Taliban is regionally and internationally considered one of the most influential playmakers in Afghanistan. Although it has for 17 years now been under incessant attacks by the Afghan army and the US-led International Alliance, the movement has been maintaining control on about half of the Afghani territory.
As a result, regional and international powers have come to the conclusion that without Taliban sitting at the negotiating table, it would be hard for Afghanistan to enjoy stability and peace. However, it seems that major powers entangled in the Afghan war remain reluctant to invite Taliban to take part in drawing up the future of Afghanistan.
The adversaries, including Taliban itself, appear to be heading for a no-win situation. However, contradicting assessments do not exclude the possibly that the Afghan war, which has been dragging on for decades, is part of a strategy by the major parties to sap the strength of the movement and force its leaders to come to the negotiating table ready to accept what they would be offered.
The Afghani crisis broke out in the wake of the coup launched by the communist government of Mohamed Daoud Khan in 1978. After a year, Soviet troops were deployed in Afghanistan to fight Islamist groups resisting the seizure of power. The US, which was involved in a heated Cold War with the Soviet Union, entered the fray by support the alleged Mujahedeen. Allying themselves with the US, Arab and Muslim countries mobilised Jihadists-aka-Mujahedeen and provided them with logistic and political support before sending them to Afghanistan. These Jihadists were called the Arab Afghan.
Afghanistan plunged into a tragic civil war after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops and the ensuing collapse of the communist government in Kabul. Warring factions ignored initiatives to stop fighting and seek political solution. In 1995, the war-ravaged Afghanistan witnessed the rise of a key player named Taliban, whose fighters are mostly belonging to Pashtun, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country.
The Islamist movement vowed to end the Soviet occupation and apply their exceptional vision of Muslim Sharia. Only a year after it ascended the stage, Taliban managed to seize power and form the government.
However, the Islamist movement was dealt a devastating blow when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001. A government loyal to Washington was installed. Since then, Taliban has been stubbornly resisting attacks launched jointly by the US and its allies. Taliban’s survival in this respect is attributed to reasons, including:
– Unlike different Islamist movements, Taliban has a religious and nationalist ideology; and represents the armed wing of Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in the country, which represents about 60% of the Afghan population. Pashtun-linked Talban compelled the US to think twice before carrying out plans to compromise Taliban’s role in any future peace talks. .
– About 15.5% of ethnic groups in the neighbouring country of Pakistan belong to Pashtun tribe. Accordingly, Taliban fighters enjoy safe haven in Pakistan; they are also offered logistic and financial support from the group’s members in Pakistan.
Taliban’s relationship with domestic powers in Afghanistan
Afghanistan, an inland country, has borders with six countries viz Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Afghanistan is a mosaic of about 25 ethnic groups, the most powerful of which are Pashtun, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazarah. Pashtuns represent 45-60% of the population in Afghanistan. Tajiks come second as they constitute 25% followed by the Uzbeks 5-6%, who are living in border areas. Hazarah, which is the largest Shi’a tribe, constitutes 10% of the population in the country, and live in central areas.
About 85% of the Afghani population is Muslims loyal to the Sunni-related Hanafi sect; the remaining 15% belongs to Shi’a-linked Ismailia sect.
Such a complicated map of ethnic and religious components has weakened the political parties in favour of tribal and religious groups.
Unlike different ethnic groups, Taliban has declined participation in general elections in Afghanistan. Nor does the movement recognise the Afghan government. Like most of the Afghani people, Taliban condemns democracy and its values for being non-Muslim instruments. Loyalty to the tribe and the religious sect is more influential than political programmes during voting.
In the meantime, there seems to be a deep mistrust of the political life in Afghanistan. It is alleged that Pashtun-linked candidates would win the majority in general elections unless the government rigged the voting. Taliban has suspicions that Washington is plotting to rearrange the political life in the country to evict the movement, which is allegedly taking on the ambitions of the Afghani people.
Taliban’s relations with regional and international powers
Although Taliban features prominently on the list of terrorist organisations in several countries across the world, the movement has established itself as the cornerstone of any political settlement for the Afghan crisis. Therefore, major regional and international players in the Afghani war are carefully weighing their attitude towards Taliban as follows:
a- Taliban and Pakistan
The two neighbouring Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, enjoy intersected and intertwining relationship. Most of the leaders of Taliban movement graduated from religious schools in Pakistan. In addition, about 3 million Afghani refugees, who have strong connections with militant groups, are living in areas close to the Pakistan-Afghani borders.
In the meantime, Taliban is widely regarded as the product of the Pakistani intelligence agency. It is also said that Pakistan is viewing Taliban as its strategic partner to restrain its arch foe Indian in this part of Asia.
The allegedly clandestine relationship between Pakistan and Taliban prompted US President Donald Trump to launch harsh attack on the Pakistanis government, accusing it of offering safe refuge to terrorists the US is fighting. Trump said that while Washington was pumping billions of US dollars into Pakistan, its government provided sanctuary to terrorists the US was hunting for.
b- Taliban and Iran
Iran was the first country to lend its support to anti-terror war in Afghanistan. Teheran also supported the US-led military intervention in this Muslim country to topple the Taliban government in 2011. Iran’s tough stance on Taliban could be attributed to accusations that Taliban exercised religious persecution against the Hazara (Shi’a) ethnic group in Afghanistan. Teheran also sought reprisal after Taliban stormed the Iranian embassy in 1998 and killed eight diplomats inside. The attack prompted Iran to deploy more than 70, 000 troops from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on its border with Afghanistan.
However, regardless the vast areas of religious differences, Taliban-Iran relationship made a U-Turn in 2014 for reasons as follows:
1- The rise of ISIS in Afghanistan and the outbreak of its brutalities against the Shi’a persuaded Iran and Taliban to come closer to each other and fight the common enemy. Iran had to adopt a policy leaning towards Taliban after realizing the big gulf between its objectives and ISIS’s: ISIS had dreamt of establishing a global Muslim Caliphate; Taliban, which is a nationalist local movement, has limited its objectives to seizing power in Afghanistan and applying the Muslim Sharia.
2- ISIS condemns Shi’a for allegedly being kafir (non-Muslim).
3- Taliban and Iran are sharing belligerent feelings towards the US—their common enemy.
4- It appears that the US plan to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and replace them with Afghani army has giving ISIS the opportunity to strengthen its presence in this war-ravaged country. Likewise, Taliban seized the opportunity to hold larger areas in Afghanistan. Russia and Iran, which are following the developments closely, are at their wits’ ends, considering how they could fill the vacuum to be created by the US pullout. The two allies may also be considering plans to modify the political life in the country in a way that could help serve their interests.
c- Taliban and Tajikistan
Relationship between Taliban and Tajikistan was severed when the later held the movement accountable for the spread of terrorism and the increase in drug trafficking after seizing power from 1996 to 2001. Finding the situation intolerable, Tajikistan threatened that it would not keep its hands tied if the flames of the civil war in Afghanistan approached its borders.
Tajikistan has decided to offer support to the government in Kabul to help its efforts to maintain security and stability in the country. In the meantime, Russia and China are providing military assistance to Tajikistan to tighten control on its 1345 km border with Afghanistan.
d- Taliban and Uzbekistan
The Uzbek government of ex-President Islam Karimov (1990-2016) was deeply concerned after the newly-founded Uzbek Islamic Movement joined the Afghan war. UIM was held responsible for terrorist acts in Tajikistan and different countries in Central Asia.
Karimov decided to use the iron-fist policy to prevent terrorists in Afghanistan from exporting their threat to his country. His government also took part in the US-led alliance formed in 2001 to fight Jihadists in the region. The US launched military base in Uzbekistan to fight Al-Qaeda and remove Taliban from the Afghan government.
Uzbek government decided to play greater role in Afghan peace when UIM paid loyalty to ISIS in October 2014. Karimov’s successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev furthered his country’s regional role in anti-terror war when he hosted on March 26 an international conference in Tashkent. In his speech, Mirziyoyev called upon the world community to collaborate and broker a peace settlement to the Afghan crisis, which was having great impact on the world. He also said that militants in Afghanistan should be compelled to return to the negotiating table.
The Uzbek president confirmed to the conference that his country was ready to host direct talks between Afghan government and Taliban. The conference was attended, in addition to the Afghan President, heads of state and foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, the US, Britain, Germany, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Taliban declined Mirziyoyev’s invitation to take part.
e- Taliban and Turkmenistan
Thanks to the gas pipeline project underway to carry Turkmenistan gas to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, a cordial relationship developed between Taliban and this Central Asian country. Taliban issued a statement, in which it asserted that it was supporting the construction of the gas pipeline because it would improve the economies of regional countries, including Afghanistan.
f- Taliban and India
India is assessing cautiously its policies towards Afghanistan. New Delhi refused to ally itself militarily with Washington and plod in the Afghan quagmire. Responding to the revelation of US President Donald Trump’s new policies in Central Asia in August 2017, Indian diplomats said that New Delhi was preferring a kind of bilateral relationship with Afghanistan. The Indian diplomats implied that India did not want to walk in the footsteps of Pakistan, Iran and Russia, which were seeking to increase their role in the Afghan wilderness.
The relationship between New Delhi and Taliban deteriorated in 1999 after Afghan Mujahedeen hijacked an Indian plane. India had substantial suspicions towards Taliban after the movement helped release the hijackers. New Delhi decided to cross swords with Taliban after the movement attacked Indian interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi is maintaining that Taliban was a machine used by Pakistan to threaten the Indian interest in Afghanistan. India also has deep concerns that the militant movement backed by India’s arch foe, would eventually manage to seize power in Afghanistan and increase is threat to the Indian national security.
g- Taliban and China
Taliban’s potentials to help conclude a peaceful settlement to the Afghan crisis encouraged China to broker a good relationship with the movement to serve security, economic and geopolitical interests as follows:
1- Security: By having good relations with Taliban, China will overcome its concerns that Uighurs rebels are giving sanctuary in Afghanistan and from there threaten the Chinese national security.
2- Geopolitics: China endeavors to establish a great empire and maintain an unchallenged influence in central Asia and southern-eastern Asia before expanding it (its influence) across the world. The Chinese regional and international ambitions prompted the US to have a strategic relationship with India (China’s foe) to restrain Beijing.
3- The economic dimension is the cornerstone of the Chinese great project (the empire). The Chinese government has allocated billions of US dollars to revive trade activities via the old trade road (the Silk Road). China has concerns that without political stability and security in the region, its ambitious Silk Road Project would flounder.
On the other hand, the rising tension between Washington and Islamabad encouraged China to form an anti-terror alliance with India’s arch foes Pakistan and Afghanistan. During the Communist Party Congress in November 2017, China announced that it was planning the establishment of military bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Press reports disclosed that talks were underway between Beijing and Kabul to launch Chinese military base in Afghanistan. China is allegedly overwhelmed with worries that the US would retaliate by supporting ISIS-linked Khorasan Province in Afghanistan to fight China, reviving the nightmare of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.
h- Taliban and Russia
Taliban reminds Russia of the defeat the Soviet troops in the Afghan war (1979-1989), which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dissolution. Accordingly, until 2013 Moscow had criticized the international community for encouraging Taliban to take part in searching for a political solution in this war-ravaged country. However, the rise of ISIS-linked Khorasan Province persuaded the Russians to reverse their stance in 2015. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Afghanistan Affairs, Moscow and Taliban are considering ISIS their common enemy. The Russian envoy also confirmed that Taliban’s strategic interests were in line with Moscow’s. He disclosed that Moscow and Taliban had opened channels of communication to exchange information. In December 2016, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan emphasized that his country was ready to act as intermediary between Taliban and the Afghan government. Moreover, Gen. Egor Coropov, chief of the Russian Intelligence Agency, told a security conference in Moscow in April 201 that Taliban played a crucial role in anti-ISIS war in Afghanistan. He also acknowledged that the majority of Afghan people were rallying support to the movement.
Russia, which is fighting ISIS-linked Jihadists in Syria, has real fears that the terrorist group would send its fighters inside the Russian territory and reverse its bid to play greater role in the region in the face of the US presence in Afghanistan, the Central Asian country, which had been under Moscow’s control before.
The Americans had uneasy feeling over the developments of relationship between Moscow and Taliban. Testifying before the US Congress in February 2017, Gen. John Nicolson, commander of the US troops in Afghanistan, warned that Russia was publicly legitimising Taliban. He warned that Russian-Iranian movements in Afghanistan were basically seeking to undermine the US’s and NATO’s role in this country. Gen. Nicolson also criticized the Pakistani role in Afghanistan. However, while the general was testifying before the Congress, the US administration was accelerating its efforts to negotiate peace with Taliban. Washington also lauded the Afghan president’s pledge to recognise Taliban as a political party if it abandoned violence. There is hardly any doubt that the Afghan card, like that of the Crimean Island, will be laid on the table during negotiations between European countries and Russia to settle their differences.
i- The US and Taliban
The well-known story is that the US provided military and logistic support to Afghan Mujahedeen, including Taliban, which were fighting the Soviet troops in this Central Asian country.
Therefore, the US is facing substantial accusations that it created the Islamist terrorism in the region. These accusations were reinforced by Hilary Clinton, former Secretary of the US State Department, who confessed to the role US had had to create Al-Qaeda. Clinton said that Washington used Arab Afghan in its 50-year cold war against Moscow.
Nonetheless, relations between the US and Arab Afghan deteriorated in the wake of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. In the meantime, the US provoked the ire of Jihadists by launching the military operation, Hope Restoration, in Somalia (1992-1994). Jihadists, who returned from Afghanistan after defeating the Soviet Troops, were sent to Somalia to fight the US troops.
The military confrontation between the US and the Jihadists escalated after Osama Bin Laden launched Al-Qaeda to fight ‘Jews and the Crusaders’. Al-Qaeda claimed its responsibility for the twin bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya; and Darussalam in Tanzania in 1989. Al-Qaeda was also responsible for 9/11 attack on the twin trade towers in New York. Acknowledging Al-Qaeda’s role in anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan and due to the tribal traditions and principles, Taliban refused to abandon Al-Qaeda fighters in the country. Taliban’s ethical stance in this respect was behind the US-led global war on terrorism in 2011. Unfortunately, the US-led alliance has failed to declare a decisive victory on Taliban or Al-Qaeda since then.
Unable to eliminate Al-Qaeda or Taliban, Washington encouraged Afghani President Ashraf Ghani to invite Taliban to take part in the proposed peace talks. Ignoring Ghani’s initiative, Taliban leaders declared that they were ready to have direct talks with the US. The movement’s leaders denounced Ghani’s government for being linked to Washington.
The ball is at the court of the international community to put an end to the 40-years tragic chaos in Afghanistan, which has had great implications for the world peace and stability.
Like different regional and international players, Qatar is seeking Taliban’s help to help play a regional and international role. However, the tiny Gulf state does not have the potentials to play a central role in this crisis. Nor does the opening of Taliban Office help Doha to mount pressure on the movement’s leaders to return to the negotiating table.
It must be said that the strong relationship between Taliban and Al-Qaeda is the stumbling block, impeding any bid to arrange peaceful settlement to the Afghani crisis.
Regional and international parties, which are trying to coax Taliban into cooperating with the Afghan government and search for a peaceful settlement to the crisis, have fears that the movement would eventually prefer to ally itself with ISIS to jointly fight the US troops and the Afghani army. ISIS has managed to form an alliance with Al-Qaeda on January 14 this year to fight France-backed Joint Military Forces, which was launched by five African countries: Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad.