Will Moscow Or Beijing Give The Taliban Diplomatic Recognition?

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By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Peace Depends On Whether Abdul Ghani Baradar Can Develop From A Career As A Freedom Fighter To Become A Statesman

With the Taliban in the process of forming a Government in Afghanistan, the steps after this are for that same Government to reestablish diplomatic ties. That is not going to be easy. While it is certain that the Western alliances that the Taliban have just pushed out of Afghanistan will not be making any moves to recognize an embarrassingly victorious regime, it is a different matter for Russia, China, and many of the regional players.

In Russia, the Taliban remain listed as a terrorist organization, although it is not in China. The problem for Beijing is that the Taliban have been linked to organizations that Beijing does view as terrorist entities, such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that has carried out attacks in China’s Xinjiang region.

Both Russia and China have explicitly stated that to have a working Government in Afghanistan, the Taliban must be involved. This is because the Taliban are largely made up of the indigenous Pashtun tribes, who while not the majority in Afghanistan’s demographic of 12 distinct tribal groups, each with their differing perspectives of Islam and Afghan culture, are however the largest single group at about 48% of the total. Internal problems and civil war have erupted because 52% of the Afghan population do not wish for 48% to be the controlling Government, and especially a hardline culture that the Taliban believe in.

At present, discussions are taking place, with Chinese and Russian moderation, between the Taliban and other tribal factions, including Afghanistan’s National Resistance Front (NRF) a military alliance of former Northern Alliance members and other anti-Taliban fighters who remain loyal to the recently deposed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The NRF still hold the key territory of Panjshir, 100km north of Kabul and close to the Hindu Kush. They are well armed and receiving covert US and NATO support. Other non-Taliban factions have also been invited to be part of a new Government, including Mohammed Karzai, the first President of Afghanistan after the original Taliban were deposed in 2001. The head of Afghanistan National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, is also part of this, while the Taliban have invited the previous President, Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul a week ago with allegedly hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to return to assist. He is currently in Qatar, but given the circumstances is unlikely to return, especially considering his behavior upon leaving.

There are mixed signals about what will happen yet. The Taliban have apparently arranged a ceasefire with the NRF and invited them for talks. Karzai and Abdullah have reportedly had their security teams dismantled. Much depends therefore on the Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, a well-established and respected fighter, and how well he can grasp the intricacies of Government, and how much, if any leeway he is prepared to give to non-Taliban official Government positions. In short, can he evolve from being a hardcore freedom fighter and revolutionary to become a Statesman?

There are signs that Beijing believes this can happen. China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who met with a Taliban delegation last month, have suggested that they feel the Taliban are evolving from a military into a diplomatic entity. But Beijing will require assurances first that the Taliban Government will cease any links with China-focused movements such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, who are bent on establishing an Islamic State in Xinjiang; using violence to assert this.

This puts China into a position of either accepting the Taliban’s promises, and recognizing the Taliban from the outset, or adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach, with the reward of diplomatic recognition being based on actions, not words. This latter perspective is also likely to be the Russian position.

Russia has also been having face to face discussions with the Taliban in Moscow.

If the reward on results tactic prevails, it means that Russia and China will be pressurizing Baradar to form an inclusive Afghan Government and accept non-Taliban members in senior roles within that. One can imagine the vested personal, tribal, political, and egotistical issues that need to be wrestled with, and the underlying personality of Baradar himself. If concessions are made, then one could expect some form of transition towards diplomatic recognition of a Taliban-controlled, if not full Taliban Government to be introduced. That would involve Chinese, Russian, Pakistani, and other regional financial support and aid. If the new Taliban 2:0 can achieve greater self-discipline and have members stop local harassment and reprisals among non-Pashtuns, then further rewards can be instigated.

Abdul Baradar (right) shakes hands with the US peace negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha last year.

In effect, Baradar will be given a ‘Road Map’ to diplomatic recognition based on results. But – it is key to note Baradar also has cards to play. He can request increasing amounts of money and concessions under the threat that unless he has this, he will be unable to prevent Al-Qaeda or ISIL factions taking positions of authority, a prospect that will chill Chinese, Russian, European, and American bones. This has already just occurred with ISIL-K sending suicide bombers into crowds of Afghans at Kabul airport yesterday. An estimated 90 people have died and 250 have been injured. This additional Islamic faction is even more violent and are sworn enemies of the Taliban. The danger is that Afghanistan could become the theatre for what could become an intra-Islamic, not sovereign civil war.

The Taliban’s Abdul Baradar, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and China’s Foreign Minister hold the keys to regional peace or regional instability. If they succeed, then Nobel Peace Prizes should be proffered. If not, then problems will rapidly emerge. There is much for Moscow, and Beijing to ponder as they deal with a man known to be a freedom fighter and entice and encourage, cajole, and negotiate with him for a new era. Baradar’s state of mind, ego, moral integrity, intelligence, ultimate vision, and ability to learn and adapt to a new role are about to be severely tested. There is precedent. Nelson Mandela was categorized as a terrorist and incarcerated for many years before achieving his ultimate role in bringing peace and unity to South Africa. History, and Allah will look kindly on Baradar if he can do the same.

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