Qatar, the big beneficiary of Taliban expansion in Afghanistan

After years of economic and political backing, Doha will play an important role after the withdrawal of foreign troops. Other countries have also developed a rapprochement with the Taliban
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AFP/KARIM JAAFAR   -   Qatar's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar.

Qatar has been a key country in the Afghan peace accords and negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. It has also been a major supporter of the Islamist group, supporting it economically and politically, as well as giving it international recognition.

With the Taliban gaining influence and power, many analysts say the Afghan insurgents will reward Qatar for all its help. Doha's mediation led to meetings with US officials, the removal of some Afghan leaders from Western blacklists and the release of some members of the group from Afghan prisons.

The Taliban are also hoping for Qatari financial support after September in a bid to gain control of Kabul. Qatar will also have great influence in the Central Asian region if the Islamist group eventually succeeds in gaining the capital.

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AFP/KARIM JAAFAR - US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the agreement in Doha.
Rapprochement or blockade: How will the international community deal with the Taliban?

With the imminent withdrawal of foreign troops in Afghanistan, other governments have subtly begun to reach out to the Taliban movement, which is gaining more and more territory in the country. Ben Wallance, the British defence minister, said in an interview that the UK will work with the Taliban if they come to power. In view of recent developments, the Islamists already control several strategic geopolitical and economic areas, such as the regions bordering Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

"Whatever government is in place, as long as it adheres to certain international standards, the UK government will engage with it," Wallance told the UK's Daily Telegraph. According to Taliban representatives, the movement controls 85 per cent of Afghan territory, so control of Kabul could be a matter of months.

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AFP/ DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement at Downing Street.

The British minister, faced with the potential controversy his words could provoke, justified himself by arguing that it was preferable for the Taliban movement to be a partner for peace. "Otherwise you risk isolation. Isolation got them to where they were last time," he explained. The UK was one of the first countries, along with the US, to bomb Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of driving out the Taliban. In addition, 457 British soldiers have died fighting in the country.

"What the Taliban desperately want is international recognition. They need to unlock funding and support for nation-building, and you don't do that with a terrorist balaclava on," Wallance added.

He also stressed that his country would review any relationship should the Islamist group behave in a way that does not respect human rights. In the regions where the Taliban are in power, they have already begun to impose their strict rules, such as female guardianship, a ban on smoking or the obligation to grow a beard. Also, many people who worked with foreign troops, such as translators, warn of threats from the Islamist group.

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REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani

The British minister did not forget the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani in his interview. Wallance urged the Taliban and the president to work together to bring stability to the country after decades of conflict. The US, for its part, has already announced that it will support the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban.

Economic presence, Beijing's major goal

China is another country that, fearing a spillover of the Islamist threat into its territory, has begun talks with the Taliban. "China can deal with the Taliban, but it is concerned about their religious agenda and motivations," says Andrew Small, an expert on Asian politics. Beijing has to fight Islamism in the country, so chaos and instability in the region would not be favourable and could eventually affect it.

In September 2019, a Taliban delegation travelled to Beijing to start these talks. "It is necessary to bring the Taliban into the normal political game," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared last June, in the midst of the withdrawal of foreign troops. Yi made it a condition to "prevent the return of terrorists and intensify the fight with the East Turkestan Islamist Movement". In exchange for fighting this group, China will invest in Afghan territories. "If a country wants to exploit our mines, they are welcome to do so," Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP about China's position.

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PHOTO/ Afghanistan National Security Council / via REUTERS - Newly released Taliban prisoners line up at Bagram prison, north of Kabul, Afghanistan April 11, 2020.

Shaheen also warned that the Taliban movement will ban anyone who wants to use Afghanistan as a base to attack "any country, including China". "China is a friendly country that we welcome for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan," he added. 
Beijing's rapprochement with the Taliban secures its home turf from Islamism, but also strengthens economic ties in Afghanistan. "China does not want to have a military presence, but it loves to be involved economically, using Afghanistan's vast mineral resources. For that it needs security," political scientist Atta Noori told AFP.

In 2007, China obtained a $3 billion concession for the Aynak copper mine near Kabul. Moreover, in 2016 Beijing included Afghanistan in its New Silk Road project. "To gain cooperation with the Taliban, China will propose to build roads in the territories they control, as well as a number of energy projects," predicts political science professor Thierry Kellner to AFP. 

India is another country in the region that could be affected by the Afghan situation. However, unlike other governments in the region, New Delhi has always been supportive of the Afghan government and has not engaged in talks with the Taliban. Now, in the face of Islamist expansion in several parts of the country and the possible collapse of the national executive, India has been quick to send messages of reconciliation to the Taliban. "We should deal with them as we would deal with any other faction," said Amar Sinha, India's former ambassador to Afghanistan.

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REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMALI - Afghan security forces near the site of an attack on a US military air base in Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, has also given his approval to a possible rapprochement with the Taliban. "Russia as a neighbouring country should take into account the party that will lead this Islamic republic," he said. The Taliban, for their part, have recently given assurances that their advances in Afghanistan will not threaten Russia and its allies in Central Asia.

"We received assurances from the Taliban that they would not violate the borders of Central Asian countries and also their assurances for foreign diplomatic and consular missions in Afghanistan," the Russian Foreign Ministry announced. The Taliban message comes after the Kremlin assured that it was ready to defend its regional allies in the wake of the Tajik border clashes.

Turkey and the US far from establishing ties with the Taliban

Despite the Afghan group's reference to Turkey as "a great Islamic country" with which they hope to maintain good relations "as a new Islamic government is established in the country", Ankara's insistence on maintaining its presence in the country is causing tensions with the Taliban.

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PHOTO/AFP - Afghan Taliban militants

"The decision is reckless. It is a violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity and goes against our national interests," the group said in a statement. Turkey had proposed to administer Kabul's international airport after the withdrawal of foreign troops. However, a Taliban spokesman rejected the proposal and urged Ankara to leave the country with the remaining units. Despite the Taliban's warnings, Turkey continued with its plans to gain influence in the region and initiated talks with the US about the Kabul airport.

"We consider the stay of foreign forces in our homeland by any country under any pretext as an occupation," the Taliban added in the statement.

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AP/RAHMAT GUL - An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 28 September, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Washington, meanwhile, continues its campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In late June, the US military launched two drone strikes against Taliban targets in the north of the country. "The Taliban attacks are bringing great hardship to the people of Afghanistan, who are already under pressure from drought, poverty and COVID-19," said Ross Wilson, acting US ambassador to Afghanistan.

The US, for the moment, does not appear to be falling into the Taliban's trap as other countries seeking to secure influence in the region are already doing. The US government has repeatedly reiterated its support for Ashraf Ghani's government in its fight against Taliban fundamentalism