After nine months of rule, the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) is still looking for the legitimacy that eludes it. Two of the most pressing questions –– international recognition and the miserable security situation –– are the driving factors that will position the Arab Gulf countries, along with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, to pursue a combination of diplomatic engagement and maintain ties with the Afghan political and armed opposition.
The IEA has suggested it will soon convene a gathering of Afghan tribal and political figures, possibly a traditional Loya Jirga (”grand council” in Pashtu), to discuss the country’s future government. However, it is not certain if such a meeting will take place, and the likelihood that it would have any real impact on forming a political consensus to ease Afghanistan’s official isolation, security, and humanitarian crisis is low.
A number of high profile social issues have heightened the internal divisions within the Taliban.
Furthermore, a number of high profile social issues, such as the right for girls to receive a secondary education and the recent decree directing the mandatory return of the burqa for women, have heightened the internal divisions within the Taliban.
Armed Groups and Continued Violence
The latest in a series of devastating attacks carried out by the Islamic State Khorasan group have left regional countries, such as Iran, reeling. Tehran is especially concerned since the bombings have mainly targeted vulnerable Shia Muslims within Afghanistan. This, along with a number of recent militant attacks in Pakistan, have raised questions on whether the key players in the region will change their approach to dealing with the IEA.
The National Resistance Front (NRF), along with a number of other factions, are anti-Taliban armed groups that have formed over the past few months and claim to be operating in different provinces of Afghanistan. These resistance forces have taken to carrying out hit and run attacks on Taliban checkpoints and assassinating Taliban officials.
A military official from the former government, Lieutenant General Sami Sadat, recently said, “The Taliban has left us no choice but to pick up our weapons again to win back our freedom. We will take all practical steps for our homeland. These include political and civic activism and military engagement.” In May, the NRF announced a new offensive against the Taliban in Panjshir Province.
“The Taliban has left us no choice but to pick up our weapons again to win back our freedom.”
Continuing border security issues with Afghanistan’s neighboring states could possibly lead to a rethink on how the regional actors engage with these rising resistance forces. A new report from the Institute for the Study of War suggested that the Pakistanis were “starting to lose patience” with the regime in Kabul and could see Islamabad forge a closer relationship with the anti-Taliban guerrilla factions.
For now, however, Pakistan appears to be proceeding with a working relationship with the IEA in order to prevent a fragile ceasefire from collapsing while engaging in peace talks with the hardline Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group that is opposed to the government in Islamabad. In May, a former head of the Pakistani intelligence, General Faiz Hameed, visited Kabul for talks with the TTP.
If Pakistan and Iran indeed intend to begin supporting an anti-Taliban resistance, this would put the two countries at odds with Beijing, which still appears intent on shoring up the Taliban’s rule for the sake of geopolitical influence and stability. Furthermore, the Arab Gulf states would need to adjust accordingly how they both approach their relations with the regional powers and uphold a humanitarian gateway to Afghanistan in the months ahead.
Humanitarian Assistance and Diplomacy
Qatar, a country that was essential to hosting the Afghan peace process that worked with the United States to arrange last summer’s emergency evacuation, is now working closely with Turkey to negotiate the reopening of the airports with the Taliban.
However, in late April, it was reported that these talks had fallen into a deadlock over the issue of the Taliban’s insistence on providing its own security at the Afghan airports. The Taliban are adamantly opposed to any sort of a foreign armed presence in the country.
A Taliban delegation attended the Antalya Diplomacy Forum and held a bilateral meeting in March with Turkey and also met with U.S. special envoy, Thomas West. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the Taliban must take steps towards the formation of an inclusive government.
During Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi’s visit to Turkey, the meeting notably used the tricolor flag of the former Afghan government, not the IEA’s white flag. Turkey is one of the key deliverers of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and has handed off around 5,000 tons of assistance throughout Afghanistan.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif discussed Afghanistan’s security situation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The new government in Islamabad is also providing new opportunities for diplomatic cooperation. After the fall of former prime minister Imran Khan’s government, Pakistan is keen to shore up its relations with its GCC partners. During his visit to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif discussed Afghanistan’s security situation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Following the visit, Pakistani officials described the state of relations with Saudi Arabia as on the path of a “strategic partnership.”
The GCC countries are well positioned to coordinate and facilitate the possibility of an Afghan opposition in exile if Pakistan opts to go that route. There are a vast number of Afghans now living abroad and, as time goes on, they will begin to organize and petition for influence with regards to the GCC states’ approach to the IEA.
This comes at a time that the United States and Pakistan are working steadily on rebuilding relations with a mind to cooperation on regional issues related to terrorism. The GCC states could possibly position themselves within this emerging framework as a haven for Afghan political figures organizing to put diplomatic pressure on the IEA and to keep international focus on the Taliban’s policies.
One key Afghan political figure and member of the former head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah, Abdullah, left Afghanistan purportedly to visit with his family for Eid-al Fitr. Abdullah was one of the few remaining Afghan leaders from the former government to stay in the country after the Taliban captured power.
Even if Abdullah does return back home, the potential for him to meet with and share his insights and observations over the last nine months of Taliban rule will be of value not only to the Afghani exile community but also to officials from the Arab Gulf countries who may meet with him. He was later reported to be visiting India and tweeted that the Taliban had committed crimes against civilians during their security operations in Afghanistan’s northern provinces.
Interestingly enough, Abdullah’s visit to India comes as a Pakistani delegation traveled to New Delhi in order to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s anti-terror conference. This could be a sign that long-running tensions between the two nuclear powers might ease due to the uncertainty surrounding Afghanistan.
The IEA has been conscious about Afghan concerns related to the mistreatment of Afghan migrants and refugees within Iran.
Humanitarian issues cut both ways. The IEA has been conscious about Afghan concerns related to the mistreatment of Afghan migrants and refugees within Iran. The Iranian Interior Ministry announced in May that it would conduct a census of the Afghans in Iran and met recently with a Taliban delegation to discuss the issue.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry acknowledged that Taliban officials were now permitted to operate in the Afghan embassy in Tehran, however, the Iranians insisted that this did not mean Iran had granted recognition to the Taliban.
Together, Iran and Qatar are stepping up their cooperation and posturing on Afghanistan. In March, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met with his Iranian counterpart in China and the two sides discussed Afghanistan. On May 13, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sat together with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in a joint press conference and urged the Taliban to build an inclusive government that protects all of Afghanistan’s religious minorities and political groups.
Going forward, Iran, along with Turkey, Pakistan and the GCC countries, will remain deeply engaged in the diplomatic and security developments surrounding Afghanistan. However, the region will likely primarily maintain its approach of transferring humanitarian aid to Afghanistan without preconditions as stakeholders grapple with the future of Afghanistan’s internal politics and security situation.