Should the Islamic Republic utilize the March 1 elections to end effective enforcement of the hijab law, it will remove a source of constant friction between state and society in Iran, but the regime will also lose an instrument of intimidating the urban middle class.
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In addition to reshaping Afghanistan’s domestic politics, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan radically changed the country’s relations with international stakeholders, including the Gulf Arab states. While the Gulf states have generally adopted a policy of engagement with the Taliban government, the political and diplomatic modalities of engagement have varied from state to state. And Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s moves to consolidate power suggest that foreign leaders are going to have to engage with Kandahar.
Saudi Arabia’s Caution
Saudi Arabia has perhaps been the most cautious of the Gulf states in its approach toward the Taliban. In November 2021, after the initial chaos of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul subsided, Saudi Arabia reopened the consular section of its Kabul embassy to process visas for Afghans. This was followed by a December 2021 summit of the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation focused on devising ways to channel humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and making the OIC a conduit between the international community and the Taliban government. An OIC-organized delegation of Muslim scholars visited Afghanistan in June 2022 to push the Taliban on tolerance and moderation in Islam and women’s education, but it only met with Taliban functionaries in Kabul, not the Taliban’s Kandahar-based supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. The Taliban was not forthcoming on these issues and subsequently banned women from education beyond the sixth grade and many forms of employment.
Saudi Arabia coordinated its early engagement with the Taliban government through Pakistan, but as differences emerged between Pakistan and the Taliban over attacks in Pakistan staged from Afghan soil, the channel became virtually dysfunctional. In February, after Islamic State Khorasan militants attacked Russian and Pakistani diplomats in Kabul and security conditions deteriorated, Saudi Arabia closed its Kabul embassy and relocated its Afghan consular office to Islamabad, where Saudi diplomats process Afghan visas and coordinate the activities of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center in cooperation with the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has continued processing visas for Taliban leaders and facilitating their participation in hajj pilgrimages. In June, Mullah Yaqoob, the Taliban’s acting defense minister (also the son of former Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Omar), was accorded the protocol of a state guest and met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at an annual hajj reception in honor of heads of state and international dignitaries. Mullah Yaqoob’s visit suggests that although Saudi Arabia has not developed any formal ties with the Taliban regime, it understands the necessity of maintaining channels of communication with Taliban officials.
Limited Emirati Engagement
The United Arab Emirates also reacted with a degree of caution to the Taliban’s return to power. After the UAE gave asylum to Ashraf Ghani, the former president of Afghanistan, after his government fell, it seemed that Abu Dhabi’s relations with the Taliban would be strained. However, the UAE quickly reopened its Kabul mission after the Taliban took power. Even more surprising was that the Emirati company GAAC Holding won a contract in September 2022 to manage multiple Afghan airports and the country’s airspace. In December 2022, Mullah Yaqoob and Anas Haqqani, the scion of the influential Haqqani faction of the Taliban, visited the UAE and met with Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The visit signaled de facto acceptance of the Taliban government, which was underscored by the subsequent handover of the Afghan diplomatic mission in the UAE to Taliban representatives.
These developments, however, have not resulted in greater Emirati involvement in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The management of Afghan aviation, ground services, and airport security by GAAC Holding has not led major international airlines, or even UAE-based Etihad, Emirates, and flydubai, to resume flights to Afghanistan. The only foreign airline operating in Afghanistan is the private Iranian airline Mahan Air. The UAE’s presence in Afghanistan – and engagement with Taliban authorities – at least for now – is mainly focused on helping Afghans who want to travel to the Emirates, with UAE officials appearing hesitant to go any further.
Regardless, from the Taliban’s perspective, engagement with the UAE remains vital due to the presence of a large Afghan diaspora population in the UAE and its valuable remittances. Taliban authorities also seem to believe that once their rule is accepted as a fait accompli by global stakeholders, Afghan businessmen within the diaspora will likely return and invest in the country. Thus, the Taliban sees maintaining cordial relations with the UAE, a hub of the Afghan merchant class, as essential. This also sheds light on another foreign policy strategy of the Taliban: By giving the Emiratis a greater stake in Afghanistan, Taliban decision makers have rather shrewdly tried to counterbalance the overarching influence of Qatar. However, the anticipated dividends of this strategy for the Taliban have yet to materialize.
Reengagement With Qatar and the Taliban Supreme Leader’s Power Consolidation
Qatar has arguably been the most important interlocutor with the Taliban, certainly before and even after the group’s 2021 takeover of Afghanistan. Qatar allowed the Taliban to open a political office in 2013 and hosted negotiations between the Taliban and the United States resulting in the February 2020 Doha Agreement. In the August 2021 U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Qatar assisted in the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
However, Qatar’s leverage on the Taliban failed to influence the formation of the Taliban’s interim government. In September 2021, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s negotiating team and its political office in Qatar, who is reportedly close to Qatari leaders, was appointed deputy prime minister for economic affairs, in essence a demotion, while Mullah Hassan Akhund, a confidante of Mullah Haibatullah, was made interim prime minister. Moreover, a joint bid by Qatar and Turkey to manage Afghan airports was rejected in favor of the UAE’s GAAC Holding. This was followed by criticism from Qatari officials over the Taliban’s ban on women’s secondary education, a move that was pushed by the Taliban’s supreme leader and faced criticism from within the group’s senior leadership. While these developments highlighted the fissures in relations, Qatar and the Taliban have recently been making moves that suggest they are working to renew their engagement, now with the Taliban’s central figure the supreme leader.
Mullah Haibatullah appears to be on a path to consolidating power and emerging as the Taliban’s ultimate decision maker, sidelining other top officials in the Taliban government. This effort likely started with the relocation of the Taliban’s chief spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, to Kandahar in April, suggesting that the supreme leader wants the government machinery to work in line with his directives. Mujahid’s relocation also indicated the importance of Kandahar as the ultimate seat of power in Afghanistan and Mullah Haibatullah’s growing need to keep the government apparatus in Kabul in check. Another critical development was the May 17 appointment of Mullah Abdul Kabir to replace Mullah Akhund as interim prime minister. Mullah Kabir’s appointment indicated that Mullah Baradar – who has been a relatively senior official in the Taliban hierarchy – continues to be marginalized by the supreme leader as he was overlooked in favor of Mullah Hassan when the group reclaimed power. Mullah Kabir is also a former deputy prime minister but is junior to Mullah Baradar and has more experience in the political modalities of eastern Afghanistan. As Islamic State Khorasan has been most active in eastern Afghanistan, Mullah Kabir’s appointment may have also been intended to better address the threat of terrorism.
Additionally, Mullah Kabir has remained part of the Taliban negotiating team in Qatar, and, unlike his predecessor, he is well known by the Qataris handling the Afghan file. Mullah Kabir’s appointment was in some ways a message from Mullah Haibatullah to Qatar, signaling his intent to directly engage with external stakeholders and making clear that external actors need to engage with Kandahar rather than Kabul. The May 12 meeting between Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani and Mullah Haibatullah in Kandahar – the supreme leader’s first meeting with a foreign leader – suggests these messages have been received. The Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education and employment were reportedly discussed during the talks, with Qatar conveying that the Taliban’s political isolation will continue unless it lifts the restrictions.
As Mullah Haibatullah asserts himself as the ultimate authority on the Taliban government’s foreign policy, his willingness to engage with external powers on critical issues signals a growing Taliban emphasis on statecraft. The recent engagement between Qatar and the Taliban’s supreme leader could provide an opening for diplomacy, however for progress to be made in Afghanistan, foreign actors are likely to find it necessary to engage with the Taliban’s leadership in Kandahar. Preliminary developments signal Taliban pragmatism on external issues but rigidity on internal issues such as girls’ education, which continues to make it difficult for foreign interlocutors to pave the way for diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime and its inclusion as a legitimate entity in the global political order. The dilemma for the Taliban, however, remains that a compromise upon issues such as women’s education and right to work may inadvertently damage its standing particularly among the movement’s rank and file and may push those disgruntled to join the rival Islamic State Khorasan.
is an associate fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.
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