In an interview with TRT World, Omar Zakhilwal, who was also Afghanistan’s former finance minister, discusses the Taliban’s diplomatic direction, regional politics and security.
The Taliban’s August 15 seizure of power in Kabul has created a new political order in Afghanistan. The Taliban has reconstructed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, while pledging to respect human rights and rescind its links to transnational terrorist groups.
The Taliban’s military campaign against the National Resistance Front (NRF) in north-central Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley and appointment of an interim government, which includes US-designated terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani as its Interior Minister, have created a more ominous view of Afghanistan’s future.
Earlier this week, I interviewed Omar Zakhilwal, Afghanistan’s Finance Minister from 2009-2015 and ambassador to Pakistan from 2016-2018. Since 2019, Zakhilwal has been an active player at the highest levels of intra-Afghan diplomacy. Our interview addressed how the Taliban might govern Afghanistan and what its foreign policy might look like.
Since their return to power, there has been an intense debate about whether the Taliban will govern in a more moderate fashion than during their first stint in power from 1996-2001.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Hassan Akhund’s appointment as Acting Prime Minister alongside other old guard figures has raised concerns that the Taliban’s rule will be characterised by a throwback to the extremism of the past. The lack of inclusivity in the Taliban’s coalition, which is all-male and drawn mostly from the Pashtun ethnic group, has augmented these fears.
Zakhilwal challenged this popular narrative, as he believes that the Taliban has already changed for the better. “We do see some stark changes no doubt. Their behaviour with former government officials, women, the general public, what they wear, how they look, and the media is largely tolerant and respectful,” he said.
“There are incidents of ill-treatment here and there but those are more the exception than the norm at least for now.”
Over time, Zakhilwal believes, the Taliban’s conduct will continue and could further improve; “the reason is that the Taliban I talk to are themselves happy with their own tolerant behaviour.”
Moreover, Zakhilwal believes that the international community should not fear a Taliban alliance with terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since, “the Taliban have always been Afghanistan-focused. Even during the past many years with their very intense animosity and war with the West, they never threatened them outside the country.”
Zakhilwal asserted that the Taliban’s cooperation against Daesh-K (IS-K) and other international terrorist groups could become “their biggest leverage” over the US and other Western countries and boost their quest for recognition.
Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s claims that the US could work with Taliban against Daesh-K support Zakhilwal’s contention, but Taliban efforts to downplay the Daesh-K threat could complicate cooperation in this sphere.
With respect to political inclusivity, Zakhilwal acknowledged that the Taliban have total control over Afghanistan right now and “strong temptations” and internal pressures to maintain absolute power. However, he believes that the lessons from Afghanistan’s history over the past four decades and the Taliban’s own experience might render this consolidation of power unsustainable.
Inclusivity could pave the way for international recognition of the Taliban, which would improve Afghanistan’s dire economic situation. Therefore, Zakhilwal predicts that the Taliban “will still be open for a genuinely inclusive government even though the possibility of that, at least at the start, looks slim.”
As most international actors, including prospective Taliban partners like Russia, have pledged to only recognise an inclusive government, the Islamic Emirate faces an uphill struggle for recognition. No country has recognised the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate authority and from 1996-2001, it maintained diplomatic relations with just three countries: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Zakhilwal acknowledged these difficulties during our interview: “International non-recognition of the next government can be a bigger challenge than it was in 1996.” He justified this assessment by stating that in 1996, the Afghan public’s top priority was security, and the Taliban was able to provide security. Now, there are much higher expectations about economic well-being in Afghanistan, and the economy will struggle to improve without international recognition.
Zakhilwal was cautiously optimistic about “the possibility that some neighbouring and regional countries may not put up too tough a demand for recognition and go ahead with it,” but conceded that financial assistance from regional powers “cannot be even a remote substitute for Western financial aid.”
Despite the dearth of countries that are willing to recognise the Islamic Emirate, the Taliban has made concerted outreaches to the international community. The Taliban invited Pakistan, Russia, China, Turkey, Qatar and Iran to its government formation ceremony, which symbolised the importance of all six countries as prospective partners.
Despite its long-standing aversion to the Taliban and close relationship with Ghani’s government, Indian Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, met with top Taliban leader Sher Mohammad Stanekzai in Doha on August 31. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has even courted investments from Germany.
Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan has attracted widespread scrutiny in recent weeks, as key anti-Taliban resistance figures, such as former Vice President Amrullah Saleh, have blamed Pakistan for enabling the Taliban’s takeover.
ISI chief Faiz Hameed’s visit to Kabul over the weekend, which included meetings with Mullah Baradar and reportedly, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and unconfirmed reports of Pakistani military involvement in the Taliban campaign in Panjshir Valley have amplified these concerns.
Zakhilwal acknowledged Pakistan’s hand in the Taliban’s rise to power but cautioned against placing too much responsibility at Islamabad’s doorstep. He said, “there is no doubt of Pakistan’s support to the Taliban all along but the motivation, morale, purpose and will to fight factors, which play the biggest role in the outcome of a war, were that of the Taliban’s from the outset.”
Zakhilwal attributed the collapse of the Afghan government to “the weakness of Ghani and his small circle, gross mismanagement, resulting in a complete lack of morale and the will to fight amongst the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).”
Zakhilwal also took aim at US policy towards Afghanistan. He stated that the Taliban takeover was enabled not just by US actions in the final days of the war, but by mismanagement over the past twenty years and especially, over the past one-to-three years.
Zakhilwal said a key problem was that the war in Afghanistan was fought from the outset as a “war of revenge by the West,” which exacerbated the failures of US policy and by Afghanistan’s leaders.
Turning to the ISI chief’s visit to Kabul, Zakhilwal emphasised that Hameed also had meetings with non-Taliban figures, which focused on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, rather than the composition of the Afghan government, and how “Pakistan can genuinely support peace and stability in Afghanistan for Afghans and Pakistan’s own sake.”
On India-Afghanistan relations, Zakhilwal shared frustrations with Indian policy but was cautiously optimistic about the future relationship between New Delhi and Kabul. “Just as flawed as Pakistan’s Afghanistan policies of the past have been, so have been India’s,” he stated.
Zakhilwal urged India to not take a side in the conflict in Afghanistan, and work for peace and stability, rather than supporting military and ethnic factions.
His long-term vision is for Afghanistan to be “equally friendly and close” to both India and Pakistan, and he hoped that India and Pakistan would “spare Afghanistan from their rivalries.”
The Taliban’s relationships with China and Russia have also garnered widespread attention in recent weeks. Senior Taliban figures have described China as the Islamic Emirate’s most important partner, and the Taliban supports key Chinese intra-regional connectivity projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Mujahid has also called Russia an important partner, and Taliban delegations have made regular visits to Moscow for intra-Afghan peace talks in recent years.
Zakhilwal is optimistic about the future of the Islamic Emirate’s relationships with China and Russia. He said that, “China is viewed with positivity by all political sides in Afghanistan and is not looked upon with suspicion.”
Zakhilwal expressed optimism that the restoration of peace and stability to Afghanistan could lead to large-scale Chinese and international investments, and that these investments “will be the major hope for a sustainable Afghan economy.”
China’s offer to provide $31 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, which includes grain, medicines and 3 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine, and aversion to the use of economic coercion against the Islamic Emirate lend credence to Zakhilwal’s assertions.
With respect to Russia, Zakhilwal noted that Russia has established “comfortable relations” with the Taliban over the past 6 years for “pragmatic purposes.” He argues that Russian officials view Daesh-K, rather than the Taliban, as the main security threat to Central Asia, and believes that Moscow views the Taliban as an effective force to counter the Daesh threat.
While it remains unclear whether the Taliban takeover will pave the way for greater stability in Afghanistan or a return to civil war, the Islamic Emirate will pursue a vigorous foreign policy and try to convince the international community that it is a moderate responsible actor.
The Taliban’s appointment of a new government, while controversial, is a key milestone in its bid to consolidate power over Afghanistan and court much-needed international recognition.