Editor’s note: To mark the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s second takeover of Afghanistan, Just Security is publishing a series of essays on the developments of the last year and the prospects for the future of Afghanistan. The series will continue over the coming weeks, and feature voices from Afghan civil society, U.S. national security experts, international human rights experts, and others.
There was no perfect solution in Afghanistan. Looking back a year after America’s withdrawal, American military action in the country appears much like this generation’s Vietnam. In this age of multidimensional battlefields and hybrid warfare, American planners were slow to realize that outright military victory would be difficult to secure. And when they came to that conclusion, as reflected in the 2017 South Asia Strategy which sought to redefine the conflict and influence conditions on the ground rather than secure such a victory by force, it was too little, too late.
President Joe Biden’s departure from Afghanistan will be judged by various metrics. For some, the gauge will be human rights, political freedoms, and the plight of Afghan women. For others, it’s the belief that 20 years of blood and treasure—amounting to roughly 2,500 American deaths, 20,000 wounded, and $2.3 trillion dollars—was spent in vain. And that is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Afghans killed, wounded, orphaned, and displaced.
As we reflect on these losses, there is one metric that has been overlooked. How has the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover impacted regional tensions, great power competition, and American security interests? While the Biden administration at least partially framed the withdrawal in terms of the need to focus resources on emerging threats and great power competition, the pivot away from Afghanistan ironically may heighten such threats. The reality is that Afghanistan remains a key theatre for U.S. security interests, not least because of its geostrategic value in a war-torn region that includes four nuclear powers: Russia, China, Pakistan, and India; and a fifth that aspires to join that club, Iran, all ranked among the world’s seven largest standing militaries.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the calculus is simple: any U.S. loss in Afghanistan is Russia’s gain. But in this case, degrading America’s military, intelligence, and diplomatic presence in Afghanistan directly enhances Putin’s influence over former Soviet republics in Central Asia and enhances Moscow’s position as an economic and security power broker in the region. Indeed, Russia has long maintained an informal relationship with the Taliban and clandestinely provided increasing amounts of military assistance over the years. Russia officially acknowledged a communication channel with the Taliban in 2015, cementing efforts to expand its influence and build contacts with the group.
Since the Taliban takeover last year, Russia has focused on preventing any spillover of extremism and instability from Afghanistan into the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, as well as into Russia itself. Russian security and intelligence services are concerned that Islamic State fighters or other insurgents in northern and eastern Afghanistan might infiltrate Russia or former Soviet republics with Muslim majorities like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban, moreover, has a longstanding partnership with insurgent groups associated with al-Qaeda such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union. While the Taliban has reassured its neighbors that it would not allow terrorist groups to threaten them from Afghan soil, neither have they abandoned these former partners. And the reality is that the Taliban hardly enjoys absolute control over the countryside, or these groups, as reflected by its ongoing struggles with both the Islamic State and the National Resistance Front.
Like Russia, China shares similar security concerns about the spillover of extremism from Afghanistan. While Beijing would like to take advantage of its positive relations with the Taliban to expand economic cooperation, its interests are primarily security driven concerning Uyghur militants who seek to liberate Xinjiang Province and create an Islamic state and competition with the West. China wants to prevent threats from the ETIM and those Uyghurs and Central Asian fighters joining ISIS-K who are based in Afghanistan while expanding its influence across the region. The Taliban allegedly has acted on some of China’s concerns by relocating Uyghurs believed to be affiliated with ETIM from the Badakhshan Province close to China’s border to provinces in central Afghanistan.
At the same time, China has leveraged its Belt and Road Initiative to expand economic cooperation with the Taliban at the expense of the West. Chinese investments in minerals and mining—in particular, Lithium, an important battery component—puts the United States at a competitive disadvantage.
Pakistan and India
Afghanistan was and remains a flashpoint for tensions between Pakistan and India, this rivalry itself an arena of great power competition given how it draws in the United States, Russia, and China (with China supporting Pakistan, Russia supporting India, and the United States seeking to balance both sides). India and China have also engaged in their own skirmishes along their Himalayan border in 2020 and 2021, a flashpoint with ripples across the evolving quadrilateral security engagement among the United States, Japan, Australia and India, all of which share an interest in restraining China’s expansionist interests.
Pakistan, for its part, is in the midst of yet another political and economic crisis, which the Taliban takeover has only exacerbated. Years of support to jihadist Kashmiri independence groups and the Taliban have contributed to the instability the country faces. But the current environment has also undermined the army’s veneer of omnipotence and omniscience, and therefore its options, in maintaining order over an increasingly restless, bold, and religiously conservative population. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ouster from power, coming at minimum with the Army’s endorsement if not intent, has only served to increase his popularity with the religious base. Khan’s conspiracy claims of a cabal between the United States and Pakistan’s army, and encouragement for the country’s military and security officials to mutiny, suggests a willingness to fuel a religious revolt in his quest for power.
The danger for Pakistan’s army and current government is highlighted by the threat from the Tehrik-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an insurgent group that seeks its own independent caliphate. The TTP has benefitted from the Taliban takeover, having conducted numerous attacks and operations in Pakistan since the U.S. withdrawal. The Taliban has played a role in brokering negotiations but has shown little willingness to impair cross border TTP attacks, let alone expel the insurgent group’s estimated 3,000-4,000 armed fighters. Pakistan’s frustrations were reflected by military strikes into Afghanistan in response to the TTP Spring offensive that further strained bilateral tensions, a development that benefits Khan, an ardent Taliban supporter.
India, which enjoyed positive relations with the former Afghan government, has itself reached out to a receptive Taliban in offering humanitarian and economic aid. This engagement is intended to counterbalance Pakistan’s and China’s influence. But ISIS-K also represents a mutual threat as the Afghan-based Islamic State affiliate may find fertile ground among disenfranchised Indian Muslims given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist agenda. Against this backdrop, India may seek to increase counterterrorism cooperation with the Taliban against ISIS-K, which similarly poses a threat to India’s security, a development that would certainly rile Pakistan’s army and strain tensions among all three.
As India and Pakistan compete for influence in a Taliban-run Afghanistan, the potential for escalating tensions and missed signaling may increase. While the Taliban looks to its self-interest in leveraging engagements with both, TTP cross-border operations and India’s cooperation with the group might escalate to hostilities between Pakistan and Afghanistan and, in turn, India. Pakistan might again rely on the Kashmiri liberation groups it has long nurtured as a fifth column to retaliate against New Delhi and open lines to Afghan elements opposed to the Taliban or simply hedge it bets and cast fuel on the already simmering internal divisions within the organization. This leaves both Pakistan and India vulnerable to the unintended but potentially spiraling consequences of their entanglement with Afghanistan’s complicated politics—a dangerous prospect considering that the fact that a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan could result in as many as 125 million dead.
Iran and Afghanistan have had their own series of border skirmishes, fueling preexisting tensions rooted in the Taliban’s historic and ongoing oppression of Afghanistan’s Shi’a Hazara minority. The Taliban recently killed one of the few former Hazara leaders within its ranks who broke with the group not long after the government’s collapse and staged a short-lived and violently suppressed revolt in the country’s north. Attacks against Shi’a mosques and shrines in Afghan cities, though some being carried out by the Islamic State, have set off a series of reprisals on both sides of the border. On top of that, every day an estimated 5,000 Afghan migrants fleeing economic and political privations cross into Iran, provoking violent encounters between the country’s border guards.
Iran, for its part, still holds the Taliban responsible for the 1998 murders of nine of its diplomats in Herat—and many of the same Taliban leaders from that era are again in charge. Tehran also has given refuge to various former Afghan warlords, officials, and former government soldiers, including U.S.-trained Afghanistan National Army Commandos who were among Kabul’s most effective fighting groups during the war. And for years, Iran has trained thousands of Afghan Shi’a as part of its Fatemiyoun Forces sent to Syria—forces which offer Tehran a means of waging a proxy war against the Taliban, should it choose to do so. Such brinksmanship and saber rattling can easily escalate giving existing geopolitical and sectarian tensions.
There’s no quick fix to Afghanistan, but stop gaps are critical for keeping simmering regional tensions from coming to a boil while buying time to explore more transformational solutions. To that end, policymakers should consider the following steps.
First, it’s in America’s immediate interests to stave off further human suffering to the Afghan people while limiting how the Taliban, and its various competing elements, could leverage the situation for political gain. As Afghanistan’s leading source of aid, the United States could release frozen Afghan central bank funds to various international non-governmental aid organizations being allowed to operate in country. These programs do not require funding to go through Taliban hands.
Second, communicating with the Taliban does not require official recognition of its government and may prove mutually beneficial. As an intelligence officer, my experience is that there is always something to gain being on the ground and talking to your adversaries, regardless of their intentions. Although U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials are meeting Taliban counterparts in Doha and other third country locations, Washington should consider opening “liaison” offices in Kabul and Kandahar to build on such cooperation.
Opening liaison offices would pose a security risk. But the Haqqanis are likely to encourage such a move, given their significant financial interests beyond Afghanistan’s borders and history of dealing. The Taliban would also gain from cooperation against ISIS-K, a common enemy, as well as the humanitarian aid packages and potential economic engagement and consular services facilitated by a permanent American presence. Nevertheless, there would have to be an understanding that U.S. personnel would remain safe, even in the event that the United States engages in over-the-horizon operations against terrorist groups operating in the country.
Third, talking to the Taliban doesn’t preclude the United States from engaging its rivals. The United States should discretely reach out to internal and external opposition groups—including those taking up arms against the Taliban—while engaging in intelligence sharing (the United States should avoid providing direct military support, however, to avoid become once more embroiled in conflict).
Fourth, the United States is not likely to find Russia or Iran receptive to exploring common ground to address regional tensions, but China might be more practical, despite its own tensions with the West. Beijing’s willingness to find common ground could be motivated by an economic incentive related to its Belt and Road Initiative, cooperation against Uyghurs members of ETIM and ISIS, and Washington playing a positive role in mediating China and India’s border tensions.
Finally, the United States must identify a more constructive way to engage Pakistan and India to defuse any potential regional tensions over Afghanistan. To that end, the United States should consider how it might tailor economic and security incentives to both parties to avoid escalation.
Although much of the conversation regarding the consequences from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to revolve around counterterrorism, the greatest potential threats resulting from the Taliban’s takeover concern the prospect for escalating regional tensions and great power competition. Whether as a pawn of the major powers or a provocateur, Afghanistan’s fortunes are inextricably tied to an exceedingly dangerous and unstable region.
Most Americans understandably would rather put Afghanistan behind them. But as a region home to U.S. rivals China and Russia, belligerent nuclear powers Pakistan and India, and Iran, America neglects Afghanistan at its peril. The United States must proactively influence and contain the Taliban’s regional impact—rather than react to the dangers it might cause—while seeking to identify actions and policies which address the regional as a whole, rather than piecemeal.