The unveiling of the United States of America’s Integrated Country Strategy document signals a revised policy aimed at establishing a functional relationship with the Taliban Interim Administration (TIA) in Kabul. Although it falls shy of full restoration of diplomatic ties. Released on October 31 2023, and recently disclosed, the new US strategy delineates four key mission areas: counterterrorism, economic assistance, local engagement, and consular services for U.S. citizens in Afghanistan.
The US severed diplomatic and political ties with Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul and the ascent of the Afghan Taliban in August, 2021. Despite this, the U.S. has maintained informal engagement with the TIA in Doha and has provided humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan through international organizations. This strategic document comes coincidently at a time when China has become the first state to formally recognize the TIA.
Policy Rationales behind this Policy Shift
The shift in US policy towards Afghanistan, including giving consular access, assistance for Afghan relocation to the US, and increased humanitarian aid, may be driven by various factors. One significant factor could possibly to be the imperative to counteract China’s potential uncontested influence in the region. China has been the most active in engaging with the TIA, viewing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as an advantageous opportunity. Beijing has maintained diplomatic and political connections with the Taliban Interim Administration, focusing on potential investments in Afghanistan’s abundant mineral resources and boosting economic ties.
China has taken concrete steps in this direction by issuing visas for Afghan businessmen and, since August 2022, eliminating tariffs on 98 percent of Afghan goods. Furthermore, China has endorsed the integration of Afghanistan into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the country. China has already entered agreements, secured licenses, and initiated numerous other arrangements. In addition, China’s recent decision to officially recognize the Taliban Interim Administration underscores its strategic vision to enhance Afghanistan’s significance in its broader geopolitical objectives.
Both sides have bilaterally engaged in security realm. China, like other neighboring countries, remains wary of the sanctuaries of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. Particularly, Beijing has expressed concerns about the presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Afghanistan. To alleviate Beijing’s security concerns, the Afghan Taliban have reportedly removed and relocated some ETIM members away from the northern borders close to China. China considers the ETIM issue a critical red line and intends to exert pressure on the TIA, leveraging its expanding commercial ties as an additional means of influence.
Another potential factor contributing to the shift in US policy towards the Taliban Interim Administration may be to counter Tehran’s growing political and economic engagement with the Taliban Interim Administration, especially amid ongoing political and military tensions between the United States and Iran in the wake of the Israel-Gaza conflict and dismal prospect of revival of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCoPA).
Historically, Iran has held an adversarial stance towards the Taliban. Moreover, similar to other neighboring countries, Iran has shown frustration with the Taliban’s inflexibility, particularly regarding inclusivity in the government. Iran, being a Shia-majority nation, emphasizes the importance of incorporating Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities into the governance structure. Nevertheless, as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) poses a growing threat to Iran, demonstrated by its attack on the fourth death anniversary of Qasem Soleimani, former head of Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Tehran finds it imperative to engage with the Taliban as a defensive measure against ISKP’s advances.
Moreover, Iran’s aspirations for enhanced connectivity through the Chabahar seaport partly hinge on developments in Afghanistan. Iran was one of the few countries that retained its embassy open after the fall of Kabul. It handed over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the Taliban Interim Government (TIA) last year. Diplomatic and political engagements have been accompanied by good economic ties, with revenue from Iranian oil import duties constituting a significant revenue source for the TIA. This multifaceted engagement underscores the evolving dynamics of regional relationships and their impact on the geopolitical landscape.
Despite a decrease in violence within Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) continues to pose a significant threat. Recent escalations in attacks in neighboring states like Iran and Pakistan highlight the persistent risk of militancy even following the withdrawal of US troops.
The menace of ISKP terrorism creates a shared interest between the US and Afghan Taliban to work together to deal with this threat. Addressing this common enemy might offer a unique opportunity for collaboration between the Taliban and the US. Exploring the potential of US-Taliban cooperation on counter-terrorism, the Integrated Country Strategy document says: “To achieve an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors and does not pose a threat to the United States or its partners, we pursue appropriate CT cooperation bilaterally.”
Implications for Taliban Interim Government
Since the withdrawal of US troops in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a noticeable decline in global media coverage, exacerbated by the overshadowing Russia-Ukraine conflict and now the Middle East tensions due to the Israel-Gaza war. The international community’s focus has predominantly shifted towards providing humanitarian assistance.
For the Afghan Taliban, the US hinting at the potential for greater engagement, including bilateral cooperation against ISKP to achieve peace within Afghanistan and with its neighbors, opens new avenues for collaboration and mutual efforts. Besides its four mission goals, the Integrated Country Strategy outlines two additional management objectives: establishing an embassy-in-exile in Qatar and developing a plan for a “Return-to-Kabul.” These objectives signal the possibility of expanding the spectrum of bilateral issues between the US and Afghan Taliban in the future. Establishing a functional relationship with the US could significantly reduce the global isolation of the Taliban Interim Government (TIA) and facilitate broader international interactions. This comes at a critical time when Afghanistan is grappling with severe economic and humanitarian challenges, exacerbated by the impact of natural disasters and climate-induced catastrophes.
Moreover, increased engagement with the US comes as China officially becomes the first country to recognize TIA. These developments further strengthen the TIA’s position on the global stage and enhance its ability to navigate economic and political challenges. They will also cement the Taliban Interim Administration’s credibility to retain power and maintain domestic peace. However, full recognition and restoration of diplomatic ties will depend upon the Taliban’s flexibility to offer concessions on its stance on women’s rights and an inclusive government.