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Afghanistan’s Neighbors Likely To Play Convoluted Games With the Taliban: New Report

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Afghanistan’s Neighbors Likely To Play Convoluted Games With the Taliban: New Report

A new Diplomat Risk Intelligence report finds, among other things, that the Taliban’s relationships with Pakistan and Iran remain complicated.

Afghanistan’s Neighbors Likely To Play Convoluted Games With the Taliban: New Report

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China, on July 28, 2021

Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of China

The following is an excerpt from DRI Monthly Report “Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0: International Security and Geopolitical Implications.” Access the full report here.

Commenting on how the Pakistan-Taliban relationship could evolve in the new DRI report, experts assessed that it is likely to become more complex and riddled with friction, but a total collapse in the relationship is unlikely. One expert pointed out that the Taliban—which started distancing themselves from the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s principal security service) from at least 2014—will work toward projecting themselves as separate from ISI, but the fact that the Taliban still have not been able to separate themselves indicates that ISI still “gets to call the shots within the organization.” For the Taliban, being perceived as Pakistan’s puppet at home could also come in the way of domestic legitimacy of their rule, another expert maintained. They pointed out that the ISI will continue its attempts to maintain “some kind of control over them,” most likely through creating tactical pressure or indirect pressure on them through China.

One expert assessed that Pakistan is likely to use its “levers” such as religious links to reign in the Taliban should the group assert its independence vocally. Another expert warned that disputes around the colonial-era Durand Line—which serves as a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and has remained a bone of contention between the two since the 1990s—is likely to re-emerge. (Afghanistan rejects the Durand Line as a border.) Experts assessed that the “litmus test” for the Pakistan-Taliban relationship would be Taliban’s treatment of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). If the Taliban does not act against the group, the relationship could get “rocky,” one expert assessed.

However, another expert warned that the Taliban continue to value the TTP, and have little incentive to go after the group, as the latter has been a crucial source of operational support for the Taliban in the past. “It is going to be awkward for Islamabad to explain away TTP attacks in Pakistan with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan,” they said. Overall, experts assessed, that despite tactical issues, Pakistan and the Taliban are likely to maintain a fairly stable relationship for the next three or four years.

Commenting on the Taliban’s relationship with Iran, experts assessed that a breakdown of relations over the next few years is highly unlikely, especially since there has been a fair amount of engagement between the two sides in recent years. Experts assessed that there might be episodic levels of military support from Iran to the Taliban. One expert assessed that Iran sees a Taliban rule in Afghanistan as “both an opportunity and a threat.” Iran could also seek to modulate the Taliban’s behavior using proxy forces, one expert assessed. There was a consensus among the experts consulted by DRI for this report that much of how Tehran would engage with the Taliban rests on the new regime’s treatment of Shia minorities even though in the recent year, Iran had cast aside its sectarian position and chosen to engage with the Taliban due to geopolitical compulsions.

But where do major regional powers — China, India, and Russia — stand on the issue of recognizing the new Taliban regime in Kabul?

One expert interviewed by DRI for the project stated that it is possible and likely that Moscow would eventually take the lead in recognizing Taliban as a legitimate government, with Beijing following closely. In the case of China, recognition will be conditional on Taliban assurances that the group will break ties with and reign in the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Experts maintained that while the rise of the Taliban presents serious security concerns for India, such concerns will be indirect in that groups operating in Kashmir may be emboldened by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Taliban are not likely to follow a foreign policy dictated by their patrons in Pakistan, one expert assessed, making room for a limited rapprochement between New Delhi and the Taliban in the medium term.

Experts agreed that based on past events, the Taliban believe that the international community will eventually buckle and provide it de facto recognition. It is also likely, many experts DRI interviewed for this report maintained, that the international community will eventually resume aid for Afghanistan as the Taliban play on fears of an impending humanitarian catastrophe.

One expert pointed out that the “universe” of the eight countries who have not closed their embassies in Kabul – China, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey included – will seek to shape the Taliban’s foreign policy. Another expert assessed that the Taliban may indeed calculate that it will be more useful for the group to placate this constellation of powers, instead of seeking recognition from the West.

One expert pointedly noted that China’s threshold for recognizing the Taliban will be considerably lower than that of Western powers’, given that Beijing is unlikely to base its decision on the Taliban’s likely approach toward social, religious, and gender equity. The same expert also archly pointed out that Moscow’s position on the Taliban will be predicated on what assurances it can obtain from the Taliban about Russia alone. The Kremlin is unlikely to be concerned about the Taliban’s alliance with militants as long as these groups do not target Russia, the expert said.

The preceding was an excerpt from DRI Monthly Report “Afghanistan and Taliban 2.0: International Security and Geopolitical Implications.” Access the full report here.