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Afghanistan is now an Asian problem

Area States Should Work Together To Address Security Concerns

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Taliban fighters stand guard in Kabul on May 9: Most of the security challenges are Asian challenges that will require an Asian solution.   © Reuters

A year ago, the Taliban took over Afghanistan as the U.S. completed its botched withdrawal from the country. Since then, other global crises, particularly Russia's aggression against Ukraine, have moved the Afghan issue to the back of the world's conscience.

NATO, previously a key player in the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, has firmly left the country behind. Its latest strategic concept statement mentions Afghanistan only once, and that peripherally in terms of crisis prevention.

The U.S. and Europe today largely engage with the Taliban regime about issues such as human rights, women's education and inclusive governance, where they are seeking immediate action.

Counterterrorism remains a concern. But as seen with the assassination by drone in Kabul last weekend of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri, the U.S. is able to take action seemingly without any communications with the Taliban. 

For Afghanistan's Asian neighbors, the situation is knottier. Counterterrorism is a key focus and regional connectivity another concern. But even so, the specific interests of each neighbor vary, with little overlap.

China is seen increasingly by the Taliban as a preferred economic partner. Beijing's engagement with the new regime in Kabul has been robust and public, with both security and investment issues on the table.

Late last year, the Taliban reportedly forced Uyghur militants opposed to Beijing's rule in Xinjiang to leave the country's only province bordering China. Nevertheless, the Turkistan Islamic Party, one of the Uyghur militant groups, recently published photos on social media that appear to show the organization continuing to operate openly in Afghanistan.

The South Asian rivalry between Pakistan and India has also frequently spilled over into Afghanistan. For decades the Taliban fed off support from Pakistan, which used its insurgency as leverage against Western and Indian interests. Now that the group is in power, it is showing more keenness in balancing its dealings with Islamabad and New Delhi.

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Pakistan and Taliban flags flutter on their respective sides at a key border crossing point near Chaman, Pakistan, in August 2021: For decades the Taliban fed off support from Islamabad.    © AP

India, which has long assumed an anti-Taliban posture, was a supporter of the Northern Alliance, the leading resistance group during the previous Taliban regime. But these days, even the previously Pakistan-linked Haqqani faction of the Taliban is engaging with India. At the same time, New Delhi has deployed a "technical team" to its shuttered embassy in Kabul to review and restart basic consular diplomacy and robust people-to-people ties.

In Central Asia, the Taliban regime is seen as a reality that must be faced. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have allowed Taliban diplomats to take control of Afghan embassies in their capitals, although Tashkent has said this does not signify official recognition of the new regime. Skirmishes along the Uzbek-Afghan border, meanwhile, have been reported over the past few months.

What ultimately unites Afghanistan's neighbors is a desire to ensure the country does not again become an incubator of Islamist terrorism and extremism.

That al-Zawahri was operating from downtown Kabul will be a setback to the Taliban's efforts to gain international legitimacy. A recent U.N. report had already concluded that al-Qaida was still finding refuge in Afghanistan even though the Taliban had promised in its 2020 agreement with the Trump administration that it would not allow the group a foothold.

The Taliban describe the Islamic State Khorasan as a terror group that they are actively fighting. That yesterday's Islamist insurgents are struggling to fight a new Islamist insurgency perhaps best encapsulates the challenge of building the Taliban's "Islamic Emirate."

Most of the security challenges now are Asian challenges that will require an Asian solution. A critical humanitarian crisis, magnified by a large earthquake in June, has brought aid from China, Pakistan, India, Japan, South Korea, and even Bangladesh and Nepal.

Afghanistan has been a consistent topic in Asian bilateral and multilateral discussions for some years. With the country holding observer status in groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, area diplomats have had to confront the rise of the Taliban as a security issue.

India, Russia and Central Asian states should look at widening diplomatic discussions to bring in West Asian states such as Iran, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Although some of these countries have disputes with one another, they share concern over Afghanistan becoming a hot spot for terrorist and extremist groups.

If Asian states cannot keep a long-term security view in mind and address these issues, the future could once again witness the international community, including the West, intervening in Afghanistan.

Kabir Taneja is a research fellow in the Observer Research Foundation's strategic studies program in New Delhi. He is also the author of "The ISIS Peril: The World's Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia." (Penguin Viking, 2019)