You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors: The Taliban’s Testy Regional Relationships

A year after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s neighbors are engaging pragmatically with the Taliban, but still wary of what’s next.

One year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, its relations with its neighbors remain tepid as the region comes to grips with the reality that they now own a greater share of Afghanistan’s problems and the Taliban realize that neither recognition nor financial aid are going to come from the region easily.

Around the Region

It seems that there is disappointment on all sides about what has unfolded since the Taliban’s victory.

  • Regional powers, particularly Iran, Russia and China, were happy to see U.S. and NATO troops go but are not in a position to replace the massive amounts of development assistance that went with them — leaving a humanitarian crisis on their doorstep with the new Afghan government lacking the capacity to run a modern state. China, which had a free ride on the regional stability NATO provided in Afghanistan, has been thrust into an unwelcome role of addressing complex political dynamics between the Taliban and Pakistan as well as trying to mitigate unrest within Afghanistan.
  • Regional countries tend to prioritize “stability” over rights or democracy. But even by those standards, the Taliban have under-performed. While the Taliban maintain tight security control across the country, they have excluded non-Pashtun ethnic groups from any meaningful political power, alienating their traditional patrons in neighboring states and increasing risks of future insurgencies from these marginalized groups.
  • The Taliban have also continued to harbor a range of terrorist groups that endanger their neighbors, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which threatens Pakistan; the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which threatens China; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which threatens Uzbekistan; and ISIS-Khorasan Province, which threatens everyone (including the Taliban).
  • Regional countries are also concerned about drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which remains the world’s largest producer of opium for heroin and is increasingly a significant source of methamphetamine. Iran suffers from violent drug trafficking across its border and addiction of Iranian consumers. Pakistan, Tajikistan and Russia are also hurt by the flow of Afghan drugs through their territory. While the Taliban publicly announced a ban on opium cultivation, evidence from field studies suggests this is more about taking control of drug networks that were created according to the Afghan Republic’s power structures than about cutting exports.
  • The Taliban’s policies against girls’ education and women’s role in society are of less concern to the region than to Western powers, but nonetheless are alienating and out of step with their own domestic policies. At a recent regional summit in Tashkent, all regional powers issued statements condemning the ban on girls in high school and called for greater political inclusion.

For all of these reasons, the Taliban have not received recognition from any country, which is worse than when their rule in the 1990s was recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Taliban and Pakistan

Perhaps the most surprising regional dynamic since the Taliban took power has been its testy relationship with Pakistan. The Taliban came to power with the benefit of existential support from Pakistan. But, in power, the Taliban have done little to reward that support. Instead, they have pursued a foreign policy that can best be described as nationalistic — asserting Afghan sovereignty and focusing on their group’s own needs first. This includes harboring the TTP, which seeks the overthrow of the Pakistan government; opposing (albeit weakly) Pakistan’s efforts to fence the border between the two countries along the disputed Durand Line; and most recently threatening Pakistan over its apparent decision to allow U.S. drones to use Pakistani airspace to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the middle of downtown Kabul. For its part, Pakistan still supports the Taliban politically and gives significant technical assistance but has refrained from significant amounts of aid, maintained tight border controls and has withheld diplomatic recognition.

Adding further insult to Pakistan, the Taliban has made surprising overtures to establish friendly relations with India, which just re-opened its embassy in Kabul. This reflects a pattern of daring diplomatic gamesmanship from a regime that lacks formal international standing: In addition to courting India to gain leverage against Pakistan, the Taliban played Qatar and the United Arab Emirates against each other in competition for a contract to manage the Kabul International Airport (which UAE won) and has jousted diplomatically with Uzbekistan over the return of Afghan air force planes that pilots flew out of the country as the Taliban took over. This aggressive foreign policy demonstrates the Taliban’s strong sense of sovereignty but also its aversion to compromise with a goal of winning friends.

No Option but to Engage

Regional countries do not have the luxury of choosing whether to be Afghanistan’s neighbor and have pursued pragmatic strategies of engagement. Uzbekistan, Turkey and Qatar have all offered good offices in different ways to broker diplomatic dialogues with the international community and with Afghan political factions excluded by the Taliban. Most regional powers seek to avoid the West’s hubris of expecting the Taliban to change quickly — instead seeking incremental change over time. But just because regional countries are willing to talk and averse to imposing sanctions on the Taliban, does not mean they these countries are its ally. All of the neighboring countries would have preferred a negotiated power-sharing arrangement to the outright Taliban victory.

A positive outcome for the region in Afghanistan would be if the Taliban maintain political and security control by giving enough to other political groups to avoid facing a domestic insurgency, keep a lid on transnational terrorist groups, and at the same time opening the country to free trade across the region and profitable access to Afghanistan’s prodigious mineral resources. Traders report that arbitrary checkpoints and corrupt customs collection are dramatically reduced. The Taliban have expressed openness to international trade and connectivity, encouraging the long-stalled gas pipeline that would link Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India as well as power lines from Central Asia to Pakistan and road and rail links that would fit into China’s Belt and Road regional infrastructure initiative. It remains to be seen, however, whether international investors including China (and presumably excluding the World Bank or Asian Development Bank due to Western vetoes) will want to make multi-billion dollar bets on the Taliban’s security control and political stability.

Ultimately, however, all nations in the region are concerned that the Taliban will not be able to contain cross-border threats in the form of terrorism, migration and drug trafficking. If the Taliban can deliver on these obligations over time, recognition from the region will come. If not, one can expect regional powers will seek greater alliances with non-Taliban Afghan factions to control these threats in their own areas of influence. Followed to its logical extreme, this was the recipe in the past for an intra-Afghan civil war.

While the United States and regional powers differ on many global issues, their interests in Afghanistan are remarkably aligned — even if Washington cares much more about women’s and human rights. It is therefore important to maintain parallel diplomatic channels with rivals like Iran, Russia and China so that disagreements over issues like nuclear proliferation, Ukraine and Taiwan do not undermine opportunities to put joint pressure on the Taliban to achieve common objectives in Afghanistan. This includes the current discussion about whether to re-instate the U.N. travel ban on the Taliban and decisions about diplomatic recognition.

You Can’t Choose Your Neighbors: The Taliban’s Testy Regional Relationships