The Taliban have been getting many suitors lately. They are far from the “pariah” that the Biden administration thought they were destined to be.
During the past month alone, the Taliban received six suitors from the region and beyond offering courtship – the foreign minister of Qatar; the special envoys of Russia, China and Pakistan; the high representative of the UK prime minister; and the foreign minister of Uzbekistan, who visited Kabul last Thursday.
They all conveyed goodwill and made pledges of selfless affiliation. The Taliban leadership is mulling over the overtures. Ironically, the Taliban run the risk of getting entrapped in the bitter jealousies that have surfaced among outside powers.
Broadly, the outside powers have formed two blocs: Qatar is teaming up with the UK and other Western countries, while Russia, China and Pakistan tend to bond together mostly. Uzbekistan has one foot in each camp.
Qatar is acting as the bridge between the West and the Taliban, and that is important for the US, not only because the Pentagon’s Central Command is based in Doha, but because the Taliban leaders and their families have enjoyed for years Qatari state hospitality and are beholden to the Gulf regime.
For the US in particular and the West in general, any recognition of the Taliban government at this stage is difficult, as the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul Airport is still fresh in everyone’s memory and remains a live issue in US politics, although it is steadily fading as more pressing domestic issues return to center stage – vaccination, economy, jobs, an infrastructure bill and President Joe Biden’s social safety net, etc.
But “Global Britain” is raring to go and has engaged with Taliban officials directly. In reality, the UK is making things easy for the US to “return” to Afghanistan and start dealing with the Taliban government sooner rather than later. Britain senses that it is not in Western interests that the Russia-China-Iran regional axis calls the shots in Kabul.
Planeloads of cash
Reports have appeared that emergency plans are being worked out in the Western capitals for “cash airlifts” to Afghanistan to prevent a total collapse of the country’s economy. The emergency funding is aimed at averting a humanitarian crisis. Bizarre as it may sound, one way this could be done is by sending planeloads of US dollar bills to Kabul for distribution via banks in payments to the public directly.
The Taliban government has been sensitized about this. It is entirely conceivable that the Taliban may accept an arrangement whereby Western powers (and the United Nations) replenish the Afghan banks directly.
Again, there is a parallel idea also to establish a trust fund, so to speak, out of which salaries could be disbursed to government employees and schools and hospitals are kept functioning.
Plainly put, the US and other Western donors would be resuming in some form their previous commitment (before the troop withdrawal) to bankroll the Afghan government, which by World Bank estimates amounted to a whopping 75% of all public spending (all in grants).
Suffice to say, there is a realization in Western capitals that the cash crisis could lead to the collapse of the economy, which in turn could trigger mass migration to the West from Afghanistan. The cash lifeline is reportedly being established already on a trial basis, and larger air deliveries of cash from Pakistan are under consideration.
Clearly, this project will create economic and trade levers. The regional tour by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to Tashkent and Islamabad appears to be related to the finalization of the project to kick-start the Afghan economy.
Both Uzbekistan and Pakistan are gateways to Afghanistan. While the cash injection is best handled from Pakistan, Uzbekistan is the most feasible gateway to establish a humanitarian corridor. Besides, Washington has conceived an innovative idea to source relief supplies and other materials related to Afghan reconstruction from the production bases in Central Asian countries.
Western countries returning
The Central Asian states are greatly interested in the idea – Uzbekistan in particular – which figured in the recent discussions at the C5+1 foreign-minister-level meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Central Asian counterparts.
Needless to say, Western countries are returning to Afghanistan riding the wings of a humanitarian-cum-economic-cum-trade project based on geo-economics. But it will have profound geopolitical overtones as time passes.
These developments have prompted Russia to energize its moribund “Moscow format” to engage with the Taliban. The Moscow format is a negotiation mechanism established by Russia in 2017 to address Afghan issues. It includes Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Iran, India and some other countries.
It held several rounds of talks in Moscow in 2017 and 2018 but thereafter became dormant, as Russia developed yet another compact exclusive format called Troika Plus – Russia, the US, China and Pakistan.
Moscow’s preference is still for Troika Plus, as it provides a window of opportunity to work with the US on Afghanistan. Moscow considers that any selective engagement with the US would ease US-Russia tensions and might even have a salutary effect on the overall relations between the two superpowers.
However, the US takes a lukewarm attitude toward Troika Plus precisely for the same reason, namely that it might get entangled needlessly with Moscow when it is better off on its own, as the Taliban are no strangers anyway.
To be sure, the specter of the US and other Western powers leveraging the Central Asian states directly over the Afghan situation, bypassing Russia, must be haunting Moscow. Indeed, the US sees any cooperation with the Central Asian states over the Afghan issue as working to its advantage in expanding its influence in that strategically important part of the Eurasian region where Russia and China now exercise a pre-eminent presence.
Moscow meeting proposed
Suffice to say, the Russian proposal to hold a meeting of the Moscow format (after an interlude of three years) on October 20 aims at creating space for the Taliban to negotiate with the US and Western powers, and second, to encourage the Taliban to diversify their relationships instead of putting all their eggs in the Western basket.
But then, the Taliban are keen on integration into the international community and are acutely conscious of the criticality of funding by the international financial institutions. The Taliban know that Washington holds the key.
For the Taliban, the top priority is to govern the country. They have no geopolitical agenda. They face an acute situation insofar as their cadres are inexperienced in managing the administration and second, they lack financial resources to run the country.
This is where the Western strategy to build a new relationship with the Taliban government through bankrolling the country’s economy makes sense.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.