January 25, 2010 will be remembered as the day when much of the planet buzzed about diplomatic talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban movement. The chatter comes in the context of a number of conferences that will be held over the course of the next week that focus on dealing with Afghanistan’s jihadist insurgency. The countries being represented at the meetings — including the United States, the Central Asian states, Europe, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India and China — have a stake in what happens in Afghanistan.
Each of these players has a different view on how to engage the Taliban in a negotiation process, but there seems to be an emerging consensus that when all is said and done, the Afghan jihadist movement –- in one form or another –- will be part of the government in Kabul. In other words, there is a general acceptance that if Afghanistan is to be settled, the Taliban have to be dealt with as legitimate political stakeholders. The difference lies in the degree to which the Taliban can be accepted.
From the point of view of the United States and its NATO allies, ideally the surge should be able to weaken the momentum of the Taliban and the overall counterinsurgency that divides them. This would result in a significant number of pragmatic elements being stripped from the core that surrounds Mullah Omar and other leaders. The United States and its Western allies are not, however, naive enough to believe that this can be achieved in the short span of time laid out in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. Therefore, the West could learn to live with the hard-line Taliban as long as it can separate itself from al Qaeda, though there is still the matter of how the Obama administration will be able to sell this on the home front, especially in such a dicey political climate.
Pakistan, the second most important player when it comes to dealing with the Taliban (given Islamabad’s historic ties to the Afghan jihadists), would ideally like to see the Taliban gain a large share of the political pie in Kabul. Such an outcome could allow Islamabad to reverse the loss of its influence in Afghanistan and use a more Pakistan-friendly regime as a lever to deal with its security dilemma with India. That said, a political comeback of the Taliban in Afghanistan would also bring significant security threats to the Pakistani state, given Islamabad’s own indigenous Taliban insurgency and the complexities that exist between the two.
Though it does not share a direct border with Afghanistan, India is the one country that seems completely opposed to accommodating the Taliban. New Delhi does not want to see the influence it has gained over the past eight years eroded. More importantly, it does not want Pakistan to get a breather in Afghanistan such that it can focus on the Kashmir issue. From India’s point of view, an Afghan Taliban political revival could boost the regional anti-India Islamist militant landscape.
Iran, the other major power that shares a border with Afghanistan and has deep ethnolinguistic, sectarian, cultural and political ties with its eastern neighbor, has a complex strategy in relation to the Taliban. It is in Tehran’s interest to back certain elements of the Afghan Taliban as doing so keeps the United States occupied — at least in the short term — with the war in Afghanistan. This keeps it from taking aggressive action against the Islamic republic over the nuclear issue. In the long run though, the radical Persian Shia are ideological enemies of the militant Pashtun Sunni movement and would want to see them boxed in as per any negotiated settlement. The Iranians will play a role in any such outcome, particularly through its proxies among the non-Pashtun minorities. Iran also does not want to see its main regional rival Saudi Arabia make gains in Afghanistan, given Riyadh’s historical relations to the Taliban and Pakistan.
Conversely, for the Saudis, there is no turning back the clock in Iraq where an Iranian-leaning, Shia-dominated state has emerged. The Saudis are also seeing how Iran has made deep inroads to its north in Lebanon and south in Yemen, and has potential proxies within the Shia populations in the oil-rich Persian Gulf Arab states. The rise of the Taliban, which has religious as well as ideological ties to the Saudis, could serve as a key means of countering Iranian moves against the oil-rich kingdom.
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the three Central Asian states that share borders with Afghanistan, have ties to their respective co-ethnic brethren in Afghanistan, and deep security concerns about a government with a Taliban presence. The Taliban, during their first stint in power, provided sanctuary to Islamist rebels from all across the steppes of Central Asia. Therefore, they are relying on the U.S.-led international process to make sure that a resurgent Taliban can be kept in check.
These Central Asian states also have to contend with the reality that Russia, which enjoys a monopoly of influence in the region, has an interest in the Taliban insurgency remaining a thorn in the side of the United States, at least long enough to make it difficult for Washington to extricate itself. As long as the United States remains bogged down in Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world, Russia has the freedom to effect its own geopolitical revival in the former Soviet Union. The Central Asian republics, however, do take comfort from the fact that in the long term, Russia sees the Taliban as a security threat to its Central Asian sphere of influence as well as the Caucuses.
China’s position is similar to that of the Central Asian states. The Chinese fear that a legal Taliban presence in Afghanistan could help Uighur/East Turkestani Islamist militants with ties to Central Asian militants threaten the stability of their own Muslim northwest. But the Chinese have close ties to the Pakistanis and will therefore be working on both fronts to try and ensure that any Taliban political resurgence in Afghanistan be constrained.
Finally, there is Turkey, which has no physical links to the region, but is using its influence with the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan and more recently Iran, to bring the various pieces of the Taliban juggernaut toward some settlement. Turkey under the Justice & Development Party is trying to insert itself as mediator in various conflicts within the Islamic world –- a move endorsed by the United States, which needs all the help it can get. In this case, the Turkish government is using its deep ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan to connect the United States and NATO with the Taliban. This coupled with Turkey’s ethnic ties to Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Turkmen communities constitutes a means for Ankara to create a sphere of influence in the southwest Asian country where it can serve as a potential jumping off point to expand influence into Central Asia –- the land of its forefathers and fellow Turkic peoples.
It is way too early to say what those with an interest in what becomes of the Afghan Taliban insurgency will do with this complex web of competing and conflicting geopolitical calculi as they move toward a settlement. They do not all have an equal say. The United States is the prime mover, and so all states must plan to align themselves with the United States’ exit timetable. In a best-case scenario, some states will walk away with some gains and others will have to cut their losses. In a worst-case scenario, all of these efforts fail and Afghanistan descends into a state of nature where the balance of power is sorted out the old-fashioned way.
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