Since the formation of the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG), the Taliban and the NUG have been locked in a regional competition. The Taliban has widened its diplomatic relations with Russia, China, Iran, and some Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries as well as international organizations to counter the influence of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s regional anti-terror proposals.
There are several apparent motives behind the Taliban’s outreach: to decrease misperceptions and concerns about the Taliban in an attempt to change international opinion, which is currently stacked against them; to get support for the Taliban’s war against U.S. “occupation”; to negotiate prisoner swaps; and to discuss the Afghan peace process.
The Taliban was apparently successful in winning the hearts and minds of China and Russia. In the trilateral Russia-China-Pakistan meeting held in Moscow in late December, all three countries agreed on a “flexible approach to remove certain figures from sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement.” Two months earlier, Ghani had urged the UN to add Taliban leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada to the sanctions list. Recently, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan also publicly confirmed rumors that Moscow has contacts with the Taliban.
To understand the diplomatic competition between the Taliban and the government in Kabul, this piece looks at Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s three-tiered diplomatic policy, the Taliban’s response, and the current state of the Taliban’s relations with important regional countries.
Ashraf Ghani’s Three-Tiered Strategy
Since assuming the presidency, Ghani has tried a three-tiered diplomatic strategy aimed at ensuring the survival of his government and either cracking down on the insurgency (i.e., the Taliban) or bringing them to the negotiating table.
The First Tier: Mending Ties with the West
Unlike Hamid Karzai’s second term, Ghani’s foreign policy became more pro-West and specifically pro-America. The National Unity Government signed strategic agreements with the United States and NATO within 24 hours of its formation. Moreover, foreign security forces were given permission to re-start night raids, which Karzai (both during his second term and now) disapproves of and harshly criticizes.
In addition, the NUG has also remained noticeably silent on U.S. military attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces. For instance, it has not criticized the U.S. military for the strike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Hospital in Kunduz in October 2015 or for targeting civilians in Kunduz in November 2016. Although the Afghan government issued a few public statements regarding the MSF bombing (for which U.S. President Obama issued an apology) and civilian killings in Kunduz, these remarks were not specifically pointed toward the United States. If these incidents had occurred during Karzai’s second term, he wouldn’t have wasted a single moment criticizing Washington.
The NUG in return influenced Obama’s decisions about withdrawal planning and the number of troops to remain in Afghanistan. Washington and the European Union continued to financially, militarily, and diplomatically support the NUG. For instance, before Ghani’s first visit to the United States in March 2015, a senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the National Security Council said that U.S.-NUG relationship is a “different relationship than we [the U.S and Afghanistan] had under President Karzai.” Obama, standing beside Ghani in a joint press conference, said that his Afghan counterpart’s “life reflects, in many ways, the friendship and mutual respect between Americans and Afghans.” He also expressed hope that Ghani’s visit would be “an opportunity to begin a new chapter between our two nations.” Later, in July 2016, the White House press secretary also hailed Ghani as a “much better partner” than Karzai.
The NUG was successful in not only influencing the American decision to withdraw but also winning additional pledges of assistance for Afghan security forces in the Brussels and Warsaw conferences, held in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
Second Tier: Forging a Regional Consensus Against “Terrorism”
After strengthening ties and paving the way for future strategic relations with the United States and NATO, Ghani tried to get support from regional countries for Kabul’s war against the Taliban (and other insurgent groups). With this motive, Ghani paid an unofficial visit to Saudi Arabia and then on his first official trip abroad visited China. He later called on Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and even Russia.
Ghani’s visits and regional outreach had four key goals.
First, to persuade Pakistan and then the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Ghani sought to use China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to persuade Pakistan to bring the Taliban to peace talks. Even if the Taliban would not join talks, Ghani hoped that Pakistan would make sure that the group would not use Pakistani soil against Afghanistan.
Second, Ghani wanted to show regional partners that the continued war in Afghanistan is not an Afghan war, but rather a conflict imposed upon the country. There are many non-Afghan groups present in Afghanistan, who hail from Russia, China, Pakistan, Central Asian republics, and Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, all regional countries must assist Afghanistan in its war against insurgents; it is their war too. Ghani also sought to convince regional countries that terrorism and insecurity are a hindrance to regional development and integration, including the protection and initiation of multinational projects.
The emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan also attracted regional countries’ concern. The Islamic State’s ambitions reach beyond Afghan borders — the name of the regional branch, Islamic State of Khorasan Province, refers to the historical region consisting of territory in modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian republics, and China.
Finally, Ghani sought to get support from all those countries for Afghan security forces. Russia and India were asked for attack helicopters; as of this writing, India has provided four Mi-17s. Recently, the Afghan side also asked New Delhi to help and assist Afghan security forces, and according to Afghan media reports the Indians again replied positively. Moreover, Ghani brought security relations with China to a new level when China pledged $70 million in security assistance and provided Kabul with security scanners (unfortunately these scanners are still not being used, due to the Afghan side’s negligence).
During the first year of the NUG, the Afghan government seemed to have been successful in this step of getting support from regional countries. However, recent events indicate setbacks, perhaps due to conspiracy theories that allege the Afghan government and Washington are behind the emergence of Islamic State in Afghanistan, with the goal of destabilizing Central Asian republics, China, and Russia. Recently, Russia, China, and Pakistan held a trilateral conference on Afghanistan; notably, this conference occurred without the Afghan government’s input or agreement. Given this, it’s an open question whether Ghani will once again be able to get support from these countries.
Third Tier: Taking Away the Taliban’s “Religious Decree”
This is an important tier of Ashraf Ghani’s strategy, because religion motivates the Taliban’s continuous war. It is religion and the call of jihad that help recruit new foot soldiers for the Taliban and raise new funds. The Afghan government rejects the Taliban’s religious call to fight against “foreign occupation,” but knows the importance and power of such religious fatwas or decrees in continuing the war. Therefore, since Karzai’s presidency, Kabul has tried to organize an international conference of Islamic scholars focused on the current war in Afghanistan. The hope is to have famous Islamic scholars reject and condemn the war, especially religious objections to the presence of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
However, these efforts have not succeeded. A few months ago, there were plans for the Organization of Islamic Countries to call a peace conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but after the Taliban’s strong objection this conference was postponed.
Moreover, the Afghan government is hopeful that its peace deal with Hezb-e-Islami can affect the Taliban’s religious justification for a continued fight. Nevertheless, to date the peace deal has not influenced the Taliban very much.
The Taliban Respond to Ashraf Ghani’s Challenge
The Taliban did not sit quietly in the face of Ghani’s outreach. On the contrary, the group sped up its own diplomatic and military efforts.
Taliban’s response to the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States and NATO was deadly and bloody. Within 12 days of the signing ceremony, more than nine suicide bombings and bomb blasts rocked Kabul (although the Taliban didn’t take responsibility for all of the attacks). In the aftermath, the Taliban stopped differentiating between their spring and winter offensive. This change in tactics led to historically high casualty rates for both Afghan security forces and civilians, the Taliban capture of new districts, and a general rise in security incidents.
On the diplomatic front, in order to diminish the influence of Ghani’s initiatives, Taliban representatives visited China, Iran, and some Central Asian countries, where they also met Russian officials. The Taliban also tried to escape from Pakistan and hence avoid arrests and pressure from the Pakistani establishment. For instance, the visit by Tayyeb Agha (the former head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar) to Iran was mainly to avoid overreliance on Pakistan.
Meanwhile, after the emergence of ISIS and its competition with the Taliban, the Taliban began to issue repeated statements that their ideology only concerns Afghanistan. Seeking to reassure nervous neighbors, the Taliban emphasized that they fully respect geographical boundaries and sovereignty and pledged that Afghanistan will not become as a launching pad for attacks on regional countries. Importantly, according to some sources, whenever the Taliban meet with some regional countries such as Russia, Iran, and China, its leaders point out that the American military presence is is also against their interests as well; therefore, regional governments should help the Taliban.
These arguments have been magnetic in attracting support from the Russians, Iranians, and even Chinese. When it comes to the presence of American troops in the region and some militant extremist groups whose agenda reaches beyond Afghan borders (and which challenges the Taliban in Afghanistan too), these nations share common interests with the Taliban. However, to date these nations have limited themselves to contacts with the Taliban; they have not had yet supported the Taliban militarily, financially, or diplomatically.
When it comes to Ghani’s goal of holding a peace conference and issuing a religious decree on the continuous war in Afghanistan, the Taliban has given a strong counter-response. The Taliban issued a statement and addressed their concerns to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) over convening such a peace conference. Moreover, the Taliban has also issued statements before the Warsaw and Brussels Conferences arguing that Western countries should not assist the Afghan government militarily and economically.
The Taliban’s More Active Diplomatic Posture
The Taliban, through its political commission and later through its political office in Qatar, has established vast contacts and relations with regional and extra-regional countries alike: Germany (which paved the way for the opening of the Qatar office, as indicated in this report), France, Norway (through UN special representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide), the United States, China, Russia, Iran (former leader Muallah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour visited Iran several times and the head of Qatar office, Tayyeb Agha, was also invited by Iran to a conference), Russia, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. Several of these countries stand out for their strong connections to both Kabul and the Taliban.
Interestingly, the Afghan government’s relations with Saudi Arabia are far better than Saudi Arabia-Taliban ties. First, according to a Taliban source, in 2009, Tayyeb Agha, at the time the head of Taliban’s political commission, visited Saudi Arabia and requested that Riyadh host the Taliban’s political office. However, Riyadh laid down two conditions: that the Taliban cut ties with al-Qaeda and condemn their acts, as well as accept the Afghan constitution and take part in Afghan elections. The Taliban rejected both conditions and since then the Saudi-Taliban ties have cooled. The Taliban’s warming ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s major rival, also impact relations.
On the other hand, Ghani has visited Saudi Arabia three times, released a statement to support Saudi Arabia in its Yemen war, and is a part of Saudi Arabia’s anti-terror alliance. Therefore, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the Afghan government has an edge over the Taliban. However, the ISIS threat and growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan could once again improve Taliban-Saudi relations, depending on the upcoming geopolitics.
Geopolitics can do wonders; the curious case of Russian relations with the Taliban is a prime example. The founder of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, lost his eye fighting against the Russians, one of many Taliban so wounded. The Taliban also faced an armed opponent in the Northern Alliance that was largely supported by Moscow, which in turn forced the Taliban to recognize Chechnya and give them permission to open their sole embassy in Afghanistan.
However, now, after 14 years of the American presence in Afghanistan, the Russians and the Taliban are becoming closer to each other than ever. One factor that might have decreased Russian trust in Kabul is the rise of ISIS in the country. A member of the Afghan parliament accused Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar (and in some other cases even the Americans) of allowing the ISIS threat to grow in Afghanistan, which poses a potential threat to Russia.
Meanwhile, the American cold war with Moscow in Syria and Ukraine has also shadowed Moscow’s relations with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, leading to rising Taliban-Russia relations.
After a tilt toward Saudi Arabia, Ghani visited Tehran in order to rebalance between Tehran-Riyadh in April 2015. Later Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah also visited Iran. In the aftermath of the P5+1 agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, Afghanistan welcomed Iran’s openness to the world and increased efforts to sign the trilateral Chabahar agreement with Iran and India. However, despite all these advances, Tehran is also reaching out to the Taliban because of the rising anti-Shia ISIS threat, which has already threatened Iran’s interests in Syria and Iraq.
Since the Afghan civil war, Turkmenistan has had a neutral policy when it comes to Afghanistan, something the Taliban appreciates. However, the NUG has pursued closer bilateral ties with Turkmenistan; both sides are seeking to become economically more integrated and in this regard have signed the TAPI pipeline deal, a draft agreement on the Lapis Lazuli corridor, and initiated a railway line.
According to multiple Taliban sources, the current head of Taliban’s political office, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanikzai, was present in Turkmenistan when Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India signed TAPI in late 2015. The Taliban was taken into confidence by the Turkmen side because the Turkmens will fund the bulk of the pipeline and the Taliban’s agreement was very much needed to protect the multi-billion dollar project. In return, the Taliban later issued a statement pledging protection for large national and transnational projects. With Turkmenistan, both the Taliban and the Afghan government have reasons to be happy.
Beijing, like Turkmenistan, has also a neutral policy toward Afghanistan but with more of a tilt toward the Afghan government. The Sino-Afghan bilateral relationship under the NUG is becoming smoother, more stable, and broader. Under Ghani, China agreed for the first time to provide military assistance to Afghanistan, although the aid was mostly non-lethal. On the other hand, Afghan Taliban representatives have paid several visits to China and were received there with diplomatic protocol. China is hedging its bets in Afghanistan, as if often does in other countries’ internal conflicts.
Turkey has relations with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan visited Kabul just after the formation of the National Unity Government, the first foreign leader to do so. Ghani and Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum have also frequently visited Turkey. Turkey is a partner in Afghanistan’s Lapis Lazuli transit corridor and has signed a draft of this agreement as well. Meanwhile, Turky is also a home for some Taliban leaders; although Turkey does have a military presence in Afghanistan, it generally does not fight against the Taliban.
It was not solely the NUG’s policies that influenced the Taliban to expand its relationships with regional countries. The Taliban has had this goal since the formation of its political office in Qatar. However, under Ghani’s presidency, the Taliban’s relations with regional countries are growing and they have stepped up their diplomatic efforts. The goal is mainly to counter Ghani’s regional outreach; however, there are other factors too. The Taliban is after regional countries’ support when it comes to weapons, financing, and diplomatic support (for example, seeking partners on the UN security council to veto resolutions against the Taliban).
The Taliban has exploited the geopolitical situation and now has relatively good relations with Iran, Russia, China, and other countries. The Afghan government has far more bilateral relationships than the Taliban, but the group has has some success in sabotaging Ghani’s attempts to win military or security assistance for Afghan security forces from neighbors. India, which has stepped up its assistance, is the major exception in this regard.
The author would like to thank Borhan Osman and Halimullah Kousary for comments on the first draft of this piece.
Ahmad Bilal Khalil is a researcher at Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, Kabul (csrskabul). He follows Afghan foreign policy, Islamists, regional geopolitical and geoeconomic matters, and Kabul’s relations with its neighbors (especially China, Pakistan, and India). He is working on a book on Sino-Afghan relations 1955-2015 in Pashto and tweets at @abilalkhalil