The Taliban go to Tianjin

China and Russia will be key to solving an ancient geopolitical riddle: how to pacify the ‘graveyard of empires’

So this is the way the Forever War in Afghanistan ends – if one could call it an ending. Rather, it’s an American repositioning.

Regardless, after two decades of death and destruction and untold trillions of dollars, we’re faced not with a bang – and not with a whimper, either – but rather with a pic of the Taliban in Tianjin, a nine-man delegation led by top political commissioner Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, solemnly posing side by side with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Lateral echoes of another Forever War – in Iraq – apply. First, there was the bang: the US not as “the new OPEC,” as per how the neo-con mantra had visualized it, but with the Americans not even getting the oil. Then came the whimper: “No more troops” after December 31, 2021 – except for the proverbial “contractor” army.

The Chinese received the Taliban on an official visit in order once again to propose a very straightforward quid pro quo: We recognize and support your political role in the process of Afghan reconstruction and in return you cut off any possible links with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, regarded by the UN as a terrorist organization and responsible for a slew of attacks in Xinjiang.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang explicitly said, “The Taliban in Afghanistan is a pivotal military and political force in the country, and will play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction there.”

This follows Wang’s remarks back in June, after a meeting with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, when he promised not only to “bring the Taliban back into the political mainstream” but also to host a serious intra-Afghan peace negotiation.

What’s implied since then is that the excruciatingly slow process in Doha is leading nowhere. Doha is being conducted by the extended troika – US, Russia, China, Pakistan – along with the irreconcilable adversaries, the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Mullah Baradar speaks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right foreground) in Tianjin. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem stressed that the Tianjin meeting focused on political, economic and security issues, with the Taliban assuring Beijing that Afghan territory would not be exploited by third parties against the security interests of neighboring nations.

This means, in practice, no shelter for Uighur, Chechen and Uzbek jihadis and shady outfits of the ISIS-Khorasan variety.

Tianjin has been added as a sort of jewel in the crown to the current Taliban diplomatic offensive, which has already touched Tehran and Moscow.

What this means in practice is that the real power broker of a possible intra-Afghan deal is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by the Russia-China strategic partnership.

Russia and China are meticulously monitoring how the Taliban have been capturing several strategic districts in provinces from Badakhshan (Tajik majority) to Kandahar (Pashtun majority). Realpolitik dictates that the Taliban be accepted as serious interlocutors.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is working closer and closer within the SCO framework. Prime Minister Imran Khan could not be more adamant when addressing US public opinion: “Washington aimed for a military solution in Afghanistan, when there never was one,” he said.

“And people like me who kept saying that there’s no military solution, who know the history of Afghanistan, we were called – people like me were called anti-American,” he said. “I was called Taliban Khan.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan (R) meets with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (2d from the window on the left side of the picture) and his delegation in Islamabad on December 18, 2020. Photo: AFP / Pakistan Prime Minister Office

We are all Taliban now

The fact is that “Taliban Khan,” “Taliban Wang” and “Taliban Lavrov” are all on the same page.

The SCO is working all-out to present a road map for a Kabul-Taliban political settlement in the next round of negotiations in August. As I have been chronicling it – see, for instance, here and here – it’s all about a comprehensive economic integration package, where the Belt and Road Initiative and its affiliated China-Pakistan Economic Corridor interacts with Russia’s Greater Eurasia Partnership and overall Central Asia-South Asia connectivity.

A stable Afghanistan is the missing link in what could be described as the future SCO economic corridor, which will integrate every Eurasian player from BRICS members India and Russia to all Central Asian ‘stans.

Both President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul and the Taliban are on board. The devil, of course, is in the details of how to manage the internal power play in Afghanistan to make it happen.

The Taliban have done their crash course on geopolitics and geoeconomics. In Moscow, in early July, they had a detailed discussion with Kremlin envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov.

In parallel, even the former Afghan ambassador to China, Sultan Baheen – no Taliban himself – admitted that for the majority of Afghans, irrespective of ethnic background, Beijing is the preferred interlocutor and mediator in an evolving peace process.

So the Taliban seeking high-level discussions with the Russia-China strategic partnership is part of a carefully calculated political strategy. But that brings us to an extremely complex question: To which Taliban are we referring?

There’s no such thing as a “unified” Taliban. Most old-school top leaders live in Pakistan’s Balochistan. The new breed is way more volatile – and feels no political constraints. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement, with a little help from Western intel, might easily infiltrate some Taliban factions inside Afghanistan.

Very few in the West understand the dramatic psychological consequences for Afghans – whatever their ethnic, social or cultural backgrounds – of living essentially under a state of non-stop war for the past four decades: USSR occupation; intra-mujahideen fighting; Taliban against Northern Alliance; and US/NATO occupation.

In February 1980 Afghan refugees who have fled the area of Kabul in December 1979, are shown in the Aza Khel refugee camp near Peshawar in Pakistan. Photo: AFP / EPU

The last “normal” year in Afghan society was way back in 1978.

Andrei Kazantsev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics and director of the Center for Central Asia and Afghanistan Studies at the elite MGIMO in Moscow, is uniquely positioned to understand how things work on the ground.

He notes something I saw for myself numerous times; how wars in Afghanistan are a mix of weaponizing and negotiation:

There is a little fighting, a little talking, coalitions are formed, then there is fighting again; talking again.

Some have defected over, betrayed each other, fought for a while, and then returned. It’s a completely different culture of warfare and negotiation.

The Taliban will simultaneously negotiate with the government and continue their military offensives. These are just different tools of different wings of this movement.

I’m buying: how much?

The most important fact is that the Taliban are, de facto, a constellation of warlord militias. What this means is that Mullah Baradar in Tianjin does not speak for the whole movement. He would have to hold a shura with every major warlord and commander to sell them whatever political road map he agrees with Russia and China.

This is a huge problem as certain powerful Tajik or Uzbek commanders will prefer to align themselves with foreign sources, say Turkey or Iran, instead of whoever will be in power in Kabul.

The Chinese might find a detour around the problem by literally buying everyone and his neighbor. But that still wouldn’t guarantee stability.

What Russia-China are investing in with the Taliban is to extract iron-clad guarantees:

  • Don’t allow jihadis to cross Central Asian borders – especially Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan;
  • Fight ISIS-Khorasan head-on and don’t allow them sanctuary, as the Taliban did with al-Qaeda in the 1990s; and
  • Be done with opium poppy cultivation (you did give it up in the early 2000s) while fighting against drug trafficking.
An Afghan farmer harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Dara-l-Nur, District of Nangarhar province, in 2020. Photo: AFP / Wali Sabawoon / NurPhoto

No one really knows whether the Taliban political wing will be able to deliver. Yet Moscow, much more than Beijing, has been very clear: If the Taliban go soft on jihadi movements, they will feel the full wrath of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The SCO, for its part, has kept an Afghan contact group since 2005. Afghanistan is an SCO observer and may be accepted as a full member once there’s a political settlement.

The key problem inside the SCO will be to harmonize the clashing interests of India and Pakistan inside Afghanistan.

Once again, that will be up to the “superpowers” – the Russia-China strategic partnership. And once again, that will be at the heart of arguably the top geopolitical riddle of the Raging Twenties : how to finally pacify the “graveyard of empires.”

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