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Afghanistan’s New Interim Government: A Bagful of Challenges

20 Sep 2021
By Ian Dudgeon
Members of the Taliban Negotiation Team, in Doha, Qatar. Source: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

Key players that will manage Afghanistan in the foreseeable future are the Taliban interim government, the UN, other international organisations, and neighbours Pakistan, China, Russia, and Iran. The US has continuing interests, primarily countering any resurgent threat of transnational terrorism from within Afghanistan.

In a sense, the US has gone the full circle. It entered Afghanistan in November 2001 on a counter-terrorist mission, targeting Al Qaeda in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks on mainland USA. The Taliban, too, became a target because of its refusal to support that US mission.

On 23 August, CIA Director William Burns met secretly with Taliban leaders in Kabul for talks which would have included seeking agreement to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for transnational terrorism that could threaten the US or its allies. While the specifics of Burns’ discussions are not public, a very strong message would likely have been that the US will continue to monitor the activities of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS-K, and that it would militarily strike them any time they were again seen to pose a resurgent threat.

Burns would no doubt have reminded the Taliban that they did not separate from Al Qaeda as agreed under the terms of the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement. The US, therefore, would see the Taliban as complicit in any new threat posed by Al Qaeda in particular, and could wear the consequences accordingly. Separately, given that the US and Taliban both see ISIS-K as a significant threat, Burns may also have expressed willingness to offer the Taliban “operational intelligence” to assist them to target this mutual enemy.

Meantime, the Taliban “interim” government faces very formidable problems running Afghanistan. One major deficit is trust. The public are certainly not united in support for the Taliban.

Whoever coached the Taliban to present as polite, reformed, and disciplined has succeeded so far, at least to a point. But for an organisation that has routinely used violence as a tool for negotiations and control, this façade is not expected to last. There are already reports of former members of the Afghan military and security services being hunted down in retribution, minorities such as the Shiite Hazara again being persecuted, and women progressively being forced into the new emirate’s “Islamic code.”

As dissent is expected to increase in response to tougher Taliban controls and restrictions, the more they will resort to violence. The appointment of hard-liner Sirajuddin Haqqani as acting Interior Minister is seen by many as assuring this. Haqqani heads a large network renowned for its extreme violence, and is close to but very unlikely to break its longstanding relationship with Al Qaeda. It is also a designated foreign terrorist organisation by the US, and Haqqani himself is on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

Whether the Taliban will be able to form its intended “inclusive” governments at the national and provincial levels, whatever form they take, remains to be seen. Elections are unlikely, just appointments.  All power is expected to remain with the Taliban, and even if they are able to weave people like Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, or other former non-Talban leaders into government appointments, it would be for window dressing, not power-sharing.

In addition, as the Taliban do not have experience running a country, they will be reliant on former experienced officials to both fill appointments and to train Taliban replacements.  One challenge will be retaining such talent, in government and within the country.

The UN and like-organisations will also have a critical role to play in buttressing the functionality of the new government, at this point for an indefinite period. This will include urgent economic and humanitarian assistance and technical support. Afghanistan’s principal neighbours will also be important contributors across these areas.

Security and the ability to influence and shape events within Afghanistan are common concerns amongst its neighbours. While the Taliban, at least presently, has no known intent to export revolution across borders, other extremists that have safe havens in Afghanistan do.  These include transnationals Al Qaeda and ISIS-K, and regional organisations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Resistance Party of Tajikistan, and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. Two other terrorist organisations that have affiliations with the Taliban and have used sanctuaries in Afghanistan – Lashkar-e-Toiba and Tehrik-I Taliban Pakistan are serious threats to Pakistan. Ongoing cooperation with the Taliban to counter these threats remains a priority.

Influence, with the Taliban and more widely amongst neighbouring Afghans, is a topic for deeper study. However, all four neighbours have had extensive contact with the Taliban in the past.

Pakistan, specifically the military’s Inter Services Intelligence division, have provided extensive support to the Taliban from the outset, which has underpinned their success in seizing government. The depth of ISI’s influence over the Taliban’s leadership is open to question. Views range from proxy to patron. It is certainly substantial, way beyond that of any other nation, but the degree of influence to direct the Taliban’s political agenda reportedly varies significantly between factions and regions.

China’s major interest is economic. They are already Afghanistan’s major trading partner and major potential investor. Interests include the exploitation of Afghanistan’s vast minerals wealth, and the state becoming an integrated part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative through transit trade to the Central Asian Republics and Iran. This will also boost China’s growing political and strategic influence through Central to Western Asia. A safe security environment is essential for China to achieve its aims.

Both Russia and Iran have been actively building “information and influence networks” amongst the Taliban and population generally in northern and western Afghanistan, respectively. For the Russians, that includes the different ethnic groups, and for Iran, the Shiite Hazaras in the central west. The complexities involved also include Iran establishing  fatemiyoun (militia-like) groups recruited amongst  former Afghan refugees within Iran. For both Russia and Iran, trade, including supporting financial services, is expected to expand. Sales of Iranian oil will be a key commodity, and the long dormant Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India oil pipeline may at last get traction, perhaps without the “I.”

But for the most part, it is simply wait and see how and if Afghanistan, and the Taliban, stabilises.

There are several significant issues for Australia. These include if, when, and under what conditions to recognise the Taliban government, and the future of Australia’s aid commitment. The anticipated very large flow of refugees will also be a challenge.

Ian Dudgeon is a presidential associate of the AIIA and former ACT branch president.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.