As the Taliban capture Panjshir and finalise their interim cabinet, all eyes are on the reactions of regional heavyweights, China and Russia
The Biden administration is shuttling Secretary of State Antony Blinken from the proverbial pillar to post to drum up support for holding back diplomatic recognition of the recently-established Taliban government in a bid to maintain some kind of leverage on the insurgents-turned-rulers. Sources in Kabul say that neither China nor Russia have agreed entirely to grant US requests. Instead, they are tipped to be close to finalising their formal recognition of the new Afghan rulers, something we might see in a matter of weeks.
The two permanent members of the UN Security Council are in the middle of exhaustive talks with the new government in Afghanistan. Sources says they are being facilitated by Qatari and Pakistani officials. No country has so far recognised the newly-announced Taliban government. Sources privy to latest developments says major breakthroughs in this regard could happen anytime. The regional countries, led by China and Russia, might announce their recognition of the new government in Kabul as a group or on an individual basis. Qatar, the UAE, Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran are already flying humanitarian aid to Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Helmand.
It is too early to say if this will lead to the development of a new regional cooperation or military bloc but the countries seem to have a common adversary in the US. The group members do not want to alienate the US. They’d rather engage it on their terms. Whether Iran will play a role in the coming together of such a group is not clear. Informed sources says that Russian and Chinese diplomats do not expect Iranians to create any obstacles for them.
Intense backchannel diplomacy is taking place between the regional powers and the Taliban through trusted middlemen from Doha and Islamabad. Another factor in a massive change of heart in Russia and China has been the tactical capture of the Panjshir Valley. This has brought the Taliban literally right next door to China and the Russian sphere of influence (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan). Both the big regional powers seem to have realised that any alienating response might have more negative impact on their end than on the Taliban’s. Therefore, they have intensified the efforts to calm down nerves in Kabul, rush aid, and inch towards key agreements on security, intelligence sharing and financial and diplomatic support.
Sources say both China and Russia have been assured by the Qatari and Pakistani mediators that once the Taliban have captured the entire country discord will be dealt with tactfully. The prime concern for both these big players is not the configuration of the new government or how Taliban settle accounts with their rivals or how many women and minorities are included in the cabinet. The primary concern remains that the Afghan soil should not harbour any outfit that can directly or indirectly export extremism or Islamist uprising to their countries and spheres of influence in Central Asia.
Now let’s look at the catalyst that seems to be bringing about a huge change for the Taliban: the capture of Panjshir Valley. If Abdullah Abdullah had his reasons to go against President Ghani and Vice President Amrullah Saleh, Gulbadeen Hekmatyar too had a score to settle with Panjshiris for not letting him settle down as prime minister in 1993-94 and then again in 1996. Sources say the Qatari and Pakistani mediators have assured Abdullah, Hekmatyar and Hamid Karzai that they will have representation in the future Afghan cabinet.
The interim cabinet, say senior Taliban leaders speaking anonymously, was meant essentially to rub salt in US wounds. That was why it included several names on the State Department’s wanted list and the UN’s terrorist list. Other sources, who are familiar with the tug-of-war in the planning of the Taliban’s interim cabinet, say that irrespective of what the Taliban leadership wanted to prove, many in the Taliban ranks have been offended by the way a “Punjabi guest” helped finalise the list.
Sources in Kabul say that Abdullah Abdullah managed to gather around 50 key commanders and tribal chiefs from the Panjshir Valley at his residence in Kabul including Commander Gul Haider, the security chief of the valley, a couple of days before the Taliban offensive.
Commander Gul Haider was assigned the task of blocking the Taliban’s advance. Should the need arise, he was authorised to blow up the approach in Dalan Sang — a narrow opening created by Panjshir River in the Hindukush mountains, the only passage for invaders. Amu Darya, which forms the northern border of Afghanistan, provides an obvious escape route and/ or life-line to the valley during a barricade or attack.
Some of the fighters who have recently escaped Panjshir say that two key commanders of the National Resistance Front, General Fahim Dashti and General Wadood, were kidnapped. Their tortured bodies were found near the city centre a day before the arrival of the Taliban forces. It is believed that General Jurat, a local cross-border entrepreneur who has developed a network of mosques across this province and in the nearby Parwan, provided tactical support to the Taliban before and during the offensive.
The Taliban leaders say that “we are close to breaking away from the past and starting afresh. The victory in Panjshir has brought us advantage in our efforts to reach an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with our immediate neighbours.”
The author is a senior journalist/ analyst and can be reached via [email protected]