Written evidence submitted by Professor Todd Landman (Professor of Political Science at University of Nottingham); Dr Edward Burke (Associate Professor at University of Nottingham); Professor Rory Cormac (Professor of International Relations at University of Nottingham); Dr Louise Kettle (Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham); Dr Jason Klocek (Assistant Professor at University of Nottingham); Professor Andrew Mumford (Professor of War Studies at University of Nottingham); Professor Bettina Renz (Professor of International Security at University of Nottingham); Dr Carole Spary (Associate Professor at University of Nottingham); Dr Jonathan Sullivan (Associate Professor at University of Nottingham); Professor Nigel White (Professor of Public International Law at University of Nottingham) (AFG0003)
Foreign Affairs Committee Call for Evidence on UK Policy Towards Afghanistan:
Regional Power Interests and Prospects for the Future
- Written Evidence for the Foreign Affairs Committee on UK Policy towards Afghanistan by Professor Todd Landman on behalf of (1) Centre for the Study of Subversion, Unconventional Interventions, and Terrorism (SUIT), (2) Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), and (3) Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the University of Nottingham. Content for this submission of evidence derives from ‘Afghanistan: Prospects and Challenges: A Policy Report,’ to be published on or about 1 November 2021 by the University of Nottingham. This evidence submission reflects the research expertise of the twenty-one contributors to the policy report and is not a formal position of the University of Nottingham.
- Executive summary: There are strong and differentiated regional power interests from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran that will shape the future prospects of Afghanistan:
- The withdrawal creates new opportunities for influence and control for Russia;
- The withdrawal is a net gain but not unequivocal victory for China, which has new opportunities to extend its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), address regional security threats, engage in significant economic activities, and challenge the ambitions and role of the United States and the United Kingdom in the region;
- The withdrawal represents the least optimal outcome for India and its troubled relationship with Pakistan, but there are opportunities to engage with AUKUS and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad);
- Despite ongoing tensions with the Taliban, Iran may take advantage of the withdrawal in its international posturing towards the United States and the United Kingdom.
- Professor Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science in the School of Politics and International Relations, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and Executive Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham. He is a Member of Council for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He is editor of ‘Afghanistan: Prospects and Challenges,’ University of Nottingham, November 2021. His evidence-based policy work has included engagement with the Foreign Office, DFID, the Home Office, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European External Action Service, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia.
Afghanistan’s International Legal Status
- The status of Afghanistan as a state under international law is not affected by the purported change of name to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The issue is the status of a government that has seized power by unconstitutional means. There is no doubt that the Taliban in fact forms the effective government of Afghanistan, but it will struggle to be able to exercise the Afghan state’s rights under international law (e.g., to negotiate and enter into new trade treaties or to seek loans from the World Bank) until it achieves recognition as the legitimate government in law.
- The process of recognition will be slow, consisting of formal declarations of recognition by other governments or acts that equate to this status (e.g., by the exchange of ambassadors). Achieving equal legal status alongside other governments is key to normalising peaceful relations between Afghanistan and other sovereign states. The Taliban regime needs to persuade the international community that its statements about respecting all individuals in Afghanistan as well as is rejection of terrorism translate into compliance with basic international laws, particularly those protecting human rights.
- Given its geography, history and natural resource endowments, Afghanistan has been and will continue to be of great interest to proximate regional powers, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Iran.
- Russia is one of the few countries to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul following the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Considering Russia’s existing stakes in Central Asian security affairs, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will inevitably heighten Moscow’s influence in the region. Moscow could capitalise on the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan by expanding its security, political, and economic interests in the country and in wider Central Asia at the expense of the West. Yet, the situation unfolding in Afghanistan is far from an unambiguous win for Moscow.
- The Kremlin has used the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to underscore its longstanding narrative of humanitarian operations and state-building efforts as a Western pretext for intervening in the domestic affairs of sovereign states and expanding its influence.
- Official Kremlin statements on the situation have tended to juxtapose Western hypocrisy with Russia’s pragmatic and cooperative approach, emphasising close contacts with Afghanistan’s neighbours, strengthening multilateral efforts with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), and the role of the United Nations.
- In addition to fears about the aggravation of religiously motivated extremism in Central Asia and potentially in the North Caucasus, the prospects of destabilisation in and around Russia because of increased drug trafficking, organised crime, and mass migration have been discussed. Afghanistan’s porous and difficult to secure borders with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are highlighted as a particular worry.
- Since August 2021, these concerns have led to efforts intended to strengthen the CSTO’s joint military capabilities for supporting border security in Tajikistan (a member of the CSTO), efforts to increase Uzbek and Turkmen cooperation with the CSTO, and suggestions for joint CSTO-SCO counterterrorism exercises.
- Although the Taliban is banned as a terrorist organisation in Russia, Moscow had started building ties to its leadership since 2015, which coincided with growing concerns over the rise of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan, perceived by the Kremlin as a serious threat to other Central Asian states and to Russia itself.
- Considering Moscow’s own costly experience in Afghanistan towards the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin is unlikely to see Kabul as a potential geopolitical prize or opportunity for pursuing material interests.
- The withdrawal from Afghanistan and the enforced cessation of NATO involvement in the country is a net gain for China, but it is not an unequivocal victory. The vacuum left by the withdrawal requires China to assume greater responsibility. Every indication suggests that China is preparing to do so in a markedly different way to the US and UK, recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government and using economic cooperation and financial inducements to secure its participation in serving Chinese interests.
- China will work with regional partners, notably Russia and Pakistan, but with Beijing leading the approach. China has influence in Pakistan and the Taliban is beholden to Chinese economic aid and investment. Russia may have no choice but to accede to Chinese decision-making.
- Securing its interests in Afghanistan to add to existing engagement with Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh, China has the prospect of reducing India’s strategic freedom and consolidating its influence over South Asia.
- The China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral dialogue at the level of Foreign Ministers is already operational.
- China has long hoped to incorporate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s ambition is to secure an overland route to Iran and Turkey circumventing the Pacific Ocean subject to countervailing American and western attentions. One possibility is for Afghanistan to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
- Though the Digital Silk Road, Huawei and ZTE have long been active in Afghanistan and are already responsible for the rollout of Afghan Telecom’s 3G network.
- Three areas of economic activity are germane to China’s interests: resource extraction, agriculture and transportation infrastructure.
- Development assistance, financial aid, economic cooperation and the conferral of political legitimacy to the Taliban is conditional on the Taliban support for China’s standout priority to prevent Afghanistan becoming a source of extremist violence directed at China, including exiled terrorist groups, like the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), or foreign jihadis minded to fight for the Uyghur cause.
- China will use diplomatic and economic inducements to encourage the Taliban to secure and promote Chinese interests and foster peaceful reconciliation and development.
India and Pakistan
- The Taliban’s ascent in Kabul was probably the least optimal outcome for India among the major regional powers. The Indian government has been slower and more reluctant to engage in talks with the Taliban, which places India at a disadvantage. Recommendations to engage in talks earlier acknowledged how difficult that engagement would be for India given the history of such engagement, and the proximity of the Taliban to India’s major regional rival, Pakistan.
- India’s foreign policy approach to the Taliban is still overshadowed by the legacy of the hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 in 1999 and subsequent attempts at negotiations with the Taliban authorities in Kandahar, and the consequent release of three radical Islamist terrorists from Indian prisons some of whom were allegedly linked to later terrorist attacks on Indian soil.
- Taliban talks with India pose risks for their enduring relationship with parts of the Pakistani state.
- India’s concomitant reduced status and leverage in the region, both within and beyond Afghanistan, may have knock-on effects for its regional security interests, as well as for Kashmir.
- India has provided development assistance to Afghanistan, including institutional and capacity-building of democratic processes and security capabilities, among other initiatives. The withdrawal and the Taliban’s ascent to power in Kabul means that the prospects for re-invigorating such initiatives are unclear and likely to be more limited.
- Regardless of the pragmatism required for its foreign policy, a more conciliatory approach to the Taliban does not align well domestically with the Hindu majoritarian ideology of India’s incumbent government.
- The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has reignited questions of trust in India’s relationship with the US. The US pivot east towards containment of China through the recently formed AUKUS pact with Australia and the UK suggests the US may be even less interested in supporting India’s interests in Afghanistan, though it will retain interest in Indo-Pak relations given their nuclear capabilities.
- The strategic advancement of the Taliban’s relations with China and/or Pakistan is not guaranteed; there are potential scenarios in which this may not go to plan. Within the Pakistani state there are divided opinions about the desirability of co-operation with the Taliban. India will want to watch potential signs of shifting power dynamics between the two, signs that the Taliban-led government are striving for increased autonomy from Pakistan’s influence, something that India has sought for Afghanistan, though not with the Taliban at the helm.
- Iran and Afghanistan have strong relations, but the relationship between Iran and the Taliban is much more complex, owing to a number of historical events, including strong anti-Shi’a rhetoric and the systematic harassment, torture and killing of Shi’a Hazara in the 1990s; a Taliban attack on the Iranian consulate Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998; and a warming of relations with the Taliban for its efforts resisting the United States, and their distraction of Washington from pursuing any further activities against President Bush’s focus on Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil,’ leading to some support for Taliban leaders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
- Against this complex history, Iranians remain deeply pessimistic over Taliban relations.
- The future for Iran and the Taliban will depend upon how the Taliban regime treats its ethnic minorities, particularly Shi’as and Hazaras.
- The withdrawal from Afghanistan has provided Iran with some opportunities:
- Affords Tehran the forum to condemn Washington’s intervention in Afghanistan and broader foreign meddling.
- Emboldens Iran’s rhetoric of resistance, especially amongst the IRGC, with warnings issued that other American bases will soon meet the same fate and recommendations that regional leaders separate themselves from links to the US.
- Validates Iran’s investment of its ‘axis of resistance’ – the countries, militias and groups allied with Tehran to resist Western influence;
- Allows Iran to build new alliances.
- Despite these emerging opportunities for Iran, there remain a number of concerns
- Iran needs to ensure Afghanistan’s security and stability in order to avoid hundreds of thousands of Afghans crossing Iran’s border and a power vacuum allowing for terrorism and ISIS-K to grow and become a major threat.
- New room for alternative international players to enter a great game in the region, effectively changing regional dynamics and giving increased power to rival regional actors (e.g., Qatar).
- Renewed importance of Turkey in the region after securing Kabul International Airport and providing economic cooperation to the new Taliban regime.
- The Taliban’s leaning towards Pakistani sympathies, which could threaten Iranian economic interests, particularly the prioritisation of Chabahar on the coast of the Gulf of Oman over Gwadar in Pakistan, as the preferred port for the transit of goods from India through Afghanistan and into Central Asia.
Prospects and Recommendations
- The following policy recommendations are for consideration by the Foreign Affairs Committee:
- There is a complex constellation of regional power interests that reflect (1) the different material capabilities of these powers, (2) the different approaches to values and norms that underpin international relations with respect to the rule of law and the protection of human rights, (3) competing needs for access to raw materials in Afghanistan, (4) access to trade routes and infrastructural networks in Afghanistan and the immediate region, and (4) different interests regarding security, stabilisation, and counter-terrorism.
- There has been a heavy investment of ‘blood and treasure’ over 20 years of conflict. Continued engagement in many forms must continue, which reflect the lessons learned and solutions for future problems crafted from many voices, including Afghans in the broader diaspora.
- UK domestic public information sharing programme on the lessons from the conflict and the UK deployment in Afghanistan along with engagement with key stakeholders who have been affected by the deployment and its wider impact.
- There is an opportunity for a pragmatic realist approach to be pursued by the United Kingdom along with its allies to address the multi-faceted challenges in Afghanistan:
- Opening all diplomatic channels between and among these powers to forge a collective understanding of the challenging needs of Afghanistan;
- Mobilizing international humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people;
- Maintaining dialogue with China on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and implications for Afghanistan;
- Work with the World Bank and other development assistance providers on packages of support;
- Work with the international community to use frozen foreign exchange assets to underpin a mechanism for ongoing support.
15 October 2021