The Taliban between state and non-state actors: a double-edged sword

The flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) on the wall of the U.S. Embassy near Massoud square beside the Ministry of Health in Kabul (Credits: AhmadElhan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 18 Issue 2
Authors: Francesco Pagano & Ilaria Briglia

The 2021 proclamation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan reveals several straightforward and/or controversial relationships with state and non-state figures at the regional level. This intricate web of relations plays a role in outlining the Taliban regime’s assets and challenges.

Relations with state actors

The main driver of the Taliban’s relations with foreign actors is the legitimacy attached to the regime; the Taliban have worked to expand their international ties long before 2021. One of the Taliban’s metamorphoses has been the shift from a policy of no relations with the outside world to a posture of dialogue. It is worth mentioning their attempt in 2013 to open a political office in Doha, which later became the playing field for the peace talks between the Taliban and the United States in 2020. Qatar opened a secret communication channel between the Taliban and the United States, allowing both parties to establish trust-building measures to anticipate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The ambiguous relationship between the United States and the Taliban, which has oscillated from attempts to carry out the so-called “war on terror” to dialogues concerning the country’s future, accompanied by the withdrawal of troops, has enormously favoured the rise of the regime. In any case, from the establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the United States (with the support of Western countries and institutions) has initiated a phase of delegitimisation and marginalisation of the regime. The United States, the European Union and Britain have currently suspended their aid programs to the country. Moreover, international financial institutions have adopted a policy of funds’ deprivation, directly citing the illegitimacy of the Taliban’s rule.[1]

However, even though the Taliban seized power through the use of force, which was seen as the insurmountable limit for their future recognition by part of the international community,[2] certain states have decided to adopt their own policies regarding recognition,[3] outlined by diplomatic engagement driven by economic and security concerns.

China has initially extended support and accommodation for the Taliban through exchanges of diplomatic visits and official statements.[4] Nevertheless, Beijing’s posture is purely driven by national interests, the safety of nationals abroad, and investments in neighbouring countries and within Afghanistan. The incorporation of Afghanistan’s monetisation within China’s Belt and Road Initiative plays a crucial role: if the Taliban can bring stability to the country (and thus secure investments), the Chinese will be ready to dialogue and carry out their well-known win-win strategy. This perfectly explains the $31 million offer in humanitarian aid.[5]

At the same time, there seem to be warmer relations between Russia and the Taliban (in comparison with their interactions during the Chechen conflict), dictated by a logic reminiscent of the Cold War. Indeed, the Taliban’s establishment represents the failure of Western engagement (and NATO’s humiliation) in Afghanistan and thus a new opportunity for Russia to profit from a possible Afghan economic recovery. For this reason, Moscow has expanded engagements with Taliban representatives and hosted senior officials from China, India, Pakistan, and Iran to discuss a possible future for Afghanistan under the Taliban.[6]

The relationship with Pakistan has always been ambiguous and is destined to redraw the regional balance of power. Pakistan was one of the first countries to recognise the Taliban (back in 1996), and the opaque relationship between the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and the Taliban funded and supported their survival post-9/11 and their comeback. Such a strategic partnership, which has willingly contributed to the country’s instability over the past 20 years, has always served Pakistan’s interest in enhancing its regional weight vis-à-vis India. For this reason, Pakistan has proposed a roadmap to the international community for the recognition of the Afghan Taliban.[7] Nevertheless, the Taliban pose relevant challenges for Pakistan, such as the securitisation of the borders, the Pashtunistan issue, cross-border trade and economic migration and, last but not least, the possible support for a proliferation of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s terror activities within Pakistan. Moreover, Pakistan’s possible rupture with the Taliban could allow India to rebuild its presence in Afghanistan.[8]

For what concerns Iran, there have been major points of contact with the Taliban in recent years, despite ideological differences. Firstly, they share a common enemy, the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Moreover, Iran’s regional interests, ranging from managing refugees from Afghanistan to countering narcotics trafficking along the frontier, could lead to a constructive dialogue.[9] Nevertheless, Tehran’s willingness to engage in dialogue will depend on the marginalisation of Shia communities – particularly the Shia Hazara one – within the Taliban’s power structure[10].

Central Asian governments such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan – whose contacts with Afghanistan have been mostly limited to economic activities and control of refugees – will shape their relations with the Taliban based on: the degree of openness of the aforementioned regional powers towards the Taliban regime; the willingness of the regime to dialogue with them; the level of marginalisation of ethnic minorities in the country, such as the well-known discrimination against Tajiks.

Relations with non-state actors

The Taliban, the Haqqani Network (HQN) and al-Qaeda (AQ) share multi-generational ties based on family bonds and intermarriages, reinforced throughout the years due to the groups’ common struggle against the US and NATO. These interlinkages are visible even at the highest ranks of power: Sirajuddin Haqqani, the FBI-wanted leader of the HQN, is the acting Minister of Interior of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Moreover, despite the Doha agreement, in which the Taliban agreed to renounce al-Qaeda, the two groups “show no indication of breaking ties”.[11] In a 2021 report, the UN claimed that the group continued to provide al-Qaeda protection in exchange for resources and training.[12] According to the UN Sanctions Monitoring Team, the HQN acts as the liaison between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is not by chance that while entering Kabul, the Taliban freed thousands of militants from two prisons in the city, including al-Qaeda operatives, Taliban, and HQN members.

The Taliban have historically had an adversarial relationship with IS-K, partly because the group has exploited the Taliban’s internal tensions to poach disaffected members: the two have violently clashed throughout the years, mainly competing over resources, recruits, and territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan.[13] On the occasion of the Doha Agreement, IS-K condemned the peace talks in its newsletter al-Naba, defining the Taliban and the “crusaders” (the United States) as “allies”.[14] In 2021, IS-K propaganda explicitly promised retaliation against the Taliban, who have always been accused of being “filthy nationalists” not committed to a universal Islamic jihad.[15]  In a statement released shortly after the Kabul International Airport attack of August 2021, claimed by IS-K on its Telegram channel, the group also referred to the Taliban as a “Pakistani militia”, mere puppets in the hands of the U.S. President Joe Biden. In October 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that some defectors of Afghanistan’s US-trained intelligence service and military units had joined IS-K,[16] seeing no other viable option of resisting the Taliban. This group of defectors can provide IS-K with expertise in intelligence-gathering and warfare that could weaken the Taliban’s hold on the country. In fact, just a small number of former Afghan Republic intelligence officers, soldiers, and police personnel returned to work under the new regime, fearing retribution for their previous efforts in resisting the Taliban: in this context, IS-K provides security and offers significant amounts of cash to recruits.

Even though the Taliban deny the presence of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), the Fourteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security[17] warns that there are no signs that the Taliban have taken steps to limit the activities of FTFs in the country.

Other groups complicate the scenario. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan is a group with clear anti-Pakistan objectives, mainly operating alongside the Afghan Taliban. However, some members fought in Syria under the IS-K umbrella and recently returned to Afghanistan.[18] The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has historically been an ally of AQ and the Taliban, but its members fought in Syria and Afghanistan as well, alongside IS-K: some veterans are now returning to Afghanistan. The Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) has ties to AQ; however, due to China-Taliban talks, the Taliban are committed to eliminating ETIM from Afghanistan, meaning that ETIM fighters will likely switch to IS-K.[19]

Prospects and implications

Since the Taliban’s domestic consolidation of power, regional state actors have adopted a wait-and-see strategy. These dynamics will be shaped primarily by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, whose spillovers may worsen regional security and challenge strategic interests in the area.[20] Thus, the Afghan humanitarian crisis is being used as political leverage by the Taliban to gain some degree of recognition. Other variables that may persuade state actors to engage with the Taliban are responsible behaviour driven by minimum respect for human rights,[21]  economic reconstruction of the country to foster regional states’ interests, and an absolute ban on exporting religious extremism to neighbouring countries. If these criteria are not met, the legitimacy deficit will be inevitable, hampering the Taliban’s governance.

Moreover, the intricate web of extremist movements may turn Afghanistan into a haven for international jihadists. While, in theory, the Taliban does not allow the use of Afghan territory for terrorist purposes, it is doubtful that the group would even have the ability to deter terrorists from carrying out activities in the country. Al-Qaeda is expected to exploit the Taliban’s rule to regroup amid the amicable indifference of the government: it is not by chance that, shortly after the fall of Kabul, the former aide of Osama bin Laden, Amin-ul-Haq, was seen reaching his hometown in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan,[22] while, in October 2021, Bin Laden’s son, Abdallah, visited Afghanistan for meetings with the Taliban.[23] Moreover, the Taliban victory was greeted enthusiastically by many jihadi terrorist groups worldwide, from Hamas to al-Shabaab, to Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimin (JNIM). Regarding IS-K, the group represents an internal threat to the Taliban rule because of its capacity to recruit former Taliban fighters and its ability to carry out attacks against civilians and government installations, posing a challenge to the Taliban’s monopoly of violence. The Taliban rule may instil new impetus to international jihadism, considering that terror groups in Afghanistan seem to have more freedom than ever.

Sources

[1] Josh Zumbrun (2021) World Bank Freezes Aid to Afghanistan. Wall Street Journal. Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/world-bank-freezes-aid-to-afghanistan-11629842039.

[2] Statement made by China, the US, UK, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Germany, India, Norway, Qatar, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Turkey, as well as representatives of the UN and the EU.

[3] Ayesha Malik (2021) The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the Recognition of Governments under International Law. Research Society of International Law. Link: https://rsilpak.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/afghanistan-taliban-recognition_rsil.pdf.

[4] Chinese Foreign Minister defined the Taliban as a “pivotal force” and complimented their good, positive and pragmatic behaviour.

[5] BBC (2021) China offers $31m in emergency aid to Afghanistan. BBC News. Link:  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-58496867.

[6] Op, cit.

[7] Op, cit.

[8] Kamran Bokhari (2022) The Search for Stability in Afghanistan: Can Iran and Pakistan manage the Taliban’s Emirate? Foreign Affairs. Link: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2022-01-11/search-stability-afghanistan.

[9] Op.cit.

[10] Antonio Giustozzi (2021) Russia and Iran: Disappointed Friends of the Taliban?, RUSI. Link:   https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/russia-and-iran-disappointed-friends-taliban.

[11] Letter dated 20 May 2021 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1988 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council. Link: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N21/107/61/PDF/N2110761.pdf?OpenElement.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Aquil Shah (2021) How Will the Taliban Deal With Other Islamic Extremist Groups?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Link: https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/08/31/how-will-taliban-deal-with-other-islamic-extremist-groups-pub-85239.

[14] Cole Bunzel (2020) Jihadi Reactions To The U.S.-Taliban Deal And Afghan Peace Talks, Hoover Institutions. Link:   https://www.hoover.org/research/jihadi-reactions-us-taliban-deal-and-afghan-peace-talks-0.

[15] Borhan Osman (2016) ISKP’s Battle for Minds: What are its main messages and who do they attract?, AAN. https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/iskps-battle-for-minds-what-are-their-main-messages-and-who-do-they-attract/.

[16] Yaroslav Trofimov (2021) Left Behind After U.S. Withdrawal, Some Former Afghan Spies and Soldiers Turn to Islamic State, The Wall Street Journal. Link: https://www.wsj.com/articles/left-behind-after-u-s-withdrawal-some-former-afghan-spies-and-soldiers-turn-to-islamic-state-11635691605.

[17] Fourteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat. Link: https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/S_2022_63_E.pdf.

[18] Claudio Bertolotti (2021) How the Twenty-Year Afghanistan War Paved the Way for New Insurrectional Terrorism, ISPI online. Link: https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/how-twenty-year-afghanistan-war-paved-way-new-insurrectional-terrorism-31616.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Mark S. Cogan & Don McLain Gill (2022) Legitimacy and International Development in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs.  

[21] Op. cit.

[22] Abhishek Bhalla (2021) Man behind Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus: Osama’s former bodyguard returns to Afghanistan, out of hiding after a decade, India Today. Link: https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/man-behind-taliban-alqaeda-nexus-osama-bodyguard-in-afghanistan-out-of-hiding-after-decade-1848143-2021-09-01.

[23] Rezaul H Laskar (2022) UN report: Terror groups have more freedom in Afghanistan now, Hindustan Times. Link: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/un-report-terror-groups-have-more-freedom-in-afghanistan-now-101644104162090.html.