Afghanistan’s internal insecurity, border tensions, and the potentially Pakistani-backed US military factor are combining to create yet another storm in the New Cold War that threatens to destabilize the region.
Russia’s ongoing special military operation in Ukraine and the US-led West’s unprecedented response to it have distracted the international community from Afghanistan, which is once again becoming an issue of regional concern. The foreign occupiers’ chaotic evacuation from that country last August and the Taliban’s return to power in the aftermath haven’t stabilized the situation all that much. The group is still designated as terrorists by most of the world and their leadership remains unrecognized despite all stakeholders – including Russia — still interacting with them for pragmatism’s sake.
Afghanistan somehow avoided the full-scale humanitarian crisis that many were worried about but its people’s most basic needs still aren’t being adequately met. Observers also feel very uncomfortable about the Taliban returning to its old ways by once again banning women from showing their uncovered faces in public. The comparatively more secular and ethnically cosmopolitan northern part of the country that’s majority inhabited by Tajiks and other Central Asian people might not take too kindly to this decree, which could fuel anti-government movements there.
In fact, it was reported just this weekend that the “National Resistance Front” (NRF) has returned to fighting against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was asked about this on Friday following the CIS Foreign Ministers Council meeting in Dushanbe where he reiterated Moscow’s stance that the only sustainable political solution is to form an ethno-regionally inclusive government. He also expressed optimism that “our allies in Tajikistan with serious influence in Afghanistan, primarily the country’s north, will also keep helping us achieve our common goals.”
That former Soviet Republic is a key stakeholder in Afghanistan since it exerts influence over its co-ethnics across the border and was previously suspected of supporting anti-Taliban forces there. President Putin also spoke to his Tajik counterpart Rahmon on Friday, during which time the two discussed Afghanistan and confirmed that they’ll “continue to cooperate to ensure security on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border.” This is especially important following reports that ISIS-K terrorists from Afghanistan recently claimed credit for a cross-border attack that Tajik officials nonetheless denied.
On the topic of cross-border terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, neighboring Pakistan reportedly carried out several strikes there in the middle of last month against TPP terrorists who martyred several of their soldiers days prior. Islamabad also reportedly just handed over two top TPP commanders to the Afghan Taliban, who’ve been mediating peace talks between them. Amidst all of this, Pakistan remains mired in political uncertainty following its scandalous change of government in early April that former Prime Minister Khan claims was orchestrated by the US as punishment for his independent policies.
While its internal security situation is expected to remain stable considering the world-class professionalism of its military and intelligence services, speculation abounds about the trajectory of its foreign policy. Newly inaugurated Foreign Minister Bhutto’s upcoming trip to the US is inconveniently occurring at the exact moment that its political, economic, and international uncertainties are converging. The relevance of this to Afghanistan is the US’ recent reaffirmation that it retains the capabilities to strike terrorists in Afghanistan if it so chooses, perhaps with speculative Pakistani support.
Former Prime Minister Khan claimed that the alleged US-orchestrated regime change plot against him first started when he publicly said that his country will “absolutely not” host any American bases in the wake of the US’ withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan. Critics of the new authorities who replaced him suspect that they might be secretly negotiating some sort of military arrangement with the US to facilitate American anti-terrorist strikes there, which could possibly target ISIS-K but also the TTP that Washington also officially regards as terrorists just like Islamabad does.
While there’s nothing of tangible substance to base this speculation on, it’s still a matter of public record that the US said on multiple occasions that it’s actively seeking out regional bases to facilitate its so-called “over-the-horizon” strikes in Afghanistan. Russia was concerned that its American rival might poach one of the Central Asian Republics from its informal “sphere influence” into this scheme, though that hasn’t materialized, at least not yet. Even so, Moscow must be watching Washington’s reported $20 million unarmed Puma drone deal with Dushanbe with suspicion to see where it might lead.
On the topic of cross-border attacks, it also deserves mentioning that reports came in a few weeks back alleging that tensions were boiling along the Afghan-Iranian border. Tehran denied that any clashes took place but most observers still consider ties between it and the Taliban to be very complicated, to say the least. Taking stock of the overall situation, Afghanistan’s domestic stability has been rocked by ISIS-K suicide bombings and the latest reported “NRF” offensive while international tensions are dangerously growing between the Taliban and its Iranian, Pakistani, and Tajik neighbors.
Against the backdrop of the Taliban imposing its strict socio-religious standards onto the rest of the population in spite of the risk that this will only worsen resentment from some minorities against it, as well as the country’s humanitarian crisis being far from resolved even though it hasn’t yet exploded, it can be concluded that everything risks spiraling out of control if all these counterproductive trends aren’t soon reversed. Pakistan’s crossing of the Rubicon by kinetically defending its objective national security interests through reported anti-TTP strikes also adds an unpredictable dimension to this too.
The same can be said for the pivot towards the US that the new authorities’ critics suspect is unfolding and which might manifest itself through those two unofficially teaming up to occasionally fight terrorism in Afghanistan. The US is still actively searching for a regional base, which can only realistically be in Pakistan if it ever comes to pass since its new Tajik partner can’t legally host one without Russia’s approval due to its legal commitments through the CSTO mutual defense pact. Any enhanced Pakistani-American anti-terrorist and/or military cooperation could greatly reshape regional dynamics.
All the while, there’s also some positive news too even though it pales in comparison to the negative. Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke at the beginning of the month about the need for mutually beneficial economic engagement with Afghanistan, which he repeated on Friday after the CIS meeting that was hyperlinked to earlier in this analysis. New Taliban-appointed Afghan charge d’affairs to Russia Jamal Nasir Garwal, who also reportedly attended the Victory Day parade in Moscow, publicly reciprocated this interest by emphasizing how much his country needs Russian energy resources right now.
These signals prompted speculation that a Taliban delegation might soon travel to Moscow to discuss such deals, though Russian Special Presidential Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov denied that anything of the sort was in the cards at this moment. Still, that would represent a positive development if it comes to pass and would complement the Taliban’s planned economic cooperation with China. The larger trend seems to be that while Afghanistan’s ties with Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan become more complicated, its ties with Russia and China are becoming more comprehensive.
To be absolutely clear, correlation doesn’t mean causation so nobody should think that regional stakeholders are dividing into pro- and anti-Taliban blocs, but it’s still an important trend to pay attention to since it suggests that Russia and China might soon be able to exert more influence over the Taliban than previously expected. In the event that Pakistan strikes some sort of anti-terrorist or military deal with the US as part of its speculative plans to repair ties with it through such arrangements that critics might describe as concessions, then those two might become more suspicious of its intentions.
After all, Pakistan has unofficially frozen talks with Russia over what former Prime Minister Khan insists were his previously active negotiations to purchase fuel from Moscow, including at a 30% discount, but which the new Energy Minister claimed had never happened. The latter said this in spite of there being documented evidence from credible sources confirming that his statement was factually incorrect, including Foreign Minister Lavrov revealing while in Islamabad on 7 April 2021 that there was “mutual interest” in this, “appropriate proposals have been put forward”, and Russia is “waiting for a response”.
The scandal over Russian-Pakistani energy talks concerns much more than just those two countries since all interested observers can now see that the new authorities are publicly distancing themselves from their predecessors’ negotiations with the Kremlin for whatever reason, even going as far as to share factually incorrect information with the public about this. The impression that they’re probably left with is that this might be done under American pressure, which in turn adds credence to former Prime Minister Khan’s narrative about the US being behind his ouster and now influencing his replacements.
This insight is pertinent for Afghanistan since it also adds credence to suspicions that Pakistan and the US might be secretly negotiating some anti-terrorist or military deals focused on that war-torn country, with Islamabad possibly even conceding on some issues that its prior government never would have in pursuit of clinching such an agreement in the hopes of repairing its troubled ties with Washington. The reintroduction of US forces to the region, even clandestine ones such as CIA drone teams, could be very destabilizing and thus contribute to even more uncertainty about Afghanistan’s overall situation.
The scenario of Pakistan’s new authorities, who rose to power through scandalous circumstances that the ousted premier attributed to a US-orchestrated conspiracy, facilitating the American military’s and/or intelligence’s return to the region would certainly be frowned upon by all regional stakeholders. No matter what’s said between their diplomats, it’s doubtful that they place much trust in that country’s new leadership after its Energy Minister passionately insisted that former Prime Minister Khan was lying about his energy negotiations with Russia in spite of the official facts contradicting him.
The uncertainty about Pakistan’s grand strategic trajectory after its recent change of government and the credible concerns that its new leadership is preparing to decisively pivot towards the US contribute to the larger uncertainty about everything associated with Afghanistan right now. The overall situation is negative and there’s too much “fog of (hybrid) war” to confidently predict where everything is headed. Afghanistan’s internal insecurity, border tensions, and the potentially Pakistani-backed US military factor are combining to create yet another storm in the New Cold War that threatens to destabilize the region.