Taliban and their neighbours

Published September 3, 2023
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

INITIALLY eager to see the Afghan Taliban take control in Afghanistan, Pakistan now grapples with unmet expectations. Two years on, issues like cross-border terrorism remain unresolved and pose significant security risks. Afghanistan’s other neighbours are also unhappy with the growing aggressive posture of the Taliban leadership over security, border management, and the diversion of water resources.

Pakistan has to understand the Taliban mindset, which is at play in dealings with Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, and see how it shapes its relationship with them and their approach to resolving bilateral disputes. The situation may not appear entirely gloomy, but it does require nuanced strategies to address the emerging challenges.

The first step is to engage with the Taliban through formal channels, whether the issues are related to terrorism threats, border security, trade and economy, or transnational mega projects. Verbal commitments and vague statements from the Taliban leadership will not be binding and will not change the dynamics. Taliban apologists in Pakistan were jubilant over a religious decree concerning jihad in foreign lands issued by the Taliban’s supreme leader. However, this has not changed anything; terrorist attacks are still rising in Pakistan. The martyrdom of nine soldiers in a suicide attack recently in Bannu District should serve as a reminder that security challenges cannot be dealt with through ambiguous religious decrees.

To anticipate future challenges, Pakistan should consider the Taliban’s relations with their other neighbours. Experts suggest that the Taliban could potentially spark a regional water conflict. The group’s approach to water resources has already escalated tensions with Iran and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan and Iran have a long-standing water dispute, exemplified by the Afghan-Iranian Helmand River Water Treaty of 1973, which was never fully ratified or implemented. Despite this, both countries maintained a somewhat balanced relationship through diplomacy. The Taliban’s accelerated dam projects have exacerbated border tensions with Iran. If water security issues are not managed carefully, they could expose deeper conflicts between Iran and the Taliban, such as ideological differences and anti-Shia sentiment.

By advancing long-delayed water projects, the Taliban aim to garner support for their regime.

Uzbekistan has maintained a pragmatic relationship with the Taliban, focusing on economic and trade cooperation. After Pakistan, it was the most optimistic country about the potential of the Taliban regime to facilitate connections with landlocked regions. However, this optimism was tempered when the Taliban initiated the Qosh Tepa Canal project to divert water from the Amu Darya, affecting multiple Central Asian states. This led to strained relations and even a temporary cut in electricity supplies from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, which were later restored. Despite these complexities, Uzbekistan has agreed with Afghanistan and Pakistan on a tri-nation railway. The $5 billion project aims to connect Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s Kharlachi border crossing, passing through Termez in Uzbekistan and Logar province in Afghanistan. This railway is viewed as a significant step towards enhancing regional connectivity and trade.

The original plan was to build the railway line from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, and then to Torkham on the border with Pakistan. However, the route has been modified to go through Kurram instead. The reason for this was that the Taliban regime wants to develop the eastern and central provinces of Afghanistan, which are currently underdeveloped, and have a strong support base for their movement. China wants to formally bring Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative and tri-nation railway to make it a part of the BRI. However, the project is still in the early stages of planning. Pakistan’s economic situation may cause further delays in the implementation, but this also depends on the Taliban’s attitude on how it will deal with other disputes with Uzbekistan, mainly the Amu Darya diversion and the Taliban’s lack of water experts and experienced diplomats.

The Central Asian states, Pakistan and Afghanistan have bitter memories of many transnational energy and infrastructure projects that have not yet materialised — such as the CASA-100 electricity project connecting Central Asia to Pakistan, and the Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India gas pipeline project. These initiatives were delayed mainly because of security concerns and complicated regional strategic scenarios. The Taliban can ensure the security of transnational projects, but it may not be enough to create a conducive strategic and political environment for such initiatives.

Pakistan also shares the Kabul river with Afghanistan, but they don’t have a water-sharing agreement. In the past, water security had created tensions between both countries, and now local Taliban officials have started threatening river diversion initiatives and dam construction. The Indus is Pakistan’s lifeline, and any diversion to its flow would be a nightmare for the country. Though this is a costly affair, and the Taliban regime cannot implement it all alone, or get any international assistance, they have revealed their intentions.

By advancing long-delayed water-related projects, the Taliban aim to garner support for their regime and tie it to a form of religiously infused Afghan nationalism. Afghanistan’s neighbours likely will not object to the Taliban’s ideologically driven nationalism, provided it does not harm their core interests.

Thus far, Afghanistan’s neighbours have been cautiously monitoring the Taliban’s actions. Despite multiple regional frameworks like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), they opt for bilateral resolutions. Pakistan’s efforts have yet to be successful, largely due to the country’s reliance on informal channels, which have proven ineffective in the past and offer little promise for the future.

China has been the most adept in its diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan. It has not only maintained a functional bilateral relationship with the Taliban, but also established trilateral and quadrilateral channels that include Pakistan and Uzbekistan. While the SCO serves China’s multilateral interests, the country remains cautious in expanding its economic ties with Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to re-evaluate its approach towards the Taliban, who have shown unpredictability in their diplomatic dealings. There is a noticeable assertiveness in the Taliban’s diplomatic expression, which raises concerns among its neighbours. Pakistan must plan its responses accordingly.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2023

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