Hours or days before announcing the composition of its new government in Afghanistan, the Taliban extremist group is living a honeymoon rehearsal with the international community and has publicized its vaunted moderation by allowing women’s protests and even a game of cricket in Kabul.
In the front row of the procession is China, a power that since before the resumption of power by Islamic fundamentalists on August 15, had already supported the group.
But even Europe moved. This Friday (3), the European Union joined the chorus that dialogue is needed with the new leaders in Kabul. It is not, of course, about diplomatic recognition yet, but it is a big step.
“To support the Afghan population, we will have to engage with the new government,” said the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, during a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Slovenia.
He unraveled the usual string of conditions for such a dialogue to take place: respect for human rights, particularly of women and minorities, guarantees of freedom of the press and expression.
In the collective memory is the brutal regime from 1996 to 2001 led by the group, until it was expelled from power by the US for having supported the terrorists who perpetrated 9/11.
The Taliban say this time will be different, but reports of harassment of opponents and a promise to apply Islamic law raise obvious questions.
This Friday (3), a group of women took to the streets in front of the presidential palace in Kabul with posters calling for participation in the new Taliban cabinet, something unimaginable in the 1990s. , but separate from men.
There was no crackdown, just like the day before in Herat, in a sign that the Taliban are at the very least restricting themselves until they get more international support.
While the bread did not come, the circus was present: the group allowed a game of cricket in the capital, something that did not happen in its first incarnation, and saw their flags waved in the crowd along with those of the old regime.
There was strong policing and only men in the audience, but it was a remarkable advance in terms of image. Under its previous government, the Taliban used the National Stadium in Kabul for ritual executions and punishments.
The same conditions, more gently placed, were presented at a meeting in Vladivostok by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “The faster the Taliban enter the family of civilized peoples, the easier it will be to maintain contacts,” he said.
With his usual geopolitical obsession, looking to the fear of instability among allies that grant him strategic depth in Central Asia, Putin said that Russia “has no interest in the disintegration of Afghanistan”, citing the presence of terrorists like those of the Islamic State in the country.
Like the Chinese, the Russians keep their embassy open and operating in Kabul. The US and other Western countries temporarily withdrew their representations. So far, the Americans have only signaled eventual cooperation to attack a common enemy, ISIS’s Afghan branch, an irony in itself.
Other actors are already on the field. Qatar, which hosted the Taliban-US talks that culminated in the 2020 peace agreement, sent technicians to reopen the capital’s airport and a representative of its diplomacy to talk with the group’s leadership in Kabul.
China, Middle Land
Turkey, which has diverse economic interests and projects in Afghanistan, is negotiating with the Qataris to operate the airport, which will be vital for further evacuation of people who want to flee the Taliban — the group had promised the US, which completed its chaotic evacuation on Monday (30), give free transit to whoever wishes.
But no one has the same position as China. On Thursday, one of the heads of the Taliban office in Doha, Abdul Salam Hanafi, called the assistant chancellor in Beijing, Wu Jianghao. He announced that the group wants to keep Afghanistan within the Belt and Route Initiative, the grand economic program that embodies China’s geopolitical pretensions.
The former Afghan government had integrated the initiative in 2016. As in Pakistan, a country that has been absorbed into its economic and military orbit, China fears attacks on its citizens who participate in projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban promised Wu safety.
In an interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said China is “our main partner”. “We have rich copper mines, which thanks to the Chinese will be modernized. China represents our entrance to markets around the world,” he said.
Indeed, Beijing had pledged support to the Taliban a week before the start of the group’s final withering offensive, which seized power in 15 days. The price was the end of support for Islamic terrorists operating in China’s turbulent Muslim-majority Xinjiang province, the main strategic concern of the communist regime in the region.
While the US remained mired in Afghanistan for 20 years, Washington’s focus on Asia was somewhat blurred. Now, despite opportunities for expanding influence, the problem for China will be whether the Americans will strengthen their alliance with Beijing’s Indo-Pacific opponents such as their Quad group partners India, Japan and Australia.
The Taliban is finalizing the making of its government, which is expected to be effectively led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a veteran Taliban commander very close to the group’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar (who died in 2013).
He is expected to lead the government of 25 ministers, emulating the existing structure, and join the shura (tribal council) of 12 leaders, who report to the Taliban’s spiritual head, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada — a reclusive and elusive figure never seen in public.
It is not known whether members of past governments, with whom the Taliban spoke recently, will participate in any way in the new administration. It must be announced at any time, but the process could also take a few days.