The Taliban's Rising Fortunes

Under the auspices of a Russia-led multilateral forum, the Taliban have an opportunity to become a recognized member of the international community. What remains to be seen is if they can muster the compromise and flexibility to follow through on their commitments.

The Taliban's Rising Fortunes

The Taliban regime in Kabul doesn’t face any significant military threat to its survival in Afghanistan. It is militarily and politically, largely an uncontested ruler of Afghanistan. The formidable Northern Alliance, a loose military alliance of the 1990s led by the legendary commander late Ahmed Shah Masood—is now a paper tiger. The Northern Alliance’s previous backers like India, Iran and Russia are no longer interested in shoring up the group’s military capabilities. All the while, ISIS-Khorasan is still actively engaging in a campaign of urban terrorism. But as a military force capable of holding territory, the ISIS-Khorasan’s military power was decimated by the US military back in 2019 when it massively bombed ISIS strongholds in Eastern Afghanistan, thus inadvertently facilitating Taliban’s impending military control of Afghanistan. 

We can reasonably conclude that the Taliban are firmly in control of Afghan territory, as there is no specific military threat that exists inside Afghanistan that can prove to be an obstacle in their way. Afghanistan or Taliban’s Afghanistan to be more precise, has yet to attain the status of a full-fledged state in the international comity of nations. Firstly, the Taliban regime and the state it controls doesn’t have international recognition from even a single country, or any multilateral institution like the United Nations. Although many neighboring countries of Afghanistan are hobnobbing with the Taliban Regime, and recently some multilateral forums have also started negotiations with the Taliban in Kabul. Second, the Taliban’s control over its territory appears to be tenuous if one looks at how Afghan territory hosts a number of foreign militant and terrorist organizations, which apparently have their own command structures and rules of operations that don’t come under the supervision of state structures which the Taliban regime presides over. Except ISIS-Khorasan, none of these terror organizations are at war with the Taliban regime. In fact, Taliban Intelligence services are playing hosts to international terror organizations, including Al-Qaeda and TTP.

The Afghan Taliban’s luck or fortunes, however, are on the rise. There are developments on the diplomatic front which indicate that the Taliban might already be on the path to attain international status and recognition of their statehood. The Russia led group on Afghanistan called the Moscow Format has formally asked the Afghan Taliban to forcefully fight ISIS-Khorasan and other terrorist groups operating from Afghan soil.

Taliban Intelligence services are playing hosts to international terror organizations, including Al-Qaeda and TTP.

The fifth Moscow Format meeting took place in Kazan, Russia in the first week of October. The meeting issued a joint statement urging the Taliban to actively confront ISIS and other terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan. The joint statement apparently is a critique of the Taliban’s style of governance, but it could be construed as an opportunity afforded to the Taliban to regain international dimension of Afghan’s statehood. Russia, deeply concerned about the Afghan situation, stressed the importance of forming an “all-inclusive government” that encompasses all ethnic and political factions. The Russian Foreign Ministry also pointed out that the Taliban have not delivered on their promises to combat terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Representatives of Russia, India, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan participated in the meeting of the Moscow Format. Representatives of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey also participated as observers in this session. The conference announced that a Taliban representative was invited as a special guest in the meeting. The conference emphasized that it was absolutely essential for regional peace that Taliban continue to fight ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan. The meeting called upon the Afghan Taliban to broaden the base of their interim government and include all ethnic and political groups existing in Afghanistan in the Afghan interim government. 

The Taliban foreign minister however, emphasized that the international concept of an all-inclusive government has failed to resolve Afghanistan’s crisis in recent decades. The minister asserted that their regime possesses both “religious and national legitimacy.”  “Participants in the Moscow Format Meeting, through a statement, have expressed concerns about the challenging security situation in Afghanistan due to the escalation of terrorist activities. The final statement of this session emphasizes that the Taliban must demonstrate through practical actions that they will prevent Afghanistan from becoming a center of terrorism, instability, and its spread in the region.” 

“Members of the Moscow Format have called on the Taliban to increase their cooperation in the fight against terrorist threats and drug trafficking from Afghan soil. Participants in this session also continue to demand the respect of women’s rights.” In another section of their statement, they stated, “We have focused on concerns regarding the prohibition of work for women and education for girls and urged the authorities in Afghanistan [the Taliban] to promote modern education in schools in accordance with international standards.”

The modern Afghan state is said to have come into existence in the mid-19th century, when the expanding Russian Empire came across the possibility of coming face to face with the British Empire, and confronting each other in the lawless tribal expanse in the territory that is present-day Afghanistan. This security dilemma was solved with an agreement on the independence of Afghanistan. Thus, Afghan became a buffer state between two empires. With little resources of its own to meet the expenses of running a modern bureaucracy and a standing army, the rulers of Afghanistan started to depend on the cash flows and guns from the British Indian Army. Both the Russian Empire and British Indian Empire continued to agree on the independence of Afghanistan as a buffer till the time the British decided to quit India—leaving behind two independent states of Pakistan and India in its wake. Even after that, Afghanistan continued to exist as a buffer between the Soviet Empire that had annexed Muslim Central Asia into its fold and American allied Muslim states in South Asia and South West Asia during the Cold War. 

The Soviet and American Empires continued to cooperate to facilitate the existence of Afghanistan as an independent state during the Cold War. However, this understanding fizzled out when the Soviet invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve in 1979. Great power cooperation which ensured the independence of Afghanistan gave wave to great power rivalry and proxy wars. This was the end of the Afghan state when forces bigger than the state started to operate in its territory. The armed struggle against Soviet occupation turned into a civil war when those fighting the Soviet forces started fighting each other after the Soviet withdrawal. The Afghan state, however, never succeeded in regaining its former status. Every regional power had a proxy inside Afghanistan, to which they provided weapons, training, finances and intelligence and logistical support. 

Forces much larger than the Afghan state, which entered its territory in 1979, never in actual terms withdrew from the unfortunate land. In 2001, the Americans and their western allies occupied Afghanistan and promised the world and Afghan people that they would build a functional state. The Americans pumped in trillions of dollars, but did not succeed in building a viable state. The Americans quit Afghanistan in August 2021. 

India also signed on to a joint statement that demanded the Taliban include all ethnic groups in the government. Interestingly, you only put this kind of demand forth to an entity which you have extended some kind of recognition in the first place. 

Since then, Afghanistan has lost the international dimension of its statehood. A few residual elements of its statehood remain—like Afghanistan’s cricket team participating in the ongoing Cricket World Cup. Various agencies of the United Nations are carrying out humanitarian assistance programs in Afghanistan in collaboration and with the permission of the Taliban regime in Kabul, although UN officials are extremely careful to suggest none of their acts should be construed as granting recognition or legitimacy to the Taliban regime.

In such a situation, the Moscow Format meeting in Russia came as a blessing in disguise for the Taliban regime. The Moscow Format’s leading light - Russia - has already been hobnobbing with Taliban since the time the Americans were still in control of Afghanistan. For instance, Russian intelligence was providing weapons to the Taliban in their fight against American forces. Russians remained in diplomatic contact with the Taliban leadership throughout this period and invited the Taliban to Moscow on several occasions. So, Russia’s soft corner for the Taliban is nothing new. What is new is the participation of countries like India and Iran in the Moscow Format. 

The Indians shared a roof with the Taliban foreign minister in the Moscow Format meeting. India became part of a process—that put forward formal demands to the Taliban regime in Kabul—that could ultimately pave the way for diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime. India also signed on to a joint statement that demanded the Taliban include all ethnic groups in the government. Interestingly, you only put this kind of demand forth to an entity which you have extended some kind of recognition in the first place. Not without importance is the demand put before the Taliban to fight ISIS-Khorasan on Afghan territory.

A Pakistani diplomat also attended the Moscow Format meeting and Pakistan signed the joint statement along with other members of the group. The Moscow Format Consultations were launched in 2016 with the aim to promote political reconciliation between the then-Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban, who were at war against Afghan security forces and the US-led forces in the country. The Ashraf Ghani government disintegrated the moment the Taliban entered Kabul. However, the Moscow Format group continued its annual meetings, in which senior level participation was ensured by every country since 2016. Along the same format and with the same countries participating—except India—Pakistan twice hosted the intelligence chiefs of these countries with the stated objective of developing a joint strategy to deal with the threat of ISIS-Khorasan and other terror groups on Afghan soil. 

Opportunity is knocking at the doors of the Taliban. They only have to show some flexibility to become a full-fledged member of the international community.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.