ISLAMABAD (AP) – A Taliban push has brought the insurgent force under the control of key border crossings, opened up new sources of income and rocked many of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
In the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, a two-day regional meeting that starts Thursday was originally supposed to deal with “connectivity” in South and Central Asia, encouraging trade ties and transport issues. But it has turned into a high-level gathering of senior American, Russian and European officials who will most certainly be absorbed by Afghanistan and the impact of the rapidly advancing Taliban.
In recent weeks, the Taliban have taken control of key border crossings with their Iranian, Pakistani, Uzbek and Tajik neighbors.
In many cases, there was little or no resistance from the Afghan security forces and army, often left with no supplies or reinforcements. Two weeks ago, more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers crossed the border into Tajikistan. The Taliban did not pursue them.
The Taliban have also issued statements, including that of their top leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who negotiated last year’s deal with the United States, assuring Afghanistan’s neighbors that they did not had nothing to fear from the insurgent movement.
The Taliban surge comes as the United States and NATO end their nearly 20 years in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, the US Central Command declared that the US withdrawal was 95% complete, after President Joe Biden announced in mid-April that America was ending the “Eternal War.”
The Tashkent meeting will bring together representatives of US Homeland Security as well as Washington’s special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell, as well as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan are also present.
The five Central Asian states had a separate meeting with Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, President Joe Biden’s Homeland Security Assistant. Afghanistan featured prominently in their talks, which focused on ways to cooperate on regional security.
“The participants in the meeting expressed their support for the creation of stable conditions which would contribute to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan,” said a statement from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry after the meeting.
The objectives of the gathering are no longer clear. Rather than the initial highway and railroad agenda, the powers are likely seeking regional consensus on what final peace can look like and all-stakeholder action to push it through. The fear is not just about the Taliban’s gains; Without a peace deal, the many Afghan warlords could look to another destructive civil war among themselves to seek power or preserve their interests.
“We call on the countries of the region and the wider international community to play a constructive role in supporting the Afghan peace process,” Borrell said, adding that he will make personal advocacy at the Tashkent conference.
The conference brings together many of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Several of them have been accused of supporting factions inside Afghanistan and of promoting violence for their own gain. They are also concerned about militant groups inside Afghanistan that threaten them, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic State group. The Taliban are viewed by many, including the United States, as a useful bulwark against these groups.
In Tashkent, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is expected to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the sidelines. At the same time, Pakistan will host a meeting in Islamabad with Afghan political leaders, apparently aimed at bridging regional divisions. This meeting could start as early as Friday.
Relations between the two countries are fraught with suspicion and passionate mutual accusations.
Ghani accused Islamabad of fomenting violence in Afghanistan because the Taliban leadership is based in Pakistan. The Taliban also often use Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan for rest and relaxation. Many Taliban leaders also have their families in key Pakistani cities, Karachi on the Arabian Sea and Quetta in southwestern Balochistan province, where the insurgent movement is also bringing its wounded for treatment.
Pakistan, however, says it has used its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, although it says that influence wanes as insurgents gain more territory inside the country. Afghanistan.
Pakistan also accuses Afghanistan of harboring the Pakistani Taliban – the anti-Pakistani militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan Taliban and which has stepped up its attacks on the Pakistani military in recent months. Pakistan also accuses the Afghan intelligence agency of aiding the Pakistani Taliban as well as the Balochistan Liberation Army, a secessionist movement accused of attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan.
The volatility of regional players often makes relations difficult.
“The main regional actors all share the desire for a more stable Afghanistan and they support the peace process. But the risk is that they are working against the grain by supporting competing factions in Afghanistan, ”said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the US-based Wilson Center.
“And at the end of the day, while the Taliban are happy to hear from the Chinese, Russians and Iranians, they have the luxury of ignoring what they are saying about the mitigation of violence, redirecting their full attention towards the battlefield, and finish a fight they think they win.
Associated Press editors Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.