The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

The Taliban’s Diplomatic Reemergence

Over the past few years, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing have warmed to the Taliban. What explains their change of heart?

By Daud Khattak for
The Taliban’s Diplomatic Reemergence
Credit: Freestock.ca

In a fresh move to reinvigorate the “dead” peace talks, China announced it would host Taliban and Afghan delegates in a two-day meeting slated to begin on October 28 in Beijing. Although there was no official announcement from China, both Taliban and Afghan delegates confirmed they received invitation from Beijing. 

This will be the first such meeting since the abrupt ending of talks between U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Doha-based Taliban leadership last month. 

Separately, diplomats from the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan are scheduled to meet in Moscow on October 25 to discuss the Afghan peace process.

Disregarding the Taliban’s past and present violence, support for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or its dreadful human rights record, the group’s once reclusive militant leadership is gradually and rapidly strengthening and expanding their diplomatic outreach. 

Long before the launch of the Qatar peace talks in October 2018, the Taliban leadership received positive signals from regional countries as well as some European capitals. Such signals helped the group put forward a diplomatic front with a soft image alongside continuing its fighting across Afghanistan. 

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Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s September announcement calling peace talks with the Taliban “dead,” the Qatar-based Taliban leadership has made widely-reported visits to Moscow, Tehran, Beijing and Islamabad.

Except for Pakistan, which is seen as key backer of the Taliban since the militia’s emergence in the early 1990s, none of the others welcomed the group’s takeover of Kabul or its rule until 2001. Obviously, all the three, Russia and Iran in particular, had their apprehensions. 

However, over the past few years, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing have warmed up to the Taliban. Obviously, they have both interests and apprehensions attached to the group and its state of war or peace. 

Russia

Russia’s immediate concern soon after the Taliban took control of Kabul in the mid-1990s was the spread of radical ideology, rather than the group’s territorial motives. The Taliban wasn’t interested in invading Central Asia, but its ideology appealed to a section of the region’;s younger generation, under newly independent governments.

Since the overthrow of the hardliner regime in late 2001, Russia’s concerns gradually shifted from the Taliban threat to presence of the the U.S. and NATO in its backyard. 

Over the past few years, not only has Russia pulled back from viewing the Taliban as a threat, it has cultivated stronger ties with the militia’s leadership, the majority of whom are the children or relatives of the mujahideen who fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Considering itself nearly a next-door neighbor and a key player in bringing Afghanistan to this point, Russia is aware of the catastrophic scenario possible in case the United States leaves the country without arranging a peace agreement between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban. Russia is also aware of the ethnic divisions in the Afghan government and differences among former warlords and their consequences if the war continues. 

Now that the U.S. withdrawal appears imminent, Russia is more concerned about the emergence of the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) than anything else. Earlier, Russia had reportedly provided arms to the Taliban apparently to help them fight IS-K. Both Russians and the Taliban denied the arms rumor. 

Additionally, some U.S. officials have expressed reservations about Moscow’s efforts to promote itself as a power broker to pose challenge to the U.S.-backed peace process.  

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It is against this backdrop that Moscow hosted at least three key meetings involving Taliban and the Afghan leadership to discuss Afghanistan peace and the way ahead. 

It was in one such meeting that the Taliban and Russian officials asked for the withdrawal of the foreign troops. In that case, Russia will be among the leading players besides winning the Taliban in warding off the IS-K threat. 

China

A Taliban delegation also landed in Beijing soon after the halting of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Qatar. That was not the first time the Taliban visited China. In June 2018, China, for the first time, publicly announced such a visit by the Taliban. 

China plays a silent, somehow invisible, but arguably active role in Afghanistan mainly to defend itself against the spread of extremist ideology and secure its huge investment projects elsewhere in the region. 

The approximately $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a fresh addition to the already existing and planned future investment opportunities in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

Although China had a limited role in Afghanistan’s peace building over the past two decades, it came out with active involvement in 2015 with the formation of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG). Since then, several Taliban delegations have met Chinese officials in 2018 and 2019. 

China’s interest in Afghan peace is driven both by economic and also security concerns. On the economic front, China has plans to build a rail link to Iran via Afghanistan and another from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to the Torkham border with Pakistan. 

The arrival of first freight train from China to Afghanistan’s Hairatan border town is indicative of China’s investment plans for Afghanistan. China also already has a lease agreement for the Mes Aynak Copper Mine near Kabul.

The emergence of IS-K and strengthening of Uyghur groups are the other major concerns for China in an unstable Afghanistan. The Taliban have never attacked Chinese infrastructure projects, nor have they publicly raised a voice in support of Uyghur Muslims. This provides enough reason for the Chinese leadership to consider them allies against both the Uyghurs and IS-K. 

In case of U.S. withdrawal, it is the so-called reformed Taliban who could prove a bulwark against the IS-K. The future of Chinese investment projects in the region will depend on lasting peace in Afghanistan. China’s policy of engaging the Taliban is meant to ensure guarantee for its investment and security.  

Iran

Tehran was the third regional capital that hosted a Taliban delegation soon after the snapping of U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Qatar last month. Overt bilateral contacts between the Taliban and Iran since late 2018 indicate that Shiite Iran is less wary than in previous times of the Sunni Taliban, who are believed to control or influence 50 percent of Afghanistan.

From Iran’s 1990s-era support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to the killing of nine Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in September 1998, and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the two sides have stayed at opposite poles. 

However, animosity toward the United States and the newly-emerged threat of IS-K has almost overshadowed everything that marred their relations in the past. “I think it would be impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban,” Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Jawad Zarif was quoted as saying in January 2019. 

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Earlier, in December 2018, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi had told reporters following the visit of a Taliban delegation to Tehran that “what we are clearly witnessing today is that America cannot have a presence in the region.”

The Iranians may have no love lost for the Taliban, but they definitely see them as a lesser evil when comes to IS-K. Iran’s economic interests in Afghanistan is another factor and the under construction Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran is a key example.  

Pakistan

The Taliban landed to a warm welcome at the Foreign Office by Pakistan’s foreign minister and chief of the country’s prime intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), recently.

Unlike the other three countries – Russia, China and Iran – Pakistan adopted an “our own boys” approach toward the Taliban from their emergence in the mid-1990s till their overthrow in late 2001 and re-emergence. 

For a brief period preceding 9/11, Pakistan withdrew support from the Taliban, but never truly snapped ties. The militant group’s leadership continued to enjoy safe haven in Pakistan. Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the second Taliban Amir after Mullah Omar, was killed in a drone strike while on way from Iran to Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta.

The U.S. peace talks initiative proved to be a bolt from the sky for Pakistan mainly because the country’s so-called covert ties now find the best chance to be made public and legitimated.

Unlike the other countries discussed above, which moved from positions of suspicion, animosity and confrontation to positions of trust, interest and friendship, Pakistan has just re-adjusted, re-aligned and formalized its contacts with the group.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.