The importance of Turkmenistan’s pragmatic Taliban stance

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow expressed a very pragmatic stance towards the Taliban while addressing the United Nations General Assembly via video earlier this week. Publicly financed Russian international media outlet TASS quoted him as saying the following:

“The situation there (in Afghanistan — TASS) is not easy, the government and public institutions that are being formed are very fragile. This is why assessing the situation in the country requires ultimate consistency, prudence and responsibility — both in words and actions. The situation in Afghanistan has changed, and when forming an approach to it, one needs to abandon ideological preferences, old grudges, phobias and stereotypes, thinking first and foremost about the Afghan people who are tired of wars and turbulences and dream of a peaceful and quiet life. We call for normalising the situation in Afghanistan as soon as possible and expect that new government agencies will operate effectively in the interests of all Afghan people.”

The world should take note of his country’s position towards Afghanistan’s de facto leaders even though some governments such as Russia’s still officially consider them to be terrorists in spite of pragmatically engaging with them in the interests of peace and security.

First, President Berdimuhamedow acknowledged that the Taliban is in the process of forming a government and reshaping public institutions. This is an objective reflection of the facts. These structures are indeed very fragile at the moment, yet the former insurgent group is still doing its best to manage everything.

Afghanistan’s foreign stakeholders mustn’t have unrealistic expectations, hence the recommended need to exercise “ultimate consistency, prudence and responsibility – both in words and actions.” Pressuring the Taliban to immediately comply with those states’ envisioned socio-political models can actually be counterproductive.

Political statements to that effect are one thing while actions are another entirely. The US froze Afghanistan’s foreign assets within its jurisdiction and pressured the international financial institutions under its influence, the IMF and World Bank, to suspend their loan programs. This risks worsening the country’s cascading crises.

By contrast, Pakistan and Tajikistan agreed last week to facilitate talks between the Taliban and rebellious Tajiks. This noble gesture might not succeed, but it’s still better to gently apply diplomacy for encouraging a peaceful resolution of Afghanistan’s problems than to weaponise financial instruments as political punishment.

President Berdimuhamedow’s wisest words during his speech were his suggestion that “one needs to abandon ideological preferences, old grudges, phobias and stereotypes, thinking first and foremost about the Afghan people who are tired of wars and turbulences and dream of a peaceful and quiet life.”

This can be interpreted as a subtle message to India, Iran, Tajikistan, and the Afghan groups that are under their influence. Those three countries and the groups within Afghanistan that are most sympathetic to them have to acknowledge that the majority of Afghans are very relieved that the war has finally ended.

Attempting to stir trouble through those governments’ provocative statements and those groups’ actions is against the will of the Afghan people. It’s time to move on and chart a new future for the country. The Taliban deserve a chance to fulfill their promises but they’ll require some time to do so since stability comes first.

This pressing need explains why its recently appointed acting authorities are all Taliban members and thus don’t adequately represent Afghanistan’s ethno-political diversity. The group preferred reliable and trusted individuals over fresh faces because they didn’t want to risk any deadlock or inefficiency at this crucial moment.

Nevertheless, these optics prompted concerns that the Taliban hadn’t truly changed, but such worries are more representative of some – though importantly not all – of those observers’ “ideological preferences, old grudges, phobias and stereotypes”. They’re judging the Taliban through those prisms instead of having an open mind.

It’s admittedly difficult to take the Taliban’s claims to have reformed at face value, especially when the composition of its acting authorities seems to discredit those hopes, but the group also has a valid point in wanting to prioritise stability right after the war instead of immediately experimenting with political reforms.

What President Berdimuhamedow appears to be implying is that it’s simply too early to draw any conclusions, and that those who’ve already arrived at pessimistic ones aren’t being objective. It’s acceptable to have some concerns, but unacceptable to exploit them as the pretext for pressuring the Taliban via words and actions.

Doing so could inadvertently contribute to further destabilising Afghanistan, especially with respect to the West’s weaponisation of financial instruments during the moment when the country needs such aid more desperately than ever in order to stave off its impending humanitarian crisis.

The Turkmen leader’s appeal “for normalising the situation in Afghanistan as soon as possible” and his “expect[ation] that new government agencies will operate effectively in the interests of all Afghan people”  can be interpreted as a message to both the Taliban and the country’s foreign stakeholders.

He’s telling the first to remain committed to its previously promised reforms even if they still take some time to transpire since he believes that they’re truly “in the interests of all Afghan people”. As for the second, he’d like them to acknowledge the Taliban’s de facto leadership of the country and pragmatically engage with it.

It would be contradictory to “the interests of all Afghan people” if the Taliban went back on its promises and/or the country’s foreign stakeholders refused to pragmatically engage with group. Turkmenistan’s position should be regarded as the world’s most objective one considering the country’s constitutionally neutral status.

The Central Asian state isn’t regarded as a partisan actor in any respects, whether in the Afghan Conflict or wherever else. It hasn’t joined any regional blocs, not even the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), though it has positive working ties with them and others.

Turkmenistan therefore has unparalleled moral legitimacy to speak on Afghanistan. The country doesn’t have any ulterior interests but simply sees itself as the most objective observer of events. All that it wants is its regional stability. Hopefully the world will take note of its stance and follow President Berdimuhamedow’s advice.

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