By Kabir Taneja
The recent visit of Dr Abdullah Abdullah to Delhi from Kabul has highlighted a level of developing outreach between the Taliban and India. There have been other examples as well, such as India’s delivery of wheat aid to Afghanistan which was welcomed in Jalalabad with Indian and Taliban flags side by side, and recent reports suggesting that New Delhi may be looking to re-open its mission in Kabul in a limited manner to facilitate aid and consular services in the future. These manoeuvres come as the reality of the Islamic Emirate as it is absorbed by regional powers around South Asia, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf, and they cautiously develop policy postures towards the same.
Eight months since coming to power, the Taliban regime is still struggling to get a basic level of cohesion in place, both from a domestic and regional perspective. Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Pakistan-backed Haqqani Network recently called for negotiated settlements between warring tribes, including intra-tribal conflicts between his own family and the Sori Khail tribe, a 60-year-old dispute. While internal sparring such as those relating to girls’ education has brought divisions within the ideological power corridors of the movement out in public, regionally, the group is already contending with small border conflicts with Iran and Pakistan, along with dealing with the threat of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Recently, ISKP has reportedly fired rockets into both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan at the country’s northern borders. The oddity of the Afghan story here is that a terror group that fought the state came into power and now must conduct counterterrorism against ISKP and others using a cadre that has experience of basically playing a similar role to what the ISKP represents today.
However, it is the recent skirmish between the Taliban and its patrons, Pakistan, that supersedes other issues as the most important strategic conundrum facing the Taliban today. The power of top leadership of the Taliban remains firm, with Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada and acting Prime Minister Mohammed Hasan Akhund, both from the ‘Kandahar’ clique, many of whom have worked directly with or under the group’s patriarch, Mullah Omar. The notable ‘others’ are the Haqqanis, close to the Pakistani state, and more recently playing the card of ‘pragmatists’, by supporting girls’ education and attempting to rally religious scholars in support of such an outcome. ‘There will be good news on girls education’, Sirajuddin Haqqani recently said in a rare interview with CNN.
The Taliban leadership is continuing to protect other terror groups, such as Al-Qaeda and more importantly for Islamabad, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan has witnessed an uptick in terrorism cases by the TTP, ISKP, and the Islamic State Pakistan (ISPP). This has increasingly put a strain on the Taliban itself, as Pakistan reportedly conducted airstrikes inside Afghanistan in its Kunar and Khost provinces, targeting terror groups that have consistently launched attacks against Pakistani armed forces in the recent past.
The Taliban are balancing two major strategic challenges at this point. The first challenge is that of internal cohesion. The Taliban has to manage intra-tribal fissures, a potential rise of ISKP in its northern and north-eastern provinces where Salafism found a foothold in the 1980s, controlling the remnants of its war economy which, despite the group’s public narrative building that there have been clampdowns on issues such as poppy cultivation, remains firmly as the economic ‘Plan B’. A potential rise of resistance in areas such as Panjshir, with smaller groups pledging allegiance to former commanders and personnel of the Afghan tribal landscape that fought against the Taliban, has also slowly added pressure on the Taliban’s military in the provinces. This is despite murmurs in power corridors that the US has quietly asked regional states to not back any organised resistance, yet.
The second challenge is the fact that while the West has conveniently forwarded the onus of Afghan security, and by association regional security, to regional powers, there remain almost no major overlapping interests between these regional states where they could work together from a long-term perspective in building an “inclusive” political infrastructure around the Taliban. For the Taliban, pacifying security concerns ranging from those in India and Iran to Pakistan and China will require deft diplomacy and the capacity to deliver on issues such as counterterrorism. On the specific issue of abolishing terror groups from its territories, the Taliban is yet to provide any concrete evidence of its actions despite claiming that not allowing terror groups to use its soil to attack other countries is its policy. This line of argument, however, does not say that the Taliban will not host any terror groups and instead makes it an opaque and unclear claim based on no authentication mechanism.
Over the past few months, Al-Qaeda Chief Ayman Al Zawahiri, who was widely speculated to have died last year, has come out actively releasing propaganda materials and speeches. Zawahiri’s “return” coincides with the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan. Recent assessments by US officials suggest that the Taliban may loosen restrictions it had placed on Al-Qaeda during the Doha negotiations and the eventual collapse of the government of President Ashraf Ghani. If this eventuality unfolds, clarity over western-led ‘over the horizon’ counterterror policies in Afghanistan may come to fruition quickly, compared to the current limbo it is stuck in.
While most of the global attention is (correctly) currently spent looking into Afghanistan’s internal crisis, ranging from humanitarian catastrophe to girls’ education, women’s rights and the lack of necessities for an entire population, the geopolitical challenges for the Taliban itself remain a vastly underexplored topic. The Taliban’s “victory” with the Doha process may have given the group a false sense of ability to navigate regional and global fissures. The future of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan will not depend on what its relationship with Washington DC looks like, but on how it mitigates the political and security interests of regional states. Incidentally, this geopolitical kerfuffle staring down at the Taliban is of their own making.