Two years on from the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan’s neighbors are increasingly concerned that their return to power has emboldened terrorist groups and networks, which are using the hospitable environment to regroup, rearm, and recruit substantially. There is growing evidence, as the United Nations’ Sanctions Monitoring Team warns, that al-Qaeda and the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) are thriving under Taliban rule. The U.N. report cautions that the link between al-Qaeda and the militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) remains “strong and symbiotic” and terrorist groups “have greater freedom of maneuver,” thereby significantly expanding their footprints and capabilities. The Taliban’s comeback has provided relief for terrorist groups, and it has become clear that the Taliban have no interest in sticking to the responsibilities laid out under the February 2020 Doha agreement with the United States. The main question now for Afghanistan’s neighbors in the region, and the international community more broadly, is just how reliable the Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances to other states really are. Given their support for the TTP, which has repeatedly launched attacks on neighboring Pakistan from Afghanistan’s territory, the answer seems to be: not very.
The Afghan Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances are no good for Pakistan
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan lauded the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan two years ago as breaking the “shackles of slavery.” Khan’s endorsement of the Taliban reflected Pakistan’s overarching goal of establishing a Kabul regime aligned with its security interests. In Islamabad’s calculus, a “friendly” or “pro-Pakistani” dispensation in Kabul would help offset Pashtun nationalism and address Pakistani concerns about Afghan irredentism, rein in the TTP, and curtail foreign influence, particularly from India, in Afghanistan. This calculus has proven to be a strategic miscalculation for Pakistan. The Taliban have not broken ties with the TTP, are less reliant on Pakistan as they further cement their coercive power and raise revenues from customs and other sources to strengthen their regime, and relations between Islamabad and the Taliban show increasing signs of friction, especially over TTP violence targeting Pakistan’s tribal areas and urban centers. The range of challenges confronting Pakistan has the potential to expand further still, particularly as the country contends with political turmoil following Khan’s recent three-year imprisonment on corruption charges, coupled with soaring inflation, economic contraction, and a potential debt default.
The Taliban have limited interest in being Pakistan’s proxy. Their leadership accepted Pakistani support when they were fighting the U.S.-backed Afghan government, but now that the Taliban command authority, they too want levers of influence over Islamabad. The Taliban’s acceptance of the TTP’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic Emirate is a clear expression of this deep-rooted relationship. The TTP’s allegiance provides the Taliban with strategic and ideological depth into Pakistan — a reversal of fortunes for Islamabad, given its historical policy of seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan, later characterized as political depth. The TTP is riding high on the Taliban’s return to power, ending its monthlong ceasefire with Islamabad in November 2022, following a year of on-and-off peace talks, resulting in near-daily attacks inside Pakistan. In response, Pakistan’s military chief, Gen. Asim Munir, warned the Afghan Taliban of an “effective response” if they fail to stop cross-border TTP assaults from Afghanistan. Despite this warning, the Taliban leadership do not consider the TTP a threat to their rule or a breach of their ties with Pakistan but rather view them as part of the emirate. The TTP, the U.N. report warns, is serving as a vehicle for other terrorist organizations to circumvent control by the Afghan Taliban. This development has enabled the TTP to gain momentum in its campaign against the Pakistani military, and regional states are concerned that the group could metastasize into a broader threat as it continues to operate freely in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s protection.
China and Iran tread cautiously
China is cautious about getting too involved in Afghanistan. Although Beijing’s diplomatic engagement and economic interests have grown, they are limited and intentionally designed to maintain a safe distance from the Taliban. This is because China is not seeking to play a leading role in Afghanistan, and its overriding priority is to persuade the Taliban to prevent terrorist attacks and hand over militants of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an Uyghur extremist group. The Taliban appear to have taken steps to reassure Beijing as reports suggest that they have relocated TIP militants away from Badakhshan province in northeast Afghanistan, which borders China. The Taliban opted to relocate the militants rather than severing ties with the group or handing them over to China, measures that would have better served Beijing’s security concerns, demonstrating the limits of Chinese-Taliban cooperation.
China is not seeking to fill the strategic vacuum after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Beijing is content with providing limited economic assistance and development aid in exchange for counterterrorism cooperation. Despite photo-ops of high-level bilateral diplomatic visits and the Taliban’s statements about increasing Chinese investments in the country’s vast untapped natural resources, very little extractive work has commenced. For instance, the Taliban claimed in April that a Chinese firm was considering a $10 billion investment in lithium extraction. The Taliban’s Ministry of Mines and Petroleum made a similar announcement in January 2023, publicizing a $540 million deal by Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Co to extract oil from northern Afghanistan’s Amu Darya basin. In both cases, no actual work has taken place. This is consistent with previous agreements that failed to materialize, such as the multibillion-dollar Mes Aynak copper mining contract Beijing signed with the former Afghan government in 2008, a project that never got off the ground. Although these headlines make a splash and serve the Taliban’s propaganda purposes, Beijing is conscious not to open itself up to exploitation or become a magnet for attacks by the TIP, TTP, Baloch militants in Pakistan, ISKP, or other militant groups operating in Afghanistan’s shifting terrorism landscape.
For Iran, the U.S.’s strategic failure and departure from Afghanistan was greeted with a sense of relief, unlike Pakistan’s euphoric reaction. Tehran had long suspected that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan could be used to destabilize its eastern region or serve as a site to launch attacks against its military and nuclear facilities, especially after relations deteriorated sharply under former President Donald Trump following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban’s return presented new opportunities for engagement to help assuage its security concerns. As the political and security climate worsened for the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Tehran’s public contacts with the Taliban increased, making the latter appear to be a government in waiting. Tehran’s diplomatic and political investment was designed to repair ties and to influence the Taliban if they retook power. This investment has not paid off, however, as Iran’s clout in Afghanistan and influence with the Taliban regime remain limited.
Iran is disappointed with the Taliban regime and regards its national security interests as not being adequately served. Although both sides shared the strategic goal of seeing Western forces depart from Afghanistan, not much else unites them. In the two years the Taliban have been in power, clashes have broken out between Taliban and Iranian border guards, resulting in fatalities that have raised concerns of escalation and increasing instability. In addition, disagreements about sharing the waters of the Helmand River have been ongoing since a treaty was signed in 1973, and the issue is likely to remain problematic. Another point of contention is Iran’s call on the Taliban authorities to forge an inclusive government that reflects Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious diversity, especially the Shi’a Hazara minority, who the Taliban have targeted historically and continue to persecute. As Tehran’s expectations of the Taliban diminish, it is likely to reduce its engagement and exposure.
Iran’s primary concern is the deteriorating security environment along its eastern border with Afghanistan. ISKP attacks targeting Hazaras have left scores dead and hundreds injured. The Taliban’s inability or unwillingness to stop these attacks or prevent numerous terrorist groups, including anti-Shi’a militants, from establishing bases under the protection of the Taliban continues to cause consternation in Tehran. The threat of terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan and the risk of a potential civil war there that could spill over into Iran has troubled Tehran. Given the fragile strategic environment, the Taliban are not the security partners that Tehran had probably anticipated they would be given their investments in the militant group.
Central Asian neighbors feel nervous about the Taliban’s security assurances
The Afghan Taliban’s hosting of terrorist groups has expanded these groups’ ideological influence and capabilities. As a result, neighboring states are growing more apprehensive about Afghanistan as a potential source of instability for the region. The Central Asian nations bordering Afghanistan have adopted varied approaches in their interactions with the Taliban, but none appears to have a strategy to limit these groups’ ideological growth or recruitment from within their territories. Two events that occurred in Central Asia in early August underscored the dynamic nature of the situation and the potential threat posed by a Taliban-run Afghanistan.
The first was a meeting of the presidents of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in Turkmenistan’s capital Ashgabat. This summit was significant because, for the first time in two decades, the three presidents met to discuss the situation south of their borders. It also took place in the context of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, which has raised new questions about Central Asian states’ traditional reliance on Moscow for security guarantees and assistance. Most recently, Russian troops were deployed to Kazakhstan in January 2022 to support the Kazakh government in restoring order after protests erupted over rising fuel prices that escalated into violence and wider discontent against Kazakh elites and the government. However, the war in Ukraine is casting a long shadow of doubt among Central Asian leaders regarding Russian offers to support them in times of crisis. This is likely to have diminished the value of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as member states have growing concerns about Russia’s role in the region and doubts about the poor performance of its military against Ukraine’s resistance.
The second was a Kazakh-Afghan business exhibition in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. The private industry event was designed to find markets for Afghan products but, more crucially, signals Astana’s willingness to work with the Taliban, expand trade relations, and use economic diplomacy as another entry point to address security concerns. Opening additional channels with the Taliban is likely regarded as necessary as security incidents originating from Afghanistan rise. For instance, the killing of two suspected militants by Tajikistan’s security forces near the Afghan border in June has heightened concerns regarding the Taliban’s ability to prevent cross-border attacks by groups based in Afghanistan. Tajik authorities claimed the militants crossed the border from Afghanistan in late April and were killed in a counterterrorism operation.
The Central Asian states face an escalating array of challenges given their geographical proximity to Taliban-run Afghanistan. These include the proliferation and strengthening of transnational terrorist groups within Afghanistan, the propagation of extremism, the exploitation of socio-political and religious fault lines, a potential surge in refugee inflows, and heightened trafficking in weapons and narcotics. These issues risk becoming supercharged, given that terrorist groups in Afghanistan and across the region view the Taliban’s triumph and the U.S.’s defeat as a product of their strident ideology and brand of religion. As the Taliban continue to host and build links with terrorist groups, Afghanistan is fertile ground for them to expand their influence. Unfortunately for Afghanistan’s neighbors, such an expansion would see them as targets.
The Afghan Taliban's credibility in offering counterterrorism assurances to other states has been deeply compromised by their failure to prevent the TTP from launching attacks on Pakistan from Afghanistan’s territory. This reality underlines the skepticism surrounding the Taliban's counterterrorism commitments, particularly as they host around 20 terrorist groups.
Furthermore, Central Asian countries' growing unease about living next door to the Taliban is justified. The return of the Taliban has revitalized various terrorist networks, which have used the permissive environment in Afghanistan to rearm, recruit, and expand their ideological reach. The U.N. Sanctions Monitoring Team has revealed that terrorist groups have greater maneuverability and are rebuilding their capabilities in an environment that is conducive to growth. Such a scenario has raised legitimate concerns among Afghanistan's neighbors, which must grapple with the implications of an emboldened Taliban and the consequences for regional stability.
Dr. Nishank Motwani is a Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute and an Edward B. Mason Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.
Photo by Mohammad Noori/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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