After the United States and its NATO allies announced that they would withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, civil unrest in the nation has been growing, seemingly having reached a boiling point. The Taliban (ed. note: an organization banned in the Russian Federation) has seized new territories and claimed that it controls 85% of Afghanistan. Its members did not even wait for US and allied forces to leave the country before expanding the group’s reach. They recently captured a key border crossing with Iran in western Afghanistan and entered Kandahar in the south. The Taliban has also besieged the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an important regional hub in northern Afghanistan located in close proximity to both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Nonetheless, the leader of the Taliban delegation in Moscow recently stated that the group had decided to avoid attacking provincial capitals “to prevent bloodshed” prior to the complete withdrawal of US troops.
Although a spokesman for the armed forces of Afghanistan acknowledged “the severity of the country’s situation”, he said that Afghan troops remained “capable of retaking territory” from the Taliban, whose leaders are expected to present a written peace proposal to the government. Still, the morale of Afghan servicemen is being tested. Hence, their willingness to fight al-Qaeda (ed. note: an organization banned in the Russian Federation), which the Taliban has been known to harbor, is in question.
In order to have a better understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan, one ought to keep in mind that the country is “a multiethnic and mostly tribal society” with a fairly large informal economy. Tribal and familial ties, established over hundreds of years, play an important role within a “Qawm”, a basic social unit of Afghanistan. And “a high degree of autonomy has allowed local areas to pursue economic activities [and defense, including with military means] and to follow tribal and localized law and customs.”
There are numerous ethnolinguistic groups in Afghanistan: Pashtun (with the largest population), Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Aimaq, Arab, Kyrgyz, Qizilbash, Gujjar, Brahui and others. Qawms or “solidarity groups” are not racially homogeneous. In fact, depending on the situation, an individual’s Qawm could be his or her “ethnicity, village, province, family, religion, etc”. Hence, relations between these social units are historically quite complex.
Religion also plays an important role in Afghanistan with its heterogenous social structure. Sunni Muslims constitute over 80% of the population, while Shiites account for approximately 7 – 18% (e.g. Qizilbash and Tadjik groups).
The Taliban itself is essentially a nationalist movement whose aim is to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan where a strict interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law) is enforced. It is also viewed as pro-Pashtun (the largest ethnolinguistic group in the country). The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (or IMU, listed as a terrorist organization and banned in the Russian Federation) has been known to operate in northern Afghanistan where the Uzbeks and the Tadjiks form the majority. The group has steadily opposed stiff resistance to the Taliban and there has been no cooperation between these movements, even when the Taliban faced the most severe crises.
The Taliban is not viewed as a true opposition movement. After all, sources state that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence “was heavily involved” in creating the Taliban. In the past, Pakistan was accused of sending troops and military support to the Taliban and thus destabilizing the situation in Afghanistan in order to create a government there which would be a loyal ally of Islamabad.
Tensions in the Central Asian nation have been growing in recent months. Afghan armed forces fleeing fierce Taliban attacks have repeatedly sought refuge in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Moreover, former Vice President Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, had to leave the Afghan territory. He is regarded as a famous Uzbek warlord in Afghanistan and a relentless opponent of the Taliban.
In the current climate, it is quite clear that there is no military solution to the conflict in the war-torn nation. Each Qawm in Afghanistan can function as a completely or relatively autonomous unit in remote regions and challenging conditions. If so required, it can defend its territory for a fairly long time while staging guerilla counter attacks.
Hence, once all US and ally troops withdraw, the international community ought to support all the efforts within Afghanistan aimed at building a secular and democratic nation with elements of Sharia law (a part of Islamic tradition common to the majority of the population) incorporated in its legal system.
It is possible to negotiate with the Taliban via its three representative groups. An obvious choice is the organization’s diplomatic and political office located in Qatar. In fact, its staff members do not fight or reside in Afghanistan.
The two other options are military structures. The first is the Haqqani network (ed note: banned in the Russian Federation), a sub-set of the Taliban organization with ties to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani. The second is the Taliban military commission headed by Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammed Omar. The two aforementioned leaders are based in Pakistan but they control the situation in Afghanistan.
Russian officials understand that in the current climate there is a need and good reason for holding talks with representatives of the Taliban (ed. note: an organization banned in Russia), especially because tensions in Afghanistan and in its border region with Tajikistan have been on the rise recently.
On July 8, 2021, a 4-member political delegation from the Taliban attended a two-day conference in Moscow, arriving from Qatar, and met with Zamir Kabulov, the Russian Presidential Representative for Afghanistan, in order to discuss the peace process and issues related to the Russian Federation and Afghanistan. The head of delegation Mawlawi Shahabuddin Delawar is in charge of the department responsible for liaising with Afghan citizens. In the past, he was a Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, represented his country in Saudi Arabia, and was a member of Supreme Court of Afghanistan. His name was included in the United Nations Security Council Sanctions List in 2001. During the talks in Moscow, the current situation in Afghanistan and the possibility of staging the intra-Afghan dialogue (something various nations, such as the United States, Russia, Pakistan, India, China and Uzbekistan, have been striving for) were discussed. Russian officials received assurances from members of the delegation that the Taliban would not “violate the borders of Central Asian countries” as well as “guarantees of security for foreign diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan.” The Afghan side also stated that the Taliban would not allow its territory to be used “to attack Russia or neighboring countries.” Mohammad Naimah, Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, declared in Moscow that his movement would not use Afghanistan to attack other nations and repeated the stance according to which the Afghan soil would never be used against anybody. Clearly, the Taliban officials were ready to make assurances that others expected from them, such as seeking to wipe out drug production in Afghanistan and fight against DAESH (banned in the Russian Federation).
Visits by members of the Taliban to Russia and other nations for talks have helped the group gain legitimacy, thus transforming the organization from a terrorist to a political movement on the international stage. According to the movement, the intra-Afghan dialogue has stalled because of the reluctance demonstrated by the Taliban to come to the negotiation table and the apparent lack of unity within the government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani whom the Taliban considers a Western puppet.
In any case, it is essential for nations, in particular neighboring ones, to engage with the Taliban, a truly powerful organization in Afghanistan at present, in order to prevent further escalation of tensions in this Central Asian country and the region as a whole. During talks with this group, it is important not to seek revenge against opponents of the Taliban or those who collaborated with US and allied forces in Afghanistan. It is also essential to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the nation and its surrounding regions (on account of mass migration and local armed conflicts), as well as the spread of extremist ideology and terrorism among Qawms. Likewise, it is crucial to support good neighborly relations as well as close economic cooperation and cultural exchange with the nation of Afghanistan.
Still, it is possible that in the near future, Afghanistan’s neighboring countries may need to provide refuge to fleeing Afghan residents in order to try to prevent the outburst of extremist ideas among armed groups in Afghanistan. After all, if it becomes difficult for Afghanis to peacefully leave their home country, they will have no other choice but to fight their way out and possibly lose their lives in the process. And in order to avoid such problems in the future, it is important to start discussions about the fate of potential Afghan refugees right now.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.