Elena Panina: Will diplomacy help save Afghanistan from a humanitarian catastrophe

MOSCOW, 16 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.

The meeting between the secretaries of the Security Councils of eight countries in Delhi, the “extended troika” at the level of special representatives of China, the Russian Federation, the United States and Pakistan in Islamabad with the participation of a delegation of the Taliban, the premiere tour of Asia and Europe of the new US special representative for Afghanistan Thomas West (he is expected in Moscow on November 15) –  all this diplomatic process around a country whose regime has not been recognised, and the movement that formed it in a number of countries is also prohibited, suggests that the time has come for forced compromises.

No matter how much any of the participants in the new “big game” wants to see Afghanistan in the future, at this stage they will not be able to “play” without interaction with the regime in Kabul. In essence, this is the approach that was tested on October 20 during a meeting in the “Moscow format” (Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India) with the participation of representatives of the Taliban. One of the main tasks of the meeting in Moscow was formulated in this way — “to coordinate efforts to promote an Afghan settlement, taking into account the new political conditions in this country.”

But the situation is getting worse before our eyes. The impending humanitarian catastrophe, along with the winter, is redrawing the cards, forcing us to search for compromises, at least temporarily. According to the UN’s forecast, 14 million out of 34 million people in Afghanistan by the end of the year may find themselves in a situation of “food insecurity” — if simply, on the verge of starvation. The forecasts of UNICEF and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) for children are even more alarming: hunger threatens five million children in the country already in December, one million of whom may not live until 2022.

One can only guess the waves of refugees that threaten the region and how far beyond its borders they will spill out. And it’s not just about refugees. As Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev reminded at a meeting in Delhi, “terrorism remains the main threat emanating from the Afghan direction.” According to various estimates, he stressed, there are more than 20 terrorist structures in Afghanistan with a total number of over 23,000 militants. This is a threat not only to the nearest neighbours.

Contours of compromises

What can oppose this? According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, international organisations are preparing operations to help about half a million displaced persons (more than three million in total). This is clearly not enough. For larger-scale solutions, compromises are needed – and counter-compromises.

The Taliban regime is expected to take steps towards the long-publicised demands of the international community to guarantee the rights of women, ethnic minorities, access to education, as well as the creation of an inclusive (including minorities) government. All this, however, is hardly possible without immediate economic assistance. To do this, in turn, it is necessary to unblock at least part of the funds allocated for projects in Afghanistan by the IMF, the World Bank and the European Union, but frozen after the Taliban movement came to power in August this year. It is no secret that even larger amounts – the assets of the Central Bank of Afghanistan in excess of $9 billion (IMF data) – are frozen in the United States by the decision of Finance Minister Janet Yellen.

There is, therefore, a bargaining in which each of the parties wants guarantees from the opponent, in anticipation of which the “big game” is playing on nerves.

“We are not in a position yet to direct money directly through the current leadership of Afghanistan,” said Jake Sullivan, assistant to the US President for National Security, on CNN on the eve of Thomas West’s tour.

He stressed that the Taliban is expected to fulfil its promises to create an inclusive government — and not only. Now, according to Sullivan, humanitarian aid is coming to Afghanistan through international and non-governmental organisations — about half a billion dollars in 2021.

Representatives of the “Taliban” do not argue at all in the categories of guarantees. Judging by the information from the country, the struggle between moderate and radical groups is growing. What this is fraught with in the Afghan realities is clear to everyone.

In essence, there is a dead end. The essence of what is happening in a country where 72% of the population live below the poverty line (less than $1 a day) was defined quite harshly by the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation at a meeting with colleagues in Delhi:

“The United States and its allies, instead of recognising responsibility for the collapse of the Afghan economy and social sphere, continue to contribute to the degradation of the Afghan economy through the economic isolation of Afghanistan.”

There is every reason to believe that the parties will continue to exchange views in Moscow.

New players, old games

Is it any wonder that with such a state of affairs, a regiment of fighters against the Taliban regime arrives before our eyes? To begin with, on the eve of the trip of the new special representative (he, however, was the deputy of the old one, Zalmay Khalilzad, who was preparing a “deal” with the Taliban before they took Kabul), a whole volley of analysts on Afghanistan was fired in the United States, the quintessence of which was the thesis that the positions of the Taliban had noticeably weakened.

Thus, the terrorist attack on November 2 at a military hospital in Kabul, during which one of the Taliban military leaders responsible for security in the capital, Hamdullah Mohlis, was killed, is interpreted as a sign of the apparent strengthening of the Wilayat Khorasan group (a regional cell of the Islamic State terrorist organisation). Colin Clarke from the private analytical service Soufan Group, which is even called “private intelligence”, commented:

“The Taliban have shown themselves to be a force capable of seizing power, but they have yet to prove that they can take on a new role and respond to the attacks of insurgents from the “IS” (“Islamic State”).

This is an important thesis, since the Taliban in those very trades with the West position themselves as the only force capable of resisting the “IS” and the creation of a new “Al-Qaeda”, which will threaten the world with terrorist attacks. “IS”, by the way, also keeps its finger to the wind, declaring not only the West, but also China, which is “served” by the Taliban, as its enemies.

Fuel was also added to the fire by reports claiming that not only discontented Taliban are flowing into the ranks of the “IS”, but also, according to The Wall Street Journal, former soldiers of elite units and intelligence of the Afghan army, who were formed with NATO money. The moral is clear: if the “IS” becomes the centre of resistance to the Taliban, and all dissatisfied military experts flock there, like in the Iraqi scenario after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, then what is the point in compromises with the current regime in principle? Why interact if they can’t cope?

Others have also become more active. In mid-October, the Supreme Council of National Resistance (SCNR) was established in Turkey, which, according to the ex-Ambassador of Afghanistan to Tajikistan Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, will include all internal and external anti-Taliban forces. So far, however, they have not entered: the main force of the SCNR is the National Resistance Front (NRF) in Panjshir, led by Tajik leader Ahmad Masud Jr. after the capture of this province by the Taliban NRF guerrillas. But the expectation that other leaders will join him with their military formations, such as, for example, the leader of the Afghan Uzbeks, Abdul-Rashid Dostum, is not justified.

At the end of September, the establishment of a government in exile was announced, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Amrullah Saleh. The statement issued claimed that it “is the only legitimate administration formed on the basis of elections and the popular vote,” and also called on the international community not to recognise the power of the Taliban. It is still difficult to discern the real power behind the “government of the exiled”, and analysts consider its statements about the support of the world community to be an attempt to give wishful thinking.

At the same time, it can be seen that the forces opposed to Kabul (as, indeed, the Taliban themselves) are trying to “ride” the interest of the “big players”. We are talking, of course, about the United States and its traditional allies in the Middle East (UAE, Qatar), who are concerned about the plans of the Chinese New Silk Road project: if it is fully implemented (we are talking about three trans-Eurasian transport corridors — northern, central and southern), routes from the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Europe through Central Asia will pass through Afghanistan, which will more than triple the delivery time of goods and give a tangible advantage in the fight for the leading markets of the world. The project can be implemented, of course, only with security guarantees that the Taliban cannot give yet. And maybe they won’t be able to.

China has fundamentally different priorities. Russia also has its own political agenda in Central Asia. It is impossible not to take into account the interests of the most influential regional “centres of power”, such as Turkey, Pakistan and India. The Central Asian countries also have their own interests, many of which have powerful ethnic diasporas in Afghanistan. We are also interested in the prospect of laying gas pipelines to the “warm seas”.

All these vectors determine the balance of power in the seemingly chaotic Afghan politics. In fact, they are the new “big game” that determines the processes of formation of centres of resistance to the Taliban. And, perhaps, the separation in this movement itself.

This has happened more than once in the history of Afghanistan. The radical difference of the current situation is in its potential globalisation: all channels for this have been worked out. If these showdowns are not postponed for a while and the country is not allowed to at least survive the cold, a new Afghan civil war, along with crowds of refugees, drug trafficking flows and terrorism in a new, yet unknown, guise, will spill out not only on neighbours, but also on the “big players”.

The most reasonable thing to do in these conditions is simply to help Afghanistan pass the winter. The rest of the “games”, big and small, should be postponed for later.

Elena Panina – Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute

Institute for International Political and Economic Strategies – RUSSTRAT


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