August 15 marked two years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, a milestone the Islamic Emirate celebrated by emphasizing that its rule is “open-ended” and faces no challengers. The Taliban’s chief spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, also told the Associated Press in an interview that the government is winning “the recognition of officialdom”: “Our interaction with China, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Pakistan and other countries in the region is official. We have embassies, travel, consulates. We have businesses. Traders come and go and transfer goods.”
Despite lacking de jure recognition, the Taliban government’s engagements with regional players have soared in the past two years. As the Taliban navigate ties with regional states – particularly China, Pakistan, and Iran – their diplomatic maneuvering offers profound insights into their intentions and adaptability. In order to properly understand the future prospects of their rule – and whether their system of governance can be sustained – it is imperative for analysts to examine their motivations, identify points of contention, and recognize diplomatic shortcomings. The success or failure of the Taliban government holds grave implications for the region.
Amid the tumultuous history of Afghanistan, the Taliban government first crystallized as a force in the 1990s. Originating from the Kandahar region, they gained traction during the Afghan civil war and captured Kabul in 1996. The first era of Taliban rule, from 1996-2001, was marked by their orthodox ideas and extremist mentality, which led to international isolation. The Taliban regime was overthrown by the U.S. in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. However, the U.S.-backed governments in Afghanistan were unable to sustain themselves. The Taliban reclaimed power in 2021 amid the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces.
After capturing Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban government claimed that their approach toward both governance and diplomacy would be primarily dictated by pragmatism and constructive engagement with regional and international players. These claims however, seem lost as the Islamic Emirate marks two years in power.
Despite much talk of a more pragmatic and a “modernized” Taliban by their spokespeople, the historical legacies and patterns provide the best insight into their current rule and their mode of action. The diplomatic isolation of the 1990s and the reasons behind it provide grounds for understanding the present diplomatic standing of the incumbent Taliban government.
In the case of China, the relationship between the Taliban, an Islamic extremist group, and the Chinese Communist Party is purely transactional, and both sides are abiding by their commitments. The significant amount of engagement occurring between the two sides – for example the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Kabul last year – shows that Chinese officials are deeply interested in Afghanistan. They are also optimistic about the role of Afghanistan in bringing regional peace especially with regards to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and the potential for terrorism in China’s Xinjiang region – a persistent Chinese concern.
For the financially strapped and internationally unrecognized Taliban government, securing investments and economic opportunities is crucial. This is exactly what China is offering in exchange for the Taliban addressing Beijing’s security concerns. For instance, in January 2023 the Taliban signed an oil extraction deal with a Chinese firm, with a staggering investment of $150 million a year. A Chinese company has also put forward a $10 billion offer for lithium extraction. These early examples project Chinese seriousness toward investing in Afghanistan.
The engagement between China and Afghanistan is underpinned by China’s mantra of the “3-3 policy” of “three respects and three nevers”: respect for Afghanistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, choices made by Afghan people, and Afghan norms and religious beliefs; and a pledge to never interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, never seek selfish interests in Afghanistan, and never pursue a sphere of influence. The approach adopted by China – and the absence of complicating dynamics between the two countries – paved the way for smooth relations between the two states with fewer points of contention.
The case of Iran is different, as Iranians share a long history with Afghanistan and there is a large diaspora on both sides of the border. Iranians cautiously welcomed the Taliban government in Afghanistan and asserted that the nature of their relations would depend on the diplomatic attitude of the Taliban government. Although Tehran was uncomfortable with a Sunni extremist group consolidating power right next door, they still decided to engage with the Taliban government to closely observe the unfolding scenario. Iran thus adopted a counterintuitive policy toward the Taliban, which asserted their concern over the probable rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
In January this year, a delegation from Afghanistan led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi visited Iran and the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan met Muttaqi in Kabul. During these meetings, Iran facilitated meetings between the Taliban and opposition leaders in Iran who might pose a significant resistance to Taliban rule, an attempt to nudge Afghanistan toward internal reconciliation and inclusivity in governance. Iran’s facilitation of such a meeting appeared to be an attempt at improving diplomatic ties, despite their skepticism regarding the Taliban’s promises and actions.
Despite constructive engagement, tensions rose to new highs when deadly border clashes between Taliban and Iranian border forces occurred in May over the restriction of water flows to Iran. The Iranian side categorically asserted that Taliban were the aggressors in this case and accused the regime of going against the treaty of 1973, which gives Iran rights to the water flows of Helmand River. Later in May, a military delegation from Iran visited Afghanistan to discuss border cooperation and declared their non-negotiable stance on the water flows issue.
The Iranian approach to relations with Afghanistan can be categorized as skeptically cooperative. The Taliban’s weak control over their border region militias adds to the complex dynamic.
Pakistan is the most complex yet enlightening case study for the Taliban’s diplomatic capacities. Internationally, Pakistan is viewed as the key partner of the Taliban government, and Islamabad’s view of the Taliban government was welcoming at first. However, the increasing fragility in Afghanistan and the Taliban government’s inability to address Pakistan’s concerns have strained relations over the past two years.
Since the fall of Kabul, Pakistan actively facilitated Afghan refugees, hosting over 700,000 refugees that fled Afghanistan due to fear of death or persecution. These refugees added to the number of Afghans refugees already in Pakistan, bringing the total to a staggering 3 million. That massive number of refugees, with no immediate option for resettlement, is worrying for Pakistani authorities.
Additionally, Pakistan has actively supported the Taliban government and people of Afghanistan to cope with the worsening humanitarian crisis. In addition to many of the other support initiatives, Pakistan extended 5 billion Pakistani rupees in humanitarian support to Afghanistan in December 2021.
In the realm of diplomacy, Pakistan played the pivotal role in facilitating Afghanistan’s relations with other states such as China and Iran. The most recent meeting between the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan is an embodiment of such efforts to help rebuild ties and open Afghanistan to the outer world.
Despite all these efforts to build stronger cooperative relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the relations between the two states are more strained than ever now, owing particularly to cross-border terrorism. There has been a rising number of terror attacks in Pakistan, conducted or facilitated from across the border. From November 2022 to January 2023, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) carried out over 100 attacks in Pakistan, mainly planned and operated from across the border. Among these, the Peshawar mosque attack was the deadliest, claiming 100 lives.
Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has expressed grave concerns over such attacks and the tone of their condemnation grew more agitated over the last few months. From the interior minister to the chief of army staff, Pakistani leaders reiterated their willingness to directly intervene and eliminate terrorist hideouts across the border. Such statements – which provoked rebukes from the Taliban leadership, who continuously deny any involvement in these terror attacks – project the current standing of Pakistan’s diplomatic ties with the Taliban government.
The strain in the relationship is owed to the weak diplomatic structure of the Taliban government, which results in their inability to address the crucial points of contention that exist between them and the regional states. Diplomatically, the Taliban’s performance in the last two years is an amalgamation of weak promises and an inability to take actions to meet these pledges. These weaknesses are known to the regional and international players.
The Taliban regime is observed skeptically by the international community particularly due to their charred history of extremism and their unwillingness to adhere to international norms and laws. The Taliban have done little to reassure neighbors that Afghanistan will not be a breeding ground of terror elements, especially given the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Afghanistan needs more pragmatism and practicality from the Taliban regime.