The Fall of Kabul: Taliban 2.0. on Stage?
20 years of the war in Afghanistan, 20 years of the intention to rebuild Afghanistan, to restore the power to the government, to train military and security forces in order to extend its capability to maintain internal as well as external security of the state, and to secure a stable state environment. At the beginning of 2020, the USA, Afghan officials, and Taliban agreed on the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, with the main outcomes such as political security, withdrawal of US troops till the end of May 2021, or for instance, and intra-Afghan settlement which would include the participation of the Taliban.
Development of the recent few days completely changed the perception of the whole situation.
Taliban overtook almost 100% of the whole territory of Afghanistan. The whole collapse came very fast and the Afghan security and military forces were seen letting Afghanistan proceed forward across the country without any resistance. One of the most crucial moments was definitely the decision of the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to leave the country and go into exile to Uzbekistan. Till then, Kabul represented the only safe place without the presence of the Taliban. However, this moment changed the whole discourse and enabled the Taliban to finalize its plan.
The Taliban has been known for years as a terrorist organization, representing Islamic fundamentalism, with its base in Afghanistan. This terrorist organization has been mighty since the 1990s and has represented the governing actor in Afghanistan for many years. It ended with the invasion of US and NATO troops in 2001. Since then, Afghan society has had to deal with regular attacks and fights with the Taliban. Moreover, the Taliban has been in touch with Al-Qaida, which also supported the Taliban financially and in terms of military equipment. However, the Taliban has not been only an Islamic fundamentalist organization but has also played the role of Pashtun nationalists. They intend to implement Sharia law and rule the territory within Islamic fundamentalism, build a stable and secure state for its citizens, and represent a strong actor in the region. And we could hear these visions described in the media expressing feelings of victory in terms of the removal of foreign influence and intervention. From now on, Afghanistan is prepared to become an independent Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
During the last hours, the Taliban has expressed its intentions to prevent any open conflict on the streets and peacefully overtake Afghanistan’s responsibility. It is exciting to see the globally recognized terrorist organization responsible for several terrorist attacks being seen and perceived as a state builder. Many Afghan people live in urban areas saviour of Afghan people. Furthermore, during its public speeches and appearance in the media, we could see the Taliban in a very moderate style of communication and using English to communicate with the media. It is very difficult to predict future steps and behaviour due to the complex and complicated situation that can be easily converted into an open conflict in a minute. Many international organizations and state officials and Afghan citizens are afraid of potential revenge on those who supported the official government and foreign institutions operating in Afghanistan.
The current security situation in Afghanistan
The Taliban’s incredibly rapid and probably unpredicted movement has led to a very unclear situation full of chaos. Almost all embassies and foreigners in Afghanistan have been immediately trying to get in safety, and many people were trying to buy flight tickets on classic public flights. State officials have been dispatching military aircraft to transport these people into their home countries. Unfortunately, very soon after it was obvious that the Taliban got back its previous power, all commercial flights were cancelled. The situation in the airport in Kabul has greatly influenced the possibility to dispatch more planes for those people as thousands of Afghan people have run to the airport in the belief of being saved and transported to another country. As the situation is turbulent and uncertain, the whole plan of withdrawal decreased, and US troops have accepted a new assignment to secure the airport in Kabul in terms of mutual cooperation with foreign officers in transporting its citizens. The USA has also dispatched even more units to Kabul.
Moreover, other options of crossing the borders have been eliminated as all the checkpoints are under the control and close supervision of the Taliban. The Taliban enables Afghan citizens living in Kabul but recommends staying within the Afghani territory.
Considering terrorist activities in the past in Afghanistan, and as it was already mentioned, a potential risk is a communication between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has seen the agreement as a win for the Taliban. Some of the predictions are seeing it as a potentially bigger threat than ISIS as the joint action of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be something unprecedented.
Another active terrorist group and a potential ally for the Taliban are Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), which has been fighting with the Taliban for the territory. Even though the numbers of its fighters are between 2-4 thousand, it can be definitely valuable for the Taliban to secure compliance with newly set up rules and norms in Afghanistan.
A fascinating piece of information publicly announced by the Taliban is the requirement for Afghan citizens to hand all weapons and arm equipment to the Taliban. The explanation was that the current situation is stable, and it is not necessary to own weapons. Furthermore, the Taliban explained this step as another measure of overseeing security within society and eliminating any revolutionary tendencies and activities. New rules also include not leaving their homes after 9 pm.
Women as the next target?
Afghani women have gone a long way to manage and improve their quality of life and their rights. Role of women has also played an essential role within the peace talks during the last years. Thanks to the political changes in Afghanistan during the last years, women could be seen in high positions, managerial roles, and political and military roles. However, from the occidental perspective common for Western countries, this perception of women is not in compliance with the general perception of the Taliban. They promised to evaluate the situation of women in Afghanistan, with a probability of making a move towards keeping some of the rights which women have obtained so far.
However, the last changes in Afghanistan have shown different pictures, and in many regions in Afghanistan, women have been ordered to stay home and not to go to their work. This command has been received from the Taliban militias and their employers, probably as a pre-emptive measure. The same situation has also occurred at the educational level. Many women are worried about their security and have started to wear burqas, even though it has not been ordered yet. Women who have been officially supporting the former government and system and have been against the Taliban would probably be the first on the list.
On the 17th of August, the Taliban made an announcement that stressed the importance of women’s participation in state functioning, granted an amnesty to all state and public workers, and supported them in coming back to work.
While the embassies of the Western nations are being evacuated, the Russian embassy in Kabul remains calm and retains staff in their diplomatic mission. Russian ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, announced that the Russian embassy does not face any direct security threat and is ready to meet Taliban officials to discuss the future developments following years of mutual contempt and distrust. Russia is keen to negotiate with the Taliban lies behind its pragmatic and strategic interest to ensure stability in the Central Asian republic (former USSR republics). Hence, Russia has an army division based in Tajikistan, and earlier in August, after the Taliban overran Afghanistan’s northern borders, Russia held joint drills with the Uzbek and Tajik militaries.
Russia is especially preoccupied that radical Islamic thoughts could serve as a catalyst to destabilization in Central Asian neighbouring countries since there is a risk of spreading radical Islam not solely by the Taliban but also by ISIS or al-Qaeda. However, it is expected that the Taliban will disassociate from al-Qaeda or ISIS and their record of terrorist atrocities since the Taliban leaders seek international recognition and legitimacy for its new regime. Moreover, there is a high risk that Afghanistan can become another haven for terrorists, which is not only the Russian concern but also the concern for international security. The potential risk of having uncontrolled terrorist groups in Afghan territory was also discussed earlier in July when the Taliban representative visited Moscow and met with the minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov. During this meeting, the Taliban pledged to combat ISIS within Afghan borders and condemned to refrain from threatening ex-Soviet Central Asian states.
Russia also strongly condemned that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Kremlin envoy on Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov described Ghani’s flight from Kabul as “disgraceful,” adding that Ghani “deserves to be brought to justice and held accountable by the Afghan people.” Kabulov also added that the current security environment is better under the Taliban than Ashraf’s government. Such responses from Russian representatives are no surprise and appear to be the logical outcome of the heightened Washington-Moscow geopolitical tensions.
In other words, Russia seeks to maintain stability in its backyard and fill the geopolitical vacuum after the NATO troop’s withdrawal. Nevertheless, Russia’s perception of the Taliban as a terrorist organization could obstruct further negotiations with the Taliban. Such an approach can change; however, Russian authorities expressed will not rush a decision on whether to recognize the new Afghan authorities since it seems Russia is not sure whether it is dealing with Taliban 2.0. or whether the thoughts from the 1990s still prevail.
Beijing’s pragmatic approach
PRC (People’s Republic of China) is no longer bystander regarding Afghan matters like in the 1990s. Since PRC has become a global player on the world scene, PRC’s political interest in Afghan settlements is logical. And similarly, like Kremlin, PRC’s embassy in Kabul remains operational. Besides, PRC’s interest in having constructive dialogue with the Taliban stems from the fact that PRC has vital concerns in three crucial areas – there is border security, there is the Uyghur issue, and economic interests.
Likewise, in Russia, PRC’s vital interest is to foster stability in Afghanistan to maintain stability at its border (China shares a rugged 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan) by pursuing peace talks. As Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told: ‘China hopes the Afghan Taliban can unite with other political parties and all ethnic groups and build a political framework in keeping with national conditions that are broadly inclusive and will lay the foundation for enduring peace’. PRC also seeks to fill up the geopolitical vacuum after the NATO withdrawal; hence, political dialogue with the Taliban is significant. PRC-Taliban negotiations, however, can be obstructed because PRC still has not officially recognized the Taliban, although Foreign Minister Wang Yi called them a “decisive military and political force” in the past weeks.
In terms of Uyghur questions, since the Uyghur’s territory in PRC is bordering Afghanistan, Beijing fears spreading the Islamist extremism among its Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region or having Afghanistan as a haven for Islamist militant groups. PRC’s concerns are justified since Wang Yaning, a lecturer at the Chinese Armed Police Force Academy, published a paper in 2002 which explored that approximately 400 separatists were trained in Taliban training camps in the northwest Xinjiang region to use light and heavy weapons and explosive devices. So far, the Taliban has told PRC officials that Afghanistan will not be base for separatists – the Taliban has hostile relations with ISIS; however, the Taliban keeps formal relations with Al-Qaeda, which should be active in 15 Afghan provinces according to the UN. It is also assumed that the Taliban has no interest in enmeshing PRC’s internal matters.
Furthermore, PRC seeks to maintain its economic interest in considerable amount of minerals, especially copper mines, and oil deposits. Hence, ensuring a stable environment for PRC’s business initiatives is crucial. PRC also tries to connect Afghanistan with economic strategy Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially by connecting Afghanistan with PRC-Pakistan economic corridor or by connecting Afghanistan via Wakhan corridor. Such economic connection can enhance PRC’s strategic infrastructure investments, and a stable and cooperative administration in Kabul would pave the way for an expansion of BRI in Central Asia. Additionally, based on PRC’s foreign policy, it is probable that Beijing might pursue debt-trap diplomacy by offering Taliban excessive loans, which are hard to be repaid to foster PRC’s strategic influence in the country. On the other side, the Taliban needs foreign investment to ensure sustainable economic development; hence, it is assumed that the Taliban will accept PRC’s financial incentives.
In other words, it is clear that current Afghan happenings no one has ever expected. It will be crucial to observe whether the Taliban underwent the inner transformation resulting in Taliban 2.0 or whether the Taliban will seek to create similar conditions like in the 1990s. Although the Taliban has announced an amnesty for former governmental officials or plans to have women within the administration, it is not clear if such settlements will prevail in the future. No one also knows to what extent the Taliban pursues a false PR campaign to shed a positive light on its movement. Furthermore, its previous connections with Al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups represent a highly-potential threat for the region. Last but not least, it is also vital not to only observe political dialogues between Taliban-Moscow and Taliban-Beijing, but also between Taliban-Ankara since Turkey has vital security and economic interest in Central Asia, which is reflected in their Neo-Ottomanism foreign political strategy.
Written by Tereza Kirsch and Zdeněk Rod