Taliban’s Foreign Policy Poses Risks at Home and Abroad

On January 10, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, sought to reassure his country’s neighbors that Afghanistan’s new government was committed to peace. “We do not create insecurity or other problems for anyone,” Muttaqi said in a video message. “Everyone can come freely and live.”

Yet, despite the soothing words, the Taliban’s foreign policy, if one can call it that, has so far failed to win supporters. From its closest ally Pakistan to other friendly countries surrounding Afghanistan – such as Iran, China, and the Central Asian states – the Taliban is struggling to maintain good neighborly relations. This is as troubling for Afghanistan abroad as it is for Afghans at home.

Tensions in relations with Pakistan are the most consequential. Islamabad has long cultivated the Taliban as an ally, and in December, Pakistan even convened an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit to raise funds for Afghanistan. But on the day of the OIC meeting, Taliban border guards prevented their Pakistani counterparts from constructing fencing along the Durand Line, the disputed border between the two countries.

Weeks later, after clashes erupted between the Taliban and Pakistani soldiers in two locations, senior Taliban officials affirmed their ban on fencing. While nobody expects a united Pashtunistan to become a reality anytime soon, the Taliban, like previous Afghan governments, views the Durand Line as a colonial imposition that has divided Pashtuns on either side.

The threat to Islamabad from the Taliban’s refusal to allow fencing is that it will enable Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to continue using the disputed border region to step up attacks against the Pakistani state. During its 20-year fight against Afghanistan’s former NATO-backed republican government, the Taliban sought sanctuary in TTP-controlled territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

After taking power in August 2021, the Taliban freed many TTP prisoners from Afghan jails. The TTP, in turn, proclaimed the Taliban to be a model for its war against Pakistan. Indeed, after the Taliban returned to Kabul, the TTP significantly ramped up attacks against Pakistani security forces. After the end of a month-long ceasefire between the Pakistan army and the TTP in December, the latter claimed responsibility for 45 attacks against Pakistani security forces, resulting in 117 casualties by the end of the month.

The Taliban’s reticence in acting against the TTP stems not just from ideological affinity. It is also worried that should it clamp down too much on the TTP, its cadre could cross over to the Taliban’s mortal enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), swelling its ranks. Reports already allege that many existing ISKP members are ex-TTP fighters. Moreover, despite the Pakistan-friendly Haqqani network holding the most important cabinet positions in the interim government in Kabul, it seems that the Taliban regime, either out of internal factionalism or as a matter of decided policy, is not beholden to Islamabad. The stage is set for much future turbulence between the two countries.

To Afghanistan’s west, ties between the Taliban regime and Iran are also fraying. Tehran still refuses to recognize the Taliban government because of its lack of inclusivity, and Iran has attempted to moderate the Taliban’s position on this. A high-level Taliban delegation visiting Tehran this week met with leaders of the anti-Taliban Afghan National Resistance Front (NRF). Despite the Taliban stating that NRF leaders could “come back to Afghanistan without any worries,” it remains to be seen if the Taliban creates an inclusive government to Tehran’s liking.

To be sure, the Taliban has gone some way toward appeasing Tehran by allocating cabinet posts to Iran-friendly Taliban factions. Yet, the relationship remains uneasy. In December, clashes broke out between Taliban soldiers and Iranian border police. Tehran is concerned by the flow of refugees into Iran, which is likely to increase as Afghanistan’s economy deteriorates further. There has also been no decrease in the smuggling of drugs into Iran from Afghanistan, perhaps since the narcotics trade is critical to the Taliban’s ability to fund its operations.

Additionally, there are suspicions that recent assassinations of Taliban soldiers in a Shia-dominated district of Kabul were carried out, not by ISKP, but by members of Iran-backed Afghan militias. This could be Tehran’s way of showing the Taliban that it maintains military assets within the country.

Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors are no less fraught. On January 3, the Taliban and Turkmenistan’s border guards exchanged gunfire, and in October, Russia conducted military drills along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. The same month, China agreed to finance the construction of a border post near the Tajik-Afghan border abutting China’s Xinjiang province – a sign that Beijing doesn’t trust the Taliban’s commitments to prevent the passage of Uyghur militants into Xinjiang.

The Taliban’s failure to assuage its neighbors’ concerns, together with the recent border clashes, suggest that the regime is faction-ridden and incoherent. These fissures could lead to internecine warfare within the Taliban in the coming months, which in turn will exacerbate the various simmering conflicts the Taliban has with Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Looming in the background is the even more dangerous presence of ISKP, which could step into the security vacuum and make Afghanistan a hub for global terrorism once again. The Taliban’s flailing foreign policy is just the tip of Afghanistan’s challenges, and the region should brace itself for more conflict to come.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.