Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada MILD as the Taliban make regional diplomatic gains

  • Akhundzada is making progress regionally in establishing more formal relations with countries like Russia and China.
  • International actors are reconsidering to what extent they can cooperate with the Taliban three years after they regained control of Afghanistan.
  • Humanitarian and security issues raise concerns about normalisation of ties with the Taliban
Hibatullah Akhundzada
Calligraphic depiction of Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada’s name used on Afghan government websites. By: Amirul Momineen – Office of the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Afghanistan (PD)

Why is Haibatullah Akhundzada mild? 

Answer: Akhundzada is making regional diplomatic gains, but outright normalisation of ties with the Taliban long-term lacks momentum.

It has been almost three years since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. Since then, the group has struggled to obtain legitimacy for their rule. Haibatullah Akhundzada, supreme leader of the Taliban since 2016, has maintained a firm grip on power and continues to act as the main point of reference for religious, political and military authority for the Taliban. Akhundzada *alongside the leadership council, the shura in Kandahar acts as the main source of all decision-making processes for the Taliban and determines Afghan state and society consolidation along the lines of a strict interpretation of Islam. 

Akhundzada’s pursuit of establishing international cooperation abroad is succeeding on a regional level. Since taking power in 2021, the Taliban have established informal diplomatic relations with about ten countries: China, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. Qatar has acted as the main facilitator of the Taliban’s foreign policy pursuits, notably functioning as the mediator for negotiations and peace talks. 

Russia hosted a Taliban government delegation in St Petersburg for their International Economic Forum and extended an invitation to the Taliban to attend an educational forum in Kazan. These developments come with Moscow’s news of intending to remove the Taliban from its list of terror organisations.

China had installed an ambassador in Kabul back in September 2023, invested in Afghanistan and welcomed the Taliban’s representatives to its international initiatives. These moves have yet to be recognized in an official diplomatic context. 

For Akhundzada, ending the global isolation of the Taliban is important, even if it expresses itself on a regional level and in an informal one at its initial beginnings. Outright normalisation of ties with the Taliban on a regional level is not on the table, with countries like Russia and China remaining cautious to what extent they can cooperate with the hardline Islamic government. This primarily expresses itself in security issues related to concerns that the Taliban can provide a ground for Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for organisations using terrorist tactics and activities which can lead to instability in the region.  

What is changing Akhundzada’s heat level? 

Answer: The Taliban’s cooperation with regional actors like Russia and China means fewer concessions on issues of rule of law and human rights, diminishing the need for support from the West.

Akhundzada’s goal of ending Taliban isolation and pursuing international cooperation is succeeding on the regional front. Akhundzada’s cooperation with countries such as Russia and China means fewer incentives for the Taliban to make concessions regarding issues such as democratic governance and human rights. This has notably been a major point of contention between the Taliban and the West since taking power in 2021.

Apart from the provision of humanitarian aid, there is little Western incentive to cooperate with the Taliban. Western countries have expressed no interest in cooperating with the Taliban beyond the provision of humanitarian aid.   

Akhundzada’s ability to successfully leverage relations with Russia and China minimises the need for him to initiate internal political and social reform within Afghanistan to please Western policymakers in exchange for diplomatic relations.

What is driving Haibatullah Akhundzada?  

Answer: Leveraging his religious authority and Pashtun identity, Akhundzada is driven by a desire to end Taliban global isolation without compromising on issues of governance.

Akhundzada is driven by a desire to end the global isolation of the Taliban through international cooperation based on mutual benefits for both parties. Akhundzada himself does not engage in foreign policy and has remained quite a recluse figure both domestically and internationally, with Taliban officials and representatives executing these responsibilities on his behalf, whilst looking to him for moral, religious, political and military guidance and authority. 

Garnering support on the regional front for the Taliban and its legitimacy without making concessions on the domestic front, further cements his credibility and legitimacy at home, preventing further cracks within Taliban leadership. This is especially important when some Taliban officials have expressed concerns about the repressive and coercive nature of the government, and those who have favoured less oppressive measures against women concerning their participation in the Afghan state and society. 

The religious authority and supremacy of the leader is further propped up through his belonging to the Pashtun ethnic group which comprises the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, to which most of the Taliban members belong. In this way, Akhundzada’s religious authority and supremacy are further legitimised through the idea that the Pashtuns are the rightful rulers of the country, sustained through his own identity. The Taliban movement provides a means to achieve this, and the leader acts as an individual through which the country solidifies and consolidates Pashtun supremacy in the country. 

What does this mean for you?  

Answer: Changing global political dynamics and geopolitical power shifts have encouraged Russia’s and China’s engagement with the Taliban, as the group looks to balance regional ties and Western support for its survival.

Geopolitical power competition and changing global political dynamics have forced international actors to rethink their position on the Taliban. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan can be understood as growing Russian isolation from the West. With the US exit from Afghanistan three years ago, Russia and China see Afghanistan as an opportunity for geopolitical interests as they fill the power vacuum left behind by the US.

Before the Taliban took power in 2021, about 75% of Afghanistan’s public spending relied on foreign aid. Since the Taliban took over, foreign aid to the country has fallen significantly and the Taliban is currently falling short of being able to provide necessities for the population. According to Human Rights Watch, almost two-thirds of the population required humanitarian aid in 2023. 

The Taliban are unlikely to seek extensive Western cooperation beyond humanitarian aid if they can secure economic support from other regions with fewer concessions while benefiting from Western humanitarian support. Overall, the Taliban remain largely isolated on a global level but have the opportunity to leverage relations with regional actors to garner economic and humanitarian support for the country. This is needed to rebuild the Afghan state and society, ensuring its government’s survival.

This article was written by RAIA intern Stacey Buturla


The shared Account of RAIA members and Alumni