Nearly six months after taking over control of Afghanistan, the Taliban have made substantial strides in consolidating their power. As they move forward with furthering the interests of their still-unrecognized regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), they continue to make gains by slowly – but steadily – honing in on the international community.
In mid-January, Afghanistan hosted an economic conference in Kabul, where the Taliban were lauded for passing a national budget. Shortly after, the European Union reopened its office in Kabul, while stressing the move was not official recognition of the IEA. The Taliban also sent a delegation to Norway for a high-profile meeting with Western officials and Afghan activists.
The relationship between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) and its two larger neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, is complicated.
Closer to home, the relationship between the IEA and its two larger and more established neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, proves more complicated. Because it is landlocked, Afghanistan’s bilateral ties with these two countries will be critical for monitoring its overall stability and political trajectory. Recent events involving Iran and Pakistan illustrate how the Taliban are simultaneously making diplomatic gains and asserting their independence.
Iran Engages with the Taliban
Iran has yet to formally recognize the IEA and still insists on the formation of a more inclusive government in Kabul. Minor cross-border clashes between Iran and Taliban fighters broke out in what was labeled a “misunderstanding” in early December 2021. The incident paralleled past tensions which brought Iran and the Taliban dangerously close to war in 1998.
However, the issue was quickly smoothed over by both sides, an unsurprising development considering neither country can afford a conflict with a neighboring state. Afghanistan and Iran, both economically isolated from the world, are heavily reliant on each other for trade and economic cooperation. The Iranian government has also been vocal in calling for the United States to release Afghanistan’s frozen financial assets. In late January, the IEA even released water flows to arid regions of Iran, which sparked an outcry among Afghans.
Iran’s efforts to facilitate a resolution regarding the remaining armed opposition forces in Afghanistan are especially notable. Prior to the US military intervention, Iran was an anti-Taliban Northern Alliance supporter and the Iranian security establishment had discreet ties to the armed Afghan opposition forces that had emerged following the collapse of the former US-backed Afghan government in August 2021.
Iran’s efforts to facilitate a resolution with the remaining armed opposition forces in Afghanistan are notable.
The IEA has acknowledged that although there is no significant armed threat to their government, small-scale attacks persist. A Taliban delegation recently visited Tehran and reportedly met with Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF). The Taliban said they had offered guarantees that the NRF leaders would be granted safe passage back to Afghanistan. But the NRF denied they had met with the Taliban in Iran.
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Interestingly, the Taliban condemned the drone attack carried out by the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels in Yemen against the United Arab Emirates. Presumably, this is a nod to the Arab Gulf countries that have been busy providing consistent critical humanitarian assistance to Kabul. It is still unclear whether Iran is ready to extend recognition to the IEA. Though, it may be advantageous for Tehran to do so.
By moving one step ahead of the Arab Gulf countries, Iran could better leverage its ties with Kabul, making itself useful to Beijing as China works on building favoritism with the Taliban. Tehran is keen to better its relationship with Beijing as it moves forward with the 25-year economic agreement signed with China in March 2021. In addition, what better way for Iran to assist China in Southern Central Asia than to help stabilize the IEA’s political and humanitarian situation?
Iran will certainly also work with Russia to develop a common approach to Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in January 2022 and the two discussed their shared concerns on Afghanistan. The initial meeting between Afghan factions in Iran may have yielded some results. Rumors are circulating that the Taliban’s Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar made a secret trip to Moscow to meet with NRF representatives.
The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021 led many analysts to believe that Pakistan had finally reached its goal of establishing a friendly state on its western frontier. Yet, the situation has not been entirely favorable to the Pakistanis.
Islamabad is anxious about achieving its main goals of securing the IEA’s international recognition, easing its humanitarian crisis, and maintaining political stability. Still, tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban have been steadily rising due to several security-related issues.
Tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban have been rising due to security-related issues.
In December, Taliban fighters tore down the fencing installed by the Pakistani border forces along the Durand Line – the colonial border drawn up by the former British Empire in the late 1800s. This was deemed a sign that the more independent-minded factions within the Taliban are still flexing their muscles. The Durand Line controversy was an important issue for the former government in Kabul, but the IEA is taking a much more visible and aggressive approach, which has won it some praise from Afghan nationalists.
Some observers have suggested tensions are high enough to lead to the significant rupture in Pakistan’s ties with the Islamic Emirate. Pakistani National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf was due to make a visit to Kabul in late January but abruptly postponed the trip after Taliban fighters in Kunar Province exchanged rockets with Pakistani border security units. The Pakistani NSA eventually arrived in Kabul and received pledges of security from the IEA’s Deputy Prime Minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi.
The Pakistanis are worried about the potential for the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)— a Pashtun Islamist extremist group founded in 2007 with the aim of overthrowing the government — to revive its campaign of violence. Pakistani civilians suffered heavily as the TTP carried out a wave of terrorist attacks within Pakistan until a large-scale military operation routed most of the militants away from the northwestern border region in 2014. The hardline militant group has been able to operate within the IEA and has set its sights on a revival of violent confrontation with Islamabad.
Following the Taliban’s return to power, Islamabad sought to utilize the IEA as a mediator with the TTP in order to head off a new clash. However, despite talks of reconciliation, the ceasefire fell apart in December, leaving Pakistanis vulnerable to brutal terrorist attacks. First on the list of TTP’s demands is the release of prisoners, which they insist the Pakistani government has failed to honor.
Anonymous Pakistani government sources indicated that the talks with the TTP have resumed and a delegation of Pakistani intelligence officials allegedly had traveled to Kabul for a new round of negotiations in late January. It is unlikely the talks between the TTP and Islamabad will yield positive outcomes, but the IEA is now well-positioned to orchestrate and mediate these negotiations, putting Islamabad at a disadvantage.
This all comes as Pakistan appears to be working to rebalance its relations with the United States and China on the world’s geopolitical stage. Islamabad is increasingly concerned about Washington’s deepening alignment with India and hopes the United States will remain engaged with Afghanistan’s humanitarian and security situation.
Pakistan must now work to maintain its position as a diplomatic gateway to Afghanistan.
Pakistan must now work to maintain its position as a diplomatic gateway to Afghanistan. This will become more difficult for Islamabad to manage with the Taliban sitting comfortably in Kabul and having a direct line of communication with US officials.
Both Iran and Pakistan have key roles to play for the IEA. Iran’s Chabahar port will provide a vital lifeline to landlocked Afghanistan’s economic future. Border security, migration issues, and water resources will all be priorities for Iran as they engage with the IEA. Iran is also cooperating closely with India in order to facilitate humanitarian relief to Afghanistan.
Likewise, Pakistan has permitted India to deliver humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through its territory. In mid-December, Pakistan hosted a meeting for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Islamabad which included a Taliban delegation headed by the IEA’s Acting Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. The conference focused on the humanitarian crisis but also provided an opportunity for the Taliban to urge the OIC countries to reopen their embassies in Kabul.
At the end of the day, both Tehran and Islamabad are still pushing for an inclusive government in Kabul. Given how the Taliban have resorted to means of repression and intimidation over the last few months, it is hard to see how they will agree to Iranian and Pakistani demands. A clearer and more hopeful picture on whether the IEA will emerge from the various rounds of diplomacy with success will probably emerge in the coming months.