It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will depend only on China and Pakistan or if it will cultivate ties with other important actors in the region, such as Qatar, Iran, Russia and India.
US President Joe Biden delivered an address after the fall of the democratic government and takeover by the Taliban on 16 August, after former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled to Tajikistan. Biden has faced scathing criticism internationally, but also faced flak within the US from policymakers – Democrats and Republicans alike – as well as strategic analysts who had forecast uncertainty and chaos in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. This is perhaps the first foreign policy issue on which the US President has faced such harsh criticism, both domestically and internationally.
Images of Afghans clinging on to departing US military planes led many to compare the situation in Kabul to the US’s “Saigon moment” in 1975. During the course of his speech on 16 August, the US President, while highlighting US efforts over the past two decades to strengthen Afghanistan’s security apparatus, also criticised the democratic government as well as the Afghan forces for failing to stand up to the Taliban.
Biden made another address on 22 August and, while commenting on the Taliban, said:
The Taliban has said and we will see whether they mean or not. They are seeking legitimacy to determine whether or not they would be recognised by other countries. They have told other countries as well as us that they do not want us to move our diplomatic presence completely. All this talk now, so far Taliban has not taken actions against US forces.
The Russia-China Factor
One interesting point which Biden made during his 16 August address was that staying for much longer in Afghanistan would have only benefited Russia and China, saying that:
Our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention in stabilising Afghanistan indefinitely.
Many analysts and observers increasingly believe that the US move, if anything, has only strengthened the China-Russia nexus and, while US power was already in relative decline, this has lent a decisive blow. Both China and Russia have held dialogues with the Taliban and, in July, Taliban delegations had been to both countries.
In reacting to the takeover of Kabul, Moscow said that the Taliban would restore order and Beijing said it would welcome friendly and cooperative relations. While both gave signals that they would not be recognising the Taliban, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov did say that some of the signals emanating from the Taliban were encouraging. Both have asked the Taliban to ensure that the new regime is inclusive and moderate.
Message to US Allies
Apart from the relative decline of US power, it has also sent a wrong message to US allies in different parts of the world. India, which has made investments in Afghanistan to the tune of US$3 billion, also faces a number of challenges, logistical and geopolitical. In the short run, it has to ensure the safety of its assets, and has managed to evacuate all embassy staff and nationals present there, while it also needs to open up channels with the Taliban. While New Delhi has clearly stated that it had opened up a back channel and would safeguard its interests, it has been slow in doing so and now will need to be quick off the blocks and open such back channels with the Taliban through other friendly countries. A number of analysts had warned New Delhi to adapt to the changing geopolitical situation.
Pakistan’s deep state shares close links with the Taliban and, in the short run, it is the biggest beneficiary. Pakistan PM’s remarks are a clear indicator of the same. The Pakistani PM said that the Taliban has broken the ‘shackles of slavery’, while also saying that ‘When you adopt someone’s culture you believe it to be superior and you end up becoming a slave to it’. The Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, however, said that Pakistan would welcome a peaceful solution, while Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said that Pakistan would only give recognition to the Taliban after regional consultations.
A pragmatic Taliban would realise the importance of a working relationship with India. The address by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid indicated that the Taliban’s foreign policy is likely to be pragmatic, though a lot of analysts are arguing that this is a mere charm offensive. If the Taliban is truly pragmatic it would want a working relationship with India and New Delhi should respond to the same.
Countries like Qatar and Iran could also play an important role as important intermediaries between India and the Taliban. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has already made a statement indicating, that India should play an important role in Afghanistan’s security situation. Said Raisi:
Iran and India can play a constructive and useful role in ensuring security in the region, especially Afghanistan, and Tehran welcomes New Delhi’s role in establishment of security in Afghanistan.
Iran’s emphasis on keeping India involved in Afghanistan is important, not just because of its back channel linkages with the Taliban, but its increasing proximity with Russia and China. Moscow, too, would not want to remain merely in the shadow of Beijing and keeping India involved would be beneficial for it.
In conclusion, while Washington will face more criticism, it is South Asia’s geopolitics which will be affected significantly. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban depends solely on China and Pakistan or cultivates close ties with other important actors in the region.