Arab States and Taliban Government: Approaches and Relations
IESS interview with Dr. Mirwais Balkhi
In the last 20 years, Arab countries had three different positions towards Afghanistan. First, a group of countries which had a completely neutral position and were uninterested in Afghanistan's issues. This group included the countries of the Fertile Crescent and the Persian Gulf states, except Qatar. Second, Iraq which had the same fate as Afghanistan, and monitored the situation in Afghanistan, but had no interaction with Kabul. Third, a number of Arab countries such as Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia which tried to engage the Afghanistan's issues, within the macro frameworks of their strategic interactions with the West. Due to the power transfer in some of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, Riyadh withdrew from an important acting role in the second ring of the Afghan crisis to the third ring. In this regard, neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban did consider Saudis’ commitment and interest in Afghanistan seriously.
IESS interview with Dr. Mirwais Balkhi
In the past 50 years, the Persian Gulf states have always played a role in Afghanistan issues. At the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, these countries paved the way for the growth and proliferation of extremism in the region, by providing huge financial aid to Mujahideen and supporting madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan moving towards civil wars, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf helped the emergence of a new force called the Taliban, with their financial support and their support from Pakistan. During the first period of the Taliban rule, the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with the Taliban reached the level of exchanging ambassadors. But with the events of September 11, 2001 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq, the geopolitical conditions of the region changed and the Arab countries lost their past interest in Afghanistan issues.
But with the beginning of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, Qatar -the small but influential country in the Persian Gulf - played a key role in it. Despite the fact that these talks had diplomatic achievements for Qatar, they led to the collapse of the Republic in Afghanistan. Now the question is, after the fall of the republic, how are the relations between the Arab countries and the Taliban government? How do these countries view the Taliban, and is it possible to spread movements similar to the Taliban in the Arab countries? In order to investigate these issues, the Institute for East Strategic Studies (IESS) interviewed with Dr. Mirwais Balkhi, an expert in the Arab studies, which comes as follow:
Q: What is the origin of Arabs relations with the Taliban? Balkhi: In today's dynamic world, using the term "Arabs" for all Arab countries in West Asia is a kind of simplification, and it may not provide an accurate analysis of the relations between different Arab countries with the Taliban. Therefore, when Arabs are mentioned, it includes all the Arab countries of North Africa, including Egypt; the Fertile Crescent, including Syria and Iraq; and the countries of the Persian Gulf. Each of these countries has a different policy towards Afghanistan, based on their region as well as their interests and capacities. For this reason, the roots of the relations between the Taliban and these countries should be found in the past Arab interactions with the Afghan Jihad and during the Cold War period. It should also be specified that each of these countries, based on their support or opposition to Jihad, was in the Eastern bloc or the Western bloc.
Q: How do you evaluate the relations between the Taliban and the Arabs or, conversely, the relations between the Arabs and the Taliban, during the first Taliban government in Afghanistan in the 1990s? Balkhi: When we go back to 1990s, the Arabs clearly mean Saudi Arabia. Because at the beginning of this decade, events happened in the Arab world and in the of West Asia (such as the Persian Gulf War; the oil embargo of supporters of Israel led by Saudi Arabia; and the gradual decline of Arab nationalism) which caused the powerful and hegemonic Arab countries, such as Iraq and Egypt, left the arena and gave their place to Saudi Arabia. Therefore, here, we discuss about the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Taliban.
Saudi leaders had launched a strategic game, on the one hand, in supporting the Mujahideen of Afghanistan against the bloc of socialism, and on the other hand, in transferring Arab Muslim extremists to the Afghan war fronts. They believed that the game would allow them to have influence on the future government of Afghanistan, and also they could then use the capacity of the extremists against the Saudi opposition. A country like Iraq as well as the Israel regime, which both threatened the existence of the Saudi government, were a security alarm for Riyadh.
However, with the victory of the Mujahideen and the establishment of an Islamic government in Afghanistan, the leaders of seven and eight jihadi alliances, which had a jihadi ideology and an anti-imperialist approach, faced against Pakistan and Saudi Arabia at the same time. Some Mujahideen leaders even went so far as to support Saddam Hussein's position in the war against the U.S. and its allies during the Gulf War. Overnight, Saddam became the hero of the fight against imperialism for the Mujahideen, and millions of decorated images of Saddam while praying were distributed among the forces and families of the Mujahideen. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia was severely criticized by radical jihadist leaders, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for siding with the United States against Saddam.
Suddenly, the expectations of Saudi leaders from their Mujahid allies in Kabul were reversed and an atmosphere of frustration for Saudi officials was created. At that time, The Mujahideen leaders went to a civil war in Afghanistan, and the Arab extremists, especially the Saudi citizens, either returned to Saudi Arabia or went to the Caucasus and other regions to continue their Jihad. All these incidents caused the Saudis to keep pace with Pakistan's policies in Afghanistan, in order to continue and extend their influence on Afghanistan. So, Saudi Arabia go towards supporting the project of forming an extreme right-wing force called the Taliban, which they unhesitatingly supported for a while.
Q: How was the relationship between the Taliban and the Arabs during the last 20 years, with the presence of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan? Balkhi: In the last 20 years, Arab countries had three different positions towards Afghanistan. First, a group of countries which had a completely neutral position and were uninterested in Afghanistan's issues. This group included the countries of the Fertile Crescent and the Persian Gulf states, except Qatar. Second, Iraq which had the same fate as Afghanistan, and monitored the situation in Afghanistan, but had no interaction with Kabul. Third, a number of Arab countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that tried to enter Afghanistan's issues through international organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), within the macro frameworks of their strategic interactions with the West.
At this time, these countries, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had experienced a gradual or revolutionary transfer of power and had no time to pay attention to Afghanistan's issues. For example, after King Fahd's death, King Abdullah was more active in regional interactions in the Arab world. Also, during the early days of King Salman's reign, Mohammed bin Nayef former Saudi Crown Prince was not satisfied with the extremists such as Taliban, and did not take this group seriously. This caused Saudi Arabia to withdraw from an important acting role in the second ring of the Afghan crisis and go to the third ring. In this regard, neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban did consider Saudis’ commitment and interest in Afghanistan issues seriously and care about it.
Q: Unlike Saudi Arabia, it was Qatar that was able to play a central and influential role in establishing relations with the Taliban and the Afghan peace process, by providing political office to the Taliban. What is your evaluation about the role of these two countries in communicating with the Talibanand the Afghan peace process during the past two decades? Balkhi: since the 2000s, Qatar has sought to define an international identity for itself. Due to the small size of the country and its placement between the two hegemon actors of West Asia, i.e. Iran and Saudi Arabia, Doha sought to create a positive identity for itself in order to avoid the collision of these two hegemons. For this reason, it put "mediation in conflicts" on its agenda. Qatar's strategy to interact with Afghanistan issues is rooted in this agenda. Qatar has no interests in Afghanistan; Both Qatar and others know this, but interaction with Afghanistan, in the framework of the strategic alliance with the U.S., was important for Doha's international prestige and especially for strengthening its government branding. Qatar's mission and presence in Afghanistan's conflicts is only a project, and immediately after the country's mission in Afghanistan is over, there will no longer be an Afghanistan in Qatar's memory, nor a Qatar in Afghanistan's memory. This role can be effective, provided that the Qatar government makes some reforms in its conflict resolution model, and learns from the mistakes of the Doha negotiations process. I have explained it in detail in an article entitled Failures and Opportunities of the Doha Process: Suggestions for Qatar.
Q: The United Arab Emirates has somehow tried to communicate with the Taliban and be effective in the developments in Afghanistan. What is your view on this country's approach? Balkhi: Unlike Qatar, the UAE has neither a project in this sphere, nor has enough capacity to deal with and influence the parties involved in Afghanistan. Of course, the rich economy of this country gives its leaders a ground for interaction and influence to some extent. When Qatar started to manage the Doha negotiations, the UAE made great efforts to use its political and diplomatic interaction to remove the Taliban from Doha's influence, and take over the management of the talks itself. However, the disappointment of the main streams of the Taliban from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and at the same time, the diplomatic efforts of the Qatar in order to increase its government branding, made the efforts of the Emiratis fail.
Q: What is your assessment of the relationship between the Arab Gulf states and the Taliban government? Balkhi: Among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia looks with discouragement to the issues of Afghanistan and Taliban; Especially, the current policy of Muhammad bin Salman is not to support tension, and at the same time, the Taliban is not warm to the Saudis either. Qatar has a project to increase its international prestige, and in practice, it does not seek to really take a step in institutionalizing the de facto rule of the Taliban. Qatar leaders are not satisfied with the Taliban’s behavior, and have expressed this in different ways and sometimes even publicly.
Q: Is the political system of the Taliban accepted by the developing countries of the Persian Gulf? Balkhi: The political system of the Taliban is on the one hand a threat to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, and on the other hand, it is an opportunity for some of them. It is a threat because the nature of the Islamic political system is fundamentally in conflict with dynastic and sheikhdom rules. politically, the Taliban have been influenced by Arab Islamist ideologues, such as Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, who dreamed of overthrowing the royal governments in the Arab world years ago. Therefore, in Taliban’s ideology, Arab sheikhdoms are an obstacle for Islam and the improvement of the situation of Muslims. At the same time, by the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, dozens of internal Arab Islamist oppositions were encouraged to make this dream a reality in their countries. Leaders of al-Qaeda in North Africa or Saudi Islamist fighters were happy with the Taliban's victory and called it a blessing.
Q: Is there a final winner in the competition of countries for greater influence on the Taliban, and which country is this winner? Balkhi: I don't think this competition has a final winner. The Countries themselves know this well, and for this reason, they are very cautious in dealing with the Taliban. In fact, Taliban is not a single structure that these countries can influence all its factions. Countries understand that the Taliban cannot be a strategic ally for their governance. In the past, the three countries of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had enough miscalculations, and this time they are totally aware of the situation. Others also have double attention.
Q: Is there a kind of cold war between the Arab countries for more influence on the Taliban government? And is it possible that Afghanistanground is used for the conflict? Balkhi: Among the Arab countries, only Saudi Arabia has the power and capacity for influencing on various currents in the region. But currently, the Saudis are moving more towards development and interaction policy. In fact, Saudis see great benefits in interaction rather than confrontation and fueling the regional cold war by using their allies.
Q: Is it possible for the Taliban to become a role model for marginalized forces in Arab countries? Balkhi: This is a threat that the Arab countries are aware of. After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, many anti-government political and armed groups in the Arab world were again encouraged to continue fighting or (if they had stopped fighting) to return to the battlefield. This can be understood from numerous statements and interviews in Arab countries. For this reason, the Arabs are trying to introduce the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban as a fossilized and regressive system. In the TV channels of the Arab world, such as Al-Arabiya and even Al-Jazeera, you can clearly see propagandas against the Taliban's way of governing (not the Taliban itself).
Q: Is the prohibition of women from all social activities by the Taliban in Afghanistan consistent with the interpretation of Sharia that exists in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar? And what consequences will it have for these countries in the future? Balkhi: Arab countries, especially Arab states of the Persian Gulf, have a traditionalist and conservative view of women's presence and activity in society. But even in these countries, women have entered society since a decade ago, and the role of women in society and affairs outside the home is increasing. Therefore, the current policy of these Arab states towards women is completely opposite to the policy of the Taliban. Qatari women activists do not have a good attitude towards the Taliban, and I realized this closely. In a word, the difference is that the Taliban are oppressing and enslaving the free women of Afghanistan, and Arab women are being released from captivity in the Persian Gulf. Therefore, women's rights activists, as pressure groups and tools, force their governments in the Arab world not to support the Taliban’s misogynist policy. We recently saw how the Qatar government supported educated women and girls' right to education in various meetings.
Q: How do you evaluate the future of Taliban relations with the Persian Gulf states? Balkhi: Contrary to the warm relations that are inferred between the Taliban and the Arab Gulf states at this time, my impression is that in the future these relations will become cold and passive again. Saudi Arabia is trying to support the opposition of the Taliban, and in the end, if this support does not turn into an aggressive policy, it will become neutral. Qatar and UAE also have no interest in Afghanistan's politics and game, so they will gradually give up on Afghanistan. This means that the relations between the Taliban or any government in Afghanistan and the Arab Gulf states will remain at the ceremonial level.