Disputes over Afghanistan (II)

Berlin discusses options for diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, hoping to push back against growing Russian and Chinese influence. An Afghan warlord asks the West to support his guerrilla war against the Taliban.

BERLIN/KABUL (own report) – Calls are being voiced in Berlin for a rethink on Germany’s Afghanistan policy. Should diplomats be redeployed to Kabul? The background to these discussions is the growing number of countries now engaging in limited cooperation with the ruling Taliban. Russia and China have engaged with Afghanistan for some time. Moscow invited Taliban representatives to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on several occasions. Beijing, which is planning extensive extraction projects for raw materials in Afghanistan, accredited a Taliban ambassador at the beginning of the year. India has also shown some interest in cooperation, while Saudi Arabia plans to open an embassy in Kabul. The motivation for closer relations is not only security concerns but also geostrategic interests. Berlin now fears it approach may be too little, too late. Meanwhile, and in sharp contrast, notorious Afghan warlords have been approaching the West for help to overthrow the Taliban. At the weekend, militia leader Ahmad Massoud, whose National Resistance Front (NRF) is waging a guerrilla war against the Taliban, said that his fighters lacked the “resources and support” given to Ukraine. The Taliban could, he insists, be defeated.

Transport corridor to South Asia

Unlike the Western states, Russia never broke off relations with Afghanistan after NATO’s hasty withdrawal from the Hindu Kush in the summer of 2021. Russian diplomatic links have continued, albeit at a fairly low level. In 2022 and 2024, Moscow invited a Taliban delegation to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. There has recently been some talk of Russia removing the Taliban from its list of banned terrorist organisations, possibly in preparation for full diplomatic recognition.[1] One reason for this is certainly the need for a decisive blow against the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the group said to be responsible for terror acts against targets on Russian soil, not least the deadly attack on Crocus City Hall outside Moscow and the very recent killings in Dagestan. Alongside this factor, Moscow may seek to take advantage of Afghanistan’s geostrategically important location and, importantly, expand trade routes through to Pakistan and India to counter Western sanctions.[2] One attractive option is a plan to supply India with natural gas via a pipeline running through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This could achieve a long-term diversification of Russian natural gas exports.

Keeping the US out

China, too, has never broken off relations with Afghanistan and has now begun to intensify them. It sent an ambassador to Kabul in September 2023 [3] and accredited an Afghan ambassador to Beijing in January.[4] China also has several reasons for closer links. Firstly, Beijing is concerned that Uyghur terrorists could again gather in the Hindu Kush and operate from there into Xinjiang – something that has happened repeatedly in the past. Secondly, Chinese companies have specific economic interests in Afghanistan. Last year, a number of companies from the People’s Republic concluded voluminous deals on the mining of copper, lithium, crude oil and other raw materials in the country.[5] One of the most prominent projects is the extraction of copper in the Aynak mine south-east of Kabul, one of the largest in the world. The concession to mine the raw material was originally awarded to a Chinese company back in 2008 but, in the context of war and other obstacles, no real work was ever carried out.[6] The Chinese can now make up for lost time. In addition to its security and economic interests, Beijing also wants to keep the US out of Central Asia.

“Diplomats to Afghanistan”

Beyond its cooperation with Russia and China, the Taliban government is also developing international partnerships with other players. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has now said that the Taliban had held talks with representatives not only from Russia but also from India and Uzbekistan. These exchanges happened on Sunday and Monday in the Qatari capital Doha [7] on the side-lines of the meeting with UN representatives and diplomats from more than twenty countries, including the US [8]. And it was previously announced that Saudi Arabia intended to reopen its embassy in Kabul.[9] These events seem to have the potential to unleash a certain dynamic in which Berlin does not want to be left stranded. At the weekend, Nils Schmid, foreign policy spokesperson for the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, wrote, “We must ask ourselves how we want to deal with this country in the future. It cannot be assumed that the Taliban will relinquish their power in the foreseeable future.” In his view, the Taliban are no longer a homogenous entity: alongside ideologically obstinate hardliners there are “forces who have come to recognise that the country’s problems can only be solved through dialogue and cooperation with the international community.” Berlin should, he argues consider sending diplomats to Afghanistan again.[10]

The Vienna Process

While efforts are underway to move into a phase of cooperation with the Taliban, notorious Afghan warlords have, by contrast, been pitching to the West their potential role as allies in a renewed war to remove the Islamist rulers in Kabul. The recent occasion for this appeal was the fourth meeting of the “Vienna Process for a Democratic Afghanistan”, which took place in the Austrian capital last week. The Vienna Process was launched with a conference in September 2022 and followed up by two sessions in April and December 2023. The dialogue brings together various players across the spectrum of the Afghan opposition in exile. They range from women’s rights activists to once powerful warlords still working to overthrow the Taliban. Key figures at the meeting include a former Afghan ambassador to Austria and a former deputy Afghan foreign minister. As the Vienna Process includes people who are running anti-Taliban military operations inside Afghanistan, this NGO-based initiative is not currently supported by governments. Its funding comes from private foundations. One activist was quoted last year as saying there was no way the Taliban could be disempowered “without military pressure”.[11]

“Like Ukraine”

In the wake of the fourth session of the Vienna Process for a Democratic Afghanistan one of the participants, Ahmad Massoud, publicly called for greater military and logistical support from the West. Massoud, son of the well-known warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, was educated at the British military academy Sandhurst during the Western occupation of Afghanistan. From his exile in Tajikistan, he leads the armed National Resistance Front (NRF), which is fighting against the Taliban. He has reported that his forces lost more than 500 people in 2022 until they switched to classic guerrilla warfare. Massoud claims the guerrilla tactic can succeed, but it is just that “we lack resources and support”: “If the world is expecting us to achieve more, then give us more”. After all, “Could the Ukraine survive even one year without outside support.”[12] Massoud points out that he is not alone: other militias are also fighting against the Taliban, including a force led by General Yasin Zia, whose tactics include assassinations.

For the third time

Other warlords were present at the Vienna Process conference, including Hazrat Ali and a representative of the notorious Uzbek general Rashid Dostum. In the 2000s, Human Rights Watch accused Hazrat Ali of sexual violence against women, robbery, looting, imprisonment of critics, and numerous other crimes.[13] Dostum, for his part, is known to have used the brutal methods to enforce his rule in the everyday life of his subjects. His treatment of enemies is also infamous: in autumn 2001, he killed up to 1,500 prisoners, probably Taliban, by locking them in containers and letting them slowly die of thirst.[14] The brutality of the Afghan warlords, who were widely loathed by the population, made it easier for the Taliban to come to power in the first half of the 1990s. Later, under NATO occupation forces, these warlords were allowed to operate as regional potentates. Again, the Taliban gained in popularity as an alternative to life under the warlords.[15] Massoud, Hazrat Ali, Dostum and others are now offering their services for a third repetition.

 

[1] Mikhail Bushuev: Russia rebuilding ties with the Taliban. dw.com 06.06.2024.

[2] Soumya Awasthi: Russia’s strategic shift: Embracing the Taliban in Afghanistan. hindustantimes.com 05.06.2024.

[3] Taliban hail China’s new ambassador with fanfare, say it’s a sign for others to establish relations. apnews.com 13.09.2023.

[4] Ruchi Kumar: Why has China recognised Taliban’s envoy to Beijing? aljazeera.com 14.02.2024.

[5] Ahmed S. Cheema: China’s Gamble in Afghanistan. thediplomat.com 19.05.2023.

[6] Thomas Ruttig: Chinese investments in Afghanistan: Strategic economic move or incentive for the Emirate? Afghanistan Analysts Network, September 2023.

[7] See also: Streit um Afghanistan.

[8] Taliban sends its first delegation to a UN-led meeting in Qatar on Afghanistan. france24.com 30.06.2024.

[9] A Taliban delegation attends a UN-led meeting in Qatar on Afghanistan; women excluded. abcnews.go.com 30.06.2024.

[10] SPD-Sprecher fordert diplomatische Beziehungen mit Taliban. n-tv.de 29.06.2024.

[11] David Loyn: The scattered forces opposing the Taliban need support now. chathamhouse.org 28.07.2023.

[12] Christina Lamb: Exiled leader trained at Sandhurst tells West: I can help topple Taliban. thetimes.com 30.06.2024.

[13] Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us. Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan. hrw.org 28.07.2003.

[14] See also: Totalschaden.

[15] See also: Option Bürgerkrieg, Die Warlords als Oligarchen and Vom Westen befreit (III).


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