Taliban militiamen shoot into the sky over Kabul to celebrate their victory as the last US troops withdraw from Afghanistan. Less than two weeks later, they announce a new government and reiterate their promises of respect and change.
But that will not be enough to break the international isolation in which the Taliban will remain, now in command of a country whose inhabitants face an even more uncertain future.
World powers are now rushing in search of ways to influence the country after the return to power of Islamic fundamentalism.
Two Muslim countries, Qatar and Turkey, are emerging as key mediators in the process.
Both benefit from their contacts with the Taliban in the recent past. Both see an opportunity, but they also take risks that could reignite old rivalries in the Middle East.
Qatar has provided an exit route for the evacuation operation from western countries. “Nobody has been able to carry out a major evacuation without the Qataris being involved in one way or another,” explains Dina Esfandiary, an expert at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that studies global conflicts.
“Afghanistan and the Taliban will be a major victory for QatarNot only because it will be revealed that he can mediate with the Taliban, but also because that makes him a key player for Western countries, ”he told the BBC.
The diplomatic value of Qatari contacts with the Taliban increased as Western countries withdrew their personnel from Afghanistan. A glance at the Twitter profile of Lolwa Alkhater, spokesperson for the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, filled with messages of thanks from leaders of world powers, makes it clear.
“Qatar remains a reliable mediator in this conflict,” he wrote in August.
But building bridges with the Taliban could carry risks going forward, including the possibility of escalating tensions in the Middle East, a historically troubled region. Turkey and Qatar are closer to countries that have strong Islamist movements, which frequently generates friction with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which see these movements as an existential threat.
Can the role as mediators with the Taliban that Qatar and Turkey are taking on have an effect in the Middle East?
Dina Esfandiary assures that the return of the Taliban to power represents a new turn towards Islamism, an ideology that seeks to reorganize the government and society in accordance with Islamic law. For now, says the expert, that ideology has not been able to fully impose itself more than in South Asia.
“Over the past 10 years, the Middle East region has seen a relentless tug of war between Islamist and non-Islamist groups,” says Esfandiary.
Talk to the Taliban
During the Taliban’s first stage in power in the 1990s, only three countries had formal ties to them: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
The last two broke official relations after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Although, according to some reports, covert funding from Saudi Arabia continued to flow into Afghanistan from the Taliban. Saudi officials have denied the existence of any formal funding avenue for the Taliban and say there are stricter measures to prevent private donations.
But as the presence of US troops in Afghanistan became more unpopular in the US, the door for diplomatic contacts opened.
For Qatar and Turkey, contacts with the Taliban ran differently.
While the then president of the United States, Barack Obama, was looking for how to end the war, Qatar hosted Taliban leaders in 2011 to discuss a path to peace in Afghanistan.
It has been a controversial process with ups and downs. The image of a Taliban flag flying outside Doha, the capital of Qatar, offended many. Later, they cut the mast at the request of the Americans. But the Qatari government has helped develop an autonomous foreign policy, which is crucial for many in a country located in the middle of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the great poles of power in the region.
The Doha talks culminated in the 2020 deal in which US President Donald Trump pledged a withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 2021.
His successor in the White House, Joe Biden, announced the extension of the limit for a total withdrawal until September 11.
Turkey, which has strong historical and ethnic ties to Afghanistan, has maintained troops there, though not combat troops, as the only NATO Muslim-majority country.
Several analysts point out that he has cooperated on intelligence with some militias linked to the Taliban. Turkey is also an ally of Pakistan, a neighbor of Afghanistan, in whose Islamic seminaries the Taliban emerged.
Last week, Turkish officials held talks with the Taliban for three hoursas chaos gripped the Kabul airport.
They discussed how future operations would be handled at the airport, which has been protected by Turkish troops for the past six years. The Taliban insisted that the Turkish military leave with the rest of the foreign forces.
But there are signs to think that the talks are actually part of a larger agenda. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he viewed recent messages from Taliban leaders with “cautious optimism.”
When asked at a press conference about his contacts with the group, he replied that he does not need “anyone’s permission” to speak to the Taliban. “This is diplomacy,” he said.
“Turkey is ready to provide all kinds of support to the unity of Afghanistan, but it will follow a prudent path,” said the Turkish leader.
Professor Ahmet Kasim Han, an expert from Istanbul’s Altinbas University, believes his dealings with the Taliban give Erdogan a chance.
“For their stay in power to be sustainable, the Taliban needs continued international aid and investment. Today they cannot even pay the salary of public employees, ”he told the BBC.
The expert believes that Turkey could try to present itself as a “Guarantor, mediator, facilitator” and a more reliable intermediary than Russia or China, who have kept their embassies open in Kabul.
Risk to Turkey’s image
Many countries have tried to maintain some contact with the Taliban since they regained power, especially through Doha. But Turkey is one of those in the best position to establish connections on Afghan soil.
Professor Han believes that intensifying relations with the Taliban would allow Erdogan to “widen the board” of his foreign policy and the support base of his party, the AKP.
“They consider Turkey a country with a manifest destiny and an exceptional position within the Islamic world. It is based on Turkish history and its legacy as the seat of the caliphate during the Ottoman period ”.
However, the expert clarifies that it would be detrimental for Turkey if its ties with the Taliban reach the point that it is perceived as “sponsor of a regime based on sharia and with brutal practices.”
Professor Han argues that “being a member of NATO, Turkey is more sensitive to Western pressures on human rights compliance.”
Some published analyzes indicate that Erdogan’s movements could also be motivated by the interest of improve Turkey’s damaged relations with the United States and NATO, and increase their influence to prevent a potential massive influx of Afghan refugees into Turkey.
As in the case of Qatar, Turkish leaders are confident that their role as mediator will ease years of turmoil in the Persian Gulf.
Qatar has facilitated negotiations between warring actors in some of the major conflicts region of.
But after the “Arab Spring” of 2011, protests that brought down various governments in some of the major Islamic countries, its rivals in the Persian Gulf began to accuse Qatar of having sided with the Islamists.
The UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia temporarily severed their relations with Qatar in 2017. They claimed that Doha had become too close to Iran and was promoting instability in the region through its state-run news network, Al jazeera. Qatar always denied the accusations.
For now, with Afghanistan and its people mired in uncertainty, Qatar and Turkey speak to the Taliban on behalf of many abroad, while China and Russia also compete for access.
Now you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss out on our best content.