The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 represents a major geopolitical shift for the country’s immediate neighbours and the wider region. Neighbouring countries have expressed deep concern about the security threats emanating from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and about the humanitarian crisis afflicting its population. Are there any prospects for cooperation among regional countries toward peace and stability in Afghanistan?
Geopolitical rivalries among regional states and their divergent interests in the country make it improbable—if not altogether impossible—for them to cooperate for peace and stability in Afghanistan. For now, neighbouring countries are focused on countering security threats emerging from Afghanistan and on protecting their core interests through on-one-on interactions with the Taliban.
The Taliban’s return to power in Kabul means different things to different neighbours. Notably, Pakistan considers it as the successful culmination of its decades-long policy of turning Afghanistan into a vassal state. This allows the former to secure what it considers as its strategic rear against its regional nemesis, India, and to keep Pashtun nationalism in check.
So, unless Pakistan relinquishes this maximalist policy toward Afghanistan—which is highly improbable— it is unlikely that it would work with other neighbouring states toward a political arrangement in which the Taliban would meaningfully share power with other Afghan socio-political groups. Such an inclusive political formula would diminish Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and weaken its position vis-à-vis India and Iran.
China does not feel particularly concerned about the domination of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was not unhappy to see the United States withdraw from Afghanistan and India lose ground in the country. It can rely on the cooperation of its ally, Pakistan, to protect its core interests in Afghanistan and expand its economic and political influence.
Iran considers the Taliban’s domination of Afghanistan as a potential security threat and counter to its interests in the country. For now, however, it is courting the Taliban to fight what it considers a bigger menace—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan (ISIL – K). Therefore, while its preferred option remains the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to put any real pressure on the Taliban as this could drive the latter toward ISIL-K.
Central Asian states bordering Afghanistan to the North, too, feel apprehensive about the security threats emerging from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They seem particularly concerned about their own extremist groups finding a haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and about the spread of extremist ideology among their populations. But they lack the wherewithal to influence the course of events in the country decisively. The Russian protective umbrella somewhat allays their fears of security threats coming from Afghanistan.
Other prominent regional actors are also unlikely to go to great lengths to reverse the course of events in Afghanistan. Russia is too preoccupied with its ongoing war against Ukraine to pay much attention to Afghanistan. India is concerned about terrorist group activities in Afghanistan—in particular, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed— and about what it sees as increased influence of its arch-rivals, Pakistan and China, in the country. Certainly, the collapse of the post-Bonn order has undermined Indian influence in Afghanistan. But there is not much it can do to change the situation fundamentally, in part because the two countries do not share any borders.
In short, neighbouring countries have divergent interests in Afghanistan and different strategic priorities. Moreover, existing geopolitical rivalries among regional states means that the prospects for effective joint action among them to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan are indeed slim.
Regional diplomacy and regional institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while facilitating the exchange of ideas and some level of coordination, will not efface the ongoing regional geopolitical rivalries. Therefore, the notion that they could serve as vehicles for resolving the crisis in Afghanistan is untenable.
Regional states have, therefore, adopted a policy of unilateral engagement with the Taliban to protect themselves against security threats emanating from Afghanistan and to preserve a modicum of stability. Although no country has yet recognized the Taliban government, all six neighbouring countries have diplomatic representation in Kabul and five have accepted Taliban-appointed diplomats.
Such engagement with the Taliban and the continued trade flow might help prevent Afghanistan from further descending into chaos. At best, this pattern of interaction with the Taliban may sustain the current precarious situation in Afghanistan. But it also runs the risk of consolidating the Taliban rule in the country. The Taliban will seek to enter into quid-pro-quo arrangements with individual countries, thereby further eroding the development of a united regional front against them.
Finally, it is important to note that the crisis in Afghanistan cannot be addressed without effective cooperation between regional actors and major Western powers. However, the prospects for such cooperation are dim in the current global geopolitical environment. The sanctions regime, which will likely remain in place given the Taliban’s track record since returning to power, further complicates the situation.
As long as threats to neighbouring states emanating from Afghanistan remain tolerable, the chances of joint action among them to transform the current situation in Afghanistan are minimal. But even if their security or economic interests were to be seriously threatened due to the situation in Afghanistan, it would still be difficult to imagine that all neighbouring states could work together for peacebuilding in Afghanistan. In such a situation, the more probable scenario is the formation of rival regional blocs with competing interests in the country, whose competition could lead to the continuation of conflict and instability in Afghanistan.