Afghanistan’s neighbors watch warily as Taliban completes its dramatic takeover

A man pulls a girl to get inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

NEW DELHI – The Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul on Sunday sent shock waves around the world – with immediate implications for the complicated knot of three regional powers in Afghanistan’s neighborhood: Pakistan, India and China.

In recent months, all three governments have escalated their diplomatic outreach to the group in anticipation of the possibility that the Taliban would grow into a political force in Afghanistan. That possibility – and more – became reality as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar appeared likely to sweep into the vacated presidential palace in Kabul and ushering in a new geopolitical landscape in Asia.

For Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s return delivers a strategic victory over Pakistan’s rival, India, but also potentially a boost to an affiliated insurgent group, known as the Pakistani Taliban, that threatens Pakistan itself. For India, it heightens anxieties about militancy in Kashmir at a moment when it is juggling combustible border standoffs with not just Pakistan, but also China.

And for China, the U.S. withdrawal has raised fears of a widening network of militant groups targeting the ambitious infrastructure projects it is unfurling westward across the Eurasian continent. As the Chinese presence in countries like Pakistan – perhaps Beijing’s closest ally – has soared over the past decade, so too have attacks against its citizens.

The fraught regional dynamics were on display in July when a suicide bomb ripped through a bus with Chinese construction workers in northwest Pakistan, killing 13. The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said Friday the attack was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with help from India and the Afghan government – a claim India dismissed as “absurd.”

In April, the TTP narrowly missed the Chinese ambassador with a car bomb outside his hotel in Quetta, Pakistan.

From Islamabad to New Delhi to Beijing, there are “varying levels of concern” about how easily – and boldly – the Taliban took over, said Andrew Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and author of “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.”

Even Pakistan, which has facilitated the Taliban’s return to power, “may not like how this has played out,” Small said. “There is now going to be heightened Chinese scrutiny and pressure to guarantee stability in the neighborhood.”

On Monday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called on Afghan leaders to “work together” and said it has “consistently emphasized that a political solution is indispensable.”

China said it “respects the will and choice of the Afghan people.” Indian officials declined to comment.

For China, the conciliatory posture toward the Taliban marks a stark public turnaround from previous decades, when it voiced concerns that the Taliban was harboring ethnic Uyghur fighters who sat on the Taliban’s ruling council while plotting separatist war in their homeland of Xinjiang. But last month, Beijing issued photos of Foreign Minister Wang Yi shaking hands with Baradar, giving the group a sheen of legitimacy from the Asian superpower, while ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended the Taliban as a political group that was now distinct from Islamic extremists operating in Pakistan.

Chinese state media also took the opportunity on Monday to revel in how the two-decade American project in Afghanistan crumbled while assuring readers that the threat to Xinjiang is not what it once was.

“The U.S. is an unreliable country that can abandon its allies at critical times, and the situation in Afghanistan sums it up,” Hu Xijin, the influential editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper, said on Chinese social media. the official Xinhua News Agency declared a “turning point in the decline of American hegemony.”

Other outlets were more cautious.

China was ready to contain any fallout from Afghanistan by pressuring the Taliban to make a “clear break with Xinjiang-related forces,” holding joint military drills with Russia and other regional governments and reinforcing border controls, Phoenix TV argued in a commentary.

While it has criticized Washington’s withdrawal, the Communist Party’s immediate concern is Afghanistan’s stability and whether the rise of the Taliban could fuel separatist movements in the Xinjiang region, experts say.

“[For China] it’s a security-first concern in Afghanistan. Everything else follows far behind,” said Dan Markey, a senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The threat of the movement of people, ideology, trained fighters – that is what is top of mind.”

In New Delhi, which has long argued for a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, anxieties have soared in recent months as India’s partner, the former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, sustained a string of battlefield defeats before ultimately fleeing the country on Sunday as the Taliban encircled Kabul. Some Indian officials have argued that a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would let Islamic militant groups take root and fuel violence from Kashmir to Xinjiang.

Lt. Gen Deependra Hooda, a retired army officer who commanded Indian troops in Kashmir until 2016, said he did not anticipate a repeat of the 1990s, when foreign fighters flowed into Kashmir from Afghanistan to fuel an insurgency, because India has significantly bolstered its borders in the past half-decade.

But the Taliban’s return will be a morale booster for Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and the Pakistani Taliban, he said.

“It’s a psychological victory,” Hooda said. “So some of the terrorist groups will use it to try to drum up a little more recruitment among youth in places like Kashmir.”

The instability in Afghanistan could still spill across the region in other ways.

A day after the Taliban swept into Kabul, at least five deaths were reported at the airport as people tried to force their way onto departing planes triggering concerns of a fresh refugee exodus that neighboring governments are racing to manage.

Pakistan and Iran host most of the Afghan refugees, estimated at more than 2 million each.

Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, said in June that the country would seal its border with Afghanistan to prevent a refugee influx if the Taliban took over. Further afield, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey announced on Sunday that he will work with Pakistan to stem fresh waves of refugees streaming into Turkey, which has become a political issue there.

On Sunday, Iran announced it would set up camps to provide temporary refuge to Afghan refugees in three border provinces, according to media reports.

The U.N. refugee agency says there are nearly 2.8 million registered refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, making them the third-largest refugee population in the world. The actual number is likely much higher with millions of undocumented people in neighboring countries.

India, which does not share a land border with Afghanistan, has a small refugee population from the country. But in recent days, dozens of Afghans have arrived on commercial flights, including Ahmad Khan, 28, who landed in New Delhi last week with six members of his family.

An English teacher in Kabul, Khan said a female cousin had been abducted by Taliban militants in Badakhshan province, in the country’s northeast, three weeks ago. Scared and worried for the fate of his mother and sisters under Taliban, Khan applied for a tourist visa to India, which allows a three month stay.

“I don’t know if India will allow us to stay on,” Khan said. “But my family is not safe in Afghanistan. I don’t know what we will do.”

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