In Other News – Taliban at the helm & More – 8/20/2021

August 20, 2021

Taliban at the helm, regional actors engage new Afghan leadership for geostrategic gains. While the international community grapples with how, if, and to what extent it should engage with the Taliban, regional powers Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan – who all laid the groundwork for relations with the Taliban and continue to safely operate their embassies in Kabul − are working with the new leadership to secure their geostrategic positions. Russia, who initially welcomed the Taliban’s downfall back in 2001, has steadily changed course over time, seemingly concluding that it could better negotiate with the Taliban than a US-supported Afghan government. But Russia, who is eager to be the dominant military power in Central Asia, will need the Taliban to effectively keep narcotics trafficking and militant activity in the neighborhood at bay. China, like Russia, wants to prevent transnational militant groups from encroaching, namely those with ties to China’s Muslim population in the Xinjiang region that borders Afghanistan. China will also pressure the Taliban to limit its influence on extremist groups within Pakistan where Beijing has invested substantial funds in the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure projects. China’s own investment in Afghanistan is a possibility, but Beijing will likely be cautious due to both the Taliban’s yet-undetermined governing direction and past experiences losing money in similar Afghan initiatives. Iran cares most about getting rid of the US, protecting its Afghan border, and making sure that the Afghan Shi’a population isn’t persecuted. The Iranian Supreme Leader is willing to set aside substantial differences between himself and the Taliban leadership to achieve these goals and is reportedly in discussion with the Taliban to develop a more inclusive government representative of all Afghan ethnicities. Pakistan, who already has a well-established relationship with the Taliban, will now be looking to contain its own extremist and separatist groups from inspiration or influence. And despite the complicated nature of working with a nation who has arguably kept the Taliban alive for the past two decades, the US will need to collaborate with Islamabad if it wants to have any substantial impact on the Taliban’s actions. In addition to each nation’s engagement with the Taliban, shifting dynamics are at play between the nations themselves: China and Pakistan are close allies, Russia might be somewhat warming to Pakistan after decades of siding with India, and China and Russia have been conducting joint military exercises.

Venezuelan negotiations underway with limited expectations, investors watching closely. Last week in Mexico City representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro came together with representatives of the US-backed democratic opposition to initiate negotiations aimed at ending the five-year political stalemate. In a seemingly goodwill gesture, during the week Maduro released Freddy Guevara, an opposition leader who was imprisoned for over a month due to alleged involvement in a violent attack against security forces, so that he can participate when the talks begin in earnest in early September. In a new twist, both Maduro and the opposition will be represented by a primary negotiator of their choice: Maduro’s camp will be represented by Russia, and the opposition will be supported by the Netherlands- their second choice to the United States who will instead be part of a broader team of 10 international negotiators. The talks will be facilitated by Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and seven critical issues ranging from human rights to economic policies will be on the table. Maduro, whose primary goal is to get the US to ease sanctions, is entering the negotiations in a strong position and has succeeded in the past even when coming from a weaker one; but opposition leaders appear cautiously optimistic that they might be able to reach partial agreements on issues like Covid-19 vaccine imports and ensuring fair conditions for the upcoming regional elections in November. Some international investors too, seem to think that partial sanctions relief could be a possibility, and several private equity funds and companies have demonstrated a renewed interest in Venezuela‒ angling to profit from the first phase of a potential economic recovery.