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Afghanistan’s neighbors watch warily as Taliban completes its dramatic takeover

A view of the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 16. (Sohail Shahzad/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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NEW DELHI — The Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul sent shock waves around the world — with immediate implications for the complicated knot of three regional powers in Afghanistan’s neighborhood: Pakistan, India and China.

In recent months, all three governments have escalated their diplomatic outreach to the Taliban in anticipation of the possibility that it would grow into a political force in Afghanistan. That possibility became reality as the group swept into the capital Sunday, ushering in a new geopolitical landscape in Asia.

For Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s return delivers a strategic defeat to rival India, but also potentially a boost to an affiliated insurgent group, the Pakistani Taliban, that threatens Pakistan itself. For India, it heightens anxieties about militancy in Kashmir as it is juggling combustible border standoffs not only with Pakistan but also China.

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And for China, the U.S. withdrawal has raised fears of a widening network of militant groups targeting the ambitious infrastructure projects it is unfurling westward across Eurasia. As the Chinese presence in countries such as Pakistan — perhaps Beijing’s closest ally — has soared over the past decade, so, too, have attacks against its citizens.

Regional tensions were on display in July when a suicide bomb ripped through a bus carrying Chinese construction workers in northwest Pakistan, killing 13. The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said last week that the attack was carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, with help from India and the Afghan government. India dismissed the claim as “absurd.”

In April, the TTP narrowly missed the Chinese ambassador with a car bomb outside his hotel in Quetta, Pakistan.

From Islamabad to New Delhi to Beijing, there are “varying levels of concern” about how easily — and boldly — the Taliban took over, said Andrew Small, author of “The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics.”

Even Pakistan, which has facilitated the Taliban’s return to power, “may not like how this has played out,” said Small, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

The Afghan Taliban pledged in its 2020 deal with the United States that it would not harbor extremist groups such as al-Qaeda if the U.S. military withdrew in a timely fashion. The Taliban spokesman has also said the group would not attack Chinese targets.

In Islamabad over the past 24 hours, “there is euphoria that they defeated India and America but also worry among the national security establishment that the Taliban may not be beholden to Pakistan in their moment of triumph,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States who is now at the Hudson Institute. “After the euphoria, there are second-order consequences that include the potential of Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorist groups, including the TTP, that might come back to bite Pakistan.”

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Pakistan’s close ally, Beijing, has also sought a deal with the Taliban so militant groups will not launch attacks against Chinese targets from Afghanistan. “But like all deals with the Taliban, it all comes down to how the Taliban interprets the deal,” Haqqani added.

In recent weeks, Pakistani officials argued they were being unfairly blamed for the situation in Afghanistan and were committed to a political settlement that avoids bloodshed and extremism taking root in the country, which would affect Pakistan above all.

“We under no circumstances are prepared to see protracted instability that in the past has caused spillover into Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered all of these 40 years,” Pakistani national security adviser Moeed Yusuf said in an interview this month. “We don’t want any global terrorist organization to have any presence in Afghanistan, because it’s our neighborhood. So, of course, we will not accept that.”

Afghans and foreigners rushed to the Kabul airport on Aug. 16,2021 in hopes of leaving the country as the Taliban declared victory. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

On Monday, Pakistan’s foreign minister called on Afghan leaders, including those outside the Taliban, to continue to hold “comprehensive dialogue.” China said it “respects the will and choice of the Afghan people.” India said it was monitoring the situation “on a constant basis.”

China’s conciliatory posture toward the Taliban marks a stark public turnaround from previous decades, when it voiced concerns that the group was harboring ethnic Uyghur fighters who sat on the Taliban’s ruling council while plotting separatist war in their homeland of Xinjiang.

Last month, Beijing issued photos of Foreign Minister Wang Yi shaking hands with Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, giving the group a sheen of legitimacy, while ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended the Taliban as a political group that was now distinct from Islamist extremists operating in Pakistan.

Chinese state media took the opportunity Monday to revel in how the two-decade American project in Afghanistan crumbled while assuring readers that the threat to Xinjiang is not what it once was.

“The U.S. is an unreliable country that can abandon its allies at critical times, and the situation in Afghanistan sums it up,” Hu Xijin, editor of the state-run Global Times newspaper, said on Chinese social media. The official Xinhua News Agency declared a “turning point in the decline of American hegemony.”

Other outlets were more cautious.

China was ready to contain any fallout from Afghanistan by pressuring the Taliban to make a “clear break with Xinjiang-related forces,” holding joint military drills with Russia and other regional governments, and reinforcing border controls, Phoenix TV argued in a commentary.

For China, “it’s a security-first concern in Afghanistan. Everything else follows far behind,” said Dan Markey, a senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “The threat of the movement of people, ideology, trained fighters — that is what is top of mind.”

In New Delhi, which had long argued for a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, anxieties soared in recent months as India’s partner, the former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, sustained a string of battlefield defeats before fleeing the country Sunday. For the first time in decades, India will no longer have a friendly government or tribal faction in the country.

Lt. Gen. Deependra Hooda, a retired army officer who commanded Indian troops in Kashmir until 2016, said he did not anticipate a repeat of the 1990s, when foreign fighters flowed into Kashmir from Afghanistan to fuel an insurgency, because India has significantly bolstered its borders in the past half-decade.

But the Taliban’s return will be a morale booster for Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the TTP, he said. “It’s a psychological victory,” Hooda said. “So some of the terrorist groups will use it to try to drum up a little more recruitment among youth in places like Kashmir.”

The instability in Afghanistan still could spill across the region in other ways. A day after the Taliban swept into Kabul, at least seven deaths were reported at the airport as people tried to force their way onto departing planes, triggering concerns of a fresh refugee exodus that neighboring governments are racing to manage. Pakistan and Iran host most of the Afghan refugees, estimated at more than 2 million in each country.

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Imran Khan, the Pakistani prime minister, said in June that the country would seal its border with Afghanistan if the Taliban took over to prevent a refugee influx. Farther afield, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced Sunday that he would work with Pakistan to stem fresh waves of refugees streaming into Turkey. On Sunday, Iran announced that it would set up camps in three border provinces to provide temporary refuge to fleeing Afghans, according to media reports.

The U.N. refugee agency says there are nearly 2.8 million registered refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, the third-largest refugee population in the world. The actual number is probably much higher, with millions of undocumented people in neighboring countries.

India, which does not share a land border with Afghanistan, has a small refugee population from the country. But in recent days, dozens of Afghans have arrived on commercial flights.

They included Ahmad Khan, 28, an English teacher in Kabul who landed in New Delhi last week with six members of his family.

Khan said a female cousin had been abducted by Taliban militants in Badakhshan province in the country’s northeast three weeks ago. Scared and worried for the fate of his mother and sisters under the Taliban, Khan applied for a tourist visa to India, which allows a three-month stay.

“I don’t know if India will allow us to stay on,” Khan said. “But my family is not safe in Afghanistan. I don’t know what we will do.”

Tan reported from Seoul, and DeYoung from Washington. Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

Read more:

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From hubris to humiliation: America’s warrior class contends with abject failure of its Afghanistan project

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