The Taliban and Central Asia, Kaliyev speaks

The great-power competition entered a new stage on 15 August 2021, that is when the Taliban took over Kabul. Only two weeks later, despite the widespread violence and a bloody terrorist attack on Kabul International Airport, the West completed a hasty and poorly conceived exfiltration of its military and diplomatic personnel and of those who worked with the Western-backed governments over the past twenty years – the so-called “collaborators”.

No one knows what is the Taliban’s real plan for Afghanistan – investment-attracting center or terrorist sanctuary? Foreign interference-free place, Chinese-alligned country or smart double agent? –, but something is as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow: the Great Game 2.0 is far from over, it has simply entered a new stage. And this new phase is likely to be even more unpredictable than previous one, being the reflection of the conformation in the making of the international system: multipolarity.

Driven by the goal of understanding what could happen in Afghanistan in the next future, and what could be the regional repercussions of the rise of the Taliban, we went directly to Nur-Sultan to speak with the Special Representative of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan for Afghanistan Talgat Kaliyev.

Understanding the Taliban phenomenon

Your Excellency, some days ago the Islamic State – Khorasan Province carried out a bloody attack on Kabul International Airport. What do you think will happen next? And what is your overall view on this twenty-year war, on the rise of the Taliban and on Afghanistan?

We condemned this terrible terrorist attack which had no justification. It was made by those who don’t want any stabilization in Afghanistan and seek to prevent the new authorities – the Taliban – to take full power. The country is in a very difficult situation right now. And the situation we have right now is the following: it’s been two weeks now that the Taliban entered the government and extended full power over the country.

We don’t want to comment the internal situation like others are doing, we have a “Kazakh approach” to Afghanistan. You know, we’ve seen this country experiencing a difficult situation for more than thirty years – since the Soviet invasion. Then it was turn of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Then it came the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. And now, since August 2021, we entered a new stage and a difficult period of transition.

As you know the President Ghani left the country and there was no resistance as it was expected, despite the fact that the Afghan security forces were trained for years and billions of dollars were spent for it. We need to understand that Afghanistan is a unique country: not a single nation, but a country where a lot of ethnicities live. Plus, these ethnicities are divided on tribal and clan lines, which means that the country management by one capital city and one political party is very difficult. Very, very difficult.

We don’t know yet how the Taliban will manage the country, but we must read the events by assuming their own perspective. Their ideology is very simple: the country should be ruled by the Sharia laws, that is by very strictly applied Islamic laws. To understand what they could be able to do today we can compare them to the first Taliban government, which lasted five years, from 1996 to 2001. In any case, they [the Taliban] have been presented a list of criteria to be met by the international community and the regional countries, like the respect of human rights, in particular of women, children, minorities and of those who supported the last regime who should not be persecuted. In short, they have to be civil, because they will be judged by what they do in reality, which is important in terms of regional security.

This is a very important part of the world, it is an area of interest for powerful countries like Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China. Even India has its own vision of Afghanistan. The European Union and the United States has no more obligations after having taken their citizens and the Afghan collaborators back – we’re speaking of thousands of thousands of people. And, you know, we are hosting some UN personnel [ed. 261 people] on request of the United Nations. They were relocated from Kabul to our offices in Almaty because they were in danger. They will continue their work from here.

What do you think of the terrorist attack on Kabul International Airport, of its impact? And what do you think of the rise of the Taliban: was it inevitable?

The blast at the Kabul airport is another problem, another big issue, another unknown for the future of Afghanistan. By the way, we can do nothing until the Taliban-led build-up of the new state and the new government is completed. The whole world is waiting for this. Who will be put in charge? Who will be the President? Who will be the Prime Minister? Who will take the cabinet’s positions? We don’t know yet, but we have to be calm, because putting pressure will not hep: it will make the situation worse.

Indeed, the Taliban’s rise to power is the result, let’s say, of the natural course of history. That’s what it is. I saw no resistance. You know, the Afghans were tired of these decades of non-stop war all over the country. The truth is very simple: Afghans wanted peace after more than forty years of war. What will be the outcome? We don’t know yet. But we can be sure of something: the world will not leave Afghanistan. Its neighbors are regional leaders and will do their best to make Afghanistan prosperous, stable and responsible before other countries.

Do you think that the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan could jeopardize the national security of Kazakhstan and neighboring countries by catalyzing and boosting processes of religious radicalization within them?

We have to see, but in any case we could understand the real results of the Taliban government and of its regional impact only in a couple of years from now. Don’t forget that the countries surrounding Afghanistan are Islamic – Iran, Uzbekistan, etc – and they see no risk. If you remember, there was a lot of fear in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power with an Islamic revolution, and what? Nothing happened.

We have to divide reality from imagination, because life is unpredictable: yesterday’s fantasy can turn into today’s reality. We are all humans, we all make mistakes, especially in our judgments. Some judgments may prove correct now, while some of them which are wrong now may turn correct in next 25 years! You know, we are living in a very difficult period of time, and difficult times hinder correct judgments.

For instance, the globalization was unsustainable but we are seeing the consequences of it only now. Some regions, like Europe, became richer and richer, whereas others not. And then you had the flows of refugees from Afghanistan, Africa, etc, which became bigger and bigger and all of them headed to Europe. But this is part of a global problem. As for Kazakhstan, it’s one of the most successful stories of the globalization: just 18 million people and we have no flows of refugees, but a stable political system, a growing economy, etc.

America’s time in Afghanistan has come to an end, and several other powers are in a hurry to take advantage of this event. Kazakhstan has the potential to be one of the players who will earn the most from this epoch-making paradigm shift, but is it ready to shine on Central Asia?

Our time started in 1991, that is when Kazakhstan got independence. That year our time began: the time to shine forever. We only need time to make our economy stronger and more diversified, to get rid of this dependence on oil revenues. We have very ambitious plans, like on green economy and on alternative sources of energy. This is the reason why we are sending our students and our young people across the world – you know, in the United States, Korea, Japan and so on – to study in the best universities. It’s because they will be – or rather, they already have become – the driving force that will push Kazakhstan forward.