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Anti-Taliban Resistance: A Renewed Wave of Insurgency and Regional Diplomacy

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The reinstatement of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan under the Taliban regime in 2021 was a major turning point in the history of Afghan politics and society. In the nearly three years that have passed since the fall of Kabul, the anti-Taliban resistance movement has attempted to weaken Taliban rule with an armed insurgency, largely operating under the union of the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF) and the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF). While experts believe little progress has been made in effectively diluting the power of the Taliban to exact tangible change, the AFF and NRF continue to challenge the Taliban’s authority and brutal rule, especially over the depletion of women’s rights and education. AFF and NRF insurgents claim to have killed as many as 50 Taliban terrorists last November, with hit-and-run attacks continuing to occur on a regular basis. With anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Massoud declaring an intensification of ‘guerilla warfare’ against the Taliban, violent opposition is likely to continue throughout 2024.

Intranational militancy isn’t the only violent adversity the Taliban is currently facing. Cross-border terrorism permeated by Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan in the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces is a point of consternation for Islamabad.  Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot of the radical Islamist Taliban, threatens the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship, particularly against the backdrop of Pakistan’s all-important February election. Islamabad alleges that the Taliban harbors TTP cells over the Afghan border and demands that action must be taken to prevent any escalation in attacks carried out by the TTP. In early January 2024, United States special Afghan envoy Thomas West shared concerns around the TTP as a menace to regional stability. As the United States looks to rebuild its policy towards Afghanistan, including the potential reestablishment of a military base in the area, Washington may look to India as mediator given New Delhi’s previous Taliban-oriented diplomatic efforts.

For India, the Taliban is either an enemy or a partner; Narendra Modi seems to prefer the latter. India knows it must exert itself across Asia, just as China is, to acquire regional influence. New Delhi is careful not to isolate the Taliban, especially as Afghanistan’s relationship with Pakistan is shaky. As India watches Beijing extend its hand across the continent, Modi knows he must challenge China’s dominance. This seems to already be in motion with Taliban envoy Badruddin Haqanni having received an invite to India for Republic Day celebrations from Indian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sanjay Sudhir. Haqqani, part of the Haqqani Network, was complicit in the 2008 suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. India’s engagement with Afghanistan may reflect a change of positioning from India, despite New Delhi’s denial of such.

Despite being met with violent opposition, the Taliban has continued to seek out regional partnerships with its South Asian neighbors. The regime’s recent diplomatic endeavors - particularly their efforts to embolden ties with Pakistan, Iran and Russia - exemplify the Taliban’s aim for longevity, both domestically and regionally. On 13 September 2023, the organization welcomed the new Chinese ambassador to Kabul, Zhao Sheng, marking a strengthening of bilateral relations. Despite Zhao affirming that Beijing does not aim to exert its influence over Afghanistan, China has already added its western neighbor to its roster of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners, extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to include Afghanistan. With the armed resistance movement continuing to cause problems for the Taliban, Kabul is likely to lean on its revitalized partnerships for both economic and physical security. In August 2023, Taliban officials signed a series of multibillion dollar mining deals with several foreign companies, including one from China to extract gold in Takhar. The Taliban will stay as close as it can to Beijing, raising questions about whether China will assist Kabul in securing its investments with private security companies (PSCs). Beijing has previously employed PSCs to protect its overseas interests and to provide shielding against militant violence toward its BRI enterprises. The use of Chinese PSCs has also been used to counter insurgent efforts carried out by ethno-nationalist Baloch operatives in Balochistan. The Taliban will think itself capable of crushing the resistance movement, but assistance from China may be met with open arms, or be completely involuntary if investment requires the presence of Chinese personnel.

For those willing to look beyond the Taliban’s rampant violations of international law, there is a lot to gain from Afghan partnership. The country sits on massive silos of natural minerals, including deposits rife with lithium, a vital component of computer chips. This comes at a time when demand for the metal exceeds the supply. On this front, investment from China paves the way for a revitalization of Afghan economic ventures, in turn giving China access to an all-important resource. The United States is keen to insert itself into the strategic equation but it’s important that Washington deters from obstructing China's dealings with Afghanistan. Chinese investment in the Taliban’s operations has the potential to uplift the financial security of millions of despondent Afghans, if executed accordingly. Two of China’s tech giants, Huawei and ZTE, are already major stakeholders in Afghanistan’s telecommunications sector. Kabul’s agricultural trade with China is also a point of flourishment. In November 2023, Beijing expanded its export of Afghan products. Supplemented by all of this is China’s willingness to negotiate a working relationship with the Taliban, which enhances its global image as an arbitrator. Washington should be mindful of this, but remain weary and keen-eyed of future Afghan-Sino collaboration.

With all of this in mind, regional institutions might consider how the anti-Taliban resistance movement will react to a strengthening of relations with Beijing. The AFF and NRF could have a two-fold approach. On one hand, they may perceive Chinese presence in their country as a contravention to Afghan self-determination, similar to how Baloch militants are strongly opposed to the presence of Chinese personnel in Balochistan. Increased diplomatic ties with Beijing could also legitimize the Taliban’s rule, which would weaken the resistance movement. On the flip side, economic investment from China may increase the access of Afghans to economic prosperity, even if it is a long road ahead. International fora should pursue an agreement between the Taliban and China to allow Afghans to partake in the labor to extract the valuable earth metals on their own land. This way, there is much to gain. Additionally, the Taliban’s diplomatic relationships with other countries could produce greater recognition of the resistance movement, amplifying the cause. In any case, as per Massoud’s declaration, anti-Taliban insurgents will continue to unleash a strategic but violent campaign against the Taliban’s leadership, even if that means facilitating a fruitful connection with Beijing. The Taliban will continue to incessantly reject external influence from any Western country, and, as is evident from its rejuvenated foreign policy, will welcome partnership with wealthy nations non-aligned with the United States and the EU.

In light of continued AFF and NRF resistance, the international community must remain cognizant of an increasingly cruel and heinous Taliban agenda. Since 2021, the Taliban has exacted a brutal campaign of extrajudicial executions against civilians, former government officials, women, the Hazaras ethnic minority, and any dissenter who dares to challenge Taliban authority. A ramping up of the internal anti-Taliban movement is likely to escalate the Taliban’s response to perceived miscreants. As a result of its growing list of human rights abuses, Afghanistan is unlikely to hearken with any Western nations, but the Taliban’s efforts to build up diplomacy across broader Asia delineates a changing of the tide for Kabul. In other words, the Taliban is here to stay, and it will not cede itself in order to accrue international respect. Taliban commanders will do what they can to acquire power and influence across the board - they know little can be done to stop them, at least for now.

Joshua Bowes is a Research Associate with The Millennium Project's South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) in Washington, D.C.  He is also a member of the Extremism & Gaming Research Network (EGRN). His research lies in South Asian security challenges, political conflict, militancy and the confluence of extremism and technology; and has been published by leading global outlets, including the Nepal Institute for International Cooperation & Engagement (NIICE), the International Centre for Peace Studies (ICPS) & the Global Network on Extremism & Technology (GNET).

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