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In August, the conflict in Afghanistan was abruptly settled in favor of the Taliban, as the insurgent group took over nearly all of the country in a military blitz. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani failed to engage the Taliban politically and failed to sense the gravity and urgency of the situation, eventually fleeing the country with a close group of advisors. This led to the swift demise of much of the Afghan state and – at least temporarily – whatever institutional capacity had been developed over the last 20 years, while leaving the Taliban with a nearly complete hold of the Afghan political arena. The August 26 attack by the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s local affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan, at the Kabul airport has even furthered the relevance of the Taliban as a possible, and perhaps only, bulwark against the group.
These changes within Afghanistan have been received cautiously in the broader Middle East. But the reactions of different political actors toward the reemergence of the Taliban are also informed by the political fault lines dominating Middle Eastern politics. In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the only states in the Middle East to recognize the Taliban regime, while Iran, a direct neighbor of Afghanistan, had remained a bitter opponent of the Taliban’s first regime. Turkey’s engagement with Afghanistan mainly remained limited to the country’s Uzbek and Turkmen communities, and Qatar only entered the Afghan fray when Doha became host to the Taliban’s political office in 2013.
This time the traditional Taliban partners in the Gulf seem reluctant – or at least not ideally postured – to readily engage with the group. Saudi Arabia and the UAE closed their diplomatic missions in Kabul in mid-August suggesting that the Gulf heavyweights didn’t maintain any back-channel linkages with the group and were deciding to lay low until the political picture in Kabul becomes clearer. It appears that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE considered the post-9/11 political order in Afghanistan as a fait accompli and never expected its thorough collapse and a complete retaking of power by the Taliban. At least after 2009 when Saudi Arabia kicked out Taliban representative Tayyab Agha, neither state maintained diplomatic or – apparently – back-channel communications with the Taliban. In addition, both remained critical of Qatar’s hosting of the Taliban political office. And it seems that the Saudi crown prince declined to meet a Taliban delegation even when they both were in Islamabad in 2019. Similarly, the Taliban’s trust barometer for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and in particular their leaderships, had dropped considerably and the movement resisted attempts to hold negotiations with U.S. representatives in the two capitals.
The victory of a deeply conservative, militant, and Islamist insurgency will likely be welcomed by Islamist movements across the Middle East and considered a morale booster. This is likely to be a major concern for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and even more so if nonstate groups from the Gulf find refuge in an Afghanistan under the Taliban. In this regard both Saudi Arabia and the UAE would have preferred the previous Ghani government with whom they enjoyed a greater degree of political understanding on all matters of concern, particularly the activities of terror groups in the region and the burgeoning Iranian influence.
The UAE provided refuge to Ghani, implicitly highlighting its close ties with former Afghan government officials, many of whom have also invested in the lucrative real state sector in the UAE. Despite those legacy ties, unlike Iran or even Turkey, Afghanistan’s strategic relevance for the UAE is rather limited, so the UAE is likely to feel less urgency to engage with the Taliban. Yet this may change if Qatar manages to influence the formation of the new political order in the country and can accrue political rent from it.
The current Saudi leadership, which has moved forward with a degree of social liberalization for the kingdom, will probably find itself at odds with the new Taliban government. However Saudi Arabia’s religious stature as the center of the Islamic world and the respect or influence it maintains across all Afghan factions could ultimately push the kingdom to play a greater role in a brotherly Muslim state. A policy of continued nonengagement on the Saudi part could leave the way open for rivals of the Saudis, in particular Iran, to fish in Afghanistan’s troubled waters. The Taliban’s capture of western Afghanistan would have been much bloodier had Iran actively pursued an anti-Taliban approach within Afghanistan rather than remaining a silent bystander. Over the past 10 years, ostensibly since the Saudis ended their engagement with the Taliban in 2009, Iran has cultivated a tacit relationship with the group, providing arms to its local commanders and hosting its leadership. Even as some Taliban factions revolted against the group’s leadership in western and southern Afghanistan in 2015, Iran still backed the central leadership loyalists. Furthermore, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Brigadier General Ismail Qaani, is an Afghan expert and has been the architect of this engagement with the Taliban. This places the Afghanistan file under the IRGC.
Putting aside this Iranian play for influence, Riyadh maintains one of the most potent cards vis-à-vis the Taliban. The Taliban derives a great degree of legitimacy from its religious credentials, in particular within the rural heartlands of Afghanistan. Without any direct or indirect diplomatic engagement with the kingdom, it could be difficult for Afghans to travel to Saudi Arabia for the hajj or umrah pilgrimages. This could damage the Taliban’s hard-earned religious capital with its most committed Sunni constituents, highlighting significant soft-power leverage the Saudis would be reluctant to leave on the table.
Among the Gulf states, Qatar is perhaps the most important actor in Afghanistan and the one with the most accumulated leverage. Building upon the bilateral trust and respect the Qatari leadership has developed over the years with the Taliban leadership, mainly due to its neutrality as a host and facilitator of the Taliban-U.S. talks, Qatar will likely act as a diplomatic epicenter on the Afghan issue. Qatar’s close ally, Turkey, has been attempting to establish a foothold and gain relevance in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal. However, a deal that would have given Turkey the responsibility for securing and running Kabul’s airport faltered when the Taliban refused to accept any sustained Turkish military presence in Afghanistan. Turkey has reacted positively toward the messaging coming from the Taliban by expressing its resolve to continue its engagement with Afghanistan and keeping its diplomatic mission open. Turkey undoubtedly still seeks a greater role in Afghanistan through future involvement, for example, in the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s infrastructure and potential industrialization initiatives. Turkish construction companies are also playing a critical role in construction of hydropower projects, long-term involvement in the Afghan economy the Taliban will be reluctant to sever. And a stable Afghanistan, even under the Taliban, particularly benefits Ankara as it would potentially reduce refugee flows into Turkey, an issue that has been politically damaging for the Turkish government.
The crisis in Afghanistan also offers Gulf states with a unique opportunity to demonstrate their utility to their Western allies, particularly the United States. Already Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain are hosting thousands of people evacuated from Afghanistan. Yet the political bandwidth of Gulf states is greater than being mere transit hubs for Afghan refugees. The UAE has already sent medical and food aid as part of a commitment to provide humanitarian assistance. As foreign aid constitutes a key component of the country’s development budget, Gulf leaders can use their significant financial muscle to support developmental projects in Afghanistan in addition to aid for improving health infrastructure. This will inevitably increase their own political capital in Afghanistan but also that of their Western partners, who are less likely to openly recognize a Taliban government in Kabul or be in a position to provide direct assistance to the Afghan people. Gulf states also remain home to a significant number of Afghan expatriates whose foreign remittances play a critical role in keeping the Afghan economy afloat. Afghanistan remains on the brink of an economic collapse as the most significant chunk of the country’s financial assets have been frozen by the United States and financial aid halted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Without substantial foreign financial support and engagement, drug production and trafficking are likely to dramatically rise, even as the Taliban finds itself governing an increasingly failing state. And lack of effective governance could create openings for extremist groups, increasing the regional and global threat of violence.
The recent attack on the Kabul airport leaves the Taliban as the only potential force on the ground with the capabilities to suppress terrorist groups. Still, greater engagement by most Western governments with the Taliban remains unlikely. This creates unique political space for more financial assistance and political engagement from the Gulf Arab states, which may not be hindered by the conditionalities insisted upon by their Western counterparts. This could provide them with much-needed leverage over the Taliban regime, which is now requesting international financial assistance and investments. In this way Western powers can work alongside their Gulf partners and seek to enforce their political demands on the Taliban while leveraging the financial carrots coming from the Gulf to Afghanistan. This may, as well, help in moderating some of the group’s more radical practices and promote the formation of a more inclusive new Afghan government.
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