Sooner or later Nepal has to come to a working relationship with the Taliban-led Afghanistan. There are more factors linking these two countries than those dividing them. Both are landlocked. Both are members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the UN, and the IMF. Both have joined the China-led Belt and Road Initiatives, and are observer members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both nations are trying to come out of messy conflicts, discard the ‘least developed’ label and achieve ‘developing’ status.
Politically, Nepal has embraced a socialism-oriented, secular multiparty democracy. As a signatory to a series of human rights treaties, and as a UN member, Nepal is bound to promote universal respect for and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms of all without distinction as to the race, sex, language or religion.
The new Taliban regime of Afghanistan has said the country will be ruled under the Islamic sharia law. Nepal maintains a friendly relation with Afghanistan, and is unlikely to bother with its internal affairs. We should indeed respect the religious, political and economic choices of Afghan people.
In the broader spectrum, Nepal is itself a country sandwiched between two giants with different political and economic systems. It needs to use its limited strength and influence prudently. Protecting national sovereignty, safeguarding interests of Nepali nationals, providing reasonable support to Nepali blood, languages, cultures, identity and history, both inside and outside the current political borders, are our primary duties. Afghan people and big powers among them will solve the issues of human rights, counter-terrorism, and other conflicts associated with values there.
In terms of political maps, sometimes united and sometimes divided, Nepal has remained an independent, sovereign country. Even if outsiders have settled in Nepal and ruled it, they have ultimately been assimilated to the Nepali soil, their off-springs becoming dhartiputra or the children of the land. A key to our success was articulated by our founding father Prithvi Narayan Shah who suggested Nepal maintain good relations with China and India.
The land of present-day Afghanistan has been invaded and ruled by different forces in history. It was conquered by Darius I of Babylonia circa 500 BC, Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 329 BC, Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century, and Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Even after Afghanistan was created as a nation in 1747 by Ahmad Shah Durrani, through a series of wars in the 19th century, it was forced to cede much of its territory and autonomy to Britain. Afghanistan gained full independence from British influence only in 1919.
Following the British withdrawal from India in 1947, Afghanistan had to handle a largely uncontrollable border with the newly-formed Pakistan. Afghanistan and the Soviet Union became close allies in 1956, followed by Afghan reforms the next year, allowing women to attend university and join the workforce.
Conflicts and internal fights led to the 1979 Soviet invasion and the 1989 withdrawal; the 2001 US invasion and the 2021 withdrawal. Located at the strategic crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia, Afghanistan has been a battleground of different political, religious, cultural and economic powers throughout history. So far all attempts to occupy Afghanistan have ultimately failed.
The effects of the American counter-terrorism campaign since 9/11 have not been uniform. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar where the US did not seek regime change, the US efforts have been a success. In countries such as Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq where the US focused on regime changes, the US efforts have failed to contain.
The terrorists have succeeded in identifying themselves as the forces fighting the US and other anti-Islam countries and forces, and thus winning Muslim sympathy worldwide. Besides, the hidden American geopolitical interests helped blur the differences between moderate Muslims and hardliners, many a time tagging moderates as hardliners, which ultimately led to the spread of terrorism.
Americans first tried to use the Islam element to counter the Soviets. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, this trained militia turned on the US, their former mentors. As such, it is not a confrontation between two civilizations; it is not a West-versus-Muslims clash. It is a confrontation between two interest groups to dominate the world, the resources. The US being the stronger one adopted the role of the ‘world police’. The Muslim outfits being the weaker side tried to present themselves as ‘Muslim fighters’ to challenge the US, in the form of modern guerrilla attacks.
Following the US withdrawal, the world is divided on tackling Afghanistan. The US and its allies have refused to formally recognize the Taliban-led government. But China, Russia, Pakistan and some others have maintained relations with the new regime, some hoping the Taliban will help counter cross-border terrorism, contain radical Islamist ISIS group and respect the rights of women and minorities.
What should Nepal do?
Nepali people and media seem divided on the Afghan issue. Some have expressed worries that extremists have come to power; others are happy that the US occupation has ended. This scribe would rather recommend a careful, weighted response.
Nepal has an open border with India. Unlike China and the US, we are unable to control the border effectively. Not far back, Rohingya refugees from Burma, some Afghan refugees, and even Congolese refugees, have successfully made their way to Kathmandu. So tightening of the land border, especially in cooperation with India, should be our top priority. Similarly, we should beef up scrutiny against suspicious international arrivals by air.
As to maintaining our relation with the Afghan regime, we should raise issues of our interest. It was the Taliban that demolished the two monumental fifth century Buddha statues in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley in 2001. The fanatics did not pay any heed to the worldwide condemnation of their cultural crime. Buddha is a part of our history, our identity and Nepal is the mother of Hinduism, Buddhism and related language and culture. We should talk about these issues openly. Our foreign policy should reflect our interests in a broader sense.