‘Of great concern for the Western powers should be the prospect of the vacuum being filled by China.’

London: In 2019 the Office of National Statistics recognised there were 79,000 people born in Afghanistan living in UK. One of them is Shabnam Nasimi, political activist and campaigner and the voice in Britain for women in Afghanistan and the Afghan diaspora in Britain. The Nasimi family, academic parents and 4 siblings, fled from Afghanistan and the Taliban in 1999. Nasimi is the founder-director of the Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, the organisation that aims to strengthen the relationship between the UK and Afghanistan. She is also the Secretariat for the Afghanistan APPG in Westminster. In 2019, Nasimi was awarded Inspirational Women in Public Affairs by Policy Mogul, nominated for BBC’s 100 Women in September, and she is an Ambassador for the 50:50 Parliament campaign. She spoke with The Sunday Guardian.
Q: How is the Taliban today different from the Taliban of the late 1990s?
A: The 2001 Taliban defeat was celebrated by Afghans inside and outside of Afghanistan.
Children started to fly kites and to play games—both previously banned. Couples played music at their weddings, and women left their homes for work without fear of being beaten by Taliban enforcers. Many men shaved their beards. Afghanistan opened to the world.
Today, younger members of the Taliban, a group once known for eschewing technology, have adopted social media, TV and radio to promote their extremist version of Islamic law. The rhetoric of their older leaders has changed since 2001, too—at least on the international stage.
But in newly captured areas their policies are more hard line.
According to various reports by Afghanistan stations, Radio Liberty and Radio Salam Watandar, Taliban rulers in Afghanistan’s North and Northeast have asked families to marry off one girl per family to their fighters; said women should not leave home without a male relative; and ordered men to pray in mosques and grow beards.
All evidence suggests the Taliban have not changed, and in comparison, have become much more brutal and barbaric.
Q: How do you keep in touch with what’s happening in Afghanistan?
A: I am regularly in touch with activists, politicians and my own family on the ground, who provide me information on what’s happening and updates. My last visit to Afghanistan was in the summer of 2017—after which I was unable to travel due to rising insecurity under Ashraf Ghani’s leadership.
Q: How do Afghans residing in UK feel about the so-called peace process?
A: The Afghan diaspora have felt sceptical about the peace process from the beginning, particularly when the US signed an agreement with the Taliban last year in Doha without setting conditions on the Taliban. Without the full involvement of diaspora communities globally, who have the skills, expertise and knowledge of living in democratic countries, it would be impossible to create an inclusive peace process that is lasting.
Q: You have said “The West has left the door open for China, Russia and Iran to exploit the vacuum”. Please elaborate.
A: The precipitate departure of Western forces from Afghanistan has understandably raised concerns that it will result in the country succumbing to the uncompromising Islamist rule of the Taliban. Yet, even though the Taliban’s return to power will be viewed with dread by a significant majority of Afghanistan’s population, of greater concern for the Western powers should be the prospect of the vacuum created by the West’s withdrawal being filled by China, its great rival for power and influence in the region.
The border between the two countries may stretch to less than 50 miles, but the scale of Beijing’s ambitions for exercising its influence in Afghan affairs appears limitless.
Part of Afghanistan’s appeal for China’s Communist rulers lies in its geographical location at the heart of Central Asia, making it crucial to the success of Beijing’s ambitious plan to control international trade through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has already made inroads in neighbouring Pakistan, where the two countries have agreed a $62 billion package for the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has become a key element of the BRI as Beijing seeks to deepen and expand its trade links across Eurasia and Africa.
Having access to Afghanistan’s key trade links would strengthen Beijing’s grip over Central Asia, thereby giving it control of a key commercial hub linking the Middle East, Asia and Europe. Afghanistan’s vast, untapped mineral wealth is another factor that has led Beijing to intensify its efforts to build closer ties with Kabul.
A United States Geological Survey study conducted a decade ago discovered undeveloped mineral deposits—from gold to natural gas—worth an estimated $1 trillion. Having access to such treasures on its doorstep would be a considerable boon for Beijing in its quest to make China the world’s leading economy.
China’s emergence as a key player in deciding Afghanistan’s future should certainly be a matter of concern for those Western politicians and policymakers who continue to insist that the Afghan government, backed by the Western-trained Afghan security forces, will be able to see off the Taliban’s concerted effort to seize control of the country by force.
Q: How do you think the UK parliamentarians interpret Pakistan’s part in the current situation?
A: A recent inquiry on “The UK and Afghanistan” by the Selection Committee on International Relations and Defence published on January 2021 in which I was invited to submit evidence stated that “Pakistan is the most important external actor in Afghanistan and has considerable influence over Taliban but is unwilling to use this influence”. The UK aims to continue working with Pakistan in support of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The report also stated that Pakistan “effectively provided ‘safe haven…for the Taliban to operate relatively freely, and to return to Pakistan for military, financial, and other support in its battle with the government in Kabul”.
Q: UK has committed £170million to assist Afghanistan, do you know how this is being spent?
The current political elite in Afghanistan took power almost 20 years ago after an international coalition forces toppled the Taliban regime. Since then, the world has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into the country. Most of what was pledged was meant to bring peace and stability and to build and rebuild institutions that would work for all Afghans after so many years of war and devastation.
Instead, much of that money has been wasted. This corruption indirectly exacerbates Afghanistan’s conflict. It consistently goes unpunished, and Afghans feel betrayed by their leaders. Insurgents have in turn fed off this widespread sense of disappointment—they see a vacuum to fill. There is a direct link between corruption and the erosion of security.
The donor community has allowed this dynamic to be established. Donors do highlight Afghanistan’s corruption epidemic, but they never package their aid with any kind of genuinely effective scrutiny, and, as a result, they have ultimately failed to hold the Afghan government to account for how it spends the donors’ money. Pledges will be wasted unless donor countries encourage the Afghan government to implement a real anti-corruption strategy that is supported by law. Donations must be conditional upon fighting corruption.
Q: What extra can UK offer to Afghanistan citizens, President Ghani and ANDSF?
A: The decision to withdraw US and NATO forces from Afghanistan has been a major strategic mistake, and the horrific local, regional and international consequences thereof are starting to unfold. At the time that the decision was made, there were 10,000 NATO troops stationed in the country—2,500 of them American and fewer than 1,000 British. These are very small numbers: The United Kingdom has more soldiers on operation in places like Cyprus, and the United States has more soldiers guarding its own Capitol. If Western countries have decided they can’t even endure sending a comparatively small number of troops to Afghanistan, they can forget about trying to influence people around the world, especially where the challenge may be greater. For its part, the United Kingdom’s actions in Afghanistan amount to a withdrawal from the Global Britain agenda.
Western values—human rights, particularly women’s rights; and the rights to education, freedom of speech, and the press—are all very imperfect in Afghanistan. But they are vastly better state of affairs than if the Taliban reinstates its medieval Islamist regime. There is still time to prevent civil war. The West should rethink its strategy, and, if it must, move forward without the United States. The UK should retain a 5,000-strong coalition force, enough to support Afghanistan’s forces and people to contain and deter the Taliban. Otherwise, the country may once again become a failed state and the consequences will be dire.
Q: Who will be most affected should the Taliban succeed in the battle for government?
Unfortunately, it has always been the people of Afghanistan who have paid the price of this war. Should the Taliban return to power, it will of course affect all Afghans, but primarily the women of this country—who will once again be imprisoned in their homes and treated like animals. Even women from extremely conservative rural areas aspire to more education, greater freedom of movement and a greater role in their families. Taliban rule will take them in the opposite direction.
Q: How does your APPG and Conservative Friends of Afghanistan use their influence in Parliament?
A: Our work with UK Parliamentarians is key to ramp up political pressure on the Taliban. Working in briefing the government and MPs on the situation on the ground, is incredibly important to ensuring Afghanistan and its people aren’t forgotten.
Q: How does it make you feel when Defence Minister Ben Wallace said UK would work with the Taliban if they came to power?
A: I understand that the UK needs to engage with whatever the government of the day is, provided it adheres to certain international norms. However, it has become clear that the actions of the Taliban so far have constituted war crimes, human rights violations and shown no interest in comprising or acting in the best interest of the people of Afghanistan through a democratic process. It would be against western and British values to work with such a group or provide them free rein to do as they please.