The dramatic and rapid Taliban offensive in the spring of 2021 culminated in its takeover of Kabul on August 15. The chaos of the western withdrawal that surrounded the return of the Taliban represented a sad endpoint of two decades of failed US-led attempts to impose a liberal democratic system on a country that had hosted al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and facilitated his masterminding of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The swiftness of the Taliban takeover confounded more optimistic US and UK predictions about the survival of the Afghan government. But most of its consequences were entirely predictable, and indeed predicted – from the worsening human rights situation to an economic crisis.
Five million Afghans fled the country and over three million were internally displaced, according to the UN refugee agency’s update in July 2023. The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is now at an unprecedented critical level: more than 18 million people – just under half the Afghan population – face acute food-insecurity.
Least peaceful country
After an initial upsurge, violence has significantly declined in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Yet, Afghanistan remains “the least peaceful country in the world in 2023”, according to the Global Peace Index.
This reflects, in part, the ongoing rivalry between the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group. This branch of the Islamic State remains the most potent domestic challenger to the Taliban. It comprises somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 fighters, including former regime officials and members of ethnic minorities opposed to the Taliban regime. IS-K has been responsible for the majority of civilian casualties in terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan and has established itself firmly in the northern and northeastern provinces of Afghanistan.
From a regional perspective, IS-K poses an equally important security threat to Afghanistan’s northern neighbours in central Asia. At the end of July 2023 it claimed a suicide attack in northwest Pakistan that killed more than 50 people.
IS-K, however, is not the most significant security threat to Pakistan. Rather, the Taliban’s longstanding ally has been afflicted by an upsurge in violent attacks committed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a terrorist group allegedly enjoying safe havens in Afghanistan. According to a recent UN report, the TTP has reabsorbed several splinter groups and seeks to regain a measure of territorial control along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Since the Taliban takeover, other, more regionally oriented terrorist groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Turkestan Islamic Party (formerly known as the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement), have also benefited from a more permissive environment in which to operate. These and numerous other groups are smaller in size – numbering in their tens and hundreds, rather than thousands. But they tend to coordinate and cooperate with each other and increasingly also with IS-K.
This is of particular concern to China. Beijing is worried that the Uyghur extremist Turkestan Islamic Party will eventually use Afghanistan as a base for attacks against China and Chinese interests in the wider region.
Beyond terrorism, competition over scarce water resources is the other major source of conflict. The Taliban’s plan to build the Qosh Tepa Irrigation Canal will decrease water available to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan from the transboundary Amu Darya River by as much as 15%. This will have major social, economic and public health consequences for both countries.
A similar crisis is brewing between Tehran and Kabul. The Taliban is reportedly preparing toops, including suicide bombers for what looks certain to be a conflict with Iran over water shortages caused by the Taliban allegedly reneging on a 1973 water treaty.
Fear and intimidation at home and abroad
After two years of Taliban rule, Afghanistan, is a different – but not a lesser – problem. The deal signed between the Taliban and the US on February 29 2020, after two years of talks pushed by the then US president, Donald Trump, precipitated the withdrawal of western troops but did not bring about intra-Afghan reconciliation.
On the contrary, since the takeover in August 2021 the Taliban has ruled with fear and intimidation. And it has failed in its commitment to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
This has not, however, stopped international efforts to engage with the Taliban regime. Central Asian states have been at the forefront of efforts to integrate Afghanistan into regional trade and security structures and pushed the idea of a trans-Afghan railway line. In early August, 2023, Kazakhstan hosted a Taliban delegation for a business forum. The two countries signed US$200 million (£157 million) worth of deals, primarily to supply grain and flour to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has vast mineral deposits, including critical rare earth minerals. These have attracted Chinese investment in Afghanistan’s lithium sector. Beijing and Kabul also agreed a deal in January 2023, enabling a Chinese company to drill for oil in the Amu Darya basin.
While these efforts do not imply recognition of the Taliban regime – even by its closest neighbours – they suggest a slow but inevitable trend in that direction. This all the more likely now that even Washington has begun to re-engage with the Taliban. This has included signalling, at recent high-level talks in Doha, Qatar, an “openness to a technical dialogue regarding economic stabilisation issues”.
Washington is still ruling out recognition “right now for a number of reasons, including the treatment of their own people, including their many flagrant human rights violations”. But this represents a significant shift in US policy.
Two years of Taliban rule have seen the regime in Kabul double down on its repressive domestic policies and do little to assuage its near and far neighbours’ concerns over new and old security risks. So this apparent willingness to re-engage with the Taliban will send all the wrong signals and is unlikely to bring about more security and stability for Afghans and their neighbours.