As Taliban government looms, should Bangladesh seek diplomacy with Afghanistan?

Almost two decades after the US-led invasion, the attention of the world was once again drawn on Afghanistan this month as the Taliban completed a dramatic takeover of the country.

Masum Billah Staff
Published : 25 August 2021, 04:07 AM
Updated : 25 August 2021, 04:07 AM

As the US and other Western forces scramble to evacuate their citizens from the South Asian country, regional powers are now weighing up their diplomatic approach to Afghanistan as the Taliban are poised to form government.

Although it does not have much of a stake in Afghanistan, foreign relations analysts have advised Bangladesh to play the waiting game and proceed carefully with the prospective Taliban government.

Describing Dhaka's response as 'positive' until now, they believe the government should align its stance towards Afghanistan with that of neighbouring and other friendly states.

Despite the Taliban's rapid ascent to power, the experts have played down the threat of a rising wave of religious extremism in Bangladesh under the present circumstances. But they stress caution.

On the prospect of diplomacy with the Taliban, Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University's Department of International Relations, said: "We can wait.

"We should proceed as slowly as we can. The approach of our neighbouring countries will be telling. If everyone grants them recognition, it could stand Bangladesh in good stead because we can send them the things they need immediately."

"We need to look at what the neighbouring countries are doing first and then the international community. We’ve to take action accordingly after that.”

But as the Taliban are yet to form a government, now is not the time for Dhaka to make a final decision on relations with the group, according to M Humayun Kabir, a former ambassador of Bangladesh to the United States.

"Talks are underway in both international and regional forums. I think the discussions should continue. After that, let's see what other friendly countries decide and we can also be a part of that decision.”

After 20 years of war, Afghanistan has seemingly come full circle with the Taliban's rapid conquest, culminating in the fall of Kabul on Aug 15.

Most parts of the country are now under the control of the insurgents as many Afghans flee their homeland, fearing reprisals and a return to a harsh version of Islamic law that the Taliban enforced when in power from 1996 to 2001.

If a new government is formed in Afghanistan, Bangladesh has spoken about working with them conditionally.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said Dhaka will accept a government "if it is of the Afghan people."

"Afghanistan is a member of SAARC and is a friendly state to Bangladesh. We want their development. We want development of all with everyone,” he added.

Although DMP Commissioner Shafiqul Islam said some people had "left their homes" at the Taliban's urging, the home and foreign ministers have said the opposite.

Regarding the makeup of a potential Afghan government, Prof Imtiaz said, "If a government’s formed, it’ll have representatives from different factions, especially the different ethnic groups."

"Looking at the Taliban so far, it seems that they have representatives. If such a government is formed, it will be indicative of whether the Taliban have changed or not."

“Then they’ll face the challenge of development. The main issue is whether such a government will be recognised by the neighbouring countries or not. Only three countries recognised it [Taliban] before -- the rest have not.

"There’s another facet now as America has all but accepted the Taliban as reflected by its agreement with them in Doha. It has sat down with the Taliban, which means it has recognised the Taliban. Even if we recognise them, it does not mean that we should accept everything they do.”

The situation will become somewhat clearer once the government is formed, according to Prof Imtiaz. "Then, we’ll have to see what position the neighbouring countries take. This time, we are hearing about Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia -- even Turkey is in discussions. These countries have not moved their embassies out of the country."

"The United Kingdom has said it will work with the Taliban if necessary. "

“We [Bangladesh] are not in a hurry because we don't have the kind of stake in Afghanistan that Pakistan or India does. India has invested a lot there in the last 20 years. But we haven't made any investment of note. There is no big trade or diaspora there like in the Middle East. That's why we can wait. "

Although the United States has supposedly spent trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, the fate of ordinary people has not changed much, according to Humayun. "Afghanistan is the weakest economy in South Asia.

"The big question now is how the salaries of government employees in Afghanistan will be paid because the money has been coming from America for such a long time. Therefore, for any government, be it the Taliban or a government of all, the economic issue needs to be addressed urgently.”

Highlighting the Taliban's pledge to form a 'consensus government', Humayun said, "The direction that Afghanistan takes will depend on the decisions of the Taliban and their relationship with the international community, including Bangladesh and other countries."

"External positivity will come from their positive actions. If they go it alone, they’ll suffer the consequences."

"Whether it's the bilateral relations with Bangladesh and neighbouring countries, gaining recognition from the international community or rebuilding the economy -- it all depends on the role of the Taliban."

The diplomat is encouraged by the Taliban's talk forming an inclusive government.

“They initially said they wanted to establish an Islamic Emirate. Iran and many Middle Eastern countries are Islamic Emirates and that's fine as there’s no problem with the name."

But if the Taliban revert to the form of governance it exercised from 1996 to 2001 based on the strict enactment Sharia law, then the regime will not gain acceptance, he warned.

Commenting on Bangladesh's experience in poverty alleviation in Afghanistan, Humayun said, "We can share the experience of the steps we have taken so that the people of Afghanistan benefit.

"One thing to keep in mind is that the people of Afghanistan supported us during the Liberation War. So if we can stand with them in their time of need positively, then we can cooperate with them in that regard. We have a moral obligation.”

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said the government was monitoring the situation as it unfolds in Afghanistan.

"Now, the Taliban are making promises and if they can keep them and protect their own people and foreigners, then Bangladesh will have a chance to work there. Bangladesh will move forward with development initiatives.”

In the wake of the insurgency, Bangladesh has shut its embassy in Afghanistan. But there are no plans to reopen the mission at the moment, according to Masood.

"It was closed for security reasons. Bangladesh will consider increasing security there."

At least 27 Bangladeshis have been detained in Afghanistan, according to foreign ministry officials. They said the process of repatriating them was underway.