What will the return of the Taliban mean for the rest of the region?
The reinstatement of the Taliban will upset the balance of power in the Central and South Asian region. Landlocked Afghanistan borders Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Alongside Russia and India, these states will fight to position themselves in the new order forged by the victory of the Taliban. The opportunities and obstacles for these actors, both immediate and long-term, will be shaped by multi-layered relationships rooted in commercial, religious and cultural ties, a desire for regional hegemony and strategic advantage.
Russia, Iran and China will welcome the uninspiring departure of the United States and its failure to develop a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. All three have established ties with the Taliban in an effort to cultivate good working relations and while many states, especially in the West, have closed their embassies in Kabul, the Chinese, Pakistani, Russian and Iranian missions remain open. However, there will be fears that the Taliban victory will embolden extremists among the national Muslim populations in those states or that terrorists will be allowed to operate in Afghanistan as happened in the 1990s. civil war and instability in Afghanistan benefit no one.
Pakistan’s nemesis, India, will be further disturbed by the new political order in Afghanistan. He was one of the main supporters of Ashraf Ghani’s government – the only other democracy in the region. He has invested heavily in Afghan infrastructure projects since 2001, building roads, hospitals and even the Afghan parliament building. If the return of the Taliban is a “victory” for Pakistan, it will be seen as a “loss” for India. There will be concerns that Afghanistan will once again become a base for anti-Indian jihadists. India, however, will be more concerned with the benefits accruing to its regional rival, China – Beijing has already held talks with the Taliban while New Delhi’s history with the Taliban is troubled. Tensions between India and China date back to the 1950s, and over the past two years skirmishes have broken out resulting in the deaths of soldiers on both sides. The struggle between these economic powers for advantage in Afghanistan will be one to watch.