Taliban victory in Afghanistan spells trouble for the neighbors - Rokoto

Taliban victory in Afghanistan spells trouble for the neighbors

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Pakistan and Iran both publicly cheered the triumph of the Taliban as a victory over U.S. colonialism, but Afghanistan’s two most strategically significant neighbors know that there’s trouble coming their way.

In the short term, Islamabad and Tehran are both eager to score political points over the humbling of Washington. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan characterized the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan as “breaking the shackles of [American] slavery” and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said America’s defeat was a prime opportunity to “revive life, security and lasting peace.”

But they know that’s an optimistic spin. In fact, both will be hard pressed not to find themselves in the thick of a humanitarian and security crisis, not least thanks to a potential wave of refugees that neither is well equipped to handle. Collectively the two countries are already home to some 5 million Afghans.

While Pakistan’s security service was critical to the success of the Taliban back in the 1990s, the dynamics are more turbid now. The Taliban now view Pakistan with suspicion thanks to its cooperation with the U.S. in the Afghan war, and Islamabad now fears that ties between Pakistani and Afghan Taliban heighten the risk of heightened Islamist insurgency within its own borders.

For Iran, the calculations are different. Predominantly Shiite Iran has a history of bitter enmity with the Sunni Taliban, especially since the Taliban murdered Iranian diplomats in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. In recent years, Tehran has attempted some tense cooperation with the Taliban but this is unlikely to hold if Tehran is faced with attacks against the Shiite community in Afghanistan. Hardly shy about deploying forces abroad if it is under pressure to intervene, Iran has long exerted a strong influence around western and northern cities such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif.

Neither Pakistan nor Iran is going to just sit back.

Pakistan’s wary optimism

The immediate reaction in Pakistan is certainly not panic. As many Western missions desperately scrambled to evacuate their diplomats and staff from Kabul, the Pakistani embassy carried on with business as usual.

Pakistan is “projecting [the takeover] to be a win for Islam, and a defeat for America,” said Neha Ansari, a Washington-based counterterrorism analyst. “It reflects a domestic sentiment which is very pro-Islam and very anti-West.”

Pakistan is also glad to see the back of President Ashraf Ghani, who fled as the Taliban entered Kabul. Ghani was closer to India, Pakistan’s archrival, and relations with his government were at a low point. “Everyone is well aware of Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the Afghan government, and its relationship, that has dated decades now, with the Taliban,” said Madiha Afzal, a Pakistan specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Islamabad believes it has more leverage with the Taliban than it did with the previous government. Thanks to the support given in the past, “there’s a belief,” Ansari said, “this is going to be a Pakistan-friendly government, that Pakistan will be at peace. They can guarantee peace because Afghanistan now has a government that listens to them or is friendly to them.”

But that’s far from the full picture.

Pakistan is also deeply worried that about what the return of the Afghan Taliban means in terms of Islamist militancy. After a major Pakistani military operation that began in 2014, many Pakistani Taliban leaders fled across the border to Afghanistan where they found a safe haven, and it’s unclear whether the Afghan Taliban will now help Pakistan in going after them.

“You cannot trust the political front of the Taliban,” Ansari said. “You cannot trust their commitments because either they don’t have control over their soldiers, or they pretend not to.” She added: “The Taliban will always have that leverage over Pakistan: ‘Oh, you know, we can always release these people and give them safe haven.’”

Given those power dynamics, Afzal said the Pakistanis probably regretted the one-sidedness of the Taliban’s sweep to power. “What it would probably have preferred is a negotiated political settlement with the Taliban in a position of power, but perhaps not the only actor on the stage,” Afzal said.

In terms of refugees, Pakistan is warning that it cannot cope. “Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity or the resources to take any more refugees,” Pakistani Ambassador to the EU Zaheer Aslam Janjua said in an interview. In an apparent warning to the EU, Janjua added: “If the refugees come to Pakistan, they will have an effect on us. And then they may not stop there, and they may move on to other countries as well. It is for the other countries to do their bit.”

Bad blood

As far as Iran goes, the mutual suspicion could hardly be greater. The Taliban view Iran as the key supporter of the Northern Alliance, a mix of ethnic and religious minorities who fought the predominantly Pashtun, Sunni Taliban in the 1990s. Indeed, the Taliban’s murder of the Iranian diplomats in 1998 came after a cycle of violence in which a Northern Alliance commander slaughtered several thousand Taliban prisoners.

For now, Iran is trying to strike a cooperative tone, checking upon the safety of its diplomats and stressing the security of its borders. While Iran’s public statements focus on the hope of peace negotiated through the various ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan, the mistrust is often palpable.

The huge dilemma for Iran will be how to act if the Shiite Hazara community requires protection from the Taliban. Iran has a unit of Afghan Shi’ite fighters, the Fatemiyoun division that was deployed in the Syrian war, that would be an obvious choice for intervention in familiar territory.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who are proud of their tradition of international adventurism, have also hinted that they are not confining their interests to within Iran’s frontiers. Iranian media quoted the Guards’ commander, Hossein Salami, as saying that “the scope of our observations has gone beyond the borders and we are monitoring and controlling all the developments in the neighboring country.”

Several members of the country’s conservative establishment are also voicing the more traditional hostility toward the Taliban. Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, a 102-year-old top cleric, warned that it would be a “great and irreparable mistake to trust a group whose record of wickedness, murder and slaughtering people is clear to the whole world.” According to the BBC’s Persian service, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was threatened by senior government officials for warning of the dangers of the Taliban.

Reputation management

Afzal, the Brookings fellow, said Pakistan is now likely to wait and see who recognizes the new government first before deciding what steps to take. In 1996, when the Taliban first took over the country, Pakistan was quick to recognize the government, but this time, Afzal said, it’s more concerned with how such a step might be perceived internationally, especially if Western countries don’t recognize the government.

“I think Pakistan’s next move — who first recognizes the Taliban government — that will really define what camp it falls into. It will have to calibrate this very carefully if it doesn’t want to repeat being thought of on this ‘other side’ camp, relative to the U.S.”

On Tuesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with Khan, setting out the conditions for recognition, which he said must happen “on an international, not unilateral basis,” according to a statement from his office. Johnson said “the legitimacy of any future Taliban government will be subject to them upholding internationally agreed standards on human rights and inclusivity.”

Islamabad is not in a hurry. When asked whether Pakistan will recognize the Taliban, Janjua said “It’s too early to say.”

“We are not rushing to anything. We will see how things pan out.”

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