The first “culture shock” of the Taliban’s August victories in Afghanistan has begun to wear off just now and leaders of the “civilised world” are fussing over the age-old question: “now what?”
Even Russia, which has long made some pacific statements regarding the movement, tried to voice them only through Zamir Kabulov, the presidential envoy for Afghanistan.
It was on August 23 that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself broke the silence and attended an extraordinary session of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO.) It had been called by the Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon and held behind closed doors.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that representatives of the CSTO member states had agreed to develop a joint attitude to the Afghan events by 16 September. This gets them some leeway to correct it depending on the Taliban’s moves.
Meanwhile, Moscow sees the main threat to the Taliban not in the Taliban itself but in the Islamic State* (IS), which currently holds strong positions in Afghanistan and is a more formidable opponent of Russia and the CSTO member states than the Taliban, Peskov said.
As for the Taliban, the prevailing viewpoint is that it is not as dangerous and that it is more inclined to compromise and negotiate.
Wek.ru asked Stanislav Pritchin, a senior researcher at the Centre for Post-Soviet Studies, to comment on the situation.
Q: “Zamir Kabulov’s statements over the past two weeks suggest that the Taliban’s victory might be advantageous for Russia. On the one hand, it has not posed danger to Russia so far. On the other hand, Moscow can use them as leverage, if this “leverage” is applied properly. What have you got to say about this?”
A: “This version might be partly correct as the defeat of the U.S. and the victory of the Taliban, with whom Russia has connections, although informal, is in any case a big geopolitical step forward from the ideological viewpoint.
An important major player in the region is gone (the U.S. - ed.note.) It was somewhat of an irritant. The American bases in Central Asia were a huge problem for Russia's security.
The Americans are now gone. However, the threat there is not the Taliban but the risks that might emerge with its rise to power.
First, it is not exactly clear what its ideological principles and long-term goals are. Its current task is to gain a firm foothold, legitimise its power inside and outside, and find some ways of staying in power, but it is very hard to do.
Despite multi-million dollar injections from the West, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has indeed failed to control and stabilize the country.
Taliban will not have any outside help. International organisations will not be able to send humanitarian aid to the poor segments of the population.
This will not contribute to stability. The U.S. presence diverted some of the attention of the radicals in Afghanistan. When you have an arch enemy, you fight him, and when he is gone, it is very difficult to get back to a normal peaceful life for the generations of Afghans who are used to living amid war.
Especially as there is nothing else to do there. There is no economy. In any case, the question what these gun-toting people with their combat experience and fighting skills do next will arise sooner or later.
This is a serious challenge, including for Central Asia. The fact that Central Asian states need us more in terms of support is certainly an argument.
That is why this theory is both correct and incorrect in many aspects.”
Q: “After the Taliban's first offensive in Afghanistan at the end of the last century, when it also captured provinces and almost reached the border with Uzbekistan, they credited themselves with completely eliminating drug trafficking from the country under their rule. Is it really so, or was it a kind of “noble pose” on their part for the European public?”
A: “Afghanistan experts believe that it was partly a pose. The drug trade is globally repugnant to Islam and their ideology, but sources of revenue are scarce in Afghanistan.
Another problem is that drug production and exports have increased manifold under the U.S. There is a slight chance that these flows will be reduced but again, the Taliban will need to contribute to the budget somehow, and this is their only income.
Moreover, if opium poppy cultivation and drug production had been launched in an area before their advent it will be difficult for them to abandon it and prohibit people from engaging in this lucrative business. Then offer them an alternative. However, they won't have any. To maintain their legitimacy and power at the local level, they will have to resort to some half-measures in any case.”
Q: “The Taliban insists that they will not go beyond the borders of Afghanistan. At least, this was what they said during their visit to Moscow. That is, they do not pose any threat to the Central Asian states and Russia but this is contrary to the very principles of dawah. Are they lying or can they be trusted?”
A: “There is the jihad theory, but the Central Asian states are Islamic, and there is no serious contradiction. The Taliban has ambitions to become the key legitimate factor inside Afghanistan. Going beyond means crossing some boundaries that are unconventional for the Taliban. Of course, they will be defended. Then all rights in the international arena will be on the side of the states that have been attacked by the Taliban.
So in this respect, I don't think the Taliban has any interests outside of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is its turf. All those attacks in the 1990s were often connected not with the Taliban but with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other organizations which consisted of Tajiks and Uzbeks in the north of Afghanistan.”
Q: “Can Russia deploy troops to Uzbekistan and come to stay there under the guise of assistance and certainly amid the escalation of tensions on the Afghan-Uzbek border?”
A: “To my thinking, Russia will not send troops because the Uzbek army is the strongest in Central Asia and the length of the Uzbek-Afghan border is only 130km. It runs along the Amu Darya River and is heavily guarded.
Risks for Uzbekistan, if any, come mostly from neighboring countries. For example, militants might enter Uzbekistan through the territory of Tajikistan, as has already happened.
In a negative case scenario, our bilateral agreements with Uzbekistan on security are strict enough in terms of obligations and mutual protection. So even those joint exercises on the border, in the south of Surkhandarya region, show that such a scenario is being worked on.”
Q: “If Russia still deploys troops to Uzbekistan, how will Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s government react to this? There is no secret that the late Uzbek President Islam Karimov would never have allowed this.”
Q: “It will be on a request from Uzbekistan. Without this request, of course, it is impossible. The fact that the exercises were held shows that Uzbekistan has become much more flexible in this regard. No one is talking about bases and Uzbekistan's return to the CSTO but the very format of the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan-Russia exercises indicates that a joint response is being prepared to the challenges coming from Afghanistan.”
Q: “Well, the Taliban has won. The first shock has passed. All countries are in confusion. The question arises how to live with it. So, what’s to be done? How will different countries build relations with it?”
A: “On the one hand, everyone is at a loss but, on the other hand, all of Afghanistan's neighbours have been ready for this scenario. Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi congratulated the Taliban on their victory long ago expressing the hope that relations between Afghanistan and Iran would be restored. The Taliban delegation paid a visit to China. It is obvious that some negotiations were probably held there. There have been negotiations in Russia. The Uzbeks are quite tough on those official troops and those who are associated with official Kabul, so as not to, God forbid, “set themselves up” before the Taliban.
So, we see that Afghanistan's neighbours are ready for such a development. I believe that this is the key point for the Taliban to have some sort of interaction with neighbors. That is to say if all neighbors close their borders with Afghanistan, it will be a humanitarian disaster for the country, and theTaliban is well aware of that.
Pakistan will also interact with the Taliban, and this is understandable. Iran... So, in this respect the immediate neighbors will interact with the Taliban this way or another. At least, they are ready for such interaction. All of them have informal contacts with the Taliban.
As for western countries, it is a different story. This is a very unwelcome scenario for them. It is a disaster worse than the Vietnam War, especially on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the New York terrorist attacks.
Actually, the withdrawal of American and NATO military contingents was supposed to show that they have completed all their tasks there and the situation is stable. However, it turns out that the trillions of dollars were spent and a great number of people were killed in vain because 20 years later the situation turned out to be even worse, and Kabul ended up under the control of those whom they had fought, i.e. the Taliban.”
Q: “Thank you for the interview.”
* Islamic State (IS) is recognised as a terrorist organisation whose activities are officially banned in Russia by the Russian Supreme Court's ruling of 29 December 2014.
The Caucasus Emirate is an international organisation officially banned in Russia.
Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) is an international organisation officially banned in Russia.
** The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation recognised the Taliban movement as an extremist organisation banned on Russian territory on 14.02.2003; ruling No. 03 116, entered into force 04.03.2003