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The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Regional Responses and Security Threats

27 Aug 2021

Whilst Kabul airport faces a deadly terrorist attack, the window is closing to evacuate all international troops and the thousands of Afghan civilians by 31 August. The Taliban is trying to both maintain control of the country, and counter armed resistance from the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) in the Panjshir valley. Resistance leader, Ahmad Massoud, has pleaded to the international community for more weapons, ammunition, and supplies. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s neighbours have their own security concerns regarding the Taliban seizing power in the country. Although the Taliban formally denies the presence of any foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), a recent UN report highlighting the continued links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda also indicates that between 8,000 to 10,000 FTFs are present in the country, most of whom originate in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Most of these foreign fighters are aligned with the Taliban, although others have also joined the ranks of al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP). From the press conference held by the Taliban on 17 August, but also their recent tour through the region to Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, it is clear that the group is seeking international recognition and support from its regional neighbours. The Taliban is desperate to attract funding to rebuild the country and will thus have to rely heavily on foreign investments, especially now that they have been denied access to $450 million of funds allocated for Afghanistan by the IMF. Regional co-operation will be vital to achieve this.  A common concern for practically all the countries in the region is the flow of Afghan refugees as a result of the Taliban being in power. The somewhat porous borders of the Central Asian countries are a perceived security risk for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan who have signalled they would “harshly” push back against any attempts to cross the border without permission, as it will for the Tajik government despite their pledge to take in up to 100,000 refugees. Similarly, Iran and Pakistan already host 780,000 and 1.5 million Afghan refugees respectively. As a result, Iran has stated they will immediately repatriate refugees once conditions have improved, and Pakistan has threatened to close their border with Afghanistan entirely. With much of the conversation about the Taliban being focused on what it means for the West, the regional security implications, and in particular, whether Afghanistan could become a hotbed for foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) for the neighbouring states merits further analysis and attention. This perspective explores the different security implications for the region, including some of the geopolitical interests that are at play and how the different countries in the region exert their influence and engage with the Taliban to protect their interests.


President Rahmon of secular Tajikistan, the only nation in the region that has refused to engage with the Taliban, has for months been expressing deep concerns regarding the group’s growing influence. The main points of concern centre around the implications for uncontrolled refugee crossing, increased cross-border drug smuggling, and the exportation of terrorism. Though major border-crossing points have access to INTERPOL and other data, connectivity at smaller border posts is non-existent, which means a significant lack of document security and biographic and biometric screening capabilities. Perhaps posing the most direct border threat is a group of Tajik FTFs who are members of Tajik designated terrorist group Jamaat Ansarullah, known in Afghanistan as the “Tajik Taliban”. They are in charge of a strategically important security checkpoint and five districts near the border in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province. Also active near this region, in the Panjshir Valley, is Massoud’s NRF whose likely first move will be to break out to the north in an attempt to control the entire Badakhshan province. It is unclear whether Tajikistan will be willing or able to go against the prevailing foreign policy approaches of the larger regional powers by giving overt support to their ethnic brothers in the NRF, who are predominantly Tajik Afghans. The Taliban stated that they would not allow any group in Afghanistan to attack the neighbouring country, or engage in combat near the border. Though Tajik concerns are not assuaged, with a Tajik government official arguing that “no-one can guarantee that Ansarullah won’t turn its back on the Taliban and attack Tajikistan”. Faced with these concerns, Tajikistan’s posturing has been one of force, border security, and anti-terror exercises focused on the border co-ordinated with China and Russia. As early as July this year, Tajikistan relocated 20,000 troops to strengthen the country’s border forces, and has also called upon its partners in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) for assistance resulting in Moscow providing funding for a new border outpost and offering to activate its roughly 6,000 troops positioned in Tajikistan, if needed.


The uncertainty and instability posed in Afghanistan creates both opportunities and threats for Uzbekistan. President Mirziyoyev has struggled to effectively position his country in the region and failed to properly build relations with the US. In recent years however, Uzbekistan has been holding talks with the Afghan government, as well as hosting delegations and peace talks with the Taliban, ostensibly ensuring that whoever emerged with control would look upon the nation favourably. Due to its geographical proximity, unlike Moscow and Beijing, Tashkent may consider themselves forced to deal with their neighbours, regardless of how unappealing that might be. In the wake of the US withdrawal, the Uzbek President has spoken of his intention to optimise trade routes  that will grow the Uzbek economy, which includes stabilising Afghanistan by making it part of the regional trade regime. Uzbekistan’s main trading route options all require the co-operation of Afghanistan, the denial of which would impede any progress on South-Central Asia economic connectivity, trade, and transit. An Afghanistan engulfed in civil war poses serious security and economic challenges to Uzbekistan, and the descent into Taliban rule could return Afghanistan to a hub for jihadist and criminal organisations. For Uzbekistan, this could mean a boost for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has been listed by the UN, and operates along with 700 FTFs including family members of fighters in the North of Afghanistan seeking to overthrow the Uzbek government and establish an Islamic state. IMU has close ties with al-Qaeda and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the so-called Pakistani Taliban, which operates with between 2,500-6,000 FTFs of their own but appears to be more or less controlled by the Taliban. What is possible, therefore, is that Uzbekistan could provide the Taliban with political recognition and an economic footing in exchange for the Taliban resisting the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the IMU among others, and the securing of safe passage of goods and trade between Central and South Asia.


Turkmenistan is also opting for a more diplomatic initiative in response to the Taliban. Similarly to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has been simultaneously discussing future projects and co-operation with both the Taliban and the Afghan government. Arguably the most amenable to the Taliban of the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan began bilateral dialogue with the group long before the US announced their withdrawal and has since been granting the Taliban legitimacy-burnishing diplomatic exchanges. Just three days after the fall of Kabul, Turkmen consuls and diplomats were already meeting with appointed Taliban heads in Afghanistan. The driving force for Turkmenistan in its relations with the Taliban-run Afghanistan is the diversification of its energy export routes and removal of the cap on its natural gas production. The country is currently dependent on the Chinese market, and further restricted by its arrangement with Russia. However, the Taliban have given assurances to the Turkmen government regarding the priority of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project, an electricity export line, and a proposed rail connection between the two countries. Since 1995, Turkmenistan has adopted a foreign policy based on permanent neutrality and has therefore not engaged in any military operations or multilateral training exercises like the other Central Asian states. Turkmenistan is also not a member of the aforementioned CSTO. This self-exclusion potentially exposes the country to a dangerous vulnerability should it find itself unable to provide security along the Afghan border. Russia is able to help defend the bordering nations that are members of the CSTO but Turkmenistan, with its stand-alone policies, cannot count on such protection. The fear of many of the Central Asian countries is that the so-called victory claimed by the Taliban will attract more FTFs to come to Afghanistan, but for Turkmenistan foreign fighters could similarly benefit from the volatility along the border, leading to destabilising actions inside Turkmen territory.


Pakistan’s position is arguably more complicated, perceiving the victory of the Taliban with mixed feelings. Military leaders and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) openly support the Taliban and Prime Minister Khan alluded to breaking the shackles of slavery as the Taliban was swiftly assuming control of Afghanistan. Not only does Pakistan provide safe havens and material to the group, but it has also recently acknowledged that sick and wounded Taliban fighters are treated in Pakistani hospitals. Pakistan strongly believes that the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies under the now exiled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have been closely working together in cross-border attacks on Pakistan. With a pro-Pakistan Taliban in charge, Pakistan is hoping to quell its fear of an Indian threat through Afghanistan. Simultaneously, however, since 2020 the Pakistani government has had serious concerns over the resurgence of the TTP. The group has congratulated the Taliban for its victory and is ideologically very close to the Afghan Taliban. The TTP seeks to overthrow the Pakistani government and mirror a similar strict Islamic rule. Listed by the UN and banned in Pakistan, the group has been suffering losses in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region since 2014 because of counter-insurgency operations by Pakistan and US and due to the creation of ISKP by a former TTP fighter. Over the past year TTP has rebounded and gained strength through alliances with other splinter groups. They claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack at a luxury hotel in Quetta in April 2021 which killed 15 persons, apparently targeting the Chinese Ambassador who was not present at the time. A month later, the TTP carried out another attack against Chinese engineers in the North of Pakistan, intending to harm the close relation between Pakistan and China. Whilst the approach of Pakistan’s army for a number of years has been to consider the Afghan Taliban the ‘good Taliban’ and the TTP the ’bad Taliban’, the recent developments are likely to change this dynamic, especially as the TTP may gain more support from their allies across the border.


Iran has also never supported President Ghani, who was perceived as a puppet of the US. Since the rise of the Afghan faction of ISKP in 2015, Iran has been co-operating with the Taliban to ensure ISKP is not a threat to its borders. In fact, Iran has provided a safe haven not only to al-Qaeda but also to Taliban members. The Iranian government has also supplied weapons to the Taliban as recently as 2017. Despite these links, the predominantly Shiite Iran is concerned about whether the Sunni Taliban will lash out against Hazara minorities in Afghanistan, who are also Shia Muslims. The Hazara community makes up nine percent of the population and have been discriminated against for centuries. Just last month the Taliban brutally killed nine Hazara men in the Ghazni province, raising fears of violence against the ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan. The Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Iranian-led group of Shia Hazara Afghan militants who fought with the Assad regime in Syria, are struggling with reintegration into Afghan society. In December 2020, Iran nominated the Fatemiyoun Brigade to fight ISKP in Afghanistan and may again consider calling upon the Fatemiyoun fighters based in Afghanistan or Syria to protect and control Shia Muslims in Afghanistan. While Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi seem to believe that the Taliban has become moderate, other hardliners in Iran rather warn of the dangers they still pose. The so-called love-hate relationship between Iran and the Taliban can still go in many directions, from supporting to indirectly and directly intervening in the conflict in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan’s economy is weakened and the country largely depends on the illicit cultivation and trafficking of opium (and increasingly on the production of methamphetamine). Nonetheless, China has economic interests in Afghanistan ranging from infrastructure projects to exploiting the country’s mineral deposits. In a policy reversal from previous decades, China now seeks closer ties with the Taliban, including to resume mining activities in the second largest copper mine in the world. Despite these economic interests, the Chinese government has still expressed serious security concerns that the Taliban’s control of the country could fuel Islamist extremism in the region. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) for example, which was founded in 1997 in Pakistan by an exiled Uyghur, aims to establish an independent state replacing the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. Although ETIM has been listed by the UN as a terrorist organisation since 2002, it was removed by the US in 2020 from their FTO list. The ETIM has very close ties with the Taliban, but also many other terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISKP, and command several hundred FTFs with nearly 400 fighters in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province. How big the threat is remains to be seen, but regardless, any level of threat could be exaggerated and utilised by China to justify further clamping down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or on the small minority of Uyghurs living in Afghanistan. This could trigger additional sanctions from the international community, such as the US, the European Union, Great Britain and Canada who have already imposed sanctions against China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Seeking to ensure that Uyghur militants cannot use the Afghan-China border to enter Xinjiang, the Chinese government has clearly signalled that it is willing to give not only recognition, but also investment, in return for the Taliban’s co-operation and severance of ties with the ETIM.


Russia has a long history with Afghanistan and with the withdrawal of the US, it likely sees an opportunity to expand its influence in the region, in particular with the Central Asian countries. Russia’s main interests in Central Asia are promoting security and military-technical co-operation, investing in the energy and gas sectors, and strengthening institutions like the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and CSTO. In addition to the threat ISKP poses, Russia is concerned that the Taliban’s control may lead to instability in the Central Asian countries. Another potential danger could be foreign fighters. As noted in a UN report, several foreign fighters come from the north Caucasus and may return home to plot domestic terrorist activities or further radicalise others. The ties between the Taliban and Chechen rebels are long established - the Taliban were supposedly providing the Chechen rebels with money and weapons in 2000. Although the Taliban has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Russia since 2003, Russia has opted not to evacuate its embassy staff and even met with Taliban officials shortly after the group assumed control of Kabul. Adopting a pragmatic stance in public statements, Russia has not excluded establishing contacts with the Taliban. Russia’s willingness to officially recognise the Taliban seems to be contingent upon the UN Security Council removing the group from its sanctions list, according to the country’s envoy to Afghanistan, as well as on assurances that Russian interests will not be threatened and the drug trafficking will be addressed. As stated by the Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia at the UN Security Council briefing on Afghanistan on 16 August 2021, “as regards our further official steps regarding the Taliban, we will determine them while proceeding from concrete developments and the Taliban’s specific actions.”


India has supported Afghan President Ghani, and considers the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan. A Strategic Partnership Agreement was concluded in 2011 between India and Afghanistan to promote political and security co-operation, as well as trade and economic co-operation. Under Prime Minister Modi India has also invested heavily in Afghanistan, including the construction of a brand new Parliament building in 2015. India remains concerned that the 2020 announcement by al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) of plans to increase its presence in Kashmir, coupled with the withdrawal of the US troops, could lead to more violence in Kashmir. Since India has revoked the special autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir under article 370 of the Constitution, tensions between India and Pakistan have been increasing, leading to more radicalisation amongst local youths living in Kashmir. Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) - both listed by the UN - aim to force the withdrawal of India from Indian-administered Kashmir with the goal of placing Jammu and Kashmir under the control of Pakistan. There are reports that members of the LeT and JeM have been fighting alongside the Taliban in recent months. One of the risks is a reverse flow of fighters to Kashmir that might lead to more terrorist activities. In addition, several hundreds and some report even up to a thousand prisoners in Kabul have been released by the Taliban, among which are ISKP and al-Qaeda fighters. Apparently among the released prisoners are at least eight people from the Kerala Islamic State module. Although India has always argued not to negotiate or engage with terrorist groups, it has been holding talks with the Taliban to secure both their economic and security interests and at the invitation of the US, India joined the intra-Afghan peace talks taking place in Doha.  


While the withdrawal of the US and its allies is heavily being criticised, the ramifications of the Taliban taking control in Afghanistan are becoming painfully clear. First and foremost for the Afghan people, their asylum options in the neighbouring countries are severely limited with all but Tajikistan rejecting any large-scale or lasting intake of refugees. The jihadi landscape has also become even more diffuse and complex. All States have an obligation to prevent and suppress terrorism but despite the threat that the Taliban poses to regional security, it is clear that several of the regional countries have been maintaining or implementing close ties with the Taliban either to contain a security threat or for geopolitical or economic gain. The threat posed by the Taliban to the region should be neither underestimated nor exaggerated to justify states imposing overbearing security measures. Considering that economic and geopolitical considerations may overshadow security concerns, it is important that a proper threat assessment is made.   Whether Afghanistan would become the new hotbed for FTFs in the region remains to be seen, but lessons can be learnt from previous conflicts In Afghanistan, as well as in Bosnia and Chechnya, that attracted FTFs. Some of the indicating factors include accessibility of a country, (prior) connections with other existing jihadi networks, and ability to raise and access funds. If the Taliban decide to pursue attracting more FTFs from outside the region, for example from the Middle East or Europe, it will likely rely on social media for recruitment. This is a tactic the Islamic State has been very effective at utilising. Other terrorist groups, like al-Qaeda and ISKP could also engage in additional FTF recruitment in the wake of the power shift in Afghanistans. In fact, ISKP is already planning to actively recruit defecting fighters from the Taliban who oppose the Doha deal and fighters from the Middle East or other conflict zones, all likely through social media. Sharing a common ideology can also be helpful to retain and recruit new FTFs.  It is going to be important to closely monitor the borders but also social media to see whether the Taliban and other terrorist groups are calling on new recruits to join. Perhaps even more relevant will be to closely follow how the regional countries engage with the Taliban in the coming weeks and see - despite their legal obligations to prevent and supress terrorism - whether they recognise the Taliban in exchange for reassurances that no attacks will be plotted against them from Afghan soil. Such recognition could potentially have a negative impact on the retention of current and recruitment of new FTFs, as they may feel alienated by the Taliban through rejection of their own cause.  In the wake of the attack targeting Afghan civilians and international military and humanitarian personnel at Kabul airport, the devastating impact of the Taliban’s seizure of power is becoming more visible day by day. The international and regional security threat that the Taliban pose, and where it will be directed, requires careful scrutiny and will likely be shaped by how the regional powers affected by Afghanistan’s fate will respond to this threat.