taliban toward more inclusive reform. But so far the new regime appears to remain staunchly ideological, so it may well decide it can live without these incentives.