Compiled by: Amber Afreen Abid
Reviewed and Edited by: S. Sadia Kazmi
Strategic Vision Institute (SVI) in collaboration with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) organized an international webinar on “Current Turmoil in Afghanistan: Trends and Challenges for Russia and Pakistan.” A distinguished panel of diplomats, policy analysts, civil and military bureaucrats from Russia and Pakistan presented their views on the evolving turmoil in Afghanistan and the ensuing challenges and opportunities for Russian and Pakistan. The webinar was conducted as under Chatham House Rules.
There was a general consensus among the panelists regarding important developments that have taken place in Pakistan’s neighborhood, especially Afghanistan. The sudden withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan has unsettled the region with direct implications for Russia and Pakistan, and many other regional states. Despite Taliban takeover the peace is yet to be established in Afghanistan. Concerns for terrorism spill over were mutually recognized by Pakistani and Russian participants especially from ISIS / Daesh through the Central Asian Republics.
The rapid succession of Taliban over Kabul was a shock to many, though it was much anticipated by Pakistan and Russia. The speedy withdrawal of US from Afghanistan was identified as the main factor responsible for creating chaos in Afghanistan, where even after three months only preliminary conclusions could be made about the direction in which the country is moving.
Four immediate issues in the evolving scenario were highlighted. The first one concerns the nature of Taliban and whether it has changed from its conventional course or not. There are two prevailing viewpoints where one believes that the new generation of Taliban leaders is more concerned with socio-economic problems rather than fundamental religion. The other viewpoint negates this idea and maintains that the nature of Taliban cannot be changed and we should not be misled by the antics being used by Taliban leaders.
The second issue is about the recognition of Taliban where again two parallel yet conflicting assumptions maintain that the international community would not take too long in recognizing the Taliban and granting their rule the legitimacy they seek. However the other opinion supports the idea that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan may not be recognized at all by the international community.
The third concern is regarding the economic situation in Afghanistan and its future. There are conflicting viewpoints on what the future holds for the country; where one perspective holds that Afghanistan can face economic disaster and the coming season would be extremely difficult for them, whereas the other clinches on the resilience of Afghan society, and believes that economic situation in the country will certainly improve.
The fourth major issue is about the developments in Afghanistan and their impact on neighboring countries. There could either be a possibility that the tensions would continue to grow or the internal matters would keep Taliban busy enough to export instability to other regions.
Nonetheless, Russia and Pakistan both have responsibilities towards these regional alarms. In this regard a multilateral cooperative format could turn out to be productive for all stakeholders.
It is also to be kept in mind that the situation today is quite different from earlier Taliban rule in 1995-96. The Doha dialogue between the US and Taliban is an evident example of how the latter has diplomatically evolved. There is a better understanding of international political landscape and better response preparation towards it. However, there could be a difference of opinion and perception among the leadership because of their respective exposure and ranks. While the Taliban leadership may perceive international environment under certain compulsions and responsibilities, the Taliban militias may not be in full harmony with the leadership. This could be serious challenge to the Taliban rule.
It is yet to be seen how Taliban will integrate different factions and stakeholders; how efficiently will they be able to reach out to the ranks to bring them on the board in decision making matters. Afghan society has also evolved as there is active participation in the economic and social activities by youth. Afghanis are today well equipped with new and technical knowledge which they view as an opportunity to better their lives.
It is also important to see how women and girls will be incorporated into political and social fabric of Afghan society. This may prove to be a real challenge for Afghan leadership who would need to strike a balance between getting women into the mainstream and at the same time devises innovative ways, which would not lead to unpleasant situations. The question of international recognition hinges on all these factors. Additionally, the international community runs the risk of providing too much space to Taliban government in the international system. Yet isolating them would also create a vacuum which could then only be filled by some destructive elements. It is therefore, a paradoxical situation regarding how to issue recognition to the interim Taliban government and at the same time how to ensure the necessary conditions are met by Taliban.
The spillover effect of instability is going to be extremely dangerous for the region. The alternative is a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. This would geo-economically transform Central, South, West and East Asian region. It is important to note that several socio-economic challenges existed before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan such as food scarcity, drought, lack of investment in healthcare and infrastructure etc., which impeded on the governments’ response to Covid-19., There are perceptions that Afghanistan could face extreme poverty in the next few years. Thus, this is going to have serious implications as far as the stability and security of Afghanistan is concerned.
The deterioration in the socio-economic and security conditions would lead to internal displacement and outflow of refugees to the adjacent regions. This is a matter of concern to the neighboring countries particularly Pakistan, which has been hosting about 3 million refugees for the last several decades. Hence, the challenge is to strike a balance between the obligations of the host country while preventing destructive elements from using refugee squad for illicit and nefarious activities.
Furthermore it is important to note that on one hand Taliban are confident and determined to build a government, while on the other hand, the economic aspect for state building render them dependent on external humanitarian aid. There are also contradictions between the Taliban and ethnic minorities of Afghanistan that will determine stability in the country. Al-Qaeda and IS in various parts of Afghanistan are also quite concerning. The threat of deteriorating economic situation could result in catastrophic consequences. There are presumptions regarding emergence of a civil war in the country if Taliban fail to cater to the risks and challenges to the stability of the state. There is a need for a comprehensive outside assistance for Afghanistan to survive in the current situation. Taliban would need to cooperate with the other countries in order to get recognition and build their positive image in the world. At the same time, members of world community should ensure that Taliban build an all-inclusive government keeping in view the interests of all minorities and ethnicities. The international community should provide humanitarian assistance in order to avoid any humanitarian catastrophe. Pakistan’s principal role is strengthening of relations among the regional states yet it should be careful in recognizing Taliban’s rule. Moreover, the Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries will also have a significant role in recognition of Afghanistan. None of the countries can alone provide favorable external conditions to Afghanistan and only collective efforts can do so. However, the principal responsibility for normalizing situation in Afghanistan is of Taliban in cooperating with the regional and international countries.
Afghanistan is among the poorest nations of the world and its economy is on the brink of collapse. While the Afghan efforts to improve agriculture cannot be overlooked, the drastic effect of climate change ruined their efforts. Added to this is the Taliban take over, who do not posses any professional experience. Taliban only understand how the traditional economy operates but they do not understand how the modern set up of the economy operates hence have brought sufficient disorganization to the country. Most of the state institutions are non-functional e.g. education system, health care, and many others. However, one potentially positive impact that Taliban can make is reduce corruption in different sectors of the state; they understand how it works and how to curb it. There is also humanitarian crisis owing to population growth, and lack of food etc. Other than Kazakhstan, all the Central Asians are very poor, which means now the poor Central Asians will have to feed even poorer Afghans.
This is very important dimension of the Afghan crisis because this situation affects the adjacent states. The neighboring nations do not have enough resources to help Afghans but they fear that instability in Afghanistan could spread to engulf them as well. Taliban also need to be watchful of the relations between various political and ethnic groups within Afghanistan. The chances of civil war will increase if there is no political and economic stability. Afghans are desperate for basic necessities such as food. Hence the very survival of people is at stake For Russians and Europeans this is also an issue of potential refugee wave, specifically due to the porous border of Russia. It will create regional tensions in Russia and Eastern Europe, thus humanitarian aspect carries evident political consequences. But this does not mean that catastrophe is inevitable as Afghan society is resilient but the cost is higher.
The twin dilemma that Afghanistan is facing these days is impacting the national and regional community as well. It is about how to effectively address the burgeoning humanitarian crisis at home while making the international community realize the gravity and at the same time how to be receptive to concerns of international community about non-state violent actors and inclusive political government. Hence it’s a difficult situation for Taliban both at home and outside.
Afghanistan is a unique country in a sense that the role of external factors have always been there, whether in a form of direct occupation, proxy warfare, or in the form of war on terror. Unfortunately, nobody wants to take the people centric approach to what is happening in Afghanistan. In order to solve the crisis, the international community must recognize the grave economic situation and should provide relief to Afghanistan. The international community should not take a short-sighted view and must be patient towards the gradual process that the Taliban will have to undergo while struggling with the food crisis, inflation, and adverse health care system.
On the positive side however, all these challenges provide a chance of collaboration and opportunity to the international community to come forward and help Afghanistan build up. A good example is of Pakistan that has allowed food and humanitarian assistance from India to be transited to Afghanistan. It is also an opportunity for Russia to work independently as well as through SCO platform to help the Afghan people.
The speakers also pointed out that the new Afghan generation is more concerned with the socio-economic problems of the country rather than the ideological ones. Hence, the Afghan problem should be approached through present times where the world of multi-polarity and globalization has been set in motion, which wasn’t there in 1990s. So the change is required not only by Taliban, but also in the mindset of the policymakers and the international community. Taliban might have a traditional governance system but their approach towards the international affairs has sufficiently evolved. Similarly, the US also has to change its mindset and approach. Only highlighting the women issue while ignoring the economy and humanitarian crisis is not going to help build sustainable Afghanistan. So a change in mindset is required on both sides. There is need to find a way for co-existence between Taliban and international community.
In the political terms, Afghanistan requires outside assistance for which Taliban have to fulfill certain demands including the formations of inclusive government. Russia and Pakistan also demand that. The fundamental reason for Afghan crisis is the separation of power. Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic country; the optimal way is the real separation or division of power between the ethnic groups. The inclusive administration is just a temporary solution; there is a need for inclusive political system which can guarantee comprehensive participation of all ethnic groups.
There was also a reiteration by the speakers that the world needs to be patient as there is still chaos in Afghanistan. Leaving Taliban without diplomatic and financial assistance will worsen the situation. Pakistan has connection and history with Afghanistan for centuries but this leverage cannot be translated into full control. So there is a limit to which Pakistan can help international community by impacting the Taliban thinking. The international community also has to show some flexibility and accommodate Taliban to a certain extent then use that goodwill gesture to make Taliban modify their international behavior. Russia and Pakistan can also play a big role in that. Pakistan’s convergence of interest with Russia is about the terrorists groups but Pakistan also has concerns about India using those groups in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan. Russia is wisely balancing its relationship with India and Pakistan. Perhaps Russia can play a better role in bringing Pakistan and India to table and sorting out their issues so this region could move towards economic connectivity, and peace and harmony.
Another significant point to bear in mind is that the level of coordination with Afghanistan depends upon the intra-Taliban or inter-Afghan process. Intra Taliban confrontation is the major issue as Afghanistan is unable to fulfill promises it had made to the international community. The demands of the international community include the formation of inclusive government and breaking the Al-Qaeda in groups. There are other conditions too, one of which is the role of Haqqani in the current administration. It is strongly opposed by the US. It is also believed that Pakistan has a critical role to play in Afghan crisis as Pakistan had been in connection with Haqqani network because of its influence on TTP.
Here, as a rejoinder it was highlighted that the US had no problem talking to the Haqqanis and Taliban, and signing a peace deal with them. As far as TTP is concerned, it is a real threat to Pakistan’s national security. Pakistan has suffered the most in Afghan war and lost 80,000 lives in addition to experiencing the negative impact on its economy. Pakistan security interests have to be acknowledged and accommodated and regional players should collectively work towards Afghanistan solution.
The panelists had a consensus that the Taliban take over was expected, particularly in view of quick exit of the US and absence of negotiated settlement, though such a quick take over was not expected. The ideology of the group may be the same but the group, people, and region has certainly evolved. Taliban initiated the peace process with the Trump administration; which is evident enough that the group has certainly learned the art of diplomacy. However, if Taliban want to retain power, the question of assurance and pledge would definitely arise. With every passing day, Afghanistan is moving closer to humanitarian crisis and its economy is spiraling downwards. Though Taliban are not responsible for the downfall of the economy as it is something they have inherited. Regional countries have provided assistance to Taliban but that is not enough to sustain the Afghan population.
If Taliban fail to consolidate power and bring stability, there will be chances of civil war or transnational terrorists’ elements taking advantage of the situation and filling in the vacuum. Hence, the threat to Afghanistan is not just the domestic constraints, but also transnational terrorists’ elements. Taliban didn’t come to power by force, rather through the Doha agreement that was signed with the US. Yet, refusing to engage with the same group, denying necessary economic assistance, and freezing its assets is akin to adding to the already existing troubles. The US should behave responsibly and play its positive role in Afghanistan.
Russia and Pakistan have a consolidated approach which is to engage with Taliban, calling for an inclusive political setup, working on humanitarian crisis, as well covering transnational groups, and to curb illegal movement of drugs and arms. Yet, Pakistan has always been a convenient scapegoat for the international community. Pakistan consistently stands by the negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, which can only be done by engaging with the Taliban. Pakistan has always said this, which took two decades for the international community to realize; hence putting the onus on Pakistan is naïve.
Afghanistan should be seen as a global issue not as regional issue. Hence a consolidated approach is required. However, a bilateral approach form Pakistan is also required. As with the previous leadership, the relations were limited to security issue, so with the new government, the broader areas of cooperation at bilateral level should be discussed which is pivotal for sustainable relationship.
Taliban have to deliver on the principal pledges. The matter of inclusivity is an internal matter, however, the issue of women and human rights should essentially be considered. At the same time, Taliban shouldn’t be expected to change its dynamic in hundred days. They should be given time, and the world should remain engaged with them. The international community has obsession to Haqqani. It should be understood that the Haqqani network has always been an important part of Taliban. Associating Pakistan with the Haqqani network time and again does not make any sense. Pakistan has had a relationship with Taliban of which Haqqanis are a pivotal part.
Pakistan- Russia convergence of interests over Afghanistan has grown over the years. The diplomatic relations have improved immensely this year between the two countries. A number of other countries have also played a pivotal role in promoting peace and reconciliation, and political solution in Afghanistan. Today, three key formats are being followed, including the Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan, Troika plus comprising Russia, US, China and Pakistan, and the recently established format of ministerial meeting, which brings together all neighboring countries of Afghanistan, including Russia.
The Moscow format was built to establish a regional approach to peace process in Afghanistan. It remains relevant despite withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Within the framework of Moscow format and troika plus, there was a consensus on key issues which entail there was a no military solution to Afghanistan. The peace process should be Afghan led and Afghan owned. Afghan soil must not be used for terrorists against any country, Afghan government should be inclusive and human rights must be respected. Yet most of these remain a cause of concern today and the list of issues has even expanded after the return of Taliban to Kabul, which includes the recognition of Taliban government, economic strangulation of Afghanistan, humanitarian crisis, food shortages, internally displaced persons and refugees etc.
Pakistan has now a new format for consultations on Afghanistan at ministerial level. The format includes all neighbors of Afghanistan, including China, Russian Pakistan Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Pakistan has always communicated to the international community that it is in Pakistan’s own interest to engage with Taliban, by bringing the latter to address the concerns of the international community. Russia has also been doing the same. Humanitarian crisis is the main issue nowadays which may turn into a refugee problem for neighboring countries of Afghanistan, creating a serious security situation regionally and internationally.
Prime Minister of Pakistan has approved around US $29 million. The economic aid against this amount has begun to disburse to Afghanistan. Pakistan has also provided a humanitarian corridor to any country wishing to send its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan via Pakistan. This shows the extent of Pakistan’s commitment to facilitate Afghanistan and the international community. Prime Minister has also initiated the free Covid-19 vaccination for Afghanistan since November 2021.
Pakistan-Russia cooperation will produce results for Afghanistan. Joining hands with other regional partners will help Afghanistan to govern better and resolve many issues that are of concern to Russia, Pakistan, regional counties, as well as the international community.
Pakistan-Russia relations date back to 2010. After the Afghan crisis, the importance of Pakistan in Russian foreign policy has increased. In this new political crisis it has become essential to cooperate for both countries to satisfy their respective foreign policy objectives. Also, the US departure from Afghanistan has created a need for multilateral organization, like SCO, to re-energies and be more dynamic. Because in order to resolve the Afghan crisis in the long term, there is a need for such organizations to step in. Moscow and Islamabad see this as an opportunity to become better partners, because of the shared parallels in foreign policy without interfering into domestic issues of Afghanistan. Neither Pakistan nor Russia wants to dictate to Afghanistan to act in a certain way, or interfere in Afghanistan’s internal policy. Russia and Pakistan want to bring attention of the international community to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as this is the number one reason for people to migrate. Pakistan is the number one country where Afghanis migrate in case of emergency. Also Russia wants the borders of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to be safe and does not want terrorist elements to grow in its ally states. In the backdrop of these mutual concerns, the relations and contacts between Pakistan and Russia will grow in the future in order to resolve the Afghan crisis.
Afghanistan has always borne the brunt of Western interference. The instability caused by sudden exit of US can’t be managed by Russia alone. Russia has four main interests in Afghanistan: first is to prevent extremists from interfering in Central Asia; second is that Russia wants to be a dominant geopolitical player in the region; third, it wants to ensure that the US is denied access to the region; fourth, Moscow would like Afghanistan to stop the growing drug smuggling out of Afghanistan to Russia. Considering Pakistan’s good terms with Taliban, Moscow will also like to remain on good terms with Pakistan without eliminating India and will try to keep a balance. Pakistan also has some concerns in Afghanistan; first, stability in Afghanistan; second Taliban assistance in restraining Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and preventing its resurgence, third, to restrict Indian negative influence in Afghanistan; and fourth, access to Central Asian energy market and its resources.
Last but not the least it is not the time for negative functions to enforce normative behavior in any nation as the misplaced security concerns could cause deaths. Food insecurity can lead to violent conflict; spike in food prices and its unavailability can trigger social unrest, which is a more likely scenario in Afghanistan. Denying Afghans their own funds and international support just to enforce a normative behavior could lead to starvation of many people in the cold winters of Hindu Kush region. The threat posed by Taliban to the region should neither be underestimated nor exaggerated to justify space to punitive security measures. Considering that the human tragedy is in the making, it is important that a proper threat assessment is made. Pakistan, together with Russia and China can play a pivotal role at this juncture. The three countries along with Iran need to re-coordinate their regional policies in order to bring sustainability in the region. The evolving world order must attach importance to human rights and the notion that repression of terrorism must not be competed by further repression. We should respect human rights at national and international level to prevent conflicts.
In the closing remarks the speaker appreciated the useful meeting of minds and the frank and professional exchange of views on Afghanistan and how it can affect international standing of the two countries. The speakers reiterated that on most of the issues the two countries are on the same page and don’t find any significant tensions or difference in the assessment of the situation. Russia and Pakistan share perceptions and views about what has happened or what can happen in Afghanistan. Still there are some issues that deserve more focus, hence, the two countries should remain in touch for different international and regional scenarios and should frequently share assessments.