More than three weeks after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban has finally announced an all-male Pashtun government comprised mainly of senior Taliban figures. While the news is scarcely surprising, the announcement came days after clashes between forces loyal to Mullah Baradar – the co-founder and senior political leader of the Taliban – and the the Haqqani Network – a UN-designated terrorist group and powerful affiliate of the Taliban.
The power struggle demonstrated the divisions and ideological differences within the Taliban. Baradar represents the more pragmatic political faction that has attempted to present a more palatable image of the Taliban to the world by pledging to form a transitional inclusive government and promising amnesty and women’s rights undersharia law in a bid to gain recognition and legitimacy. However, the fighters on the ground have prevented evacuees from reaching Kabul airport, kidnapped women to use as sex slaves and have rounded up opponents to be executed. This is only a glimpse of the atrocities that await Afghans, but it is also indicative of the lack of control that the more moderate political faction has on their own fighters.
The Haqqanis, on the other hand, represent a hardline militant faction of the Taliban and have to fought form an ultra-conservative Sunni Pashtun government, even though the Pashtun ethnic group accounts for less than half of Afghanistan’s population. With the help of Pakistan’s ISI, the Haqqani Network played a pivotal role in the takeover of Afghanistan, which allowed them to gain significant influence and support within the Taliban. The appointment of their leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, as interior minister despite being on the FBI’s most wanted list is a testament to the power they hold.
The frail union between the Taliban’s factions will doubtlessly be exploited by competing jihadi groups, such as the ISIS-K, and anti-Taliban resistance movements. ISIS-K – the Afghan branch of the Islamic State – has been openly hostile to the Taliban, claiming that they are apostates who are part of a US-backed conspiracy. On the 26th of August, ISIS-K took advantage of the chaos in Kabul to launch a deadly attack outside the airport, killing at least 170 people and injuring another 200. The terrorist attack not only jeopardised the evacuation mission but also demonstrated ISIS-K’s growing strength and their determination to undermine the Taliban’s control. A recent UN report has suggested that the group has roughly 2,000 fighters, although this figure is likely to increase significantly due to the power vacuum left by the United States. Their goal is to take advantage of the divisions within the Taliban in order to recruit more jihadis and expand their presence. Moreover, the Taliban’s decision to release 5,000 terrorists detained in Bagram prison – also known as Afghanistan’s Guantanamo Bay – will further radicalise and destabilise the region.
The war in Afghanistan is far from over, which makes China’s open embrace of the Taliban irresponsible. Amidst the disastrous withdrawal of American troops, the deteriorating humanitarian crisis and the looming terrorist threat, Beijing has publicly improved ties with the Taliban and has even indicated its willingness to recognise a Taliban government.
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Hopeful to gain Chinese investments in mining and infrastructure in order to rebuild the Afghan economy, the Taliban has declared China to be their most important partner. China is indifferent to the internal politics of Afghanistan, its main priority is to ensure its own security. Wary of a terrorist threat in Xinjiang, Beijing has worked with the Haqqani network for the past seven years to track down Uighur Muslims in Afghanistan. The Taliban has even publicly refused to condemn China’s persecution of Uighurs and has pledged to not harbour Uighur fundamentalists in Afghanistan.
For the time being, the Taliban is trying to balance its fanaticism with its pragmatic interests, but it’s an unsustainable strategy.
The Taliban is not a monolithic group and there are many factions who view China as an enemy. Their promise to not harbour Uighurs is as hollow as their pledge in Doha to keep al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups from operating in their territory. Al-Qaeda, which remains heavily embedded within the Taliban, has been providing support to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang. It’s inevitable that extremist groups in Afghanistan will start to target China over their treatment of Uighurs, especially if Chinese investments fail to materialise. China already struggles to implement its BRI projects in stable and safe countries. Any instability in Afghanistan will prevent all projects and investments from coming to fruition in the near future.
Despite successfully taking over most of Afghanistan at an unprecedented pace and seemingly defeating the Panjshir resistance, the last anti-Taliban stronghold, it’s doubtful that the Taliban will be able to retain full control over the territory they conquered. Afghanistan will ultimately become a safe haven for terrorism, endangering neighbouring countries, including China. Beijing’s strategy to improve ties with the Taliban borders on cold pragmatism and arrogant naivety.
Kelly Alkhouli is a political consultant and the Director of International Relations at the Center of Political and Foreign Affairs (CPFA), Europe.