International Crisis Group report
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood: Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
What’s new? The Taliban, mostly isolated by Western powers, are looking to build ties with foreign capitals closer by. These countries cannot simply say no: they must deal with the Taliban on security and economic issues. Regional engagement remains limited, however, due to both mistrust and hurdles raised by Western sanctions.
Why does it matter? Dysfunction in the relationships between Afghanistan and its neighbours affects lives and livelihoods across South and Central Asia. Kabul and its regional partners should explore ways of expanding trade, managing disputes over water and other shared resources, and combating transnational militancy. Failure could spell instability in a vast area.
What should be done? Instead of retreating from the many challenges of dealing with the stubborn Taliban, regional capitals should continue to develop a clearly defined format for broad-based security cooperation and economic integration. Western countries should support such efforts – or, at a minimum, refrain from blocking them.
As most of the world shuns the Taliban due to their violations of women’s and girls’ rights, countries in the region around Afghanistan are dealing with the regime to address their needs for security and economic stability. This region, as the Taliban broadly define it, spans the “Eurasian continents”, from China in the east to Türkiye in the west and from Russia in the north to India and the Gulf monarchies in the south. It encompasses countries closer in, such as the Central Asian states, Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban, like previous Afghan rulers, view Afghanistan as a bridge connecting all these places. Regional countries’ policies toward the Taliban vary enormously, though all believe contacts with the regime to be necessary, but so far, their engagement is limited. Kabul and its regional partners are struggling to develop a modus vivendi as regards issues of mutual concern, which range from boosting trade to managing disputes over water and halting transnational militancy. It is a fraught endeavour, but a worthwhile one, and Western capitals should not stand in the way.
The Taliban’s denial of basic rights to Afghan women and girls and their imposition of draconian social rules since returning to power in August 2021 has sabotaged, at least for now, the chances that the UN and other international bodies might recognise their regime. Yet even as Western diplomats cancelled meetings with the Taliban, regional actors sought more dealings with Kabul. Some have condemned the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, particularly bans on girls’ secondary and higher education, but overall regional officials tend not to put emphasis on women’s and girls’ rights. At the same time, they are convinced that the best way to secure their countries’ interests and moderate the Taliban’s behaviour in the long term is patient deliberation with Kabul, rather than ostracism. Channels between Kabul and regional capitals appear to offer the Taliban their best hopes for diplomatic engagement in the coming years.
Still, regional collaboration has fallen short of what some of Afghanistan’s neighbours wanted. Some were aspiring to a “grand bargain” that would have traded diplomatic recognition for Taliban action to form a more inclusive government, particularly by empowering Afghan politicians whom they had sponsored in opposition to the Taliban in the past and with whom they remain friendly. The Taliban, however, rebuffed all attempts to coax them into including former enemies in the cabinet. Most regional players have therefore settled for piecemeal engagement with Kabul that addresses specific issues on a case-by-case basis. More by necessity than design, this approach aligns with the Taliban’s own preference for transactional relationships that avoid the prospect of what they perceive as foreign meddling in Afghan affairs. Taliban talking points about respect for diverse cultural values and alternatives to the “Western-imposed” global order also chime with the interests of those regional powers.
After the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s neighbours feared that violence would spill across their borders.
At the top of the regional agenda are matters related to security. Regional officials have observed Kabul’s novel methods of controlling Islamist militant groups with varying degrees of scepticism and anxiety. After the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s neighbours feared that violence would spill across their borders to hotspots like Indian-administered Kashmir or the Fergana Valley in Central Asia. Those concerns proved to be exaggerated; as the Taliban firmed up their hold on the country, militancy did not spread. The major exception is Pakistan, where attacks by the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) climbed during the Taliban’s first two years in power, significantly raising tensions with Islamabad. The Taliban have used a standard playbook for answering regional concerns about nearly all militant groups: Kabul refuses to kill or capture suspected militants. Instead, it relocates them, helping them establish new lives in an effort to curb their ambitions and break down their command structures.
The first step toward better regional security cooperation could be cooling down the rhetoric on all sides and getting actors to agree on a set of facts, even if they have different priorities. Taliban forces have got better at corralling the most dangerous jihadists, those loyal to Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP), but even in that case the Taliban have not built enough confidence with regional partners to share information freely. Part of the problem is the gap between how Kabul prefers to deal with most of the Islamist militant groups in Afghanistan and how the region would like Kabul to deal with them. Overcoming this divide requires building a common platform for discussing regional security concerns and a common approach to addressing challenges. All sides would benefit from improved border management, customs integration and demarcation of Afghanistan’s rugged frontiers.
The other main area of regional cooperation is economics. Decades of war in Afghanistan shelved ideas of multiplying trade corridors to rival the Silk Routes of old, but these began to regain currency as the Taliban’s military victory brought greater stability and the de facto authorities started tackling corruption. Regional capitals are now seeing glimmers of commercial opportunity. They are dusting off plans to get trucks, railcars, gas and electricity moving across borders. The Taliban are impatient to start work on such projects, though some of the barriers will be insurmountable in the short term.
The logic for better regional economic connectivity is overwhelming, especially in the energy sector where Central Asian countries are in search of new markets while South Asia needs new supplies of oil, gas and electricity. Equally importantly, the region has strategic reasons to encourage ventures in Afghanistan as part of long-term planning for economic integration, which in turn would help with regional stability. Some regional actors think building Afghanistan into the regional economic architecture could increase regional influence, placate detractors of diplomacy among the Taliban and make the de facto authority a more predictable entity. Many among the Taliban, for their part, see such integration as a path to greater prosperity for Afghanistan and greater longevity for their regime.
Still, a multitude of factors inhibit economic cooperation between Kabul and the region. Economic restrictions and sanctions continue to stifle private investment. The desire of some donor states to limit aid to humanitarian assistance, and attempts by some to block development aid altogether, also contribute. The limited resources of some regional countries, coupled with inability to attract external financing, also impede serious economic collaboration between Afghanistan and the region. Equally importantly, the lack of a legal framework in Afghanistan continues to undermine private-sector confidence in the country, particularly as the Taliban embark on a cryptic ad hoc overhaul of laws they inherited from the government they overthrew.
Some of the Taliban’s actions, including building water infrastructure without coordination with downstream countries, have also engendered tensions with Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly Iran and Uzbekistan. Disputes have occasionally contributed to skirmishes between the Taliban and neighbouring countries’ forces. In such a febrile atmosphere, regional states might be tempted to scale back their ambitions for engagement with the Taliban. Doing so, however, would likely make it still harder to resolve such problems and put solutions to other challenges neighbours face in Afghanistan further out of reach.
Many steps toward regional cooperation do not involve Western donors, but those countries have a stake in the results. Europeans, especially, would benefit from a stable, self-sufficient region that is not a major source of illegal drugs, migrants or terrorism. Yet sanctions and other measures originating in the West that aim to signal disapproval of the Taliban are obstacles on the road to more functional relations between Kabul and regional capitals. Whether it is a vote at the World Bank on a water project, or permission to send equipment to Taliban border guards despite sanctions, much progress depends on Western support – or at least, acquiescence. While such practical steps should not imply recognising the Taliban regime, they would contribute to regional peace and security.
Kabul/Brussels, 30 January 2024
The Taliban takeover in 2021 transformed Afghanistan but not the circumstances arising from its geographical location.1 Like many past governments in Kabul, the Taliban regime has advanced a foreign policy of neutrality and promoted Afghanistan as a profit-making link between nearby states. The Taliban authorities have pursued ambitious plans for cross-border railways, pipelines and electricity corridors.2 But the country’s neighbours remain wary, in keeping with a long tradition of treating it as, at best, a buffer protecting them from other regional powers and, at worst, a haven for militants and smugglers. Since the Taliban have a bad reputation of their own, they face major challenges in securing a role for Afghanistan in the region’s security architecture and economic future.
This report examines the Taliban’s regional diplomacy to date. “The region” is defined as the Taliban themselves understand the term, looking out from Kabul at adjacent states and others farther away, with Afghanistan as the middle ground between what the Taliban call the “Eurasian continents”.3 Neighbouring countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, regard engagement with the Taliban authorities as a necessary evil if they are to address core concerns. Regional powers like China, India and Russia have also explored engagement as a means of addressing concerns and of supporting their allies in containing any spillover from Afghanistan. More distant countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates have also entered the diplomatic fray, partly to challenge the Taliban’s Islamic exceptionalism but also spurred by the need to balance their own regional rivalries. Appendix B provides an outline of each of these countries’ approach to Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover.
To illuminate its discussion of specific issues, the report explores the Taliban’s way of interacting with the world – with limited transactions rather than strategic pacts – and assesses what regional actors want from their dealings with Kabul. Beyond top-level diplomacy, it also delves into practical aspects of cooperation in security and economic affairs, including how countries in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood work together – or compete – in managing transboundary waterways. Its conclusions might apply to other foreign actors searching for strategies of political engagement with the Taliban.
Research included dozens of conversations conducted over the course of 2022 and 2023 with government officials and various experts from Afghanistan and regional countries, in Kabul, Dushanbe, Istanbul, Ankara, Doha, Dubai, Brussels, London, New York and Washington, as well as others contacted remotely. Fieldwork was also carried out at border crossings in Afghanistan at Takhar, Kunduz, Herat, Kandahar, Khost and Nangarhar.
II.Regional Diplomacy after the Taliban Takeover
The collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul sent tremors through regional capitals, where officials have spent the last two years grappling with how to deal with the new Taliban regime. Different governments have engaged with Kabul in different ways, but common themes have emerged in regional policy toward the Taliban, and, conversely, in the Taliban’s approaches to the region. This section sums up Kabul’s relations with the neighbourhood, while the individual approaches of regional actors are profiled in Appendix B.
A.The Quest for Recognition
In their first months after seizing power, Taliban officials were hopeful that their government would obtain international recognition.4 But not a single foreign government or multilateral organisation would formally acknowledge the Taliban-controlled government without concessions on women’s rights and other matters.5 The uniform refusal angered the Taliban’s more conservative elements, splitting the movement into two camps: one, centred in the Kabul-based interim government, sought a thaw with the West; the other, gathered around the Kandahar headquarters of the hardline emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada, rejected this notion.6 The emir’s camp, convinced that the U.S. would block any attempt at rapprochement, argued that the Taliban should bolster their movement’s cohesion and their government’s prospects for survival by reintroducing strict policies their earlier regime had decreed in the 1990s.7 Rolling out a series of draconian edicts on women’s rights in 2022 and 2023, the emir showed his defiance of the West and reassured his followers that the Taliban regime would not compromise.8
The Taliban’s intransigence, particularly on gender policies, has fuelled a cycle of worsening relations with the West.
The Taliban’s intransigence, particularly on gender policies, has fuelled a cycle of worsening relations with the West. Additional restrictions by the Taliban on the rights of Afghan women and girls prompted repeated condemnations by Western countries – to which the Taliban responded with further measures, in part because of constituents who praised them for rebuffing the demands of countries that had invaded Afghanistan. The space for diplomacy shrank ever further. While the Taliban maintained that they would not change domestic policy for the sake of outside acquiescence to their rule, public opinion in the West urged Western governments not to “normalise” a regime that may be guilty of “gender apartheid”.9 Pressure mounted on Western states to keep up the sanctions, asset freezes and other forms of isolation they had imposed on the Taliban.
B.The Taliban Turn to the Region
The standoff between the Taliban and Western countries placed the region in a bind. Several of Afghanistan’s neighbours had opposed the group when it ruled in the 1990s, with only three of them – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – recognising its government at the time. Others, including India, Iran, Russia and Tajikistan, had backed armed opposition to the first Taliban regime.10 At the start of the Taliban’s second administration in 2021, many of the same anti-Taliban groups in northern Afghanistan reached out to regional actors in hopes of renewed support. As a result, the first question for neighbouring countries after the Taliban’s return to power was deciding whether to fight the regime or talk to it.11
Although regional actors also condemned the Taliban’s discrimination against women, they decided to engage with Kabul over the following months. The extent of cooperation varied, and each actor was motivated by different considerations, but a common denominator was a tilt toward working with the Taliban rather than isolating them. Although the U.S.-led coalition had failed to bring peace to Afghanistan, it was widely perceived as having policed the country and its departure imparted a feeling of urgency in the region, especially regarding security threats.12 As one diplomat put it, “the West is leaving the problem to regional countries”.13 Since March 2022, when Taliban restrictions on women and girls got more severe, a pattern has emerged of increasing interaction between Kabul and regional capitals, even as engagement with the West has dwindled.14
The region’s overtures toward the Taliban appear in part to reflect that some countries … have their own reasons to seek alternatives to a U.S.-led unipolar order.
As the Taliban gave up hope of winning over the West and shifted toward the region, they also adapted their rhetoric. The emir insisted that he would seek positive relations with the region and beyond.15 Yet such statements were often paired with assertions that, as the Taliban do not interfere in foreign countries’ internal affairs, others should not meddle in Afghanistan’s.16 Taliban officials also became more vocal about their dissatisfaction with Washington, a sentiment sometimes echoed by regional actors.17 The region’s overtures toward the Taliban appear in part to reflect that some countries (for instance, China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia) have their own reasons to seek alternatives to a U.S.-led unipolar order that dictates which regimes are acceptable and which are not.
Still, the neighbourhood’s cautious embrace of Kabul appears to be based not primarily on anti-U.S. sentiment but on an assessment of what will yield the tangible results they seek. Regional governments concluded that talking with the de facto authorities was the best way to nudge them toward responsiveness to their agendas. Security and economic concerns came before those related to women’s and girls’ rights. “The world will not stop and wait for Western sentiment to shift in favour of the Taliban”, a regional diplomat said. “We are here on the front lines”.18
Having themselves maintained or re-established a diplomatic presence in Kabul, many regional countries have welcomed the appointment of Taliban envoys in their capitals, claiming that such representation does not amount to implicit or explicit recognition but is a “technical” prerequisite for managing co-existence with Afghanistan.19 These working-level relationships are likely to proliferate.20 It is even possible that, in the future, some countries could break with the Western-led consensus and officially recognise the regime.21
C.A Limited Partnership
The Taliban’s military dominance has convinced regional capitals that a more stable Afghanistan, albeit one ruled by a somewhat unpredictable regime, is a lesser evil than a return to civil war. The regional consensus is fragile, however, underpinned by the premise that Taliban rule will not devolve into the kind of factional chaos that plagued the country in the past. Should regional countries feel that the government cannot impose order inside Afghanistan’s borders and contain transnational threats, this consensus may well unravel. If that happens, countries in the region could be tempted to pick sides in another intra-Afghan conflict, repeating the destructive pattern of past decades.22
The region’s diplomatic posture should also not be mistaken for full recognition; even calling it “normalisation” may be going too far. The level of engagement is, for now, far from the ambitious goal sometimes discussed among Afghanistan’s neighbours: a strategic pact, or “grand bargain”, between themselves and the Taliban. Most versions of the idea, which thus far is informal, raise the prospect of recognition in exchange for the Taliban forming an “inclusive” government. Others see the Taliban as exclusionary, and not just in gender terms, pointing to the fact that their administration is made up almost entirely of their own members and not many non-Pashtuns. Nearby countries are pressing for a cabinet in Kabul encompassing other political and ethnic factions with which they enjoy historical ties.23 The Taliban bluntly reject such proposals, their vision for maintaining control of the country being based on keeping a monopoly on the state machinery, with loyalists in all key positions. They have shot down the region’s ideas about including politicians from the previous republican order. They promise to “broaden” their government in the future without providing details.24
Some regional actors are growing disillusioned with the Taliban and appear to have halted attempts at reaching an overarching agreement with them.
Some regional actors are growing disillusioned with the Taliban and appear to have halted attempts at reaching an overarching agreement with them, instead limiting themselves to piecemeal negotiations over narrow areas of mutual concern. There has been little or no coordination among regional actors on these micro-engagements, but they are learning from one another about how best to deal with the de facto authorities. For example, diplomats have noticed that the Taliban’s officials based in Kabul use conciliatory language but seem hamstrung in terms of what they can offer, as they are often undermined by their superiors in Kandahar. At the same time, attempts at bypassing Kabul to negotiate directly with Kandahar have borne no fruit, partly because the emir spurns most diplomatic overtures.25 Some neighbouring countries are still investing time and energy in opening channels with the emir, but their experience so far has been that Kandahar prefers to stay aloof.26
What remains, then, is a small cadre of regional diplomats posted to embassies in Kabul – often with modest staffing and tiny budgets – trying to deal with Taliban officials who are often constrained by their own organisational and political wrangling. These interactions are also limited by security considerations: Russian and Chinese diplomats, for example, have scaled back their movements in the Afghan capital due to jihadist attacks on their compatriots.27 These difficulties aside, most regional diplomats have continued dogged efforts at engagement. On topic after topic – security concerns, including Islamist militancy, border clashes, weapons proliferation and counter-narcotics; and economic issues, such as trade, foreign investment, water management and climate change – they continue to reach out to the Taliban.
Given Afghanistan’s turbulent history, it is not surprising that regional governments see the country mostly as a security problem to be contained. Before the Taliban takeover, the task of containment fell to U.S. forces, whose counter-terrorism operations, for all their flaws, gave the country’s neighbours a degree of comfort.28 Although the UN reported numbers of transnational jihadist fighters in Afghanistan during those years dwindling to a few dozen, the Taliban’s return to power left regional actors feeling exposed.29 They worried about the potential for a return to civil war and expressed fears about militant groups, questioning the Taliban’s willingness or ability to rein them in. They also harboured concerns that the rise of an Islamist government in their neighbourhood could galvanise Islamists within their own borders.
A.Islamic State-Khorasan Province
The security threat that Afghanistan’s neighbours most frequently raise is that emanating from the local branch of the Islamic State, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP).30 In some ways, the growing concerns about IS-KP are paradoxical, as in reality, overall levels of violence related to the group have fallen over the past two years. As the Taliban improved their counter-insurgency efforts, IS-KP has launched fewer attacks and killed fewer people.
Click to compare IS-KP incidents and fatalities data from 2018 to 2024. CRISIS GROUP
Still, regional actors are worried about IS-KP’s continued capacity, and particularly its new emphasis on attacking citizens of neighbouring countries, both inside Afghanistan and outside.31 The attacks on foreigners undermine the Taliban’s claims to be security guarantors, disrupt their fragile international relations and help IS-KP recruit. Such incidents, though rare, have attracted significant attention. In April 2022, IS-KP fired a barrage of Katyusha rockets at Termez, a city on Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan.32 The next month, it launched a similar attack in Tajikistan. Neither appeared to cause casualties or major damage.33 A more serious incident occurred that October, when IS-KP struck a Shia shrine in Iran, killing scores of worshippers.34 In addition, the group has targeted foreigners in Afghanistan several times, including bombing the Russian and Pakistani embassies in September and December 2022, as well as a hotel that same December many of whose guests were Chinese nationals.35
As part of its efforts to boost recruitment, IS-KP has published propaganda in all major regional languages. It has tapped the grievances of non-Pashtun ethnic groups, not just those concentrated in Afghanistan’s north, but also those in neighbouring Central Asian states.36 IS-KP also maintains strong connections to Pakistan, where many of its founding members were born.37 The group’s leadership regularly calls on its supporters abroad to carry out attacks inside their home countries.38 This incitement is tied to a surge of violence in Pakistan, where incidents related to IS-KP became more frequent after 2021.39
Rather than fostering international security cooperation, concerns about [Islamic-State-Khosaran Province] have had the opposite effect in recent years.
Rather than fostering international security cooperation, concerns about IS-KP have had the opposite effect in recent years, as foreign governments blame each other. In particular, Russian and Iranian officials claimed, absurdly, that the U.S. supports IS-KP.40 Such allegations fuelled Kabul’s paranoia, with Taliban officials at times echoing these claims, while in other instances accusing regional intelligence agencies of backing the group.41 For example, some Taliban officials charge, perhaps equally risibly, that Pakistan provides a haven to IS-KP militants.42 These statements have added to rising tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, as the latter accuses its neighbour of harbouring the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an insurgency that has mounted numerous attacks on the Pakistani army and police (see Section III.C). Taliban officials also frequently mention their suspicions that Tajikistan is a source of IS-KP recruits.43
The public discord may mask a degree of behind-the-scenes intelligence cooperation. While information is scant, Iran has hinted that it is working with the Taliban in counter-terrorism, while other countries, such as the U.S., hold regular bilateral talks with Kabul on security issues.44 Whatever the source of the Taliban’s intelligence, their strikes on IS-KP have become much more effective and precise. Since mid-2022, the Taliban have carried out a series of raids that killed prominent figures in IS-KP, such as its alleged deputy leader, former interim leader, intelligence chief and head of judiciary. Possibly due to this crackdown, the number of IS-KP attacks has declined.45 There are also indications that Taliban efforts to curb IS-KP recruitment, particularly on university campuses, might be enjoying success.46
Whether IS-KP could, in the future, become a more potent transnational threat remains an open question. So far, its operations beyond its original territory near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have been limited. The Taliban reportedly eliminated the group’s cells that targeted Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in late 2022, and the group has not launched further cross-border attacks since then.47 On the other hand, IS-KP still attracts recruits from disparate parts of Central and South Asia and encourages attacks outside Afghanistan, arguably making it the most dangerous armed group in the region.48
B.Militants in Northern Afghanistan
Regional countries are also concerned about a plethora of other transnational jihadist groups operating from Afghanistan. Central Asian states understandably focus on militants in the country’s north, near their borders, who have longstanding ambitions to foment rebellion in their home countries.49 Many of these smaller groups consist of no more than a few dozen fighters, but however tiny, they remain a key priority for China, Russia and the Central Asian states because the militants in question often belong to Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and other ethnic groups with links to constituencies in their countries.50 It is partly for this reason that Afghanistan’s neighbours have pushed the Taliban to form a government that reflects the country’s ethnic diversity: they fear the lack of inclusion could stir unrest with these ethnic-based armed groups that might, in theory, spill across borders.51
Of course, most regional engagement with the Taliban on security issues does not involve pushing for an overhaul of government; day to day, diplomats are making requests for Taliban action against particular bands of gunmen. These entreaties sometimes get results: the acting defence minister personally answered a call from a neighbouring country to disband a militant group in a border province.52 The Taliban are unwilling to eliminate these groups, however, eliciting frustration and bewilderment from the region.53 For example, in this instance, the Taliban, instead of imprisoning the jihadists, reportedly split the 75 fighters into three contingents, relocating each to a separate location on the other side of the country. Allegedly, the Taliban integrated some of these militants into the security forces to keep a close eye on them and provide them with a source of income.54
The Taliban actively seek diplomatic relations with regional countries.
Such gambits are risky. The Taliban actively seek diplomatic relations with regional countries, while harbouring groups that want to overthrow the same governments. As a regional diplomat put it: “Afghanistan continues to remain a safe haven for terror groups; now, it is just not as blatant as in the 1990s”.55 The risks are even greater when all sides are not forthright about security concerns. The most notorious case of Taliban secrecy involved al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose death in a Kabul house controlled by the acting interior minister raised questions among neighbours about whether the Taliban could be trusted. After U.S. forces killed Zawahiri, the region grew more vigilant about the Taliban providing other militants with safe havens – even accusing them of giving foreign fighters Afghan residency and citizenship documents.56 Prompted by this newfound distrust, a number of regional actors issued warnings that likely exaggerated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.57
Despite their neighbours’ misgivings, the Taliban seem determined to experiment with their own way of controlling militant groups: weakening them, relocating their fighters and curbing their independence. As a rule, Kabul seeks to integrate jihadists into civilian life rather than cracking down on them or extraditing them.58 At the same time, the mistrustful region is exploring ways to fortify its rugged borders with Afghanistan to avoid infiltration. Tajikistan, in particular, has been lobbying nearby states to create a “security belt” around the country, strengthening patrols along the frontier.59 China, which feels confident about having secured its own short border with Afghanistan, is also assisting Dushanbe to guard against militants crossing into China via Tajikistan.60
C.Militants in Eastern Afghanistan
While militants in northern Afghanistan are mostly a dormant threat to neighbouring countries, more serious transnational risks have emerged in the country’s east. New Delhi is concerned about the alleged continued presence in Afghanistan of Laskhar-e Tayyiba and Jaish-e Muhammad, two pan-Islamist groups that have conducted attacks on Indian soil for decades.61
Islamabad, for its part, has reason to worry about the TTP, an umbrella group of tribal factions also known as the Pakistani Taliban, which has gained strength under the tenure of its current chief, Noor Wali Mehsud, intensifying its attacks within Pakistan.62 The TTP was already becoming more aggressive before 2021, but the Taliban’s takeover appears to have emboldened the group. Jailbreaks during the Taliban’s sweep to power set free many TTP prisoners, allowing fighters to leave Afghanistan and resume their war to topple the Pakistani state.63 Since then, the group has conducted a series of spectacular attacks in Pakistan, whose security forces struggle to seal the porous border.64 In response, Islamabad, which claims that the TTP operates from Afghan soil, has pushed hard for Kabul to crack down on the group – but with little success as the Taliban, at least publicly, deny the TTP’s very presence in Afghanistan.
Islamabad has tried several tactics: pausing diplomatic efforts to advocate for international engagement with the Taliban; accusing Kabul of violating the 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, which included counter-terrorism provisions; temporarily closing border crossings; and seeking to complete fences and other barriers along a border that the Taliban, like earlier Afghan governments, do not recognise.65 Faced with the Taliban’s refusal of repeated requests for action against the TTP, Pakistan even conducted air and artillery strikes inside Afghanistan, which along with Pakistani Taliban commanders also allegedly killed dozens of civilians.66 More recently, Islamabad has resorted to drastic measures that fall short of military action. In October 2023, Islamabad started mass repatriation of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, also introducing restrictions on transit goods bound for Afghanistan.67 None of these methods have delivered results, however, and the Taliban’s unwillingness to crack down on the TTP could further strain relations between the neighbours.
Indeed, as with the northern groups, the Taliban have returned to their standard playbook for reining in foreign militants. Even as they deny the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan, they have quietly forbidden the group from carrying out external operations, removed its fighters from border regions, housed TTP groups in “refugee” camps, separated fighters from their units and embedded them in Taliban units to break the chain of command.68 The TTP is, however, much larger than the northern militant groups, and the Taliban said their plan for curbing the group would involve relocating “thousands” of people.69
The Taliban’s reluctance to clamp down on the TTP is partly motivated by reluctance to act against a longstanding ideological ally.70 They may also feel their clout with the TTP is limited, given that many of the group’s former members played a key role in founding IS-KP, and if pushed, might defect to their enemies. So far, it remains unclear to what extent the Taliban’s approach has moderated the TTP’s behaviour, if at all. While some experts believe that Taliban pressure has induced the TTP to agree to negotiations and stick to small-scale attacks on Pakistani troops, such claims are difficult to verify.71 Whatever the case, one thing is certain: the Taliban are far from satisfying Islamabad’s demands vis-à-vis the group.
The [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] has also sought to counter the Taliban’s pressures by rallying supporters among the Pashtun tribes and clans in Afghan regions next to Pakistan.
The TTP has also sought to counter the Taliban’s pressures by rallying supporters among the Pashtun tribes and clans in Afghan regions next to Pakistan. While the group’s standing on the Pakistani side of the border has diminished in recent months, as evidenced by mass demonstrations against its revived insurgency, the group remains popular on the Afghan side, allowing it to continue to operate, while exploiting differences between Islamabad and Kabul.72 The TTP also appears to enjoy some local Taliban support.73 Grievances that lead Afghans to back the TTP include Afghan refugees’ allegations of mistreatment by Pakistani security forces; Kabul’s claims that Pakistan has annexed Afghan territory; and years of sporadic cross-border shelling by the Pakistani army. Though Islamabad denies many of these charges, anti-Pakistan sentiment, sometimes fuelled by Pashtun nationalism, is widespread in the borderlands.74
For now, the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan poses the single deadliest threat emanating from the country. Islamabad has reacted by stepping up mass deportation of Afghans and tightening trade restrictions, while also threatening to escalate cross-border strikes unless Kabul takes immediate action.75 Friction between the neighbours has broader ramifications, including for China, which has extensive economic interests in Pakistan.76 Any further spread of violence into Pakistan might also erode the fragile consensus among other regional states that, unlike in previous decades of civil war, they will not pick sides among Afghan factions. After all, much of the region’s political calculus in favour of working with the Taliban rests on the assumption that the former insurgents can maintain stability. As a top diplomat put it: “Should transnational [militancy] thrive, it would make the Taliban unacceptable to the region”.77
D.Fears of “Contagion”
Besides fearing that militancy may spill across Afghan borders, the region also worries that the Islamists’ success in overthrowing the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan might inspire their own restive Islamists, heating up simmering insurgencies in places such as the Indian-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir and Central Asia’s Fergana Valley.
These “contagion” scenarios arise in part from recent history in other parts of the world, such as Libya, where the 2011 uprising threw open stockpiles of weapons that made their way into nearby countries.78 In 2021, Afghanistan looked like a similar proliferation risk because the U.S. and its allies left behind military equipment worth billions of dollars when they departed.79 In the confusion of the Taliban’s takeover, fleeing Afghan government forces took numerous armaments into neighbouring countries and smugglers brought other materiel into Pakistan.80 At the same time, weapons fell into private hands inside Afghanistan as government stores were looted.81 The Taliban tried to address this problem by going door to door, collecting guns for safekeeping in government depots, and they continue to raid hidden arms caches across the country.82 These actions have slightly eased regional countries’ concerns, even if not all Taliban local commanders followed rules for securing the weapons.83
Another export from Afghanistan would seem to be harder to control: revolutionary ideas.
Another export from Afghanistan would seem to be harder to control: revolutionary ideas. Diplomats from countries across the region express anxiety that the Taliban’s triumph over a superpower will galvanise Islamists opposing their own governments. To some degree, the Taliban has allayed these concerns as well by expressing little sympathy for Muslim rebellions in nearby countries. With rare exceptions, the new authorities in Kabul have refrained from public comment on militant groups in China, India and Central Asian states. Still, they are putting out propaganda in several of the languages spoken in the region, and some of the policies they advertise – for example, on battling corruption and respecting religious values – are troubling to nearby governments that view such messages as implicit criticism of their own rule.84
So far, at least, the fears of contagion seem exaggerated. Except for Pakistan, places in the region previously beset with Islamist militancy have witnessed lower levels of violence since the Taliban takeover. From the start of 2018 to August 2021, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir saw 44 fatalities in violent incidents on average per month; since the Taliban returned to power, that number has fallen to 21 per month.85 Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, where Uzbekistan has regularly put down Islamist uprisings in previous decades, has remained almost entirely peaceful since 2021.86 These developments obviously have local explanations, and probably little, if any, connection to Afghanistan, but the trend does indicate that the initial worries about guns, fighters and jihadist ideology spilling across borders in the aftermath of Taliban victory were overblown.
A.New Impetus for Regional Trade and Connectivity
From the days of the Silk Routes, prosperity in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood has depended on trade – with much of it passing through the country. In the last few decades, warfare turned Afghanistan into a roadblock to regional development. Since 2021, however, stability under the Taliban has revived regional actors’ dreams of trade corridors spanning South and Central Asia, giving new life to old plans for easing the flow of freight, gas and electricity.87 The Taliban and officials of neighbouring governments express interest in such economic cooperation, all for their own reasons. The region is trying to insulate itself from Western sanctions on Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the prospect of further economic restrictions on China. Central Asian countries, in particular, worry they will end up surrounded by pariah states and cut off from global markets.88 For their part, Moscow and Beijing are keen to foster the regional economy as a buffer against pressure from the West.89 The region wants business with Kabul mostly for the sake of diversifying trade routes – while also, perhaps, tempering the Taliban’s erratic tendencies with incentives for good behaviour.
Kabul’s motivations are stronger. After the Taliban took over, the West froze central bank assets and cut aid that previously had covered 75 per cent of state spending, while offering only partial sanctions relief.90 Afghan GDP contracted by 21 per cent in 2021.91The Taliban scrambled to halt the economic freefall, focusing on self-sufficiency and regional connectivity, not just as a way of paying the bills, but also as a defensive measure: by holding out the prospect that stable rule in Afghanistan would pay dividends in the form of economic opportunities, they made the former a matter of self-interest for regional actors.92 Customs duties emerged as the biggest source of revenue for the new regime, as it tackled widespread corruption and removed predatory checkpoints that had proliferated during the war, hampering trade.93 The Taliban also invited foreign companies back to the country, but the few investors willing to take the risk were mostly from the region: for instance, the largest mining concessions to date have been awarded to local firms backed by Chinese, Iranian or Turkish partners.94
Millions of Afghans suffer extreme poverty at a time when Western donors, put off by the Taliban’s discrimination against women, are turning away.
A degree of economic stability returned, as Kabul’s revenues picked up, exports grew, inflation fell, the currency recovered and the proportion of food-insecure households declined from 70 per cent in late 2021 to 59 per cent in early 2023.95 Still, millions of Afghans suffer extreme poverty at a time when Western donors, put off by the Taliban’s discrimination against women, are turning away, resulting in billions of dollars cut from humanitarian budgets for 2023.96 The Taliban had found ways to pay hundreds of thousands of civil servants, but their burden grew in 2023 as humanitarian agencies stopped covering salaries for some medical staff.97 Pressures on the central bank, still deprived of its assets, are expected to mount in 2024 as aid dwindles, clouding the macro-economic picture.98
The Taliban, who know they need economic growth to stay afloat, have pushed for Afghanistan’s inclusion in regional development plans.99 Their main priority appears to be constructing a trans-Afghan railway that would link Uzbekistan with Pakistan, which could shorten delivery times by up to five days, thereby reducing transport costs.100 It would also connect to the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan rail system, which started running trains into the Afghan border town of Hairatan in 2022.101 But no country involved appears to want to spend the billions of dollars required to build the railway, and international development agencies backed away after the Taliban takeover.102 Doubts persist about Kabul’s technical capacity to undertake such an ambitious project.103 The deterioration of Afghanistan-Pakistan relations over the TTP has dulled appetites as well. Similar concerns have delayed longstanding efforts to link the region’s electricity and gas supply networks.104
B.Modest Investments, So Far
With mega-projects on hold, Kabul appears to be exploring more modest efforts. The Ministry of Water and Energy has, for example, proposed small-scale projects for energy generation, such as wind farms.105 Before investing in railways, the Taliban are also spending their meagre development budget on improving the roads connecting Afghanistan with its neighbours, upgrading infrastructure at border crossings and regularising trade practices.106
Kabul has also been promoting regional investments in extractive industries, but most of these projects remain at exploratory stages. For example, in September 2022, an Iranian company signed an agreement for the extraction of lead and zinc in Ghor province.107 In January 2023, Kabul inked a deal for development of the Amu Darya oilfields with a Chinese company, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas, which later unveiled further investments in Afghanistan.108 Despite the grand announcements, work has been slow getting started. The exceptions have been low-key projects such as Perozi Park, an industrial complex near Kabul, with construction co-sponsored by Beijing. At the time of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the area was still a wasteland.109
Much of the investment by regional actors is extremely cautious at best, and performative at worst.
For now, much of the investment by regional actors is extremely cautious at best, and performative at worst, geared toward boosting relations with Kabul without risking much capital.110 Investors may simply lack confidence in the Taliban’s ability to manage the economy, but some have also had bad experiences in Afghanistan. Missteps by Chinese entrepreneurs best illustrate the volatility of economic adventurism in the country since 2021. The departure of U.S. forces sparked a “gold rush” among Chinese speculators, many of whom arrived from prospecting in Africa to seek precious metals, gems, rare earths and other mineral wealth.111 Some of these entrepreneurs told Crisis Group that the early efforts faltered, with the would-be investors going home “after having discovered that this frontier market might be more ‘frontier’ than expected”.112 Some businessmen tried to bribe their way past Taliban regulations and, allegedly, set up alcohol distilleries and prostitution rings, getting themselves arrested.113
There appears to have been a misunderstanding between the Taliban and this wave of entrepreneurs, with the former hoping for investments by Chinese state-backed firms and instead getting small-time chancers. So far, bigger Chinese companies seem content to purchase exploration rights to Afghan mines, even if they are not developing them yet, perhaps as a means of seeking control of what is found underground and influencing commodity prices.114
C.Tensions over Water
Water management has emerged as a point of contention between the new government in Kabul and neighbouring states. Tensions over water had simmered for decades, but grew in recent years, to the point of reportedly triggering border clashes with Iran. The most important reason is the impact of climate change: with 80 per cent of its water coming from snowmelt and glaciers, Afghanistan is among the countries most vulnerable to global warming.115 About 60 per cent of the country’s households now suffer water shortages, while hotter winters and precipitous spring seasons are respectively causing droughts and floods.116 Making things worse is the fact that Afghanistan lags behind its neighbours in developing water infrastructure. Meanwhile, other countries have built agricultural sectors that depend on an unhindered supply of water from Afghanistan.
These factors drive the Taliban to seek ways of catching up, pursuing ambitious water projects that are raising hackles in the region. Afghanistan is mostly upstream from countries next door, which means they often view Afghan dams and irrigation systems as threats.117 A complication is that among Afghanistan’s many transboundary rivers, only one is subject to a water-sharing agreement. The rest are governed only by international customary law, which calls for “equitable and reasonable” use of water, without clarifying what that phrase entails.118The fact that previous Afghan governments drummed up nationalist fervour for water projects, giving the issue populist appeal, has not helped the Taliban in managing relations with their neighbours. The Taliban have also seized upon water infrastructure not only for its practical value but also as a propaganda piece meant to portray their efficient governance, filling their media outlets with footage shot from drones showing construction in several provinces.119 Among these, works in two places – a canal in the north and a dam in the south – are most contentious.
1.Concerns from Central Asia
In the north, the Taliban inaugurated the Qush Tepa Canal in March 2022, making swift progress on what ranks as their largest infrastructure project.120 When finished, the canal will divert water from the Amu Darya, a river that separates Afghanistan from its Central Asian neighbours. The canal will traverse 285km of northern Afghanistan before reconnecting with the river, irrigating up to 550,000 acres of farmland.121 Kabul funded the project from the national budget, at times awarding mining rights to contractors in lieu of payment to spare the cash-strapped treasury.122 More than 100 companies are reportedly involved, with over 7,000 workers.123 By October 2023, phase one of the project was complete and the second under way.124
The imminent prospect of the canal diverting part of the Amu Darya revived old fears in the region: Crisis Group has been reporting about the potential for water conflicts between Afghanistan and Central Asian states for over twenty years.125 Afghanistan appears to be joining Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as upstream countries that, struggling economically, are trying to keep more water even as neighbours downstream – namely, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan – need more for their growing agricultural sectors.126 The five Central Asian countries already squabble over water, despite a 1992 agreement among them on allocating it, to which Afghanistan is not a party.127 Still, Kabul is bound by international law, including the obligations to notify affected states of waterworks and to abide by a no-harm principle.128 Central Asian states say they were never informed, let alone consulted, about the Taliban’s plans for the canal.129
Downstream countries want further discussion of the canal to find ways of mitigating its impact on transboundary water flows. In an attempt to reduce wastage caused by the Taliban’s rudimentary construction methods, Uzbekistan has even offered technical support for the project.130 But the Taliban are wary, arguing that the project is in line with provisions in international customary law about “reasonable and equitable” use of water and that previous Afghan governments, having been planning the canal since the 1970s, already satisfied the notification requirement. The Taliban sometimes view foreigners’ efforts to talk about the canal or offer assistance as delaying tactics.131 Given how important the project has become to the Taliban’s self-portrayal domestically, and the money involved, Kabul will not want to adjust the schedule – even as delegations keep visiting from nearby countries to persuade them otherwise.132
2.Conflict with Iran
On the country’s southern borders, a similar conflict over water has often sparked public accusations by both sides. Iran and Afghanistan are feuding over the Helmand river, Afghanistan’s longest waterway, which provides more than 40 per cent of the country’s surface water and is critical for irrigation in its arid southern provinces. The main point of contention is Kamal Khan dam, inaugurated in 2021 by the previous Afghan government. Downstream, the river is vital to the wellbeing of the volatile Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, where wetlands are drying up and scientists predict that planned Afghan dams could threaten 70 per cent of wheat production.133 Disagreements over rights to the river may have contributed to deadly clashes between Taliban and Iranian forces in May 2023, though both sides deny it played a role.134
The longstanding tensions with Iran could ideally be mitigated by an existing deal on water sharing.
Unlike the dispute with Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, the longstanding tensions with Iran could ideally be mitigated by an existing deal on water sharing. A 1973 bilateral agreement stipulated that Tehran would be entitled to fixed amounts of water, which were to be determined after construction of a hydrometric station and three testing stations in Afghanistan.135 With the political upheavals both countries lived through in the following years, the deal was never ratified or put into practice.136 But it remains a point of reference, with both sides invoking its provisions during their recent spats over water sharing.137
Mirroring their behaviour in other water disputes, the Taliban have signalled that regional concerns will not slow down their infrastructure plans near the Iranian frontier. Soon after the border clash, and even as bilateral talks continued about the Helmand river in May 2023, senior Taliban officials announced fresh construction on the Bakhshabad dam, located on the Farah Rud, another river flowing into Iran. The fact that this dam was inaugurated in the middle of the diplomatic tussle over the Helmand suggested that Kabul will keep building water infrastructure, even when neighbours vehemently disagree.138
The Taliban’s high tolerance for conflict over water arises in part from their hopes that hydroelectric projects could make Afghanistan, which currently imports 80 per cent of its electricity, self-sufficient in energy. More urgently, Kabul also faces rising demand for water from farmers, especially in the Taliban heartlands of southern Afghanistan. The need for irrigation in those regions rose sharply in 2023, after the Taliban banned opium cultivation and farmers switched to growing cotton and other more water-intensive crops.139
V.Better Regional Dialogue
The lack of trust between the Taliban and their neighbours is evident, and tensions on some of Afghanistan’s borders appear to be growing. This wariness prompts countries in the region to cherry-pick issues they want to engage on, focusing on matters of highest priority in their respective capitals. While such a pragmatic approach is logical from a diplomatic standpoint, it misses opportunities for solving interrelated sets of problems. For their part, the Taliban need to set aside concerns about falling under foreign influence if they wish to achieve better collaboration with their neighbours. Broad-based security cooperation could address regional states’ concerns about militant groups inside Afghanistan, while also easing Taliban worries about insurgents getting help from outside the country. Similarly, better integration of regional economic development plans could lead to forging shared economic interests, building incentives for cooperation instead of destructive rivalries.
The first step toward better regional security cooperation will be cooling down the rhetoric on all sides and getting regional actors on the same page about security issues, agreeing on a set of facts even if they have different priorities. Taliban forces have got better at targeting IS-KP leaders, but information sharing remains limited, since the Taliban have not built confidence with regional partners.140 Part of the problem is that the Taliban lack credibility due to their blanket denials regarding certain threats – particularly the TTP – while regional countries offer inflated estimates of the number of militants allegedly based in Afghanistan. There is also a schism between how the Taliban prefer to deal with many of the Islamist militant groups inside Afghanistan and how the region would like Kabul to deal with them.
It does not help that UN monitoring teams, which used to visit Afghanistan to provide independent assessments of terrorist threats, have not returned since 2021. The UN accepts information only from member states, meaning that the Taliban cannot assist the monitoring because they lack a UN seat. Member states should continue to encourage the UN to send the monitors back to the country or at least to seek feedback from Afghan forces on militant groups, which would represent a step toward refocusing global counter-terrorism institutions on transnational threats rather than groups with local agendas like the Taliban.141
Regional forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could also play a greater role in addressing the plethora of emerging challenges at the regional level.142 In fact, there are conversations within the organisation about reactivating the Afghanistan contact group, first established in 2005, with a view to fostering a regional platform for engagement with Kabul.143 Regardless of the format, regional players need to discuss the legitimate security needs of all actors around the table. Simply comparing notes might lead to tangible cooperation: some regional countries have expressed a desire for greater information sharing – and, possibly, even training and equipping Taliban forces – even if that remains controversial with their own populations.144
If regional security cooperation is to become a viable option, it must be based on reciprocal transparency.
If regional security cooperation is to become a viable option, it must be based on reciprocal transparency. While Afghanistan’s neighbours complain about the Taliban’s lack of decisive action against groups that threaten their security, they themselves have only provided limited information in response to Kabul’s requests for lists of the weapons and ammunition they received from fleeing members of the previous government’s armed forces.145 The Taliban also express frustration at getting no answers from neighbours (especially Pakistan) to their queries about alleged sightings of drones in Afghanistan’s airspace.146 Finally, the de facto authorities in Kabul want to know how anti-Taliban fighters are slipping into the country, but they receive little response from their neighbours.147
Such cooperation might be easiest, at first, along Afghanistan’s rugged borders, where neighbouring countries seek to staunch the flows of migrants, drugs, guns and jihadists coming from the country. Skirmishes on the frontiers fell off in the second year of Taliban rule, but the persistence of such incidents point to the lack of cooperation between Taliban patrols and their counterparts.148Central Asian countries have placed restrictions on some border crossings, allowing only representatives of local businesses to pass, which improves security but hurts trade. Another major problem is that the Taliban do not recognise the Durand Line as an official border, and have, at times, sent troops to impede Pakistan’s fencing of the boundary.149 Given that all past Afghan governments have refused to recognise this border, inherited from colonial times, it is hard to imagine the Taliban doing so, but that should not prevent them from cooperating on practical steps that improve security for both Afghanistan and the neighbourhood.
At best, the Taliban would accept help with the professionalisation of Afghan border guards, andall neighbours would agree on installing new technology at border crossings. Given the need to build trust, a starting point might be for Kabul to satisfy the neighbours’ requests to keep Taliban fighters away from their borders unless they belong to the uniformed Afghan border units. If the region wants the Taliban to improve the professionalism and efficiency of their security forces, however, they could support it in doing so. While they may understandably feel uncomfortable handing over military equipment abandoned on their territory by the armed forces of the previous Afghan government, countries across the region could also benefit from supplying equipment for border screening and customs integration. Neighbouring states welcomed Tajikistan’s proposal for establishing a “security belt” around Afghanistan in early 2023.150 This “belt”, which aims to provide a buffer against militants operating from inside Afghanistan, could also be extended to address the Taliban’s concerns about infiltration across the border in the other direction.151
Of all the risks that threaten to spill over into the region, the TTP is the deadliest. Kabul should constrain the TTP by curtailing the group’s capacity to recruit, train and raise funds on Afghan soil. Stronger action by the Taliban, including jailing individuals assisting the TTP in attacks on Pakistani targets or putting TTP leaders in Afghanistan under house arrest, would allow Pakistani forces to counter cross-border threats more effectively. But Islamabad will also have to address the root causes of the militancy in Pakistan itself if counter-insurgency operations are to stand a chance of success.152
The Taliban takeover has resulted in widespread poverty, from which the only escape is economic development that surpasses the high rate of population growth and overcomes hurdles such as insecurity and climate change.153 Many neighbouring countries also need strong growth to keep up with swelling labour forces.154 Against this backdrop, the case for better regional economic connectivity is overwhelming, especially in the energy sector, where Central Asian countries are in search of new markets while South Asia needs new supplies of oil, gas and electricity.155 Government planners across the region have been drafting schemes for such integration for decades, but now that Afghanistan is finally peaceful, allowing for their rollout, the Taliban have made themselves into global pariahs.
Investments in the frontier market are no doubt risky, as the bruising experience of Chinese investors has shown, but the region has strategic reasons to encourage ventures in Afghanistan as part of long-term planning for economic integration, which in turn would help with regional stability. The Taliban are frustrated that regional partners are slow to move ahead with projects such as railways, mines, electricity lines and trade corridors, and while some of the blame falls on the Taliban (see below), the region as a whole would clearly benefit from more alacrity with bringing Afghanistan into its development plans. China and Pakistan have already expressed support for including Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative.156 More such efforts are needed, however, to fully integrate Afghanistan into the regional economic infrastructure and insulate it from potential breakdowns in bilateral relations.157
That said, development plans require a reliable partner in Kabul, and the Taliban have not yet shown they are fully open for business. They have succeeded in tamping down violence across the country and have, for now, quelled the minor insurgencies against them. Corruption levels plunged after they took over and have remained much lower than under the previous government.158 While it may not be evident to much of the world, their government has shown a degree of administrative authority that is on par with that of most regional countries, with Taliban decisions enforced – for good and ill – in every Afghan province.
The Taliban’s internal dynamics … continue to give external actors cause for concern.
Yet the Taliban’s internal dynamics, with centres of power in Kabul and Kandahar vying for influence, as well as their opaque and, often, erratic policies, continue to give external actors cause for concern. Their government’s discrimination against women has tarred the Taliban’s name around the world, and some firms will steer away from the ethical and reputational risks of business with the regime. State revenues seem healthy, but no outsider can feel certain that the fiscal situation is solid because the government does not publish detailed budgets. The nature of opportunities also remains a matter of speculation: Afghanistan’s natural resources, for example, have never been properly mapped.159 Nor do the Taliban have the regulatory frameworks needed for large investments. They need to give investors greater predictability, including by ensuring clarity over applicable laws and establishing mechanisms for arbitration of commercial disputes.160
For the sake of regional stability, economic integration must make progress most urgently on water issues. Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan cannot afford to let their rivers dry up, but landlocked Afghanistan also cannot grow if water disputes interrupt trade, including its access to ports such as Iran’s Chabahar. The basis of an agreement between Iran and Afghanistan over the Helmand river may exist in the 1973 treaty: as discussed earlier, the two sides never established the hydrometric station and testing stations imagined as part of the agreement to determine river levels. Provided the two countries can pull together the required budget, building this infrastructure could reduce tensions between them and would offer agricultural returns on the investment for both. Similar collaboration may be feasible on the northern border where, as mentioned, Uzbekistan is offering technical support for the Qush Tepa canal. The Taliban have resisted what they see as foreign meddling in their flagship project but would have a lot to gain by allowing international expertise into the process. Including such support as part of a broader package of economic ties could bring them to compromise.161
Beyond the cases of Iran and Uzbekistan, some kind of wider agreement, or at least a tacit understanding, will be necessary to move ahead on regional cooperation. Afghanistan is not party to water-sharing treaties with Central Asian states, and a concern for many of them might be whether they can conclude binding international agreements with the de facto authorities without bestowing recognition on their government. Yet many seem to believe that important issues could be addressed without first having decided the issue of recognition. The Taliban and their neighbours thus have an opportunity to reach broad agreements, perhaps in multilateral discussions, on watershed management and climate adaptation. In that regard, the Taliban should be allowed to join the Conference of the Parties climate summits, or similar international events, to discuss not only what to build but also how to finance it. Afghanistan is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, but its access to climate financing – the Global Environment Facility, Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund – has been suspended since the Taliban takeover.162
Whatever gets achieved in international forums, be it on climate funding or other issues, it will almost certainly be less than the Taliban expect. Hundreds of billions of dollars flooded Afghanistan when Western donors considered it the main front in the war on terrorism, leading to outlandish ideas among Afghans about how much foreigners are willing to spend in their country. Recent efforts at economic projects have reportedly broken down because Kabul’s new bosses had unreasonable expectations. A regional diplomat sardonically accused the Taliban of employing a strategy that he called “pul bakhshish”, or “money gifts”, meaning that Kabul seeks more and more concessions as it negotiates an agreement, eventually making the deal a burden on the other party. Too often, Kabul expects support that matches the grants given the U.S.-backed government when it was battling the Taliban. In other words, besides the technical hurdles in attracting foreign investments – mapping resources and establishing legal frameworks – the Taliban also require more exposure to the workings of global markets.163
C.Western Support or Acquiescence
Diplomats from the region are trying to address security and economic issues through cautious engagement with the Taliban, but an official at a tiny embassy in Kabul admitted that the “to do” list feels daunting, as regional aspirations are often stymied by wider constraints. Only a handful of Western diplomats remain in the Afghan capital, and much of the day-to-day work with the Taliban falls to regional actors with budgets that do not match the size of the problems. Western sanctions have been eased by U.S. exemptions, but many sanctions remain in force, and, in any case, it is hard to get loans for infrastructure in an impoverished, pariah state.164 Many issues facing Afghanistan are development challenges, but Western donors have cut off development assistance and offer only fast-shrinking humanitarian aid. “If your engagement is mostly based on humanitarian assistance, and that assistance is declining, then your engagement strategy is really a disengagement strategy”, as a Western official in Kabul summed it up.165
Policymakers in the countries that battled the Taliban in previous years might see this state of affairs as painful but necessary to achieve a range of desired outcomes. There are more than a few Western leaders who would prefer to forget Afghanistan; for some of them, shunning the country allows them to avoid the topic of a lost war. Prominent voices are calling for pressure on the Taliban, and even active support for anti-Taliban forces, hoping for regime change, but the Taliban show no sign of collapse and subjecting Afghans to more years of war seems particularly cruel.166 Others may hope that undermining the regime will leave a mess on the doorsteps of China, Russia and Iran, which some might see as a geopolitical win.167 Still others, including Western diplomats who want to negotiate a better future for ordinary Afghans – women and girls, especially – may believe that their leverage with the Taliban is higher if they hold back security and economic support, using the promise thereof to get concessions in future negotiations over recognition.
How best to make progress on human rights requires careful consideration and will almost certainly entail trade-offs, but Afghanistan’s security and economic challenges cannot be ignored in the meantime – not least because the people who suffer the most from instability and deprivation are usually women and girls.168 Two years after the Taliban returned to power, it is worth giving weight to the concerns of regional countries that spend the most time talking to the new leadership in Kabul and have the most at stake. The countries surrounding Afghanistan are warning that the world cannot afford to have a failed state in the region and that isolation would only make the Taliban more intransigent. They need international backing for the modest steps required to live next door to such a challenging neighbour.
Western donors discussing development policy options for Afghanistan should … involve governments from the region in their deliberations.
Those needs will vary according to countries and projects, but in many ways Western countries remain gatekeepers, whether for attaining voting rights at the World Bank board or granting exemptions from sanctions and export controls to send equipment for Taliban border guards. Progress will be impossible in many cases without Western support or, at least, acquiescence. For example, regional airlines want to resume flights to Kabul but have not done so because the radar system at the airport is deemed unsafe. Regional diplomats complain that new equipment has been purchased but remains stuck in Europe due to sanctions.169 Another chokepoint is Western banking regulations: regional banks want to facilitate transactions with Afghanistan, but U.S. banks often forbid them from doing so.170 Western donors discussing development policy options for Afghanistan should also involve governments from the region in their deliberations – even if regional actors are not donors themselves, decisions made in such meetings can bear directly on their economic wellbeing as well.171
Some solutions will need to move ahead without any, or much, Western funding. It is, for example, hard to imagine international donors paying for large-scale water infrastructure on the Helmand river to assist the outcast regimes in Kabul and Tehran. But it would not cost international agencies much to offer technical assistance for better management of shared waters. For the moment, Afghanistan and Iran prefer to talk about their dispute bilaterally, but their 1973 agreement allows them to “use the good offices of a third party” and contains additional protocols for arbitration of disputes.172 It might be desirable to involve the World Bank or a similar institution that could offer expertise and, possibly, help with small-scale funding to map and monitor water flows.173 Similar technical assistance could aid Afghanistan in better regulating migrant labour, offering skills certification for Afghans seeking work in the Gulf and elsewhere. Solutions proposed for the Afghan banking sector might also require only a few experts and a green light from the U.S. government, rather than a major investment.174
The UN Security Council received a blueprint for moving ahead with such ideas in mid-November 2023, when Special Coordinator Feridun Sinirlioğlu concluded his much-anticipated review of international efforts in Afghanistan. Among other proposals, Sinirlioğlu called for greater international support for security cooperation with the Taliban-controlled government, including provision of assistance related to addressing “key security and regional stability issues” such as terrorism and border controls. On economic matters, Sinirlioğlu’s report called for expanding international cooperation in the fields of climate adaptation and transboundary natural resource management; completion of near-finished infrastructure projects abandoned in 2021; and measures to promote transit, trade, and connectivity between Afghans with the world. The Council should adopt these and other recommendations from the Sinirlioğlu report as part of its mandate to maintain international peace and security.175
More fundamentally, Western countries must decide whether the Taliban are a threat to be contained or unavoidable (if frustrating and, in their gender policies, odious) interlocutors on regional stability and development. Some Western intelligence officials want more cooperation with the Taliban on counter-terrorism, but others among their colleagues still talk privately about backing anti-Taliban rebels.176 This policy schizophrenia has persisted for too long. Regional states do not need the West’s blessing to engage with the Taliban on matters of national security or economic integration, but getting it would, in many instances, simplify their efforts in that regard.
A Taliban regime that respects human rights might be welcomed into the club of nations, someday. But that will not happen in the foreseeable future, if ever, which means that Afghanistan is likely to be ruled by an unrecognised pariah regime for years to come. Its people should not be held hostage to this reality. For the sake of destitute millions both in Afghanistan and across the region, efforts must continue to make the world’s relationship with Kabul more functional, even if on a piecemeal basis. Afghanistan and its neighbours have urgent needs – among them, security and economic recovery – that cannot be placed on hold.
With Western influence in Afghanistan fading, most of the responsibility for improving regional cooperation falls on the shoulders of the country’s neighbours and the Taliban themselves. They must clear a path for greater flows of goods across borders and work together to keep one another safe. All sides know from history the nightmarish consequences of failure. While Western countries are unlikely to be enthusiastic about such cooperation on account of the Taliban’s attacks on women’s rights, they should at the very least refrain from blocking practical steps to do such things as improve trade and counter militants, which will lessen poverty among the Afghan people – including women – in the long term.
Kabul/Brussels, 30 January 2024