Taliban Interim Administration: A Review of its Regional Engagements in 2023
Dr Angana Kotokey, Research Associate, VIF
Introduction

The year 2023 marks the second anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. After more than two years of the takeover, Afghanistan is still in the middle of a deep humanitarian crisis and a grappling economy amidst political uncertainties since mid-2021. The year 2023 was no different from the previous years, regarding the Emirate’s policies towards Afghanistan’s women which has not gone beyond restricting them from public spaces—most significantly continued their ban on female education in schools (from beyond the 6th grade) as well as in universities. However, the United Nations Special Envoy to Afghanistan—Roza Otunbayeva in last December told the UN Security Council that UN is receiving “more and more anecdotal evidence on Afghan Taliban allowing girls of all ages to study at Islamic religious schools, known as madrassas, that have been traditionally for boys”.[1] But critics argue that, despite madrassahs remain an important provider of Islamic education in Afghanistan for decades, yet it cannot totally compensate for the loss of access to modern formal education by the women folk of the country. Further, the UN Special Envoy in her briefings to the UNAMA on the situation in Afghanistan said that the security scenario in Afghanistan have substantially improved as the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) has managed to restore back adequate security in the country.[2] However, it needs to be taken into consideration that since the takeover, there has been a rise in sporadic attacks by groups like the Islamic State (Khorasan Province) in Afghanistan along with few attacks by different resistance fronts against the Taliban regime in the country.

Meanwhile, at the regional level, the Taliban administration in the past two years have collaborated with countries from the region and also beyond—significantly with China, the Central Asian Republics at the economic front; while with its western neighbour Iran and long-term ally Pakistan, the relationship has been under strain over issues of domestic and strategic concerns. However, India’s engagement with the Taliban-led administration in Afghanistan has been primarily based on providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. Despite improving ties with countries from the region, the group still awaits to get recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan by the international community.

This article attempts to highlight the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s regional engagements in the year 2023.

China’s Engagements with the Islamic Emirate

The year 2023 has been significant in China-Afghanistan bilateral relations—after the Islamic Emirate in last September welcomed China’s new ambassador to Afghanistan. After appointing Zhao Xing as the Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan[3], China in last December welcomed Bilal Karimi as Afghanistan’s new ambassador to China[4] —thereby, becoming the first officially accredited envoy sent by the Taliban to any country since they seized power in Afghanistan in 2021.[5] Although China has not officially recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government in Afghanistan, but it has been engaging with them on bilateral and several multilateral platforms. In October 2023, Taliban for the first time since 2021, participated in the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, where the group expressed its ambition to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and, desired to participate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a flagship programme of BRI. It is being argued by policy makers that Afghanistan’s joining the BRI would mean to strengthen Pakistan’s transit routes[6] —especially the Gwadar port. [7] Prior to participating in the Belt and Road Forum, Afghanistan joined China and Pakistan in the 5th China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Foreign Ministers' Dialogue in Islamabad in May 2023, where the nations discussed on reviving Afghanistan’ economy and stressed on cooperating on the security scenario of the region—in tackling activities of groups like—Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).[8] Further, the three sides emphasized on pushing forward the policy of “hard connectivity” in infrastructure and “soft connectivity” in norms and standards—further exploring and facilitating measures for the movement of people and trade activities between the three countries.[9] Apparently, China’s active involvement in Afghanistan since 2021 and its economic engagements with the Taliban are tied around the former’s interests in Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources, encompassing lithium, copper, and rare earth elements which is vital for the country’s economic expansion, technological progress and strategic ambition.[10] In addition, China is also concerned about the activities of anti-Chinese foreign fighters taking shelter in Afghanistan and especially of Uyghur groups like East Turkistan Islamic Movement.

Meanwhile, for the Taliban, securing investments and economic assistance from China has been its top priority after aid flow from Europe and U.S. decreased considerably since mid-2021. Therefore, it can be assumed that Afghanistan’s economic hardships will determine its collaborations with China in the future, while China’s economic and security concerns will facilitate the country’s active engagements with the Taliban led administration in Afghanistan.

Islamic Emirate and the Central Asian Republics—Cooperation on Shared Interests

After the takeover, Taliban’s relationship with the Central Asian Republics (CAR) started with some contention, but in the past two years their relations have evolved in expanding cooperation based on shared interests. The five states of Central Asia—each have taken different paths in maintaining their relationship with the IEA however, none of them have officially recognized the regime. Since the United States withdrawal, the primary concerns of the Central Asian republics—especially, the ones that share border with Afghanistan (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are aiming at maintaining stability and security at their respective borders with Afghanistan. Apart from maintaining security, the CARs since the Taliban takeover are concerned over the latter’s decision to construct the ‘Qosh Tepa’ canal which will divert 20 percent of the water from the Amu Darya River across the parched plains of northern Afghanistan[11] - the first phase of which has been completed in last October.[12] The project which is planned to be finished in three phases has severe repercussions—particularly affecting the downstream region of Central Asia—by posing a significant risk of water scarcity in a region, already struggling with droughts and climate change.[13]

Despite discord over this irrigation canal, Uzbekistan is involved in deepening trade and commercial ties with Afghanistan by facilitating several grand infrastructures. In July 2023, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on a tripartite trans-Afghan railway project connecting the three countries—facilitating the movement of 15 million tons of cargo annually.[14] The line shall connect Pakistan’s Kurram border crossing Kharlachi with Termez in southern Uzbekistan— after setting its date of completion by the end of 2027.

Similarly with regard to Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s relationship with the former slowed down soon after Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021. However in the last one year, bilateral ties between the Taliban administration and the government of Tajikistan appears to be improving on the economic front, after border markets in Khorog, Darvaz, Vanj, and Ishkashim districts of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region re-opened for trade and business with Afghanistan which was officially suspended since August 2021.[15] Apart from conducting businesses, Tajikistan in last November also hosted the ‘Herat Security Dialogue’—with participants opposing the Taliban administration—thereby manifesting the need for an inclusive but unified international perspective on Afghanistan.[16]

Unlike Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan—following the collapse of the previous government in Kabul, was one of the first countries to engage with Taliban officials—expressing a degree of acceptance of their return.[17] Turkmenistan which shares 804 km long border with Afghanistan— has been involved in some active participation with the Taliban-led Afghan administration in the last one year—collaborating on several economic, trade, power, and energy and railway projects. Since last September, there have been discussions between the Afghan and Turkmen diplomatic officials regarding the establishment of new port of entry for transits at the border with Turkmenistan. Further, both the countries since 2022 are drawing plans to collaborate on resumption of works on Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline (TAPI).[18] A Turkmen delegation led by foreign ministers in their official visit to Herat in December 2023 “discussed the current state of implementation of the projects of the TAPI gas pipeline, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) high-voltage power transmission line, and the expansion of Afghanistan's railway infrastructure.”[19] Apart from these individual endeavours with Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics in August 2023 participated in the first ‘Trilateral Summit’ conducted between Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with the aim to enhance cooperation at different levels—in maintaining security at the borders—after an escalation in cross-border attacks along with the resurgence of groups like the IS (KP) inside Afghanistan. Therefore, the change in security scenario in the last few years’ enhanced participation of the CARs at different multilateral platforms—emphasizing on the urgency of their united stance to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies and to ensure regional stability.[20]

Islamic Emirate’s Challenging Ties with Pakistan

Apart from China, Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan appears to deteriorate in the past two years amid tensions—considering rise in number of attacks carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan supposedly from the Afghan soil. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), an Islamabad-based research organisation, Pakistan in the first eleven months of 2023 witnessed 664 attacks of varying nature across the country—significantly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and Balochistan—leading to an increase of 67 percent from the corresponding duration in 2022.[21] Many of these attacks in Pakistan are reported to have been carried out by the TTP and several of its affiliated groups. With surge in the number of TTP attacks against the Pakistan military, in the last one year, Pakistan’s establishment have repeatedly pointed out that attacks emanating from Afghan soil were a deviation from the 2020 Doha Peace Agreement between the Taliban and the United States—where the present rulers of Kabul promised not to allow armed groups to operate on its territory.[22] They have also accused the Afghan Taliban of not doing enough to contain the TTP members, despite some of them are believed to be based inside Afghanistan.

Moreover, the mass deportation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan since September 2023 have further complicated their long-standing ties. In a latest report by the International Organization of Migration, 500,200 Afghans have left Pakistan between Sept 15, 2023 and Jan 13, 2024.[23] According to the Pakistan government, the deportation is aimed at tackling the issue of increasing attacks carried out by armed groups like the TTP—after claims by Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti that 14 out of 24 suicide bombings in the country in 2023 were carried out by Afghan nationals, leading to a total of 2,867 Pakistani fatalities reported since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021. Meanwhile, it has been widely discussed by scholars and policy makers that the deportation plan is in reality a part of Pakistan’s pressure tactic. Pakistan expected that the Afghan Taliban now at the helm of power would help them in containing the TTP. However, this could not be realised as Afghan Taliban made statements citing that the Emirate has not allowed anyone to use its territory against Pakistan and that the latter should solve its internal problems rather than blaming the Afghan Taliban for the rise in TTP attacks in the country. Therefore, it can be observed that, the frequent change of dynamics in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations in the last one year highlight the mounting challenges, and the change in strategic calculations in their relationship—which the State of Pakistan was unprepared for.

Islamic Emirate and Iran Bilateral Ties—Contestation to Cooperation

In the past one year, it was observed that Afghanistan and its western neighbour, the Islamic Republic of Iran explored options for cooperation in several sectors in the midst of contestations over issues related to—frequent border skirmishes, the mass deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran, and the dispute over the equitable sharing of Helmand waters with the Taliban-led Afghan administration. Since the Taliban takeover in 2021, Iran’s diplomatic position vis-s-vis the Taliban led administration appears to have shifted from its earlier stand when the first Emirate was in power (1996-2001). The most significant change in their relationship since August 2021 was the Islamic Republic’s official handling over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to diplomats from the Taliban in February 2023—a big step in formalizing and deepening their ties[24] since the Taliban takeover. Further, considering the strategic importance of the Khorasan region—a vital gateway for trade and cultural exchange between Iran and its neighbours, the former has always shown interests in establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZ) for improving trade and business cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.[25] Accordingly, in last November, Iran and Afghanistan signed five economic cooperation agreements related to transportation, civil aviation, and mining and free trade zones.[26]

Moreover, bilateral ties between the two Muslim nations have strengthened with frequent meetings between diplomatic officials from both the countries to solve several matters of friction including—Helmand Water distribution and the deportation of Afghan refugees from Iran. It has been reported that from August 2021 till February 2023, officials from Tehran and Kabul have met around 67 times[27] —bilaterally in seeking consensus to resolve issues of conflict. In last November, a 30 member Taliban delegation led by Abdul Ghani Baradar held talks with Iranian authorities on trade, transit, transportation, infrastructure, and railways, as well as on matters related to regional development and the issue of growing numbers of Afghan migrants in Iran. [28] Despite conflict of interests, it can be seen that both Iran and the Taliban-led Afghan administration have collaborated primarily on the economic front—bearing in mind, the economic pressures caused by US sanctions and the escalating economic crisis triggering new political and social protests within Iran.[29] Similarly, the Taliban has reaffirmed the government’s intentional pivot towards enhancing ties with Iran—underscoring the strategic use of Iranian transit routes and ports, such as Chabahar and Bandar Abbas—to bolster Afghanistan’s trade.[30]

Finally, apart from the economy, the presence of IS (KP) in Afghanistan has changed the security dynamics of the region and therefore poses a challenge to Iran—significantly because many of the ISKP hideouts are believed to be in Afghanistan’s Zaranj province—bordering Iran.[31] Therefore, it can be assumed that apart from economy, the security scenario of the region in the presence of several non-state actors can induce both Iran and Afghanistan in expanding their partnership in the future. However, time and again Iran has also urged the Taliban to form an inclusive government with the participation of all the ethnic and religious groups of the country.

India’ Policy towards the Islamic Emirate

After the takeover, India has adopted a cautious approach in its dealings with the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan. Last year, it was reported by several media houses that a group of Afghans (supposedly also composed of few Taliban officials) enrolled in a four-day course on “Immersing with Indian Thoughts, An India Immersion Programme for Cross Sectoral Foreign Delegates”, under the 'Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation' (ITEC) programme of the Ministry of External Affairs, organised by the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode.[32] The virtually conducted online course was criticised by a section of Afghans (especially the Afghan students awaiting renewal of their visas by the Indian government)—calling the event as India’s willingness to recognize the Taliban and establish relations with them. [33] Despite presumption of India’ change in stance vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban, India officials have clearly mentioned at different government platforms of its commitment to supplying humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to the people of Afghanistan—emphasizing the age old historical and civilizational ties between the two nations. Moreover, in a written reply to a question in Lok Sabha on India’s approach towards Afghanistan, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on 15 December 2023 clarified that India's engagement with Afghanistan continues to be guided by its historical relations, friendship with its people and relevant UN resolutions.[34]

India, like other nations, is yet to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but the Indian government since June 2022, has deployed a technical team in Kabul Embassy to closely monitor and coordinate the efforts of various stakeholders for the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance—in continuation of India’s engagement with the Afghan people. [35] Despite reports circulating in the media throughout 2023 on power struggle for the position of ambassador at the Afghan embassy in New Delhi—with speculations regarding India changing its stance vis-a-vis Afghan Taliban, New Delhi unequivocally quashed such claims. It stated that "India's stance in regard to recognition of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is in consonance with that of the international community”[36], while emphasizing that the embassy as well as the two consulates of the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” is still functional in the country. Nevertheless, time and again the Taliban is urging the Indian government to invest and resume its pending infrastructural developmental projects in Afghanistan.

Finally, it can be observed that India’s engagement with the Taliban led government since the takeover has not been in formally launching diplomatic ties with them but, limited to providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and also to secure its massive investments—developmental and capacity building projects in the country. However, India needs to take into consideration that while dealing with the Taliban, New Delhi in the long run should not lose goodwill among a generation of Afghans who perceive India as a supporter of education, democracy and human rights in the region.[37]

References

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2023-12-20/un-is-seeking-to-verify-that-afghanistans-taliban-are-letting-girls-study-at-religious-schools
[2] https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-186583
[3] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/13/taliban-gives-a-warm-welcome-to-chinas-new-ambassador-to-afghanistan
[4] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghanistans-taliban-sends-new-ambassador-beijing-2023-12-01/
[5] https://www.dw.com/en/talibans-new-ambassador-to-china-arrives-in-beijing/a-67607433
[6] https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/china-pakistan-include-taliban-ruled-afghanistan-in-belt-and-road-initiative20230510165437/
[7] https://cpecinfo.com/pakistan-to-benefit-by-involving-afghanistan-in-cpec/
[8] http://mk.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgyw/202305/t20230509_11073522.htm
[9] Ibid
[10] https://thediplomat.com/2023/08/afghanistan-in-chinas-grand-strategy/
[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/08/20/afghanistan-taliban-canal-amu-darya/
[12] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/1st-phase-of-crucial-irrigation-canal-in-northern-afghanistan-completed/3015716
[13] https://www.caspianpolicy.org/research/energy-and-economy-program-eep/afghanistans-canal-project-threatens-central-asian-water-security
[14] ShanthieMariet D’Souza (2023), “The Cost of Uzbekistan’s ‘Pragmatic’ Taliban Policy”, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2023/07/the-cost-of-uzbekistans-pragmatic-taliban-policy/
[15] “Tajikistan and the Taliban: A Lone Voice in Central Asia”, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2023/12/tajikistan-and-the-taliban-a-lone-voice-in-central-asia/
[16] “Regional Engagement Called For at Herat Security Dialogue”, Tolo News
https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-186244
[17] https://8am.media/eng/ashgabats-interest-in-engaging-with-the-taliban/
[18] Ibid
[19] “Turkmen, Afghan Ministers Seek Expansion of Trade Ties”, CASPIAN NEWS, https://caspiannews.com/news-detail/turkmen-afghan-ministers-seek-expansion-of-trade-ties-2023-12-19-23/
[20] “Navigating Challenges and Cooperation: Insights from the Turkmenistan-Tajikistan-Uzbekistan Summit”, Special Eurasia,09.08.2023, https://www.specialeurasia.com/2023/08/09/summit-central-asia/
[21] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/21/what-explains-the-dramatic-rise-in-armed-attacks-in-pakistan
[22] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/17/talibans-ties-with-pakistan-fraying-amid-mounting-security-concerns
[23] https://www.dawn.com/news/1807886/over-half-a-million-afghans-returned-home-says-international-organisation-for-migration
[24] https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/iran-formalizes-ties-taliban
[25] https://www.specialeurasia.com/2023/09/15/sezs-iran-khorasan-afghanistan/
[26] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/iran-afghanistan-sign-5-key-economic-agreements/3049189
[27] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/mapping-irans-policy-towards-a-taliban-ruled-afghanistan
[28] https://www.iranintl.com/en/202311051289
[29] https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/3-questions-what-to-expect-for-taliban-iran-relations/2913134
[30] https://themedialine.org/mideast-daily-news/iran-and-afghanistan-eye-enhanced-economic-ties-transit-cooperation/
[31] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/mapping-irans-policy-towards-a-taliban-ruled-afghanistan
[32] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/18-from-afghanistan-took-part-in-mea-course-iim-kozhikode/article66619629.ece
[33] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/despite-lack-of-recognition-taliban-claims-indian-mission-invited-officials-for-online-training-programmes/article66615812.ece
[34] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-approach-to-afghanistan-continues-to-be-guided-by-historical-relations-friendship-with-afghan-people-jaishankar/article67643272.ece
[35] Ministry of External Affairs, https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/35437/Deployment+of+a+technical+team+in+Embassy+of+India+Kabul
[36] https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indias-approach-to-afghanistan-continues-to-be-guided-by-historical-relations-friendship-with-afghan-people-jaishankar/article67643272.ece
[37] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/12/1/is-modis-india-cosying-up-to-the-taliban

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://img.theweek.in/content/dam/week/news/world/images/2023/9/14/zhao_sheng.jpg

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
3 + 11 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us