It is above all through money and economic development that will give regional powers their best chance of influencing Taliban behaviour and the future of Afghanistan, writes Valdai Club expert Anatol Lieven. If with regional help Afghanistan is able to develop economically, this will be the best guarantee of at least a limited space for modern culture and education, for without this the Taliban would lack the managers and skilled labour necessary to conduct such development.
With the completion of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, international responsibility for trying to shape some sort of stability in Afghanistan will fall to Afghanistan’s region, where it belongs. Even if Uzbekistan is so deeply foolish as to accept a US base on its soil (thereby ensuring the hostility of its three most powerful neighbours), the US capability to shape outcomes in Afghanistan will be greatly reduced.
With the exception of India, all the main regional states have fostered links with the Taliban, precisely so as to prepare for the day of a US withdrawal that was bound to occur sooner or later. Russia is in a particularly favourable position when it comes to brokering regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan, because it is in the unique position of having good relations both with India on the one side, and with China and Pakistan on the other.
Links to the Taliban are crucial, because however much we may dislike this prospect, they are going to play the most important role in Afghanistan in the future. The USA and NATO countries are already preparing for a Taliban victory by evacuating interpreters and other former Afghan staff who will be in danger of falling victim to Taliban revenge. Australia has already closed its embassy and in effect ended its mission in Afghanistan. Other Western nations will soon follow suit, undermining the West’s ability to support the Afghan state financially.
This does not mean an immediate collapse; we should remember that contrary to most forecasts, the Afghan state left behind by Soviet forces in 1989 survived for three years and in fact outlasted the USSR itself. Nonetheless, given the deep corruption of the Afghan state, its bitter internal divisions, and the demoralization of most of its armed forces, it seems unlikely that it can survive for long.
Moreover, when it comes to the treatment of enemy fighters (once again, at least in the Pashtun areas), the Taliban in the 1990s followed an essentially medieval approach. Soldiers of garrisons that surrendered to them in good time were allowed to go home with their personal weapons, and having promised this the Taliban invariably kept their word, in accordance with their own code of honour. Even many enemy commanders were allowed to retire peacefully or join the Taliban — though there were always some who were told to flee or die. On the other hand — as in the Middle Ages — God help any garrison that fought it out to the last. Since nobody wants to be the last to surrender, the result may be a rapid cascade of collapse, as the surrender of one garrison automatically leads to the surrender or disintegration of all the others in a given region.
But this is true of Pashtun soldiers fighting against the mainly (though not exclusively) Pashtun Taliban. The biggest question hanging over Afghanistan in future, and the biggest challenge to regional powers, will be the Taliban’s relations with the non-Pashtun ethnicities, many of whom — unlike the Pashtun warlords — fought very hard indeed against the Taliban in the 1990s. Will the Taliban be willing and able to reach agreement with these groups guaranteeing them local autonomy? In recent years, the Taliban has made considerable strides in recruiting fighters from the non-Pashtun ethnicities, but it remains a chiefly Pashtun force, and is seen as such.
And if not, how much support will these groups receive from the USA and from regional states? Iran for example has given limited amounts of aid to the Taliban in recent years by way of putting itself in a position to retaliate via Afghanistan if the USA attacked Iran. On the other hand, Iran is deeply committed to the Hazara Shia people of central Afghanistan, many of whom suffered badly under the Taliban before 2001; and also appears determined to maintain Herat (an ancient Iranian city) as a form of Iranian client mini-state.
If some form of accommodation cannot be reached between the Taliban and other nationalities, then Afghanistan faces a prospect of unending civil war, with continued flows of refugees, drugs and terrorists into neighbouring countries and Europe. The first task of regional diplomacy must therefore be to try to broker such agreements.
The second goal must obviously be to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a base for the international terrorism that inflicted such terrible suffering on both Russia and the USA. Here, it may be entirely possible to reach agreement with the Taliban; both because they are perfectly aware of how their hosting of Al Qaeda before 9/11 brought catastrophe on their heads; and because the main sponsor of terrorism in Afghanistan is now ISIS (called in that region Daesh), rivals of the Taliban (and largely composed of Pakistani Taliban fighters) with whom the Taliban are bitterly at odds. One ambiguity however remains: whether the Taliban’s promises to prevent Afghan-based terrorism against the West also applies to terrorism against India. It is essential that the Taliban also give this undertaking, if India is to be persuaded not to arm the anti-Taliban forces in a future civil war.
The next goal of regional diplomacy must be to end the heroin trade that has done so much damage to the societies of all Afghanistan’s neighbours. Here, we need to remember that the Taliban has been the only Afghan regime of the past 40 years that managed to suppress the heroin trade, in 1999-2000 – because only they had the requisite authority and prestige in the Afghan countryside. Moreover, while the Taliban (like much of the Kabul state) has taxed the heroin trade, it is deeply opposed to it as a permanent factor in Afghanistan.
The terms of a deal on heroin would have to be the same as those that the Taliban were seeking through their anti-heroin campaign of 1999-2000: international recognition plus international aid, to Afghanistan as a whole and to the farmers concerned (aid that would of course be channelled through them).
Working with the Taliban in this way will not be easy, and it will not be cheap; but given the problems for its neighbours and the world that Afghanistan has created over the past five decades, anything that could help prevent a repetition of these disasters would be money and effort well spent.