The so-called natural partners in the Afghan conflict have varied apprehensions from the Taliban victory inspiring rebellion in China's Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province to militants infiltrating former Soviet republics.
Two months after running over US-backed Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul, the Afghan Taliban grapples for international recognition amid an economic crisis plunging the country into a humanitarian catastrophe.
Until now, the Taliban have had autonomous funding for their two-decade-long war against the US invasion – while this funding may be enough to support the militant group’s activities, it is insufficient to sustain a country.
“Financial soundness is undoubtedly important for any government,” Faridun Usmonov, deputy director of Modern Turkey Research Centre, told TRT World. “However, the Taliban is a spontaneously emerging régime far from being able to claim the title of a government of a sovereign state.”
When the Taliban began increasing their footprint across Afghanistan at a staggering speed, the Hamid Karzai International Airport emerged as a beehive where diplomats, aid workers, government employees, and Afghans were amassed to flee the country, anticipating the militant group riding into Kabul.
The consulates were shut in a hurry as embassies rambled to evacuate staff. But, amid the chaos, four countries decided to stay put: Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia.
Three of the four regional players, Islamabad, Beijin and Moscow had separately hosted Taliban pre-takeover with their own set of expectations and concerns.
For China, Afghanistan makes a trade artery providing access to Central Asia for its Belt and Road Initiative as Beijing looks towards geographic and political expansion. Russia threads on similar lines, eyeing sea routes and access to international markets.
“Pakistan, China, and Russia have actively pursued bilateral and multilateral cooperation for decades which makes them natural partners in the regional context,” said Usmonov, adding that the “appalling American exit did not set the impetus for the development”.
However, Dr. Chilamkuri Raja Mohan, director Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, disagreed.
“There is nothing natural about it,” he said, insisting that circumstances drive people together.
“Russia and Pakistan couldn’t get along for so long but today there is much greater engagement with China acting as a bridge between the two.”
The Taliban won't stay subservient
Pakistan may have kindled the Taliban triumph in an attempt for a friendlier neighbour but it came at the cost of local militant resurgence. China is apprehensive of Taliban victory inspiring rebellion in its Muslim-dominated Xinjiang province, while Russia is worried over the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating former Soviet republics.
“Like Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow also fear spilling violence – particularly intra-Afghan unrest and Islamic State (Khurasan) regrouping along the borders,” said Iftikhar Firdous, a journalist covering war and conflict for decades.
Usmonov recalled active cooperation between the trio brought Islamabad to equal footing with India at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2017. “Naturally, attempts will be made to involve member countries to restore statehood in Afghanistan.”
Days after last month’s SCO summit, resistance leader Ahmad Masoud reportedly visited Dushanbe for peace talks sponsored by Tajikistan and Pakistan, but the Taliban never showed up. Where the Pakistani government had announced peace talks as a “historic step”, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid rebuffed receiving any such information.
“They [Taliban] like Pakistan but they won’t stay subservient. Even the smallest countries exercise autonomy,” said Dr. Mohan.
Usmonov said the Tajik haven’t forgotten the role Ahmad Shah Massoud played in the inter-Tajik peace process during the 1990s. “He facilitated shelter of millions of Tajiks during the conflict.”
Last month, the triad sent special envoys to meet Muhammad Hasan Akhundzada and senior Taliban leaders to push for an inclusive government and continued dialogue to avoid another civil war.
Despite their promises, the Taliban announced a Sunni-male-dominated cabinet. “Tajiks form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, yet they have no representation in the new government,” said Usmonov.
To facilitate post-conflict reconstruction and humanitarian aid, Russia hosted Pakistan, China, and the US to form a unified position ahead of its Moscow-format consultations with the Afghan Taliban this week – where Iran and India also made their presence felt.
“New Delhi remained a key player shaping economic policies and influencing military presence during Ghani’s government,” said Firdous. “They have invested over $3 billion into Afghanistan since 2015.”
Despite being one of the largest investors in Afghanistan, India was forced to leave the country with the arrival of the Taliban. Two months later, there was a change in their rhetoric.
Firdous highlighted the change in how the Indian media went from broadcasting anti-Taliban sentiments in Panjshir to interviewing Anas Haqqani. “It isn’t a random occurrence. India is shifting its policy.”
“India is a realist country. You deal with those in power rather than those trying to spark a rebellion,” said Dr. Mohan, hinting at Amrullah Saleh-led resistance.
However, Firdous stressed that the Taliban remain skeptical of India. “It is interesting that although India issued a statement confirming an official meeting with Taliban officials in Doha, there was no such acknowledgement from the newly-formed Afghan government.”
Dr. Mohan believes India should consider itself a secondary power in the region. “It cannot compete with Islamabad as Pakistan not only shares a border but also religious and ethnic traditions with Afghanistan,” he said, adding that New Delhi may join “other” international stakeholders.
“India would of course prefer a more active US role,” reflected Andrew Small, a senior fellow at European Council of Foreign Relations. “The two sides will continue to coordinate on intelligence and other matters related to militancy.”
Usmonov said the US would exert its influence over global financial institutions as leverage against the Taliban. “But these steps will not be taken in Indian interests.”
Small interjected that as the US shifts focus to China, prioritizing maritime sphere over continental, the level of coordination between New Delhi and Washington in the Indo-Pacific region will continue to grow “but there will be some determination on the US side to not get pulled back too deeply into security issues that have absorbed it over the last two decades and to leave more responsibility to the regional actors.”
“They didn’t tell us [India] what was going on in Doha. They didn’t take India on board. Americans did their own thing – they were focused on Pakistan,” said Dr. Mohan.
Usmonov expects New Delhi to step up cooperation with Central Asian countries and promote its interests within the SCO to maintain influence in the region. “Russia sees India as a close partner so it will certainly advocate New Delhi’s participation in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan.”
Small thinks Pakistan has a far greater stake in the outcome in Afghanistan as well as the capacity to steer it. “It still largely expects to run that policy itself, not always in ways that Beijing finds comfortable.”
“There are longer-term issues in the region where there will be different constellations of powers working in concert, but with the Taliban, Pakistan is the crux actor,” Small added.
Insisting that the region’s future will be shaped by space provided to rising economic giants in Afghanistan, Firdous predicts more violence and military interventions before 'Project Taliban' stabilizes.