New Rulers in Afghanistan: What can the International Community Expect?

Konstantin Khudoley
4th October 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

After a 20-year hiatus, the Taliban again seized power in Afghanistan. Apparently, they enjoy the support of a certain segment of the population, particularly in rural areas. This should allow them to remain in power in the near future, yet their rule is unlikely to project stability across the entire country. First of all, this has to do with the fact that among the top leaders of the Taliban (and this is evidenced by the composition of their recently announced interim government) proponents of the harshest and most extreme course have taken over. This will undoubtedly precipitate the already emerging contradictions with the moderate wing of the movement who have been somewhat pushed aside and with other political forces who are offered only a decorative role, let alone various ethnic, religious and local communities. For instance, the exclusion of the Uzbek language from the official list and the drive to solve the situation in the Panjshir gorge by force, etc. are quite indicative. This will also lead to a sure conflict with the supporters of the secular state. These, along with other contradictions, will be developing against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deep social, economic and financial crisis, and a semi-crippled state apparatus. Since quite a few among the educated class, including qualified managers, justly fear for their lives, many of them will leave the country. In general, although popular frustration with the Taliban regime may grow strong, it will tend to manifest itself in protesting against their specific steps rather than in forming a nationwide resistance movement. These factors are also likely to affect the formulation of foreign policy by the Taliban, thus making it even less predictable.

The international consequences of the advent of the Taliban rule will be significant both for the regions of Central and South Asia and for the entire Muslim world. In the near future, the Taliban are most likely to focus on gaining full control over the country yet are unlikely to recourse to direct aggression against other states. Still, the threat of the spread of terrorism and religious extremism will undoubtedly increase. Although the Taliban may come into conflict with other terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan, who do not recognize their supremacy, they will not combat terrorism as such. In view of the current political situation, the Taliban are unlikely to launch terrorist attacks on states that are permanent members of the UN Security Council, but for a number of others the threat will be quite real. First and foremost, it is India which is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism and extremism. Given Pakistan’s close ties with the Taliban, the latter is likely to be used for carrying out hostile actions against India.

The developments in Afghanistan have prompted quite an intense debate in Russia. A few years ago, the Russian political leadership came to believe that the victory of the Taliban was inevitable and that it was necessary to initiate contacts with them. The prompt evacuation of US troops and their allies, and the fall of President Ghani were perceived by many policy makers and experts as yet another proof of the crisis of the “historical West”. At the same time, the Russian leaders categorically rejected the possibility of intervening militarily in Afghan affairs. “The USSR had its experience in that country,” said President Vladimir Putin – “We have learned the right lessons.” At the CSTO and SCO summits in September 2021, Russia, like other parties, stated its desire to see Afghanistan a peaceful and independent state free from terrorism and drugs that calls for an inclusive government to be formed in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, there is certain duplicity about Russia’s policy. On the one hand, the Russian embassy in Kabul is making benevolent statements about the Taliban, while on the other, the Russian Armed Forces, together with allies, are conducting joint military exercises near the Afghan border in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Likewise, Russian experts are split on the matter. According to some of them, the Taliban have learned the lessons of the 90s and will pursue a moderate policy, thus cooperation with them, especially in the context of Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West, is possible. Other experts, on the contrary, believe that the Taliban have not changed and still pose a threat to Russia.

From my viewpoint, the Taliban’s moderate tone is little more than a rhetorical maneuver aimed to mislead public opinion in order to secure early international recognition and foreign aid. Of course, given that the Taliban do exercise de facto control over the country, working contacts with them cannot be avoided. However, it seems that their de jure recognition could cause serious negative consequences. It would delegitimize the fight against terrorism waged by the international community, namely India, Russia and other countries, undermine the authority of the UN Security Council, be regarded by the Taliban as weakness, increase the influence of the most extremist elements and incentivize extremists and terrorists across other countries and regions. Because the politics and ideology of Taliban is absolutely opposite to United Nation’s principles, there is no reason to give them the place of Afghanistan in UN General Assembly. The real proof that they respect the international law and democratic values should be obtained before such decision.

One of the main reasons for Taliban’s defeat in 2001 was the formation of a wide anti-terrorist coalition and their full international isolation. The countries, which joined the coalition, united against the common danger and put aside — at least for some time — their differences. Now because of confrontation between Russia and the West, rivalry between USA and China, some other conflicts and contradictions, the recreation of such a coalition is impossible. Nonetheless, the question as to what should be the most adequate and effective response to the threats posed by the Taliban rule remains open.

* The Author is a Professor at the School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University (Russia)

Disclaimer: The Views expressed in the Article are of the Author