Afghanistan is a country that has always had a center-periphery relationship with the world's major powers, and its economic and military dependence has historically been influenced by this relationship. Political stability in the country has been disrupted whenever Afghanistan's political elites were unable to establish such a relationship with the superpowers or when the strategic shift of the superpowers has led to the overthrow of these governments. The story is also true regarding the fall of the post-Bonn regime in Afghanistan. After twenty years of spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan, the United States returned the country to the Taliban as it had received. The Taliban government is now seeking to revive the same historical center-periphery relationship; and due to some historical reasons as well as the regional and international conditions, it has put this policy at the top of its foreign policy goals.
By: Hasibullah Shahin
During the twenty years of the US presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban have always been dissatisfied with this presence and fought against it with all might until the United States left Afghanistan and the Taliban captured the Afghan capital. Now that the western countries have left Afghanistan, the Taliban are grappling with lack of legitimacy at the domestic and international level. The question that this article seeks to answer is, what are the factors and consequences of the Taliban's foreign policy approach to the West? According to this question, the author assumes that the Taliban look at the structure of political power from a specific ethnic point of view. On the other hand, given the historical background of this kind of power structure, the Taliban’s emphasis on reviving the relations with the United States is not far-fetched.
The geography of today’s Afghanistan is the product of the years 1880 to 1893 and the reign of Emir Abdur Rahman Khan. The country has never been directly colonized by the world superpowers for a long time, but there has always been a special relationship between the ruling powers in Afghanistan and the world’s superpowers. Emir Abdur Rahman Khan owed all years of his rule to cooperation of the British government, and a large part of the military and economic equipment of Emir's court was provided by Britain. That is why Emir never opposed Britain. Abdur Rahman Khan was well aware of Afghanistan's pre-determined role in the Big Game, and thus never attempted to disrupt the status quo, because this issue was directly related to the continuation of power in Emir’s family. In the last days of his life, he advised his son Emir Habibullah Khan not to bring tools such as telephone, railway and other symbols of progress to Afghanistan, because only in that case he could keep his family in power.
This approach lasted for some years and was followed by Habibaullah Khan and Amanullah Khan, until Habibullah Kalakani's uprising disrupted the centr-periphery relationship between Afghanistan and Britain for about a year, which was later revived by Nader Khan. For nearly half a century of their rule in Afghanistan, the Yahya Family has always sought to maintain its ties with Britain and, by following the policy of their ancestors, opposed any progress and development in Afghanistan. However, following the outbreak of World War II and the decline of Britain as a superpower, this center-periphery relationship between Afghanistan and Britain deteriorated, and the ruling family sought a suitable alternative to Britain. Zahir Shah's efforts for bringing the American figures to the country, the instabilities of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the Soviet Union’s support for Zahir Shah's opponents once again turned Afghanistan into a hotbed of the international conflicts and, as a result of Daoud Khan’s coup in 1974, the necessary context for the formation of a center-periphery relationship between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan was emerged. However, the Daoud Khan's mission ended very soon. During another coup that carried out by the communists in April 1978, Dauod Khan and his family members were killed and Afghanistan became practically a Soviet-controlled periphery.
The beginning of public uprisings against the communists, as well as the support that the Mujahideen received from the United States and its regional allies, made the Soviet Union to lose a large part of its troops and financial resources and leave Afghanistan after nine years of war in 1988. After this period, the outbreak of civil war between the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, as well as the inability of the Mujahideen to establish relations with world powers, led to the continuation of the war. After the Mujahideen, the Taliban came to power with the ideology of political Islam. The group paved the way for the US and other western powers’ invasion to Afghanistan by displaying a harsh image of Islam. From the very beginning, the formation of the post-Bonn government in Afghanistan as well as the presence of the United States and its allies in the country, lacked a well-designed plan for the development of Afghanistan, and these countries tried to resolve the issue of war in this country through a military approach.
The US approach towards Afghanistan was not effective, and Washington managed to keep the Afghan government alive only through spending billions of dollars over the past two decades. The Afghan government’s severe economic-military dependence as well as lack of commitment on the side of the American-oriented figures to reinforcing democracy in the country paved the way for the collapse of the political system. The Taliban are now seeking to revive the center-periphery relations with the United States and use a mono-ethnic government with a royal/emirate structure as a way towards survival. But what the Taliban lobbyists and theorists have not addressed is the issue of domestic legitimacy. One of the main reasons behind the bitter repetition of history in Afghanistan is the issue of a historical super-narrative, on which the governments are founded, and as a result, history gets repeated in this geography.
The Taliban and foreign policy
The Taliban have had an active foreign policy apparatus in Qatar office since 2011. By using the facilities that have been provided by the Qataris, the Taliban managed to make contact with other actors in the international arena in order to convince them to support the group. The office is known as a base for communication between the Taliban and other prominent actors in Afghanistan, which its activities have not gone unnoticed by the media. The efforts of the Taliban's political office in Qatar have finally paid off and attracted much attention during the years of 2019 and 2020 after the beginning of the direct talks between the group and the United States. The start of US face-to-face talks with the group turned the whole game in its favor, and countries such as Iran, China, Russia and even India have had formal and informal meetings with the group.
After Afghanistan was completely taken over by the group, the same small circle which had designed the Taliban’s foreign policy in Qatar came to Kabul and took over the key positions of the Foreign Ministry. It is not clear whether the Taliban have a codified foreign policy plan or not, but what is clear is that a small circle at the top of the Taliban’s leadership has entered the political arena with a pre-determined plan. The Taliban are more trying to use Afghanistan's foreign policy at the service of internal policy, and achieve its internal goals through it. The Taliban seek to attract the world’s attention, through an ideological/ethnic perspective as well as a relatively soft approach. The Taliban do not believe in elections or other accepted values for internal legitimacy. So, they seek to gain global legitimacy through foreign policy in a bid to consolidate their government’s foundations without participation of other ethnic groups.
That is why the Taliban have started new formal and informal efforts through various channels to gain the consent of the world, especially the western countries, in order to achieve legitimacy. What is clear is the Taliban's foreign policy officials’ keen interest in the West, because they know that they can guarantee their survival only if the West support them. This is rooted in Afghanistan's political history, and the Taliban, or the Pashtun political elite in general, know that their survival is guaranteed only if there is a center-periphery relationship between the Afghan establishment and the western power. It is only in that case that less regional threats would threaten the ruling apparatus and the internal opposition movements are suppressed through using the weapons and money that come from the West.
The Taliban and the United States
The Taliban have become familiar with all forms of the US diplomacy over the past years, and some of the Taliban technocrats knows that the group's survival means the realization of ethnic aspirations. On the other hand, the United States, as the main power of the international system, can accept and preserve the Taliban with the same ethnic approach.
The Taliban are aware of the US interests in Central Asia and know that Washington sees its goals in this region as achievable only through the presence of the group. Central Asia, which has become one of China's destinations for investment in the recent years, can severely hurt the US interests and its position in the international arena in the long term. The United States is trying to gain a foothold in Central Asia at all costs to control both Russia and China, as well as to achieve its own economic benefits. In this regard, US is using its allies, especially Turkey and Qatar. Turkey is more racially and linguistically sympathetic to the countries of Central Asia and the Uighurs of China, and can further strengthen its influence through Islam and ethnicity. Taking the control of Kabul airport and establishing a Turkic-speaking union are part of the same long-term policy in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
The Pashtun/Taliban political elites also know that the United States and its western partners can challenge Iran only through an extremist ideological government in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban have established friendly relations with Iran in the recent months, it is not unlikely that Afghanistan turns into one of Iran's main challenges in the coming months or years. Being aware of these facts, the Taliban is working to establish this new center-periphery relationship with the United States in a better way, and they have given numerous green lights to the United States. It is also important to note that the United States has also given many green lights to the group.
In general, the Taliban's mindset and the Pashtunwali intellectual system are based on three basic principles:
1. An authoritarian government in any form and under any name;
2. Using the extremist Islamic ideology to suppress other ethnic groups; and
3. Having a center-periphery relationship with the superior western power, in an English style.
These principles not only do not solve the problem of Afghanistan and cannot lead to stability in the country, but also will make the situation more critical and, if ignored, will push Afghanistan to the brink of disintegration.
Afghanistan is a country that has always had a center-periphery relationship with the world's major powers, and its economic and military dependence has historically been influenced by this relationship. Political stability in the country has been disrupted whenever Afghanistan's political elites were unable to establish such a relationship with the superpowers or when the strategic shift of the superpowers has led to the overthrow of these governments. The story is also true regarding the fall of the post-Bonn regime in Afghanistan. After twenty years of spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan, the United States returned the country to the Taliban as it had received.
The Taliban, which seek to revive the same historical center-periphery relationship in Afghanistan, have put this demand at the forefront of its foreign policy goals due to some historical reasons as well as the prevailing condition in the region and the world. The group seeks to involve the United States as the center in Afghanistan’s issue, just like what happened between Afghanistan and Britain after 1919. Although the British forces had apparently left Afghanistan, there was still a deep and meaningful relationship between Afghanistan and Britain. At present, the Taliban are seeking to repeat the history as they wish in order to maintain their power. But in the end, this approach will not solve Afghanistan's problems and even can lead to Afghanistan's disintegration.
Hasibullah Shahin, is an expert in international relations