In the period from November 27 to 28, 2023, the 11th meeting of the Herat Security Dialogue was held in the capital of the Republic of Tajikistan, Dushanbe. The event was organized by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), which was relocated to the UK after the Taliban came to power in 2021. It is worth noting that Tajikistan has become the venue for the international conference on Afghan issues for the second year in a row.
The event was attended by more than 150 people, including foreign experts, former politicians, representatives of international organizations, as well as Afghan opposition figures. The participants touched upon the following topics: ensuring security, the humanitarian situation in the country, the development of democracy in Afghanistan, gender equality, prospects for a return to traditional Islam and the Persian community as the main factor of unification. This year, the leader of the “United Resistance Council”, Mohammad Ismail Khan, who currently lives in Iran, became a special guest.
At a press conference dedicated to the organization of the event, the head of the AISS, Davood Moradian, said that representatives of all political groups of Afghanistan were invited to the Republic of Tajikistan. An official letter was also sent to the Ministry of Information and Culture of the Taliban Movement (TM). However, the Taliban eventually ignored participation in the event under the auspices of the AISS.
By itself, the invitation of representatives of the TM to such an event may indicate the current impasse in the Afghan direction and the attempts being made to find a way out of it. Over the past two and a half years after the Taliban seized power, the Afghan opposition has actually failed to resolve any previously-voiced issue. For this reason, the participation of TM representatives in such events becomes rather a necessary reality, since without their involvement it is impractical to discuss possible steps to transform the political system, ensure security and stabilize the humanitarian situation in the country.
The opinions of the expert community were divided after the last visit of the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA) A. Massoud to Moscow. Some have suggested that this trip, on the eve of the Herat Security Dialogue, may indicate emerging drastic changes in the Afghan policy vector. Some of the Western experts who took part in this event considered that the visit of the head of the NRFA to Russia may indicate an emerging change in priorities in Moscow’s position in the Afghan policy vector. For this reason, there were suggestions that during the Herat Security Dialogue there would be an attempt by the opposition to join forces.
However, the results of the international conference confirmed the fact that this is not true at the moment. The anti-Taliban forces are still divided and are not taking any real steps to achieve the previously announced goals. Their speeches are more aimed at promoting the positions and interests of the countries in which they currently live. In fact, at the moment there is not a single opposition force in the region that could influence the Taliban’s decisions from the outside and force them to make concessions. In these circumstances, the statements of the leaders of foreign political groups are reduced to populist slogans and criticism of the current regime.
A vivid confirmation of this is the speech at the Herat Dialogue by Rahmatullah Nabil (leader of the Afghanistan National Liberty Party, ex-director of the National Directorate of Security). The Afghan politician said that the Taliban are trying to gain access to tactical nuclear weapons. According to him, the TM is allegedly considering options for bribing Pakistani engineers.
Such statements without providing any evidence have long been the hallmark of the Collective West. Their constant use in the context of discussing problems related to the Afghan crisis may lead to the fact that this topic will gradually fade into the background and become irrelevant for the world community.
The attitude of the host party to the event deserves special attention. For a long time, the organizers of the conference have been unable to get permission to hold the event from the leadership of the Republic of Tajikistan. At the same time, the local side carefully coordinated both the candidates of the participants and the topics of their speeches. As a result, such sensitive issues for the region as the construction of the Qosh Tepa Canal and the TAPI main gas pipeline (Turkmenistan – Afghanistan –Pakistan – India) were not reviewed at the conference.
In general, such a balanced approach of Dushanbe to the event may indicate that the leadership of the Republic of Tajikistan does not intend to negate the emerging shifts in relations with official Kabul (in March 2023, the delegation of the Afghan Foreign Ministry visited its consulate in Khorog for the first time, and in September joint markets started operating on the Afghan-Tajik border). At the same time, local experts identified terrorism as one of the main threats to the Central Asian region (CAR) and expressed concerns about the growing instability in Afghanistan.
The assessments of Rangin Dadfar Spanta (Chairman of the AISS Advisory Council and former Afghan Foreign Minister) were tougher. In his opinion, the Taliban’s rise to power is a manifestation of the victory of jihad, and their ideology is aimed solely at spreading terrorism not only in their own country, but also in the region. For this reason, the issues of ensuring security for the whole world are becoming relevant again.
During the event, a number of experts criticized the policy of double standards of the international community in relation to Afghanistan. Due to the different approaches and views on the Afghan issue, it is becoming almost impossible to coordinate a unified strategy in this field. Experts named the actions of a number of countries (the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom) to remove various representatives of the TM from the UN sanctions lists for a certain time as one of the main reasons for this state of affairs. This allows the above-mentioned states to circumvent restrictions and establish interaction with representatives of the TM who are under international sanctions. According to the speakers, this practice leads to a divergence of interests both among the Taliban themselves and among external forces, which hinders the stabilization of the situation in the country.
The position of the Collective West towards resolving the protracted crisis has also been negatively assessed by a number of former Afghan political figures. In particular, some speakers raised the issue of the inadmissibility of providing financial support to the Taliban, saying that the international community has already transferred more than 2 billion USD for this purpose.
During the discussion of the issue of the expulsion of refugees, it became obvious that this issue is causing a certain split in the political elites of Pakistan. In particular, the former head of Pakistan’s interagency intelligence, Asad Durrani, condemned Islamabad’s official course on deporting Afghan refugees and apologized to the entire people of Afghanistan. In his opinion, in the current conditions, the expulsion of Afghans makes no sense, since they are in no way connected with the “Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan”. A. Durrani believes that these actions are causing enormous damage to bilateral relations and, as a result, can harm the national security of his own country.
The strengthening of the positions of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) at the 11th meeting of the Herat Dialogue deserves special attention. Iran sent an impressive delegation of experts to the conference, who, in addition to analyzing the events taking place in Afghanistan, were actively engaged in promoting national interests. In addition, Mohammad Ismail Khan, who lives in Iran, became a special guest of the event.
In fact, an entire panel session (“Nauruzistan: Persian World and Solidarity of Neighbors”) was devoted to promoting the Iranian agenda at the event. One of the speakers of the section was Habibollah Fazeli, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, who set the tone for the upcoming discussion. In his speech, the Iranian was outraged that English was used at the conference and repeatedly stressed that the CAR countries are facing increased political pressure over the need to use the Russian language. He noted that over the past 150 years, the number of people speaking Farsi has decreased markedly. For this reason, the speaker called on all those present to intensify work towards uniting the population, using the common culture and the Persian language.
In general, during the course of this section, it was noticeable that not everyone likes the attempts of the Iranian side to impose its point of view on attempts to unite a certain part of the region’s population. Thus, at the end of the panel session, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Chairman of the AISS Advisory Council, spoke, who actually condemned Iran’s actions aimed at promoting its own interests. The former Afghan politician stressed that Afghans belong to different ethnic groups and speak different languages and dialects, which allows preserving the uniqueness of each nation.
Against this background, the attention of the expert community was focused on the speech of M. Ismail Khan. The leader of the United Resistance Council also promoted some Iranian theses. So, on the first day of the conference, he blamed the events taking place in Afghanistan on the international community represented by the Collective West. The Afghan noted that after the US withdrawal from the country, the main threat now hangs over the region. Assessing the importance of the Herat Dialogue, the foreigner stated that such platforms are currently ineffective and involve only an exchange of views on a narrow range of issues.
During his final speech, M. Ismail Khan criticized the authors of the Doha Agreements, saying that they made a mistake in their assessments of the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban, sensing this, eventually became even more radical than they were before they came to power. According to his estimates, in the near future the world community will not dare to recognize the TM as a legitimate government. At the same time, answering the question of what is better than war or negotiations, the interlocutor said that it was still possible to try to negotiate with the Taliban, but he did not rule out a military solution to the problem.
Thus, the next meeting of the Herat Security Dialogue confirmed that the Afghan opposition does not have a unified program and intentions to act together. Only a part of the anti-Taliban forces attended the conference, which may be due to both difficulties in obtaining visas and the reluctance of some political forces to take part in this event. The results of the 11th meeting do not allow us to draw practically any conclusions about the further direction of the work of the Afghan opposition, since no specific proposals were announced during the work.
In general, such a format of events without involving the Taliban is becoming less effective year by year. It allows to exert regular information pressure on the TM, but does not contribute to the stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan itself.
At the same time, the active involvement of Iran and the strengthening of its positions at the last event may indicate attempts by the AISS leadership and their Western overseers to attract supporters to their side in order to increase the diverse pressure on TM.
Dmitry Sinelnikov, leading specialist at the Center for Scientific and Analytical Information of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.