Taliban’s hyper-nationalism is complicating ties with Afghanistan’s neighbours
The political environment of the West Asian geography has been jolted by the rapid take over of Afghanistan by the Taliban movement. As the government of Ashraf Ghani and its state structures melted within a matter of weeks and one-time insurgents became the de facto rulers, Afghanistan’s neighbours were faced with a quandary over how to engage with the new rulers in Kabul.
In the 1990s except for Pakistan -Taliban’s main patron- no other Afghan neighbour had a cordial relationship with the first Taliban regime and the leadership of the Northern Alliance was supported politically and militarily by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. The post-9/11 political order saw a normalization of the relationship between Afghanistan and its northern and western neighbours as their trusted political clients and warlords returned to positions of power in this new political setup.
With political fortunes changing in favour of Taliban, Afghan neighbours apart from Tajikistan - riled by the Talib military takeover of Panjsher - approached the new Taliban regime with a degree of caution but also pragmatism. They were further encouraged by the Taliban government’s assurance that nobody would be allowed to use Afghan soil against them. At that moment the common denominator shared by all these states vis-à-vis Afghanistan was stability as chaos inside Afghanistan’s borders would have eventually impacted the whole neighbourhood. Another key issue that resonated across all these regional actors was containing a new refugee wave coming from Afghanistan. Finally, these states wanted a new political arrangement in Afghanistan that would have retained their respective political proxies in one form or another.
After more than four months as the Taliban government’s policy and governance outlook has become clearer, these neighbouring states are compelled to revise their estimates of Taliban if not their respective Afghanistan policy outlook.
Regardless of these developments Pakistan has continued its efforts to facilitate engagement between the Taliban government and various regional and global stakeholders.
In the case of Pakistan, the Taliban takeover of Kabul was strategically a welcome move as it led to the ouster of the Pro-India Ghani government. This also meant a termination of Indian presence and influence within Afghanistan at least in the short term. However, the new Taliban government has started locking horns with Pakistan on the fencing of the Pak-Afghan border by Pakistan’s security forces.
Taliban officials have not only shown reservations on this fencing activity, but their local cadres have removed or destroyed fencing infrastructure. It appears that the Taliban leadership is attempting to gain domestic political capital by flagging the fence issue while subsequently complicating its relationship with Pakistan. Regardless of these developments Pakistan has continued its efforts to facilitate engagement between the Taliban government and various regional and global stakeholders. The emergency summit of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) States foreign ministers in Islamabad further attests to the fact that Taliban’s outlook on fencing and the nature of Pak-Afghan border has not changed Pakistan’s approach towards their government at least for now.
With regards to Iran, there appeared to be some friction between the two sides initially. The Taliban military operations in Panjsher valley irked the Iranian government and in particular Iranian reformists who have taken a strong anti-Taliban position. Furthermore, Taliban’s first list of cabinet members didn’t include any of Iran’s interlocutors in the movement which further constrained bilateral ties. However, the inclusion of Iran leaning commanders in the Taliban cabinet and Taliban’s working relationship with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has meant a gradual rehabilitation of ties though this didn’t stop Taliban local cadres from clashing with Iranian border guards. Most recently, Iranian attempts to mediate between National Resistance Front (NRF) leader Ahmed Massoud and Taliban bore fruit resulting in a meeting between Taliban’s foreign minister and Massoud.
Taliban’s relationship with their Central Asian neighbours since August has also witnessed ups and downs. Tajikistan clearly viewed the Taliban return as a negative development and gave asylum to fleeing Afghan troops and Air Force pilots alongside their planes. Uzbekistan reluctantly also accepted these security personnel but also kept communication lines open with the Taliban. More significantly, Uzbekistan kept on supplying electricity to the Afghan national grid. However, Taliban’s sudden demand from Uzbekistan to return the former Afghan Air Force’s planes has given Uzbek authorities a reality check resulting in Uzbekistan reducing power supply by 60%. Turkmenistan has also been engaging with Taliban in a bid to restart the stalled Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project. Just like incidents on Iran and Pakistan borders, Taliban border guards also had an altercation with Turkmen forces again showing again a proclivity by Taliban cadres to settle border disputes by force rather than diplomatic means.
The Taliban government clearly is trying to shore up its legitimacy within Afghans within Afghanistan and worldwide by taking a stern stance on issues relating to Afghan sovereignty and territorial integrity. Yet, this militarised hyper-nationalism if not curtailed will eventually alienate the Taliban government from its neighbours, ending chances of a wider recognition by the global community.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89