By Dr Jiayi Zhou*
Twenty years ago, the six countries bordering Afghanistan signed a declaration expressing their shared commitment to help rebuild the country and a desire for ‘peace and stability in the region’ after the fall of the then Taliban government.
The situation in Afghanistan today is a far cry from what those six countries—China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—envisaged in 2002. The abrupt withdrawal of United States and allied forces and the return to power of the Taliban in August 2021 has generated a host of new security and development challenges. Over a dozen transnational militant and terrorist groups are now present in Afghanistan, several under the auspices of the Taliban. Discrimination on the grounds of gender, ethnicity and religion is pervasive, as are human rights abuses. Already difficult humanitarian, developmental and economic conditions have further deteriorated into a crisis that is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban government—diplomatically isolated and under a range of international sanctions—remains recalcitrant in meeting demands to form a more inclusive government, uphold the rights of women, and counter rather than facilitate terrorist groups.
However, regional cooperation has been quite limited in the past two decades. With the USA and its allies’ governments turning their attention elsewhere, Afghanistan’s neighbours have started to consider how they can best respond to these risks and challenges, and even intervene collectively to tackle them. This topical backgrounder presents several indications that a more regionally grounded, cohesive perspective and approach is indeed emerging—small seeds from which a sustainable response to Afghanistan’s peace, security and development challenges might grow.
Regional cooperation after 2002
It has long been recognized by international analysts, officials and military actors alike that peace and stability in Afghanistan can only be achieved by involving the wider region. Afghanistan is located at the intersection of East and West, and Central and South Asia. Many attempts have been made to capitalize on its strategic location and turn Afghanistan into a regional trade and transport hub over the years. Diplomatic and economic resources poured into developing, negotiating and implementing connectivity initiatives include, from north-to-south, the USA’s New Silk Road initiative; the CASA-100 electricity project connecting Central Asia to Pakistan; the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) gas pipeline project; and a Trans-Afghanistan railway stretching from Uzbekistan down to Pakistan’s seaports. From east to west, a transit route stretching from Afghanistan into Türkiye called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor was agreed in 2018, and China has long held ambitions to bring Afghanistan formally into its Belt and Road Initiative.
These initiatives dovetailed with numerous regional dialogue platforms, from the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan and the Heart of Asia-Istanbul process, to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-Afghanistan Contact Group. Each of these platforms has included countries in the wider neighbourhood in order to encourage regional buy-in and promote cooperation on Afghanistan. A range of ‘minilateral’ initiatives were also established including, in 2017, a trilateral mechanism for China–Afghanistan–Pakistan discussions at the level of foreign ministers. Both China and Russia were also active in the peace process, together with Pakistan and the USA through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group, the Extended Troika and the Moscow Format dialogues.
Despite a plethora of channels and forums for negotiating a regionally cohesive approach, however, a genuinely effective strategy or architecture never emerged. As an indication, the SCO, the most organizationally mature and regularized platform for consultations among Afghanistan’s direct neighbours (excluding Turkmenistan) in fact delivered very little in terms of concrete security, economic or developmental support to Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return.
Indeed, Afghanistan’s neighbours variously took a passive stance towards developments in Afghanistan; unilaterally pursued their interests in ways that did not help broader regional stability; or were sidelined in processes that were largely led, owned and funded by the USA and its allies. Tellingly, US President Joe Biden’s decision to fully withdraw troops within a short timeframe was announced with no forewarning to, let alone consultation with, Afghanistan’s neighbours, even though these states were most likely to be affected by the security vacuum this would create. However, there are signs that this security vacuum has begun to generate greater political will and greater convergence in their political or security interests.
Common interests, shared positions among Afghanistan’s neighbours
There are good reasons why the region can and should start to pull together over Afghanistan, at least to some degree. For one thing, each of Afghanistan’s neighbours is fearful of at least one militant organization present in Afghanistan whose activities are liable to spill over into its own territory. With no country—notwithstanding early speculation about China’s role—able or willing to act as security guarantor, there are few alternatives to more collective regional cooperation. For example, Pakistan, a long-time patron of the Afghan Taliban, has, in the past year encountered limits in its leverage, for example in relation to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist group operating on Afghan territory. Afghanistan’s neighbours might well conclude that unreliable bilateral levers of political and security influence are better backed up by pressure from several states acting in concert, even if only as a unity of negatives. There are signs that this is already happening.
Shared concerns about certain terrorist groups, in particular the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan (IS-K) and al-Qaeda, operating on Afghan territory may provide the impetus for a range of developments. For example, the SCO Regional Anti-terrorism Structure might start to build a common list of designated terrorist organizations. This ambition was mentioned in the main outcome document of the most recent SCO summit in Samarkand.
Beyond reactive counterterrorism, neighbouring states have also applied pressure on the Taliban to reform. While normative issues like gender-based discrimination may fall low on their list of priorities, Afghanistan’s neighbours have been much more outspoken on other elements of inclusivity. The recent SCO Samarkand declaration, for instance, was explicit about the need for the Taliban to work towards an inclusive government ‘with representatives from all ethnic, religious and political groups of Afghan society’. More than lip-service, states have also highlighted inclusivity as a basic principle of engagement and likely precondition for diplomatic recognition. Hence, this offers a tangible incentive to the still-isolated Taliban regime.
Regional actors have also offered other ‘carrots’ to the Taliban government. For instance, under the Tunxi Initiative of the Neighbouring Countries of Afghanistan on Supporting Economic Reconstruction in and Practical Cooperation with Afghanistan, which was announced in April 2022, Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbours and Russia pledged to offer concrete humanitarian aid packages. In November, a group of countries of the wider region, meeting under the Moscow Format for Consultation on Afghanistan, called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s financial assets.
While many channels of foreign aid into Afghanistan have evaporated since August 2021, a reduction in security incidents has also opened prospects for a certain amount of bilateral economic engagement by Afghanistan’s neighbours—which the Taliban has actively courted. For example, Uzbekistan has continued discussions regarding a planned railway project linking it to Pakistan via Afghanistan. The 2010 Pakistan–Afghanistan Transit Trade Agreement remains in force, allowing Afghanistan to export goods to India through Pakistani territory. Negotiations between Pakistan and Uzbekistan on an agreement on trade and transit through Afghan territory are ongoing.
Indian and Iranian ambitions for greater connectivity through Iran’s Chabahar seaport, which depend in part on Afghanistan, also remain on the table. Russia has signed a number of trade agreements with Afghanistan. China resumed issuing visas for Afghan businesspeople, and from August 2022 has waived tariffs on imports of 98 per cent of Afghan goods. It has also continued to offer the prospect of Afghanistan being incorporated into the Belt and Road Initiative. Border trade with Afghanistan’s neighbours appears to be increasing, with border customs collections in 2022 higher than in the previous year.
These regional economic activities and limited forms of cooperation are unlikely to substantially resolve the crisis of poverty and underdevelopment in Afghanistan. The humanitarian shortfall in Afghanistan remains tremendous, but the hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign aid poured into Afghanistan over 20 years often exacerbated issues of poor governance and corruption. Lower levels of regional economic engagement, on the other hand, may be much more in line with the absorptive capacity of Afghan economic and social institutions. Exemplifying the need for a better-calibrated and more scale-sensitive approach, a Chinese initiative to import over 1000 tonnes of pine nuts from Afghanistan reportedly saw the price of pine nuts in Afghanistan rising by several hundred per cent in early 2022. Economic cooperation and private-sector development that is more tailored to Afghan economic conditions could potentially be sustainable, although there remains a need to ensure that the benefits are transferred back to Afghan society through public service provision.
Potential dialogue platforms for future regional cooperation
Serious challenges to regional engagement remain. International sanctions have made it harder for many large-scale economic plans and connectivity initiatives—particularly those that had the support of multilateral funding institutions—to go forward. On the political side, the global non-recognition of the Taliban government also means that most pre-2021 regional formats for dialogue on Afghanistan, including the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group, are currently frozen or defunct. However, a few continue to operate, and some new ones have opened since the Taliban takeover.
The Moscow Format for Consultation on Afghanistan was established in 2017 to discuss how to ensure political stability after a US withdrawal. The fourth meeting under the Format was held in November this year and included the special envoys for Afghanistan and senior officials from China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as representatives of Türkiye and three Middle Eastern states as guests. After the meeting, Russia’s special presidential representative for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, reported that ‘we all unequivocally support the formation of an ethno-politically inclusive government in that country as soon as possible’.
More broad-based multilateral dialogue platforms also continue to operate or have been newly established. The city of Tashkent in Uzbekistan has hosted annual international meetings on Afghanistan since 2019. At a meeting in July 2022, which included the Taliban, nearly 30 states were represented, including the USA and the European Union. In September 2021 a new multilateral dialogue mechanism, the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting Among the Neighbouring Countries of Afghanistan, was established. This is currently the highest-level intergovernmental format for topics related to Afghanistan. In the third such meeting, held in March 2022 in Tunxi, China, an eight-point consensus statement was announced, which included shared principles for neighbourly engagement and also urged the Taliban to make a ‘clean break’ with terrorist networks.
The meeting also saw the establishment of the Tunxi Initiative and the announcement of participating countries’ economic commitments and aid packages to Afghanistan. To continue the work of the Foreign Ministers’ Meetings, regular consultations are to take place among all the participating countries’ special envoys to Afghanistan, and three working groups are to be established on political and diplomatic issues; economic and humanitarian issues; and security and stability issues. Notably, on the sidelines of the Tunxi conference, China also hosted a meeting of the so-called Extended Troika with Taliban representatives. The Extended Troika dialogue format on Afghanistan comprises China, Pakistan, Russia and the USA and first met in 2019.
Other neighbours have also been proactive. In October 2021 Iran hosted a regional conference of the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s six direct neighbours plus Russia. This continued earlier discussions between them concerning cooperation on inclusive government, peace and security in Afghanistan. Two months later, in December 2021, Pakistan hosted a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with an emphasis on the situation in Afghanistan. This meeting included representatives of the Taliban, the EU and all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Indian authorities have also made Afghanistan a centrepiece of their approach to broader Central Asia.
The eclectic mix of regional dialogue formats and the different initiatives cannot be said to constitute an effective regional architecture for managing the many humanitarian, economic, political and security challenges that Afghanistan and its neighbours face. Nevertheless, it does offer some possible paths for progress—and not only for limited and qualified political engagement with the Taliban. These dialogues help to clarify and coordinate the positions of neighbouring states, and to unify their voices in ways that put more concerted pressure on the Taliban regime than might be possible for any one country acting alone.
There are some genuine common interests and positions held by all countries and organizations with a stake in Afghanistan’s future, regional as well extra-regional. None wants to see a destabilized Afghanistan that poses risks in terms of globally active terrorist groups like IS-K or al-Qaeda. And all have urged a more inclusive Taliban government, even if their definitions of inclusivity may differ.
However, ultimately progress is largely contingent on the Taliban themselves, who for various ideological reasons have continued to govern with principles that are largely anathema to the international community. There are also still key points of divergence between the interests and positions of Afghanistan’s neighbours and also between them and other international and multilateral stakeholders—the latter of whom place much greater emphasis on the normative topics of gender equality, human rights and democracy. These differences are important and cannot be brushed aside.
There seems to be little alternative to some form of international engagement with the Taliban. Europe, the USA and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have largely shifted their attention away from Afghanistan to the Russian war in Ukraine. Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, for obvious reasons, have no such luxury. It is precisely for this reason that any efforts by Afghanistan’s neighbours to engage conditionally and responsibly with Taliban-led Afghanistan may offer the best hope of finding a pathway towards lasting peace and development for both Afghanistan and the broader region.
*About the author: Dr Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the Conflict, Peace and Security research area at SIPRI.
Source: This article was published by SIPRI