Taliban’s Quid Pro Quo Diplomacy


Illustration of Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: Li Ran/Xinhua via AP

Following the outright withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, Taliban has since gained utterly considerable quantum leap beyond what every observer of the two-decade US and NATO troops occupation has anticipated, while at the same time maintaining their audacious—if not impudent—presence in the international arena without holding their cards close to their chest. While Afghan government is facing an existential crisis and the US is working to remedy its complete withdrawal by introducing sweeping changes to the 2009 Afghan SIV Program to increase visa cap, Afghanistan is becoming more of a political arena for Taliban, China, Russia, and Turkmenistan—at least for now.

Despite the troops withdrawal, the peace talk that is supposed to take place between Afghan government and Taliban to repair the Doha deal has been in utter impasse, and Taliban have been launching deadly offensive attacks to Afghan government and civilians, taking control of more than 200 out of 419 districts centers when compared with last month’s gain when they only controlled 81, and have explicitly asserted that in order for the Doha deal to succeed, President Ashraf Ghani must resign and the Taliban-led government must be installed in Kabul (Ali & Stewart, 2021 & Gannon, 2021). On the other side of the world, the US House of Representatives approved a bill on July 22 by 407-16 called Averting Loss of Life and Injury by Expediting SIVs (ALLIES) to add additional 8,000 visas for erstwhile Afghan interpreters and partners who have been working side by side with the US in Afghanistan and to curtail several bureaucratic process for applying for visa (Knickmeyer, 2021). 

The Brand New Political Arena

Nevertheless, not only Taliban’s gains are Afghans’ losses, the civil war is now becoming more of a political arena for China, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Iran, hence poses a considerable threat to the two-decade of US’ and allies’ concerted efforts to acquaint Afghans with Western-style democracy. On July 10, at Turkmenistan’s invitation, Taliban representatives visited Ashgabat to meet with Turkmen Foreign Ministry officials to discuss “bilateral economic and political ties between the two nations, as well as issues of security and borders”, according to Taliban’s spokesman in Qatar, Mohammad Nayeem, and to give Ashgabat assurances that Taliban would not launch attacks to Turkmen territory and prevent the possible influx of refugees, according to an unauthorized source (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 2021). On July 28, Taliban delegated their nine representatives to China, following the latter’s invitation, one of whom was Mullah Abdul Ghani Badar, a Taliban’s co-founder and a political chief, to meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the coastal city of Tianjin (Graham-Harrison, 2021). With the two nations sharing a border in the Himalayas, China has called Taliban “an important military and political force in Afghanistan”, and explicitly expressed its concern about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a sanctuary for the separatist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Uyghur Islamic extremist organization whose main objective is to establish an independent state called East Turkestan, one of the key threats to China’s national security (Graham-Harrison, 2021 & Xu et al., 2014). 

In  exchange for China’s non-interference foreign policy, Taliban gave China a word of honor that “the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against security of any country including China”, and expressed hope for China’s considerable role in the process of Afgan peace and reconciliation and economic development (Graham-Harrison, 2021). On top of that, China has economic motives to forge ties with Afghanistan due to its richness in mineral reserves and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, thus the prospect of trade and investment climate would be advantageous if bilateral security could be improved (Graham-Harrison, 2021 & Myers, 2021). On July 9, Taliban representatives visited Russia and gave the Kremlin assurances that their military gains would not pose a threat to Russian territory and its allies in Central Asia and said that both parties had “very good relations” (Isachenkov, 2021). Not surprisingly, the retreat of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan is a momentum for Russia as the current security vacuum can pave the way for Moscow to enhance its regional dominance by being the stabilizer in the region to counter extremist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda while at the same time establishing warm ties with the Taliban and the possible strategic partnership, reckoning with Moscow’s move last week when it deployed tanks to Afghanistan-Tajikistan frontier for forthcoming military drills and Taliban’s hostile sentiments to ISIS- irrespective of Moscow’s designation of Taliban as a terrorist organization (Astrasheuskaya & Findlay, 2021 & Reuters, 2021). 

The last, but not least, most anticipated country to take advantage of US withdrawal is that of Washington’s rival, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Even though Shiite Tehran and Sunni Taliban are ideologically at odds in terms of religious denomination, Tehran is being faced with a pragmatic option of meeting the Taliban halfway when dealing with their resurgence, in exchange for Taliban’s assurance to protect Shia minority in Afghanistan and to deal with the same rival, that is to say, the US, following the worsening tension between Tehran and Washington due to the deadlock of Iran nuclear deal. Tehran’s pragmatic approach was also demonstrated with some Iranian officials asserting that Afghans should consider the Taliban to be a “part of a future solution” (France24, 2021). 

However, it is also worth noting that Israel, a country that is never a manchurian candidate of any friends or foes as far as history is concerned, can pose considerable repercussions in the region if it were to act preemptive and to curtail the possible threats posed by Taliban, since Taliban’s wins can fuel Hamas. And if Israel were to insist to act offensive, either the US will be supportive and see Israel as its successor as a security guarantor in the region or see Israel as a resistance to US efforts to maintain peace in Afghanistan the way it once saw, or still sees Israel uninvitedly impair the Iran nuclear deal.

The “Manchurian Candidate”

Iran’s reciprocal meetings with China and Russia provide us a concrete glimpse of Taliban’s quid pro quo diplomacy where their previously self-proclaimed divine purpose, that is to say, jihadism, is now being overshadowed by their political thirst for international recognition following their military gains. In the time when Afghan government is facing an existential crisis, Taliban have since gained momentum to represent themselves in the international arena as the “capable and promising candidate” of the next Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Taliban’s resurgence has also given birth to a new political arena: The new Cold War between the lovey-dovey Sino-Russia and Israel-US relationships. And the lack of international unity will not bring peace to Afghanistan. China’s and Russia’s strong track record of non-interference policy aligns well with Taliban’s strongly-held sentiment toward the two-decade US occupation and has already positioned the two former countries with a considerable negotiating power to demand a trade-off when dealing with the law-breaking Taliban regime, and Beijing and Moscow will likely be less hesitant to recognize Taliban and to forge diplomatic ties. 

While Taliban are probably seeing Beijing and Moscow as feasible partners in the future due to their non-interference policy, Washington will face hard challenges dealing with Taliban due to its committed approach to maintain peace and security even if it means that military interference is required. So far, China and Russia have hosted Taliban delegations without any additional seats reserved for the Kabul-based government, and whether history will prove that it is equal to giving Taliban de facto recognition remains to be seen. Thus, unless Washington, Beijing, Tehran and Moscow are willing to set aside their differences and put the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan on the their high agenda, Afghanistan will only be a new political arena in the post-US withdrawal between world powers, and the scenes taking place on the stage will outweigh US’ and its allies’ continued effort and support to build peace in Afghanistan.

The fact that Taliban are currently keeping their schedule occupied by visiting US’ biggest rivals, it is worthwhile to say that they do not even come close to realize that they are actually the Manchurian candidate* of China and Russia. If only their divine purpose weren’t being overshadowed by their political thirst for international recognition, Taliban would have objected to even consider to be a visiting fellow and give China a word of honor to help contain the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), considering China’s treatment to Muslim Uyghurs in the north-western region of Xinjiang; and it would have definitely objected to forge ties with Moscow considering the former Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. But to gamble on the possible warming ties between Taliban and Tehran sounds, in a paradoxical manner, stimulating if it means that unity between the major denominations, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, can be improved. But still, every possible scenario that is to take place on the current stage will hurt US interest.

*Manchurian candidate is a term to describe a person, especially a politician, being used as a puppet by an enemy power. It is commonly used to indicate disloyalty or corruption, whether intentional or unintentional. (dictionary.com)


Online Sources

Ali, I. & Stewart, P. (2021, July 22). Half of all Afghan district centers under Taliban control – U.S. general. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/half-all-afghan-district-centers-under-taliban-control-us-general-2021-07-21/

Astrasheuskaya, N. & Findlay, S. (2021, July 27). Russia seeks to forge ties with Taliban as US troops leave Afghanistan. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/38c0dd0c-6f69-41bd-9866-fb77a94fb2cd

Gannon, K. (2021, July 24). To reach a peace deal, Taliban say Afghan president must go. Reuters. https://apnews.com/article/ffbce635cf19ce4874700fd2d81a0f39

Graham-Harrison, E. (2021, July 29). China’s talks with Taliban could be a positive thing, US says. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/29/chinas-talks-with-taliban-could-be-a-positive-thing-us-says

Iran wary but pragmatic as Taliban resurges next door. (2021, July 17). France24. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210717-iran-wary-but-pragmatic-as-taliban-resurges-next-door

Isachenkov, V. (2021, July 9). Taliban visit Moscow to say their wins don’t threaten Russia. Reuters. https://apnews.com/article/51327432f1455020352826281c6c4e73

Knickmeyer, E. (2021, July 22). House votes to evacuate more Afghan allies as US war ends. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-votes-to-evacuate-more-afghan-allies-as-us-war-ends/2021/07/22/e5d1141a-eb00-11eb-a2ba-3be31d349258_story.html

Myers, S. L. (2021, July 28). China offers the Taliban a warm welcome while urging peace talks. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/world/asia/china-taliban-afghanistan.html

Russian tanks deploy near Afghan border before drills in Central Asia. (2021, July 20). Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-uzbekistan-hold-military-drills-near-afghan-border-ifx-2021-07-20/

Taliban holds talks with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat amid deteriorating Afghan security. (2021, July 12). Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-turkmenistan-talks/31354239.html

Xu, B., Fletcher, H., & Bajoria, J. (2014, September 4). The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/east-turkestan-islamic-movement-etim

Aulia Shifa is an Administrative Science student at Universitas Indonesia. She can be found on LinkedIn through linkedin.com/in/ashifahamida

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