Withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan has created an anarchic situation in and around the country. Ousting of the Ghani government followed by taking down of territories one by one and ultimately capture of the resistance fortress, Panjshir Valley, by the Taliban has not only accounted for a humanitarian crisis, disruption of peace, denting the already feeble economy but also greater repercussion for the international community. Aftershocks of the U.S. withdrawal were felt the most by Kabul’s immediate neighbors in varying degree in light of their national interests, engagement with the former government and shift in policies towards the current government. The five-phased Taliban emergence, evolution and resurgence is intertwined with the contemporary situation in Afghanistan. Even though the Taliban fought the U.S. and coalition forces for over two decades, the group was able to survive rather stay aloft during the extended crisis. In the current scenario, the Taliban face several challenges in running the country including ineffective management, lack of institutional capacity, economic constraints, threats from Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and above of non-recognition from international community. Different stakeholders in Afghanistan have responded to the situation by considering multiple factors: Southeast Asian countries have adopted a wait-and-watch approach; China has called for establishing economic and diplomatic (conditional) relations with the new regime; Indian disorientation towards the crisis is evident from its unclear approach whereas the European countries are trying to diffuse the matter indirectly by providing regional countries with financial aid to control the snowballing crisis, especially refugee management, border-management and security threats. It is imperative for Pakistan to focus on low-hanging fruits in the short term including speedy cargo clearances at Torkham border for both transit-trade and exports. For medium to long term engagement with Afghanistan, Pakistan has to opt a wait and see policy and meanwhile have prepared its own strategies. Islamabad’s geostrategic relevance has increased in this context not only for Afghanistan but also for regional and global peace and security. The future course of action for any of the stakeholder involved dependents directly on the Taliban’s evolving foreign policy and engagement making it crucial for the countries to adopt an inclusive, visionary and well-thought out approach.
The Afghan Taliban emerged from the turmoil that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its entanglement in Afghanistan in the 1990s. The Afghan Taliban were not the only political entity in Afghanistan at that time – a vibrant array of some 292 political parties populated the Afghani political landscape but, the Taliban were different. While ascertaining how the Taliban were different from other political parties it would be advantageous to briefly look into the beginnings of the movement itself. The Taliban trace their beginnings to the soviet war in Afghanistan. It is widely understood that they participated with the mujahedeen militias; however, in hindsight, though members like Mullah Omer participated in the war their actual impact was not consequential. The true rise of the Afghan Taliban can be observed in the aftermath of the soviet war, specifically in the countless refugee camps scattered in the surrounding areas of the Pakistan – Afghanistan border.
The withdrawal of Soviet forces and the subsequent fall of the government plunged the country into a state of chaos. The former Mujahideen commanders fractured the country into fiefdoms and fought over influence and control. This period most commonly known as the warlord era took a high toll on the populace at large and thus created a vacuum for a national movement to steer the country out of the crisis it had found itself in. The Taliban movement did not start formally through the educated Islamists from the Al-Azhar cadre that preceded the Taliban rather took momentum under the leadership of a cleric, Mullah Omer, in response to local injustices surrounding him. Initially, the raison d’etre of the Taliban was a reprimanding corrupt local warlord; however, with massive acceptance Mullah Omer and his students (Talibs) gained considerable momentum.
Michael Semple argues that the Taliban have evolved through 5 phases the first being the formation phase from 1994 to 1996. Where, in only two years, the movement’s numbers swelled to such a degree that they could challenge Kabul itself. It is worth noting that most of the recruits, at that time, originated from the aforementioned refugee camps in Pakistan.The second phase per se started with the Taliban gaining power in Kabul and most of Afghanistan in 1996 to the eventual fall of the regime in 2001. These years saw the Taliban forming a government under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and continued efforts to suppress any remaining resistance in the country. Continuous civil war in the country damaged the already weak infrastructure it possessed for development. Basic amenities such as clean water, electricity, telecommunications and logistical infrastructure were practically nonexistent in the country.
It is pertinent to mention that the regime had given sanctuary to Saudi billionaire, Osama Bin Ladin (OBL), who in the 1980s had played a vital role in providing financial and logistical support to the Mujahideen. Following the disintegration of Soviet Union, shift in the United States (U.S.) policy towards Mujahideen together with the renewed American approach towards Middle East, OBL formed a transnational terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda (AQ) to combat the U.S and support any entity against it. For the Taliban, this came in the form of financial and technical support.
Even though the Taliban provided safe havens to OBL and AQ to recruit, train and conduct operations, they were neither able to foresee the twin-tower bombings nor its implications on their regime. The initial response was that of outrage towards OBL at the blatant abuse of hospitality the Taliban had provided. The senior Taliban leadership was divided on the matter where majority of them viewed any compromise with the U.S. would translate into capitulation. However, many of them proposed handing over of OBL. The Taliban proposed handing over of OBL to another Islamic country for trial before a multinational Islamic court.This response clearly demonstrated the lack of foresight to how the U.S. might respond. the Taliban were convinced that the U.S. would only resort to a limited response whereas Washington treated this as casus-belli to initiate Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001and by November the Taliban were on the run. An interim government was established by virtue of the Bonn agreement in December effectively ending the Taliban rule.
The Taliban after being rooted out of power started to regroup and launched an insurgency against the NATO coalition and the new Afghan government in 2002. This new wave of insurgency started gained momentum in 2003. Washington’s strategy to accomplish quick military objectives led it to partner with influential local individuals and groups who were aiming to capture the state apparatus for personal gain. These factions included politicians, warlords, and semi-warlords who fought over shares of the state and monopolized access to the government, foreign forces, and resources, including contracts with those same forces. This in turn, lead to the endemic corruption that haunted the succussing regimes as well. The Taliban launched a string of guerilla attacks on the coalition forces employing deadly tactics such as suicide attacks and by 2006 started regaining territory specifically in the south of the country. These gains coincided with and were a result of Washington’s focus on Iraq that diverted its due-attention from Afghanistan.
The fourth phase which may be cited as ranging from 2007 to 2014 saw a continuation of the insurgency. With an upsurge in terrorist activities, between 2009 and 2011, the coalition forces were forced to increase their numbers to a staggering 140,000 soldiers –where 100,000 soldiers were provided by Washington– and multiple attempts were also made for negotiations between the Taliban and the then Afghan government. Under the Obama administration, several attempts lead to no fruitful yields. In 2015, Pakistan and China were engaged to conduct peace-talks and to negotiate a deal for Afghanistan. However, those engagements also went in vain. Even though the NATO operations ended and all security responsibilities were given to the Afghan government, the Taliban kept on gaining ground and by the time the Trump administration took charge the Taliban were running a parallel administration and, in many areas, out administered the sitting government.
It can be argued that the fifth phase of the Taliban movement began with the Trump administration. In 2018, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that the government was ready and willing to sit at the negotiation table with the Taliban and also recognize them as a legitimate political entity; however, the Taliban refused as they maintained that the Afghan government was not a legitimate government rather was a foreign puppet. The Taliban saw the U.S. as a counterpart, not the Afghan government. In February 2019, the American and Taliban delegates met in Doha, Qatar, for peace talks for the first time. The lengthy negotiation process lasted for a year and in February 2020 a peace deal was signed between the Taliban and the U.S. This deal amounted to an active ceasefire which was only applicable to foreign troops the Taliban continued to target government forces and a withdrawal date for the remaining American troops.
The war-torn country has remained under flux from last four decades. The stakeholders in Afghanistan including the current Taliban regime have failed to restore peace in the country. The political settlement plan laid down by Washington and signed with the Taliban, “agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan”, failed to an extent that violence in the country against civilians and Afghan security forces increased after the first direct talks between Taliban and former Afghan government’s representatives.
With political and economic challenges compounding at a high pace, the security crisis in the country is worsening by each passing day. The Taliban are facing strong resistance from other power poles in the country such as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). One of the key mandate of the Taliban has been to protect women and children in the country which is being targeted by ISKP. The group has launched multiple attacks to derail peace in the country in order to be heard for power-sharing.
Withdrawal of the U.S. security forces and NATO troops from Afghanistan left behind a weak and fragile government under former President Ashraf Ghani who fled the country shortly after the Taliban started closing in and around Kabul. Similarly, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were also unable to cope up with the incoming attacks or even to hold the fortress long enough against the Taliban. The gradual occupation of different cities by the Taliban and ultimately the fall of Kabul overpowered ANSF across the country. The Taliban further augmented their position after ousting the resistance movement from their strongest foothold in Panjshir province on September 06, 2021. Armed clashes and security-related incidents witnessed a spike of 37.8% and 25.6% respectively.
Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker marks the crisis in Afghanistan as “worsening” and its impact on the U.S. interests are termed “critical.” One of the primary reason behind the deteriorating condition is attached to the armed-clashes among the Taliban, Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported integration of AQ forces in Taliban’s ad command structure in 2020 to conduct covert operations with maximum impact. According to the DIA, the settlement is a win-win situation for both parties whereby AQ gets leverage of operating across the country and the Taliban face lesser resistance as a whole. Activities of ISKP against the Taliban regime validate the aforementioned argument. The most lethal terrorist attacks conducted at Kabul’s biggest military hospital since the Taliban took power was claimed by ISKP. The two bomb explosions were followed by assault by ISKP fighters killing around 25 people and leaving more than 50 injured. Kabul based international reporters have expressed concerns over the Taliban’s capacity to restore peace, implement inclusive policies and normalize situation across the country.
Moreover, as highlighted in Figure 2, ISKP is active in six provinces of Afghanistan especially Kabul, Nangarhar and Kunar where the operations of the group have greater impact. To remain strategically relevant, ISKP has conducted several terror attacks in these three provinces to achieve dual-objectives both strategic and hybrid. In wake of this strategy, the most recent attack carried out by ISKP killed one person and injured six others. The twin blasts targeted a Hazara Shiite Mosque in Kabul; the group has made use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VIEDs) and direct assaults through their fighters. This ongoing rivalry between the Taliban and ISKP has direct implications on the security of not only Afghanistan but regional countries as well. As a known-fact, ISKP is a well-organized, well-equipped and well-trained group with international linkages which it uses to make significant impact when it comes to its operations. The group not only gains funding from foreign sources but also material support in the form of arms, ammunition, training and above all active intelligence enabling it to pose serious threat to the Taliban regime.
Afghanistan is a mix bag; constituting both opportunities and challenges for Pakistan.
Challenge part is immediate and imminent, rather hitting the door, while the opportunity part is not readily available, we have to carve it out in medium to short term, and nonetheless Pakistan has its limits and capacity to do that. A peaceful and politically stable Afghanistan is requisite not only for the economic wellbeing of its own people, but for the economic and political stability of its neighbors and the broader region. Thus, a stable and peaceful Afghanistan seems is the only option for Pakistan.
Afghanistan is a fluid situation; fluidity not only poses risks especially from economic point of view but also increases the risks associated with regional peace. An economic collapse in Kabul’s backyard means a direct threat to Pakistan’s peace and economic stability. It is worth stating that due to instability in Afghanistan and ensuing terrorism since 2001, Pakistan’s economy has to bear the losses to the tube of $103 billion and hundred and thousand lost their precious lives. We will be mainly focusing the economic challenges. It is critical to recall the size of Afghanistan’s economy. According to World Bank’s latest data, Afghanistan’s GDP is $20 Billion and the same has quintupled since 2002. Main driver of the growth was generous inflows of foreign aid, NATO spending and US institutional (financial) support to have a centralized government at Kabul. To begin with, this section will focus on the challenges and the probable opportunities where opportunities are intertwined with the challenges.
Institutional void is very visible in Afghanistan which is an economically impoverished country. Country needs a functional state and workable power framework to increase its economic resources. Nonetheless, on the economic front the foremost challenge being faced by the Afghanistan is declining revenues and frozen assets. Similarly, donor’s funding/humanitarian aid and grants that constituted approximately 75% of the Afghan government revenue and least 40% of the Afghanistan’s GDP has been halted since August 2021. Afghanistan’s Central Bank’s assets of $9.5 Billion parked in US financial institution (New York Federal Reserve and commercial banks) were frozen by the US administration (because Taliban’s are on the sanctions of US treasury) immediately led to seizure of cash shipments/inflows to Afghanistan. As of date the assets remain frozen and any unfreezing of these assets may take months or years. This also means that now Afghanistan’s Central Bank has lost its ability to manage the foreign exchange regime in the country.
Similarly, International Monetary Fund (IMF) has blocked the Taliban’s access to $440 million special drawing rights. Afghanistan need an internationally recognize regime to access the frozen credit sources. This has implications for Afghanistan’s balance of payment management and financing for critical imports. Another financial setback was suspension of developmental aid by the US, Germany and other countries. In 2019, US donor agencies spent approximately $5 billion and Germany pledged to send $ 300-500 million for 2021 which has been suspended now. Multilateral development institution, the World Bank, followed the US and IMF and paused the release of funds to the tune of $400 million.
The freeze of funds and suspension of aid has created a spending slump in Afghanistan. Its own currency is out of print due to lack of capacity and resources. Liquidity in banks and markets has dried-up. Whatever local currency was available, people rushed to get it convert in US Dollar and Euros. This has directly impacted the currency market of the Pakistan and according to media reports, Pakistan’s currency market is under severe pressure due to higher dollar demand in Afghanistan as Pakistan-based dollar is being taken to Afghanistan. Thus, to have a stable currency market in Pakistan, it is critical that Afghanistan get access to its resources and funding from donors.
Second major challenge is food. Country was going through severe drought in the midst of pandemic (COVID-19) even before the US withdrawal. According to World Food Program (WFP), only 5% of Afghan families have adequate food to meet every day requirements. People living in rural areas and urban slums are even more vulnerable. As per WFP statistics, approximately 14 million Afghans would face starvation soon while UNICEF has highlighted that acute malnutrition would hit 1 million Afghan children in 2021. In this context, Pakistan was first-responder to help the Afghan population. According to Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, three C-130s containing food supplies were dispatched to Afghanistan. After the first immediate tranche through the air, further supplies would continue through land routes. Islamabad has sent 300-tonnes of edibles to Afghanistan including 190-tonnes of flour, 65-tonnes of sugar, 31-tonnes of rice, 11-tonnes of cooking oil and other products were shipped to different locations in Afghanistan via Torkham border in September 2021.
Financial constraints apart, Taliban’s ability to respond the multifarious crises has increased manifold due to brain drain of experienced managers. Food crisis in Afghanistan means there will be severe pressure on Pakistan’s wheat, rice and other food items. Pakistan is heavily subsidizing wheat at home to shield the people from starvation as global wheat prices have increased multifold and Pakistan’s local production is not sufficient to meet the needs. Pakistan cannot afford that imported wheat subsided the government end up in Afghanistan, this is not at all sustainable for Pakistan. Moreover, sugar and other foodstuff high in demand in Afghanistan may create shortage in Pakistan. Afghanistan is a net-food since ages and same is for energy. Pakistan, too, has become net-food importer in recent times.
Therefore, GOP must have to act very rationally, we can only feed the Afghan people if our own population has already eaten and have surplus food. In a recent meeting at Moscow, Pakistan, China and Russia have pledged to help Afghanistan, however, Afghanistan’s needs are big. Pakistan can help to certain extent in collaboration with international agencies/community but alone cannot substitute the international financial muscle offered by the rich north of the world mainly constituted of multilateral institutions, regional financial frameworks and aids/grants. Although China is big economic player both internationally and regionally, but it lacks the institutional mechanisms available under established liberal economic order.
Afghanistan can engage neighbor and regional countries beneficially nonetheless. Afghanistan’s geographic connectivity and minerals (Aynak Copper and Hajigak Iron-ore deposit) have a combined potential (of up to $3 Trillion – according to some reports) to generate billions of dollars both for Afghan government as source of revenue and for investor as source of profits. However, to turn potential into tangible revenues from the mineral sector requires huge investments with longer gestation periods. Investors will land Afghanistan once the country has had addressed its challenges (international recognition, political, legal/regulatory) and offer a stable state of affairs. Contrary to media perceptions, Chinese are not roaming with brief cases full of equity to invest in Afghanistan with the current state of affairs. Nonetheless, China’s role as investors to explore the mineral & mines, copper & metals can’t be precluded in the medium to long run.
Afghanistan is key to transnational and trans-regional connectivity. Several infrastructure and energy connectivity initiatives (rail, roads, gas pipelines and electricity transmission pipelines) are under process. Pakistan can greatly benefit by these initiatives i.e. CASA-1000, TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan & India Gas Pipeline), TAP (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan)-500 Transmission Line , Trans-Asian Railway Network, Five Nations Railway Corridor, Lapis Lazuli Corridor, Trans-Hindukush Road Connectivity, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Economic Corridor connecting KP with Afghanistan which would also serve as an extension of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. Pakistan is already offering its Ports to Afghanistan udder Transits trade arrangements and there is lot of room to further enhance the trade relations.
Nonetheless, all economic activity is dependent upon a stable and recognized regime in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has not given some special status to Pakistan and the Taliban are talking to everyone on economic cooperation. Pakistan may face a competition in this regard but the road connectivity with Afghanistan would act as a leveraging point for the country. Along with above listed investment-cooperation opportunity, the potential of trade between the two countries is quite high. Trade has dwindled in the recent years but Pakistan has the surplus and infrastructure to trade with Afghanistan. This is again a big opportunity but needs a detailed homework and policy frameworks to translate the opportunity into a tangible gain. Pakistan and Afghanistan can trade in Pakistan rupee, can barter and extend the transit up to central Asia.
Hundreds of Southeast Asian nationals have fought in the many conflicts that have rocked the Middle East and Central Asia in the past three decades. Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia have seen hundreds of their citizen travel to the Middle East along with a small number of Filipinos and Singaporeans. The migrants included people from all age groups, who moved to the Middle East to join Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the Middle East. Now that the Taliban are back in power, governments fear another wave will ensue.
Religious radicalism has increased among Southeast Asian citizens since the 1990s. This trend can be seen with the surge of terrorist organizations that are still active today. Jemaah Islamiyah, and its offshoots Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah are active in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia and have links with Al-Qaeda. In the Philippines, where over 90% of the population follow Christianity, Philippine-based terrorist groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf remain operative across the region.
Terrorist activities have surged in the past decades, particularly during the 2000s and early 2010s. Although Southeast Asia has not suffered as many terrorist attacks as the Middle East, Central Asia, or South Asia, the region still remembers several deadly terrorist attacks throughout the region such as the 2002 Bali bombings, some of them were perpetrated in response to the US-led war on terror.
Return of the Taliban has instantly increased fears of returnees, activation of sleeper cells and possible terrorist attacks. The Taliban’s swift power recovery has boosted the morale of many Muslim insurgent groups across Southeast Asia, to the point that some have issued congratulatory messages to the Taliban. Most militants and sympathizers saw the Fall of Kabul as a victory of Islam over the West-imposed narrative. Although the Taliban victory does not pose an immediate threat to these countries, it could embolden militants to travel to Afghanistan to train, get equipped, move back and conduct activities in the Southeast Asian countries. Thus, Afghanistan might serve as a safe haven for terrorists. Southeast Asia will remain watchful for any suspicious activity or any blatant attempts to remove the Taliban from power, as those could spur Southeast Asian-based terrorist organizations to commit attacks in revenge.
Withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan has opened room for Russia, China, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are aiming to exercise a more decisive regional influence. Therefore, this shift is likely to lead ASEAN to strengthen its security partnership with SCO member states. SCO’s Security Council plays an active role in negotiating with the Taliban, ensuring security for its members, and receiving much-needed intelligence to counter extremism. In light of this, ASEAN, an official guest at SCO meetings, could be looking to a more compenetrated cooperation with Russia and China in terms of security.
Southeast Asian governments closely followed unfolding of the events in Afghanistan. The Fall of Kabul has been seen both as a warning and an opportunity. On one hand, the U.S. botched withdrawal made a dent in the perceived image of strength Washington maintained in the region. China’s remarks on how the event showed the U.S.’ lack of commitment towards its allies reinforced that perception. Ahead of the U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris’ visit to Vietnam, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh reiterated its neutrality in the China-U.S. rivalry during a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo. In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong downplayed the hasty withdrawal of Washington from Afghanistan. However, he also implied that Southeast Asia could shift its perception vis-à-vis U.S. subject to Washington’s future course of action.
On the other hand, the U.S. shift towards Asia and its withdrawal from Afghanistan with reduction of troops in Middle East has increased the chances of engagement among Washington and the ASEAN member states. Most Southeast Asian countries have long-standing diplomatic ties with Washington and rely heavily on security, investment, and trade with the U.S. ASEAN leaders hope that the current American government will not leave the region as tensions with China mount in the South China Sea and the terrorist threat heightens.
The U.S. is strengthening its commitment to counter China’s rising presence. To do so, Biden administration has raised the number of high-level visits to the region for countering Chinese presence. Along with Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in August, Defense Secretary Loyd Austin and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have visited six Southeast Asian countries since May 2021. Washington’s latest pledge to focus on Asia has already borne fruit with the complete restoration of the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement and the donation of 23 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines. When it comes to countering terrorism, Harris reiterated the U.S. commitment to continue collaborating with ASEAN and national governments in security matters.
Beijing views Afghanistan as an unstable neighbor with the potential to wreak havoc in its western flank. In order to rid resource-rich Xinjiang of the “three evils” —namely separatism, terrorism, and extremism— China has engaged with the Taliban since it first rose to power in 1996. However, claims that the Taliban provided safe haven to Uighur separatist organization leaders from Xinjiang and enticing religious extremism among the Uighur Muslim minority strained bilateral relations.
The protracted war in Afghanistan that ensued in 2001 heightened regional instability and affected Beijing’s interests in neighboring countries such as Pakistan. Moreover, growing instability meant its efforts to quell extremism and religious sentiment among the Uighurs were threatened. The war also increased the presence of Western powers in the region, which continues to remain one of the biggest concern for Beijing. The large NATO and U.S.’ military presence at its doorstep, notwithstanding, the Chinese government was content that Western powers were waging war against the Taliban and established a new government.
However, China-Afghanistan relations have benefited since the beginning of the war. As Western troops were committed to providing security and engaging in nation-building, China’s policy of non-interference in domestic affairs kept Beijing out of the action. Meanwhile, China was intent on strengthening cooperation and furthering its commercial and security interests in the country. Since Beijing reopened its Kabul embassy in 2002, bilateral relations have flourished: Beijing has provided over $650 million in financial aid since the early 2000s, and in 2012 both countries launched the China-Afghanistan Strategic and Cooperative Partnership.
With the U.S. out of the country and its influence in Afghanistan at its lowest, China wants to take advantage of the vacuum left behind. Beijing has stepped up as the primary stakeholder in several other fields. In order to secure its interests and nationals abroad, Chinese government officials are being dispatched all over the world to negotiate with world leaders regardless of the regimes they represent. Not being bound by democratic rules has allowed China to engage with countries blacklisted by international institutions like Iran, North Korea, and Myanmar. Currently, this policy is being employed in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Not only that, China is also increasing its engagements with opposition actors to forge bonds with future leaders. In Afghanistan, this strategy was witnessed when Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, met with Taliban leaders almost two months before their access to power. Despite their bad international reputation, China’s willingness to engage with the Taliban granted Beijing a step ahead in the demise of Ashraf Ghani’s government. Chinese nationals started their evacuation in early July, unlike other countries, which started evacuating their citizens last minute as the Taliban were seizing more territory by the day.
China is willing to engage with the newly-established Taliban government. The commitment seems to go both ways. In early September, mere weeks after seizing the government, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid referred to China as their main partner. Mujahid added that China “represents a great opportunity for us because it is ready to invest in our country and support reconstruction efforts.” Although over 200 Chinese nationals fled the country, the Chinese embassy in Kabul remains operative, along with the Russian and Pakistani ones.
The landlocked country is of significant relevance for China’s interests in the region for three main reasons. First, Afghanistan’s untapped reserves of natural resources prove highly beneficial for China’s growing energy needs which is complemented by Chinese capacity to explore and utilize such massive reservoirs. Chinese Jiangxi Copper and Metallurgical Corp of China have pledged to continue constructing the Mes Aynak copper mine they acquired in 2008 for a 30-year lease. The strategic location of Afghanistan in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) roadmap serves as another reason to enhance the country’s importance geopolitically and geo-economically. Despite the country’s ongoing instability and insecurity from militant Islamist organizations stalling several projects, China intends to involve Afghanistan in the BRI.
Lastly, there is the security component. Beijing seeks the Taliban’s assurance that the country will not host terrorists or Islamist fundamentalist organizations that threaten China’s integrity, like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). However, Beijing remains wary of the Taliban’s promises and is intent on engaging Pakistan to secure the Taliban’s commitment. Moreover, the Taliban has radical factions that could disregard agreements with China due to Beijing’s anti-Muslim policies in Xinjiang. Despite the Taliban’s promises to crack down on terrorism, China wonders if indeed no more ETIM members are left in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s quick take-over by the Taliban not only shocked the international community but also posed challenges to its immediate neighbors especially India. Announcement of its cabinet by the Taliban which included former Afghan Jihad leaders and Haqqanis became more worrisome for New Delhi. This is because New Delhi accuses Islamabad of allegedly having close relations with the Haqqani network which is a hardliner proponent of global jihad. This is attached to potential Haqqani support to the Kashmiri resistance movement in Illegal Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K). Indian analysts are of the view that Pakistan has secured the best-available opportunity to “build whatever it wants to build” in the country which gives rise to a “significant challenge” for India in future.
Over the years, India has strongly held an anti-Taliban stance in Afghanistan most evident during the conflict of Panjshir Valley when India strongly supported the anti-Taliban resistance headed by Amrullah Saleh and Ahmed Shah Masood.
New Delhi’s policy towards Afghanistan is on a see-saw because of the mixed views coming from Kabul. Initially, the Taliban stated to maintain healthy relations with its neighbors marking Kashmir Dispute as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. However, they also announced support for the Kashmir dispute. Indian is also concerned over Chinese renewed policy towards the Afghan Taliban in wake of doing business with them. India considers the vacuum left by the U.S. as a strategic opportunity for China to act sidelining Indian influence in the country: Beijing can easily fulfil the foreign assistance worth $5.5 billion required by the Taliban as was given to the former governments by many countries. For India, the Afghanistan crisis has circled the country in a three-front threat landscape: an Islamist pro-Pakistan regime in its northwest, a nuclear-armed arch-rival in its west and a hostile superpower to its northeast.
New Delhi established a political partnership with Kabul to secure its strategic interests which was facilitated by Washington. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inclination towards India was highly influenced by Trump administration which was shown in the form of an aggressive posture towards Pakistan. India used the allied government in Afghanistan to engage its intelligence agencies for stirring insurgency, extremism, militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. Over the years, India has made a hefty investment in Afghanistan. It has reconstructed many cities and villages in the country including the construction of roads, dams, schools and hospitals. The estimated worth of these projects is around $3billion. India has taken up development projects in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan that contributes to 400+ projects in the country.
In recent years, the bilateral trade between the two countries saw an upsurge: bilateral trade for FY2019-2020 reached $1.5 billion as per the Indian government statistics. In just the last year, Indian exports to Afghanistan touched $1 billion mark while the imports from Afghanistan were worth $530 million. Interestingly, it has been observed that the Indian exports to Afghanistan were recorded more than 89% while the imports in the same duration were 72%. These imports from India mainly included electronic items, sugar and confectionaries, iron and steel articles and medical products and exports consisted of nuts, melons, resins, spices coffee and tea as the highest value export items in 2019.
In October 2021, following the 10-nation meeting in Moscow, India extended an offer to the Taliban for the first time – since they took over – to provide them with humanitarian aid and development to stabilize the country. India is opting to build a working relationship with the Taliban government to neutralize the self-assumed threats that might emanate from Afghanistan. Although New Delhi is weighing the odds for establishing long-term relation with the Taliban, it is focusing more on economic relationship. With many Indian reports highlighting grave concerns shown by the Modi government over Taliban’s take-over of the country, it is evident that India feels irrelevant in the region after American withdrawal. New Delhi is engaging all of its direct and back-door diplomatic channels to re-emerge as a significant power in the country. Indian military is also facing immense pressure to regain its position and is pursuing a proactive approach to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. and coalition forces. In short, India is in a cumbersome situation reluctant to recognize Afghanistan’s new reality that has appeared abruptly.
Doha has remained one of the most active and influential leader throughout the peace-talks and Afghanistan crisis as a whole. Doha has strategically placed its card by carefully weighing all the options. This balanced approach has helped Qatar to not only develop close relations with the Taliban but also strengthen its ties with the U.S and Western countries. Qatar’s emergence as a key player in this crisis is attached to two primary factors: (i) provision of the largest military base in Middle East to the U.S. and (ii) giving political refuge to Taliban leaders. Qatar’s mediatory role in brokering deals between the U.S. and the Taliban has remained effective: in 2014, exchange of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with five Taliban prisoners held in Guantanamo bay is a litmus test.
Maintenance of a political office by the Taliban in Doha shows that the group relies heavily on the country. For its naval network, the military base provided by Qatar is crucial for Washington to ensure its presence in the Middle East. Given these facts, it is also highlighted that the Taliban have developed close relations with Qatar due to which the country’s impartiality is challenged. For Qatar, it has become important to maintain its neutrality.
Up till now, Qatar has not recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan and has announced that it is not a priority rather providing humanitarian aid is. Mutlaq Al-Qahtani, Special Envoy of the Qatari Foreign Minister, advised the international community to start engagement with the de facto authority ruling Afghanistan and build a safer environment for the Afghan people while he also stressed that the Taliban must act responsibly. Qatar is also extending various kind of support to the Taliban government for conducting an inclusive approach to decide future of the country. While differences have rose between Qatari government and the Taliban regime on issues such as providing education to girls, safety of people etc., Doha remains active in diffusing the situation and conclude this issue.
The complex internal and external dynamics of Afghanistan are intertwined with regional and extra-regional stakeholders spanning across the diplomatic, economic and security domains. Afghanistan’s internal landscape is essentially security-led where different contenders are actively competing with each other to gain maximum strength and top position in the structural hierarchy. This has not only posed direct threat to the existing regime, institutions, and the population but also to Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors in the form of a chaotic environment. Foreign policies of the regional countries have clearly seen a gradual transformation – based on ground realities and predictive analysis – helping them to adjust conveniently. When it comes to the international actors, inability to assess the threat mosaic has created a rather strenuous situation for them. The international community is redirecting its future course of action to adopt best possible ways to engage with the Taliban regime – considering that most of them have unanimously labeled them terrorists. Despite the fact that Afghanistan holds great economic and connectivity importance for many countries including China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Eastern European countries and the Central Asian Republics, threats emanating from the country cannot be ignored.
The prevailing economic conditions of Afghanistan does not allow the Taliban government to spend overly on the country’s development. The financial constraints are coupled with ineffective management, lack of institutional capacity, food and health crisis which pose a larger challenge to the country as well as those countries conducting trade with Afghanistan. Here, sustainable peace and stability becomes very important to achieve both in short and long term. On one hand, multiple economic opportunities are present not only for Pakistan but for other countries to tap onto. However, lack of vision and differing policies of the stakeholders involved are contributing to even more complexities and difficulties in terms of cultivating these opportunities. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly imperative for individual countries to adopt tailored approaches to the situation in Afghanistan in the backdrop of their geopolitical and geostrategic condition. In this regard, Pakistan has to focus on low hanging fruits in the short term which include allowing Afghan students an easy visa access, speedy cargo clearances at Torkham for both transit-trade and exports. Pakistan must allow medical facilities access to Afghan people on priority basis. For medium to long term engagement with Afghanistan, Pakistan has to opt a wait and see policy and meanwhile have prepared its own strategies.
When it comes to the security landscape, the scale and number of terrorist attacks continue to rise posing direct questions at ability of the Taliban to cope up with the worsening situation. Even though the future is hard to predict, it remains evident that the Taliban will face strong opposition from other stakeholders present in the country. In this regard, ISKP remains the most eminent threat against the Taliban regime. Presence of the Taliban across the country cannot be questioned as seen during the events which led to the Fall of Kabul and Panjshir Valley. However, with ISKP becoming more active, the neighboring countries must remain vigilant and implement strict border management measures in order to refrain from cross-border mover of the terrorists and conduct of international terrorist activities.
Mr. Sarmad Ali Khan is Founder of IIGSA. He is associated with Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, USA as a Policy Researcher. Earlier, Mr. Khan worked at South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) University as a Research Fellow. He has multiple research publications to his credit ranging from book chapters, research papers, and technical reports to white papers. Mr. Khan has been actively engaged with various international think tanks notably SIPRI, TASAM and technical institutes such as BI-MGT. He holds an M.Phil Degree in International Relations from Bahira University, Islamabad Campus. His areas of research include Cyberspace Strategic Competition between U.S and China, Transforming Deterrence Stability in South Asia & Emergence of New Security Alliances in Asia Pacific.
Dr. Shazia Ghani is a consultant to the Federal Government of Pakistan on BRI & CPEC. She is also associated with Grenoble Center for Research on Economy, France as a Research Associate. Being expert in financial liberalization, financial crisis, China’s economy & financial system, & global financial order, Dr. Ghani has published with Routledge London (2016) about financial systems & Challenges of Emerging Economies. Her current research & policy work focus on studying the Shifts in the Global Financial Order, Rise of China & the Belt & Road Initiative. She was founding Team Lead in the prestigious Prime Minister’s Performance Delivery Unit (2014-18). Dr. Ghani completed her PhD in Economics (2013) from France (with specialization in global financial crisis & system regulations) with distinction from jury. She holds MS in International Political Economy & Globalization (2009) from France & Masters in Economics from University of the Punjab.
Ms. Marta Nuevo Falguera is a Political Analyst working with an international security company. Her work focuses on foreign policy, security, and international conflicts in Asia-Pacific. She also contributes articles about Asian politics to the Spanish magazine El-Orden Mundial and other media outlets. Ms. Falguera holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Ramón Llull-Blanquerna University & a Diploma in International Conflict Management from Utrecht University. During her undergraduate studies, she studied abroad in the U.K. and Japan. Ms. Falguera is a member of the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Netherlands.
Ms. Noor-ul-Huda is a Research Officer at International Institute for Global Strategic Analysis. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electronics from COMSATS & has completed her MS in Peace and Conflict Studies from NUST which gives a broad perspective to her research in Space Militarization & Space Security. Her main research interest is in Emergent Alternative Technologies in Global Security Architecture. She also has a keen interest in defence, international security and nuclear coercion. She is a regular presenter at International Conference on Aerospace Science & Engineering (ICASE) & is well versed on Space Programs of India & Pakistan being the focus of her publications.
Mr. Muhammad Hashim Zafar is currently working as an editor at The Conflicted. Mr. Zafar has a rich experience in academic research previously having worked at the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute. His key areas of interest include the geo political dynamics of Afghanistan, the region and counter terrorism. He has an LLB form the University of London.