Tuesday, 25 January, 2022
E-paper

Taliban 2.0 in Afghanistan: Policy Implications for Bangladesh

A.R.M Mutasim Billah

Taliban 2.0 in Afghanistan: Policy Implications for Bangladesh

On 17 October 2021, the outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her farewell meeting with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, revealed that her country maintained bilateral contacts with the radical Taliban movement; the parties agreed on the possibility of jointly conducting such negotiation in the future. After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, countries are making calculations on the question of their policies towards Afghanistan, given the recent developments, the consequences of the takeover on Afghan people. The future of the country and the regional and global implications are also being taken into account seriously. In this context, it is also pertinent to look at what Bangladesh’s policy to Taliban is and should be: whether Bangladesh should engage with the group, or adopt a wait-and-see approach based on how immediate neighbours and rest of the world respond to the new rules of Afghanistan.

Dhaka-Kabul relations over the years

In order to understand what Bangladesh’s policy should be following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, one must look at the past, the historical legacy of Bangladesh’s policy towards the country, the emerging relevance of the country for Bangladesh’s trade and broader economic relations and so on. Historically, the Afghans had an extraordinary relationship with the people of Bengal and Bangladesh for centuries. After the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation in 1971, Afghanistan recognized Bangladesh on 18 February 1973 as one of the first countries to do so. The founding father of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman tried to improve relations with Afghanistan. For instance, Bangladesh signed trade agreement with Afghanistan in July 1974 to promote bilateral trade and economic co-operation. Very recently, in January 2019, during a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the Afghan ambassador in Dhaka, Abdul Qayoom Malikzad expressed keen interest to expand trade and economic ties with Bangladesh and called for the opening of Bangladesh’s diplomatic mission in Kabul.

If one looks at the nature and scope of Bangladesh’s policy to Afghanistan, Bangladesh mainly focuses on economic relations. It is worthy of noting that Bangladesh imports more from Afghanistan than it exports. For instance, in the fiscal year 2021, Bangladesh exported worth US$ 8.64 million while imported worth US$ 20 million. In the pre-Covid period, in 2018 fiscal year, Bangladesh exported worth US$ 6.98 million while imported worth US$9 million worth of goods. Bangladesh mainly exports pharmaceutical products which accounts for almost 88 per cent of the country’s total exports to Afghanistan when it imports mainly vegetable products. Of US$9.27 million in imports from Afghanistan in FY 2020, only vegetables accounted for about US$8.8 million.

The bilateral trade between the two countries is worth around US$ 15 million. According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) of Bangladesh, Afghanistan became the 74th largest export destination for Bangladesh among 201 countries and territories in 2020 fiscal year. In South Asia, Bangladesh exports more to Afghanistan than it does to Nepal or Bhutan. Thus, we see that economic relations dominate the Bangladesh-Afghanistan relations.

Factors that Bangladesh needs to consider

In this context of the bilateral relationship, it is very pertinent to examine whether Bangladesh should recognize Taliban government and promote relations or not. In this regard, several issues need to be seriously examined before taking any decision.

First, Bangladesh should wait and observe the situation carefully. The Taliban regime is looking for international recognition. The history reveals that in 1996, when Taliban seized power, only three countries, i.e., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognized the group’s rule. In 2021, Bangladesh’s important development partner, China has shown keen interest in working with the Taliban government. While most countries have shut their embassies in Kabul, China kept its embassy open. The contexts and realities of China and Bangladesh are not the same. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that Bangladesh may face some indirect external pressure for quick engagement with the Taliban. In addition, there have been differences regarding foreign policy philosophy between Bangladesh and China. In fact, regarding China’s recognition to the Taliban government, Derek Grossman writes in Foreign Policy magazine that “The geostrategic and economic benefits of closer relations are too great for Beijing to ignore.” Russia has also signalled positive gesture in recognizing and cooperating with Taliban. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat at a press briefing notes that, “The Taliban have won the war, so we will have to talk with them. It’s not a matter of official recognition. It’s a matter of dealing with.” So, one may say that Bangladesh should not hurry and thus should observe carefully how international community reacts and acts on the Taliban issue.

Second, trade volume between two countries is not of much significance. So, trade aspect should not be the only parameter to consider further engagement with Taliban government and promoting economic ties with them. Even with the previous Afghan government, propped by the US, the economic relationship did not amount to one of any particular significance.

Third, Bangladesh needs to take into account the threat of extremism and terrorism aspect seriously. It is important to examine how the ideology of the Taliban might influence the religious sentiments of some extremist/religious groups in Bangladesh. From previous records, it is seen that there are also cases where people from some quarters in Bangladesh support the Taliban ideology which might be problematic if bilateral relations develop and improve with the Taliban regime.

Historically, Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh has its roots in Afghan soil. In early 1990s, the first known Islamist group, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami Bangladesh (HUJI-B) came into being by Soviet-Afghan war returnees, who volunteered in the anti-Soviet jihad. Some of the most brutal terrorist attacks in Bangladesh, such as the August 21, 2004 grenade attacks on Bangladesh Awami League rally which left 23 dead and 200 injured, were carried out by terrorist outfits formed by anti-Soviet jihad returnees. It is therefore suggested that security implications of Taliban takeover need to be taken into account by the policy regime. But more importantly, it should be noted that no Bangladeshi left for Afghanistan in the last twenty years when the Taliban were in a dire situation and needed them the most. Bangladesh is already a role model in eradicating Islamist terrorism. The strong foundation of democracy and secularism that has evolved in Bangladesh over the last few years under the Awami League government has successfully staved any such rhetoric from influencing the people and society at large.

Fourth, another issue that also needs to be mentioned here is that the work of BRAC International in Afghanistan.  Since the fall of first Taliban regime in 2001, BRAC has been heavily involved in development activities in Afghanistan, particularly in mass and women education sector. BRAC’s tremendous success over the years has also provided Bangladesh, to some extent, a soft power edge. The Bangladeshi staffs of BRAC were flown out of the country in late August. It is speculated that Taliban takeover in Afghanistan would also hamper the smooth functions of BRAC which also needs to be taken into account by the policy community of Bangladesh. The achievements made in the last few decades with regard to female education are also at the risk of going astray.

Finally, at the regional level, Bangladesh should also examine regional implications of Taliban takeover particularly in the context of security. Since Afghanistan is a member of SAARC, Bangladesh needs to raise voice whether a regional solution through SAARC can be applied. In fact, in this age of globalization and inter-dependence, every state is inter-related in one way and another and thus affects the others. Since Afghanistan is a South Asian neighbour of Bangladesh, implications of Taliban takeover need to be examined seriously both from economic and security perspective.

Since 2009, Bangladesh has been achieving an impressive record of success in all parameters including socio-economic development, security and prosperity. Before engaging with Taliban government and improving ties with them, Bangladesh seriously needs to examine its implications for the security and stability of the country. In a recent article titled Why Afghanistan fell in Foreign Policy, former Afghanistan central bank Governor Ajmal Ahmady stated Pakstan's former president Mohammad Zia ul-Huq's famously Quoted saying Pakistan always sought to keep the temperature boiling in Afghanistan. It is very important for Bangladeshi law enforcers to seriously check the departure and arrival points so that no Bangladeshi can visit Afghanistan and join Taliban regime and the vice versa.

 

The writer is a former Research Assistant

of ActionAid Bangladesh. He can be reached

at: [email protected]