By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Unlike the 1990s, when the Taliban won recognition quickly from their allies in the Muslim world – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – the current regime, which came into power almost six weeks ago, is struggling to win diplomatic acknowledgment.
Pakistan, their closest ally, hasn’t recognized them even as Islamabad continues to market them as an acceptable entity, arguing that non-recognition and sanctions could destabilize the region. Similarly, even though the UAE has been sending humanitarian aid and Qatar has been airlifting people out of Afghanistan, neither of these Middle Eastern kingdoms has offered recognition.
The crucial reason the Taliban’s closest allies are not willing to extend recognition is that there is virtually no appetite for officially allying with what increasingly looks like a pariah regime.
“If the Taliban fail to distance themselves from terrorist groups and if Afghanistan once again becomes a hub of global and regional terrorism, countries directly allied with them, or those having extended recognition to the ‘pariah regime’ will directly be in the line of international fire,” a Pakistani diplomat told Asia Sentinel.
In fact, when Qatar’s foreign minister recently visited Afghanistan, its officials disputed a Taliban claim that the visit meant formal recognition.
The most important reason for this reluctance is the Taliban’s failure to establish an inclusive government. Whereas they continued to emphasize throughout negotiations with the US that an all-inclusive system would be established after the withdrawal, it hasn’t happened.
On the contrary, even a cursory look at the composition of the regime – which is all Taliban and almost all Pashtun – shows that not only does it defy all possible definitions of inclusivity, it is being dominated by one of the most hard-line factions: the Haqqani network, whose name came from a Pakistani madrassah, Dar ul Uloom Haqqania, which Jalaluddin Haqqani attended.
With the Haqqanis (pictured, above) in power, the moderate Taliban groups – in particular, those being led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar – have been sidelined quite effectively. In fact, as some media reports have indicated, there was a shootout in the presidential palace between the Baradar faction and the Haqqani network on the question of establishing an inclusive cabinet. The fact that an exclusionary setup has been imposed on Afghanistan means that the hardliners were able to win the internal struggle despite the fact that some are internationally wanted, are sanctioned or have bounties on their heads.
Therefore, with Afghanistan’s most hard-line groups now in power, the question of severing all ties with various terrorist groups has become a lot more complicated than was previously thought.
As Haneef Atamar, the foreign minister in the US-backed government of former president Ashraf Ghani, said recently: the Taliban cannot be expected to rescind their ties with the anti-China ETIM or al- Qaeda because these groups did help them win the war.
Similarly, while Pakistan is known to have some leverage on the Taliban, it hasn’t been able to make the newly constituted regime commit to disbanding the anti-Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), its own version of the religious fundamentalists.
The Taliban, instead of removing these groups from their territory, have offered their assistance to facilitate a dialogue between the TTP and Pakistan, showing their inability and unwillingness to crackdown on them.
These developments stand in complete contrast to what Baradar had told China’s Wang Yi in July: “The Afghan Taliban has the utmost sincerity to work toward and realize peace. It stands ready to work with other parties to establish a political framework in Afghanistan that is broadly-based, inclusive, and accepted by the entire Afghan people and to protect human rights, especially the rights of women and children. The Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China. The Afghan Taliban believes that Afghanistan should develop friendly relations with neighboring countries and the international community.”
Things have dramatically changed since July. Most importantly, the man who made all these promises is effectively no longer in power, which means that if China, and any other countries, made any promises to Baradar, they may not feel obliged to stand by them, especially if the Taliban continue to insist that an inclusive government will follow in a few years.
Therefore, while China does see some potential economic benefits and investment opportunities in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to be able to reap them by allying with a group that is unwilling to help Beijing disband the ETIM.
For most countries, the Taliban’s shift from emphasizing the implementation of an inclusive polity through an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” political process to stressing and preferring “security” over inclusion is not only deeply problematic, but also a recipe of disaster.
Even according to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who recently sat with the BBC for an interview: “if they [the Taliban] do not include all the factions, sooner or later they will have a civil war…that would mean an unstable, chaotic Afghanistan and an ideal place for terrorists. That is a worry.”
Even Qatar gave the same message when its foreign minister recently called upon Afghanistan’s new prime minister, Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund.
As opposed to the Taliban’s readout of the visit, the Qatari account reiterated the concerns that much of the international community has been sharing: combating terrorism and establishing an inclusive system. It is precisely for this reason that the Qatari minister also met Afghanistan’s non-Taliban political factions, including those being led by Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah.
That the Taliban have not been taken off Russia’s list of terrorist organizations speaks volumes about the depth of hesitance some of the countries have in terms of formally recognizing a group of Taliban leaders, many of whom are designated terrorists.
And, while the European Union is willing to send humanitarian aid, it is mindful of not projecting it as an extension of recognition. Its actions are primarily motivated by its desire to avoid a flood of refugees coming into the EU from Afghanistan.
So, the Taliban regime, for all practical reasons, is unlikely to get immediate recognition. There are very strong concerns attached with their ascendance, and unless the group can find to address those concerns, it is likely to stay a ‘pariah.’
On the other hand, if the hardliners persist in resisting this pressure, a lack of recognition and a lack of aid could implode the regime from within, leading to infighting.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel