Who will lead the way to diplomatic recognition of the Taliban?

By James Durso

In January 2024, Chinese president Xi Jinping accepted the credentials of the ambassador of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) to China. And in September 2023 China was the first country to name a new ambassador to the Islamic Emirate since August 2021.

Today, over a dozen countries maintain diplomatic representation in Kabul, though none have formally recognized the Taliban government. All the countries that border Afghanistan – China, Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics – maintained diplomatic missions after the departure of NATO troops and the previous Afghan government. The United States, which is absent, is represented by the State of Qatar.

In February, the U.S. government-funded Voice of America reported, “The United States is cautiously exploring the possibility of consular access to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan” based on the U.S. State Department “Integrated Country Strategy” for Afghanistan. However, a State Department spokesperson replied there are “no near-term plans to return any diplomatic functions to Kabul.”

Though the U.S. and its allies may not return to Kabul soon, everyone else in the region is planning – and acting.

Tashkent recently secured Qatar’s support for the 573-kilometer Trans-Afghan Railway to connect Uzbekistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan, which will ensure that China isn’t the only player in local infrastructure development. The Taliban will be incentivized to secure the route to show they are a responsible government in control of their territory, to keep Qatar interested in future investments, and as a thank-you for Doha’s mediation efforts with the U.S. and Europe on the Islamic Emirate’s behalf.

In January, China called for work on the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway to start “as soon as possible.”  The CKU will bypass Russia and likely connect with the Middle Corridor trade route to Europe, which will please Washington, and help to make Uzbekistan the transport center of Central Asia.

The World Road Transport Organization recently announced the inaugural shipment of electronic products from Shenzen, China to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent “via a new 6,500-kilometer transportation corridor that runs through Kyrgyzstan” in seven days as opposed to 20 days previously.

Pakistan’s military-controlled National Logistics Cell announced it is seeking land routes to Central Asia via China. Though Islamabad no doubt hopes the Trans-Afghan Railway comes to fruition is it planning a redundant overland route that avoids Afghanistan. Likewise, Uzbekistan recently secured agreements with Iran that will allow it use of Iran’s transport network and the sea ports at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman and Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf.

The 1600-kilometer Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline has suffered numerous delays, the latest being the Taliban victory in August 2021. The Americans will hate to approve any project that benefits the Islamic Emirate, but Washington and Ashgabat are in discussions on possible easing of sanctions on the Islamic Emirate so the project may finally get underway. A bonus for the U.S. is that TAPI will reduce Turkmenistan’s reliance on gas sales to China (Turkmenistan is the largest supplier if pipeline gas to China).Another impediment is the  ongoing tension between Pakistan and India that may make Delhi doubt Islamabad’s willingness to keep the taps open. And can the Taliban secure the pipeline against attacks by the Islamic State – Khorasan Province.

The Central Asian republics and Iran have continued to sell electricity to Afghanistan, providing 78% of the country’s electricity, despite late payments by Kabul and unplanned outages in Uzbekistan that caused it to cut deliveries in 2022 and 2023. But  in February 2024, the Afghan power company, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, announced it had cleared a $627 million debt for electricity imports from Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The CASA-1000 International Energy Project aims to provide 1,300 megawatts of hydropower-produced surplus electricity Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer months through new energy infrastructure running 1,300 km. The $1.2 billion project was to be complete by 2024 but may be delayed if U.S. government sanctions waivers are needed to complete the Afghanistan leg of the project.

In November 2023, Yemen’s rebel Ansarallah militia (the Houthis) started attacking Israel-linked ships to force a cease fire in the Gaza Strip. As a result, 12 percent of global trade was affected, and many ships were diverted from the Red Sea to a route around Africa, delaying deliveries and increasing costs.

The Belt and Road Initiative may have been partly conceived as a solution to China’s concern that the U.S. would try to isolate it by blocking maritime trade via the South China Sea. The BRI planners may not have envisaged trouble from the Red Sea chokepoint, but the Houthi attacks have highlighted the wisdom of the BRI and may spur more connectivity projects across Eurasia, and a greater necessity to deal with the Islamic Emirate.

American troops departed Vietnam in 1973 and the South Vietnam government held on to 1975 when it was defeated by North Vietnam. Even though newly-united Vietnam was interested in establishing diplomatic relations and opening trade links, the U.S. slapped a trade embargo on the Hanoi and didn’t restore normal relations, and lift the trade embargo, until 1994. The Taliban were likewise interested in maintaining relations as the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the U.S. and the Islamic Emirate allowed for the presence of U.S. diplomatic personnel. And Taliban spokesmen have indicated the emirate’s interest in maintaining diplomatic ties with the U.S.

Carter Malkasian noted that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, “The administration and the American people misunderstood the Taliban movement as inseparable from al-Qa’eda.” And Graeme Smith observed, after interviewing numerous Taliban, “the Taliban were nationalists, to a large extent fighting for Afghan identity.”

Many members of the Taliban support Al-Qaeda and the organization’s leadership will not publicly break with the terror group to prevent defections to Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But, speaking of striking outside Afghanistan, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the current acting Minister of the Interior said in 2009, “This does not interest us.”

Because the Americans thought, and may still think, of the Taliban as trans-national Islamists, instead of nationalists fired by religious faith and the Afghan tradition of resistance to   invaders, Washington may be slow to reengage with Kabul. This will be to avoid criticism by U.S. hawks that they are forgetting the sacrifices of dead American and Afghan soldiers, and to force Kabul’s acquiescence with U.S. policy but China, and potential Middle East investors, will hover over any negotiations, ready to seize opportunity if agreement with the U.S. fails.

Others may accept reality and deal with the Islamic Emirate, but will the anger and humiliation felt by America’s military and foreign policy class delay normal relations with Kabul, or will the presence of China speed things up?

On 18-19 February, the United Nations will host a conference, convened by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres, on how to continue to engage with the Islamic Emirate. The meeting will consider the recent report by the U.N. Special Coordinator for Afghanistan Feridun Sinirlioğlu which recommended continued and strengthened engagement Afghanistan so long as the emirate sticks to Afghanistan’s international legal and treaty obligations.

In recent testimony to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West reported “the Taliban have undertaken efforts to fulfill their security commitments with regard to al-Qa’ida” and “The Taliban have waged an aggressive campaign against ISIS-K.” West also bemoaned “reprehensible Taliban policies” towards women and girls so his report gave  both proponents and opponents of engagement with the emirate something to work with.

The Taliban have said they will not attend the conference unless they are recognized as the legitimate government, so the event will likely devolve into a gripe session that highlights Afghan activist living in the West, and the National Resistance Front, and releases an ambitious agenda that has no hope of implementation without the cooperation of the emirate,

What are the goals of Afghanistan’s neighbors?

They want trade and connectivity, and a stable, representative government in Kabul but will work in parallel towards those goals. The American priority is a representative government that will secure influential positions for Western allies, who will unfortunately be compromised as a result. However, appointing Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and presidential contender, to a senior post may be a win-win as he is both known in the West and is respected in Afghanistan for not fleeing to America or Europe in August 2021. In the meantime, continued sanctions will hopefully foster popular discontent and destabilize the government of the Islamic Emirate, though leaders of neighboring countries will not subscribe to any policy that hinders stability and connectivity in the area after two decades of U.S.-sponsored mayhem.

In the meantime, the Taliban have taken practical actions that will cost them money to demonstrate they can be a good neighbor.

Though the Taliban previously taxed narcotics production, in 2021 the Taliban banned harvesting ephedra, the key ingredient of methamphetamine, and in 2022 started enforcing a ban on growing poppy. By 2023 the UN reported poppy production was down 95%.

The bans will help the region as there may be fewer opportunities for more local addiction, less violence from drug dealers fighting police (Iran’s anti-narcotics police have lost over 4,000 officers fighting smugglers, mostly based in Afghanistan), less corruption among cooperating police and public officials, and fewer clandestine networks available to criminals and terrorists.

As 95% of the heroin consumed in Europe was from Afghan poppy, this should be an incentive for Europe to seek opportunities for practical cooperation with Kabul. Unfortunately, Europe’s leaders are consumed with the NATO-Russia war in Ukraine and will not seek cooperation with the Taliban without Washington’s permission.

If Europe and America are too busy or too angry to engage Kabul, its up to the neighbors.

Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asia republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have water disputes with Afghanistan, the location of the headwaters that irrigate their countries. Iran and Afghanistan have had armed clashes over water and Iran now claims the Taliban are not honoring their commitments on water rights (though in November 2023 the two countries “signed five economic cooperation agreements related to transportation, civil aviation, mining and free trade zones.”

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are alarmed that the $670 million, 285-kilometer Qosh Tepa Irrigation Canal will divert 25% of the flow of the Amu Darya River, which both countries rely on for the all-important cotton crops. Pakistan is concerned that the proposed hydro power dam on Afghanistan’s Kunar River and one provincial minister said building the dam “will be considered a hostile act against Pakistan.”

The Islamic Emirate is not a member of the Intergovernmental Water Management Commission for Central Asia (ICWC) that was founded in 1992 to coordinate transboundary water resources distribution in the region. Bringing Kabul into the ICWC and encouraging negotiations with Iran and Pakistan, perhaps sponsored by UN Water or the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) will be practical steps along the way to more diplomatic engagement as it teaches Kabul the region’s “rules of the road” and as the emirate learns to work with UN Water and other specialized agencies.

Though China may be setting the pace for engagement with Kabul, the neighbors might offer the emirate a package deal of full diplomatic recognition in exchange for ratified water agreements with Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and a ban on poppy and ephedra harvesting with ongoing monitoring by the United Nations. Washington and Brussels may be miffed that the emirate’s neighbors are more engaged in hydrology than social engineering, but predictable water supplies will allow each country to make firm plans for future investment and better manage the effects of climate change.

Afghanistan’s neighbors are driven by the need secure practical results and testing the Taliban in two areas – water rights and curtailment of narcotic crops – will keep interactions in the “do-able” column and avoid the messianism that doomed Washington’s reconstruction program that was seen by many Afghans as a Western plan to change “a man’s relationship with his family, his god, and his government.”

James Durso (@james_durso) is a regular commentator on foreign policy and national security matters. Mr. Durso served in the U.S. Navy for 20 years and has worked in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

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