Taliban foreign policy poses risks at home and abroad
File Photo: Pakistani Army troops patrol along the fence on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan at the hilltop post at Big Ben in Khyber District, Pakistan | Photo credit: AP
On January 10, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, sought to reassure his country’s neighbors of the new Afghan government’s commitment to peace. “We are not creating insecurity or other problems for anyone,” Muttaqi said in a video message. “Everyone can come freely and live.”
Yet despite the soothing words, the Taliban’s foreign policy, if you can call it that, has so far failed to win over supporters. From its closest ally Pakistan to other friendly countries surrounding Afghanistan – such as Iran, China and Central Asian states – the Taliban struggles to maintain good neighborly relations. This is as troubling for Afghanistan abroad as it is for Afghans at home.
Tensions in relations with Pakistan are the most important. Islamabad has long cultivated the Taliban as an ally, and in December Pakistan even convened an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit to raise funds for Afghanistan. But on the day of the OIC meeting, Taliban border guards prevented their Pakistani counterparts from building fences along the Durand Line, the disputed border between the two countries.
Weeks later, after clashes erupted between Taliban and Pakistani soldiers in two locations, senior Taliban officials affirmed their ban on fencing. While no one expects a united Pashtunistan to become a reality anytime soon, the Taliban, like previous Afghan governments, views the Durand Line as a colonial imposition that has divided Pashtuns on either side.
The threat to Islamabad from the Taliban’s refusal to allow the fences is that it will allow Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to continue to use the disputed border region to step up attacks on the Pakistani state. During their 20-year fight against the former NATO-backed Republican government in Afghanistan, the Taliban sought refuge in TTP-controlled territory along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban released many TTP prisoners from Afghan jails. The TTP, in turn, proclaimed the Taliban a model for its war against Pakistan. Indeed, after the Taliban returned to Kabul, the TTP dramatically escalated attacks on Pakistani security forces. After a month-long ceasefire between the Pakistani military and the TTP ended in December, the latter claimed 45 attacks on Pakistani security forces, killing 117 by the end of the month.
The reluctance of the Taliban to act against the TTP is not only due to an ideological affinity. He also fears that if he cracks down too hard on the TTP, his cadres could switch to the Taliban’s deadly enemy, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), swelling its ranks. Reports already allege that many current ISKP members are former TTP fighters. Moreover, although the pro-Pakistan Haqqani network occupies the most important ministerial posts of the interim government in Kabul, it seems that the Taliban regime, either by internal factionalism or by decided policy, is not beholden to Islamabad. The stage is set for many future turbulences between the two countries.
In western Afghanistan, ties between the Taliban regime and Iran are also fraying. Tehran still refuses to recognize the Taliban government due to its lack of inclusiveness, and Iran has tried to moderate the Taliban’s stance on this. A high-level Taliban delegation visiting Tehran this week met with leaders of the anti-Taliban Afghan National Resistance Front (NRF). Although the Taliban has said NRF leaders could “return to Afghanistan without any worries”, it remains to be seen whether the Taliban create an inclusive government to Tehran’s liking.
Certainly, the Taliban have helped to appease Tehran by allocating ministerial posts to Taliban factions favorable to Iran. However, the relationship remains difficult. In December, clashes erupted between Taliban soldiers and Iranian border police. Tehran is concerned about the flow of refugees to Iran, which is expected to increase as the Afghan economy deteriorates further. Nor has there been a decrease in drug smuggling into Iran from Afghanistan, perhaps because the narcotics trade is critical to the Taliban’s ability to fund its operations.
Moreover, it is suspected that the recent killings of Taliban soldiers in a Shia-dominated district of Kabul were carried out, not by the ISKP, but by members of Iranian-backed Afghan militias. This could be a way for Tehran to show the Taliban that it maintains military assets in the country.
Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors are no less strained. On January 3, Taliban and Turkmenistan border guards exchanged fire, and in October Russia conducted military exercises along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In the same month, China agreed to fund the construction of a border crossing near the Tajik-Afghan border adjoining China’s Xinjiang province – a sign that Beijing does not trust Taliban commitments to prevent the passage of Uyghur militants. in Xinjiang.
The Taliban’s inability to assuage the concerns of its neighbours, as well as recent border clashes, suggest the regime is faction-dominated and incoherent. These fissures could lead to a turf war within the Taliban in the coming months, which in turn will exacerbate the various latent conflicts the Taliban has with Afghanistan’s neighbours.
In the background looms the even more dangerous presence of the ISKP, which could interfere in the security vacuum and make Afghanistan once again a hub of global terrorism. The Taliban’s faltering foreign policy is only the tip of Afghanistan’s challenges, and the region should prepare for more conflicts to come.
In agreement with Syndication Bureau
Dnyanesh Kamat is a guest contributor. The opinions expressed are personal.