While Russia-China are going to be key players in steering its future, Pakistan will be on board
The Return of the Native
There is immense curiosity about the Taliban’s first moves following the dramatic return to Kabul after two decades. The big question on everyone’s mind is whether the Taliban has ‘changed’ since the 1990s. Opinions vary. But so far at least, there are no signs of a return of repressive authoritarian rule.
The stunning press conference on Tuesday in Kabul by the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid distinctly exuded an air of moderation and tolerance to dissenting voices. The fact that local journalists could ask such provocative questions and get away with it has been widely noticed. Mujahid patiently answered. The following quotes speak for themselves:
- We seek no revenge and ‘everyone is forgiven’
- We will honour women’s rights but within the norms of Islamic law
- We want private media to remain independent, but the media should not work against national interests
- Afghanistan will not allow itself to harbour anyone targeting other nations
- Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country
- In particular, Mujahid said women would be allowed to work and study and ‘will be very active in society but within the framework of Islam’. Similarly, his assurance that ‘everyone is forgiven’ referring to former soldiers and members of Ghani’s government has made a remarkable impression.
- ‘Nobody is going to harm you, nobody is going to knock on your doors,’ Mujahid said.
Two other specific remarks by Mujahid were of far-reaching consequence to any open society:
- Taliban will not allow Afghan soil to be used against other countries.
- Private and independent media could continue but they should abide by the cultural norms.
Why did Mujahid do such a risky thing? One, he came prepared to say what he said. Most certainly, he acted under instructions from the leadership to put the above positions on record right at the outset even before forming a new government, as a confidence-building measure. By the way, the press conference was open to the international media as well.
The press conference put the ‘Taliban-baiters’ who are barely surviving on fake news about Taliban’s ‘excesses’—largely based on hearsay and rumours—in some distress and confusion. The point is, it is becoming difficult to hold on to stereotyped notions as if time stood still for the Taliban since they vanished from Kabul overnight in the winter of 2001.
To my mind, however, the really striking thing is that the Taliban has suo moto presented to us certain firm benchmarks against which it expects us to hold to account the Taliban ruler’s actions in the period ahead. Clearly, the press conference was called precisely for this purpose. Doesn’t that mean something of immense relevance?
Equally, the visit by the top Taliban leader (and a scion of the powerful Haqqani Network) Anas Haqqani to the residence of former President Hamid Karzai on August 18 must be noted carefully. Karzai has taken the initiative to form a coordinating group of himself, Abdullah Abdullah and Mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to clear the pathway for forming an inclusive transitional arrangement. Haqqani’s mission was in this connection. Abdullah was also present at the meeting. It stands to reason that Haqqani plays a key role in government formation.
On August 17, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov threw some light on the state of play in government formation. Talking to the media while on a tour of Kaliningrad, Lavrov said, “Just like all other countries, we are not in a hurry to recognise them. Just yesterday, I spoke with Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi. Our positions overlap.’
“We are seeing encouraging signals from the Taliban, who are saying they want to have a government with the participation of other political forces. They said they stand ready to continue the processes, including the ones that involve education, education for girls and the functioning of the state machine in general, without shutting the door to the officials who worked under the previous government led by President Ashraf Ghani.’
“We are observing positive processes on the streets of Kabul, where the situation is fairly calm and the Taliban are effectively enforcing law and order. But it is too early to talk about any unilateral political steps on our part.’
“We support the beginning of an all-encompassing national dialogue with the participation of all Afghan political ethnic and religious forces. Former President Hamid Karzai and Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah have already spoken in favour of this process. They are in Kabul. They came up with this proposal. One of the leaders of northern Afghanistan, Mr Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, has joined this initiative as well.’
“Literally these days, as I understand, maybe even as we speak, a dialogue with a Taliban representative is going on. I hope it will lead to an agreement whereby the Afghans will form inclusive transitional bodies as an important step towards fully normalising the situation in this long-suffering country.”
At a briefing in Beijing on August 18, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed what Lavrov had stated a day earlier. Zhao said, “It will be possible to talk about whether China will establish new diplomatic relations with Afghanistan only after a tolerant and open government is formed there that would sufficiently represent the country’s interests.”
He added that Beijing’s position on Afghan issues “Is clear and unequivocal. We will wait and recognise the new government after it is formed.”
The template that is dramatically surfacing on the Afghan chessboard is that of close coordination between Moscow and Beijing to steer events in Afghanistan toward the formation of a representative, inclusive, broad-based government that includes the Taliban. This needs separate analysis, as it is an unprecedented development in regional politics historically.
My sense is Pakistan is on board. Foreign minister (Shah Mahmood) Qureshi once again spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi after hosting the Northern Alliance leaders in Islamabad on August 18.
The ‘X’ Factor in Kabul
Meanwhile, the Chinese commentaries vehemently reject the western claims of democratic transformation in Afghanistan. A conversation on August 17 between the Chinese state councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi and his American counterpart Antony Blinken (at the latter’s initiative) brought this out sharply.
Wang told Blinken that ‘facts have once again proved that mechanically copying an imported foreign model cannot readily be fitted to the use in a country with completely different history, culture and national conditions, and ultimately, is unlikely to establish itself.’
Wang said that without the support of people, ‘a government cannot stand’, and the use of power and military means to solve problems will only cause more problems, and ‘lessons in this respect deserve serious reflection.’ Wang underscored that Afghanistan’s open and inclusive political framework ought to be ‘in accordance with its own national situations.’
The spill over of the Biden administration’s provocative moves against China, especially regarding Taiwan, is surfacing. The Global Times starkly commented in an editorial that no cooperation with Washington is conceivable regarding the Afghan situation under the prevailing circumstances.
‘China will be keen to restore order in Afghanistan and promote reconstruction of this war-torn country, but it has no obligation to help the US get out of a strategic dilemma that entirely belongs to Washington. When the US is maliciously carrying out strategic coercion and containment against China, there is no need for China to win US favour by rendering good for evil. That will not work.’
On August 19, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid formally announced the creation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in a tweet which said, ‘[This is the] declaration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on the occasion of the 102nd anniversary of the country’s independence from British rule.’
Meanwhile, a senior Taliban functionary defiantly said, “There will be no democratic system at all because it does not have any base in our country. We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is Sharia law and that is it.”
Again, in the Chinese reports, the accent has also shifted from the Taliban having to prove its anti-terrorist credentials to one of supporting Afghanistan ‘in its resolute fight against terrorism’ so that it does not become ‘a gathering place for terrorism again.’ It is an important distinction.
Thus, in a call with the Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on August 18, Wang made four suggestions for China-Pakistan collaboration:
- Encourage Afghan parties to establish a broad-based and inclusive political structure ‘suited to the Afghan national conditions’;
- Support Afghanistan in its ‘resolute fight’ against terrorism;
- Communicate with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Chinese and Pakistani personnel and establishments; and,
- promote international cooperation to involve Afghanistan ‘in an orderly manner, and especially give play to the unique role of neighbouring countries, so as to push the situation in Afghanistan gradually into a virtuous circle, during which various mechanisms should complement each other and expand consensus.
The ‘virtuous circle’ would presumably mean complex chains of regional initiatives that reinforce themselves; the ‘various mechanisms’ could include regional formats such as the CPEC and SCO.
Most significantly, Wang brought up in the conversation with Qureshi the Dasu terrorist attack in Pakistan last month (in which nine Chinese engineers were killed.) The Xinhua report featured on the State Council website said, ‘Wang voiced China’s appreciation of the important progress made by Pakistan in the investigation and hoped that Pakistan will make every effort to arrest the perpetrators, and punish them in accordance with the law, so as to give an explanation to the people of the two countries and as well as a powerful deterrent to the forces that attempt to undermine China-Pakistan friendship.’
Wang apparently alluded to the allegation made by Qureshi on August 12 mentioning Afghanistan and India. By now, the Taliban would have seized the records of the Afghan intelligence agencies. To be sure, this becomes an ‘X’ factor in regional politics.
The foreign ministry spokesmen Zhao Lijian stated on Wednesday, “It is a customary international practice that the recognition of a government comes after its formation. China’s position on the Afghan issue is clear and consistent. We hope that Afghanistan can form an open, inclusive and broadly representative government that echoes the widely shared aspirations of its own people and the international community.”
On August 17, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying forcefully argued that the Taliban today is not the Taliban of yesteryears. Hua said:
“I noticed that some people have been saying they don’t trust the Afghan Taliban. I want to say that nothing stays unchanged. When understanding and handling problems, we should adopt a holistic, interconnected and developmental dialectical approach. We should look at both the past and the present. We need to not only listen to what they say, but also look at what they do. If we do not keep pace with the times but stick to fixed mindset and ignore the development of the situation, we will never reach a conclusion that is in line with reality.”
The Chinese commentaries for sure exude high comfort level vis-a-vis the Taliban. Clearly, Beijing seeks even closer cooperation and coordination with Pakistan. China may accord recognition to the new government in Kabul at an early opportunity.
(The writer a former diplomat. This article is a compilation of his two blogs that appeared on https://www.indianpunchline.com/)