Opinion | Initial Taliban moves fail to convince Afghanistan’s neighbours

Written By: James M Dorsey
New York Published: Sep 14, 2021, 05:48 PM(IST)

A member of the Taliban Fateh, a "special forces" unit, stands guard outside the US embassy in Afghanistan Photograph:( AFP )

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A litmus test of Taliban willingness to compromise may come sooner than later

The Taliban’s record in recent weeks on making good on promises to respect human and women’s rights as well as uphold freedom of the press is mixed at best. Afghanistan’s neighbours and near-neighbours are not holding their breath even if some are willing to give the Central Asian country’s new rulers the benefit of the doubt.

A litmus test of Taliban willingness to compromise may come sooner than later.

It’s most likely only a matter of time before China knocks on newly appointed Afghan acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani’s door demanding the extradition of Uighur fighters.

The Chinese demand would be challenging not only because of the Taliban’s consistent rejection, no matter the cost, of requests for the expulsion of militants who have helped them in their battles.

The Taliban already made that clear two decades ago when they accepted the risk of a US invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 by refusing for the umpteenth time to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. There is little in Taliban 2.0 that suggests that this has changed.

If Haneef Atamar, the foreign minister in the US-backed Afghan government of former president Ashraf Ghani, is to be believed, Uighurs, including one-time fighters in Syria, contributed significantly to the Taliban’s most recent battlefield successes in northern Afghanistan.

A demand to extradite Uighurs to China would also be challenging because Mr Haqqani himself, the Afghan official in charge of internal security, is a wanted man with a $5 million US bounty on his head. Moreover, the United Nations has sanctioned Mr Haqqani’s prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, and several other members of the caretaker government.

“It’s hard to see a wanted man turning over someone who is wanted for similar reasons,” said a Western diplomat.

Moreover, honouring extradition requests could threaten unity within the Taliban’s ranks. "Taliban actions against foreign jihadist groups to appease neighbouring countries would be especially controversial, because there is quite a widespread sense of solidarity and comradeship with those who fought alongside the Taliban for so long," said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Unanswered is the question of whether China would go along with what seems to be an unspoken international consensus that it may be best not to seek extraditions if the Taliban keep their word and prevent militants from striking at targets beyond Afghanistan.

Counterterrorism experts and diplomats argue that if forced, the Taliban would quietly let foreign militants leave their country rather than hand them over. That would make it difficult to monitor these individuals.

China has in recent years successfully demanded the extradition of its Turkish Muslim citizens from countries like Egypt, Malaysia, and Thailand and has pressured many more to do so even though they were not suspected of being foreign fighters and/or members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The United Nations Security Council has designated TIP’s predecessor, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation.

There is little reason to assume that China would make Afghanistan, a refuge from Syria for Uighur fighters, the exception. 

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made that clear when he hinted at possible extradition requests during talks in July in China with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and the new government’s first deputy prime minister. Mr Wang demanded that the Taliban break relations with all militant groups and take resolute action against the TIP.

Moreover, the Taliban may have destroyed any chance of Chinese reliance on them by demonstrating early on that they and the international community may be speaking different languages even if they use the same words.

The Taliban made clear that their definition of inclusivity, a term the group and the international community, including China, Russia and India, appeared to agree on, was very different. The Taliban formed an overwhelming ethnic, all-male government that was anything but inclusive by the universally agreed meaning of the word.

Similarly, Mr Haqqani and his colleagues, including Qari Fasihuddin Badakhshani, the Afghan military’s new Taliban chief of staff, a Tajik and one of only three non-Pashtuns in the new 33-member government structure, is believed to have close ties to Uighur, Pakistani and other militants. 

As a result, they are likely to be equally reticent about entertaining Chinese-backed Pakistan requests for the transfer of members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban.

The TTP is a coalition of Pashtun Islamist groups with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that last year joined forces with several other militant Pakistani groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violently anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim supremacist organization. 

Hazara Shiites, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population were not included in the newly appointed Afghan government even though the Taliban made a point of last month protecting Shiite religious celebrations. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s notion of inclusivity has already troubled relations with Iran and could persuade the Islamic republic to covertly support resistance to the group’s rule.

China fears that the fallout of the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan could affect China beyond Afghanistan’s borders, perhaps no more so than in Pakistan, a major focus of the People’s Republic’s single largest Belt-and Road (BRI)-related investment.

The killing in July of nine Chinese nationals in an attack on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan raised the spectre of Afghanistan-based religious militants jihadists targeting China. Until now, it was mainly Baloch nationalists who targeted the Chinese in Pakistan.

The attack occurred amid fears that the Taliban victory would bolster ultra-conservative religious sentiment in Pakistan where many celebrated the group’s success in the hope that it would boost chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.

“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.

Indicating concern in Beijing, China has delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated the implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of the People’s Republic’s transportation, telecommunications and energy-driven BRI.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently kept the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP ambiguous.

"The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response," Mr Mujahid said during an interview on a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

Afghan sources suggest that the Taliban advised the TTP to restrict their fight to Pakistani soil and have offered to negotiate with the Pakistan government an amnesty and the return of the Pakistani militants to the South Asian nation.   

Uncertainty about where the Taliban may be taking Afghanistan has also cast a shadow over Indian hopes that the Iranian port of Chabahar would facilitate trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia and counterbalance the Chinese-supported Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Eager to maintain leverage in its relations with Pakistan as well as China, Taliban official Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai chose his words carefully by stressing that economics should be at the centre of Afghan-Indian relations. “We give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard,” Mr Stanekzai said.

Mr. Stanekzai’s business-focused approach coupled with the pressure on Taliban to police militants on Afghan soil, some of whom have attacked India in the past, dovetails with Islamic scholars in the Deobandi alma mater in the Uttar Pradesh town of Deoband stressing the divide between themselves and their Afghan and Pakistani brethren. 

The Indian Deobandi posture created an opportunity that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to grasp to involve them in India’s backchannel and direct contacts with the Taliban. India invested US$3 billion over the last 20 years in building Afghan roads, girls' schools and health clinics. Mr. Stanekzai’s remarks indicate that the Taliban would like India to continue its investments in the country.

The Taliban as well as a significant number of Pakistani ultra-conservatives root their worldview in Deobandism, a strand of Islam that emerged in India in the mid-19th century to oppose British colonial rule by propagating an austere interpretation of the faith. Deobandism became prevalent among Pashtuns even if Deobandis in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India went their separate ways after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Arshad Madani, the principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, the original Deobandi madrassa established in 1886, recently welcomed a decision by India’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) to set up a training centre in Deoband.

“There is nothing wrong with what we teach, and we welcome the ATS staff to be a part of our classes whenever they like,” Mr. Madani said. A spokesman for the madrassa added that “we are a religious school, but we are also Indians. To doubt our integrity every time the Taliban spread terror is shameful.”

Mr. Madani’s posture should serve as an incentive for the Modi government to work with Indian Deobandis in the hope that the Taliban may be more willing to listen to religious figures with whom they share a history.

Mr. Madani has never had contact with the Taliban nor has he ever visited Afghanistan. “I'm weak and old,” says the 80-year-old cleric. “But if given the chance, I would go to Afghanistan.”

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)

James M Dorsey

James M Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and commentator on foreign affairs who has covered ethnic and religious conflict and terrorism across the globe for more than three decades.
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