Muttaqi is Mild amid significant international pressure

  • Taliban Foreign Minister Muttaqi attends “successful” talks with representatives of Western governments
  • Muttaqi receives pressure from the international community to meet human rights and inclusivity requests
  • Support from China and Pakistan contingent on addressing the problem of extremist groups
Amir Khan Muttaqi,
BBC Uzbek Afghanistan Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

Why is Muttaqi MILD?

Answer: Muttaqi succeeds in creating more engagement between the Taliban and the international community, but receives significant pressure to compromise.

At the end of January, a delegation led by the acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Amir Khan Muttaqi attended three days of talks with representatives of Western governments (the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the European Union and Norway) in Oslo. This is the first time in decades that diplomatic talks were held with representatives of the Taliban in Europe. Muttaqi described the talks as a success, claiming that the Taliban government is slowly gaining international acceptance. The representatives of Western governments, on the other hand, insisted that the meeting did not imply a formal recognition of the government.

Since the Taliban took power, the West has been faced with the dilemma of how to support the population of Afghanistan without funding and formally recognizing the Taliban government. Following the takeover in August, sanctions were applied, and billions of dollars in Afghan assets abroad were frozen. With international funding cut, Afghanistan is now facing a dire economic and humanitarian crisis. Delegates of Western governments are holding the funds against Muttaqi in negotiations, pressuring the Taliban to create a government inclusive of opposition, to meet human rights standards, and to prove that they are willing to counter terrorism from insurgents groups.

The lack of action by the Taliban to meet the expectations of the international community is pushing countries to be more reluctant to recognise their government any time soon. Even in the case of countries that have opted for closer engagement with the Taliban, namely China and Pakistan, failure to compromise is putting a serious strain on relationships, consequently cooling down Muttaqi’s position in negotiations. 

Who is changing Muttaqi’s temperature?

Answer: The international community has both advanced and diminished Muttaqi as the West withholds funds while China and Pakistan are interested in engaging.

With the West withholding funds that are essential for Afghanistan’s economy to start functioning again, Muttaqi and the Taliban are forced to look towards other allies that can potentially provide needed investments, as well as recognition. China is particularly of interest in this regard, as the Taliban could rely on China’s veto power in the UN Security Council.

After the US withdrawal, China’s President Xi Jinping took the opportunity to fill the power vacuum and to advance strategic trade and energy interests; especially expanding the Belt and Road Initiative. In early February, Xi also met with Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan in Beijing to discuss furthering their strategic collaboration on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan. Both Xi and Khan see an opportunity to increase their regional power by building an economically strong regional block to counter U.S. and Indian influence. 

Xi and Khan are, however, also interested in developing a relationship with Muttaqi because both are concerned about containing extremist and separatist groups. Pakistan wants the Taliban government to oppose the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban’s Pakistani counterpart, who were emboldened by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and aspire to do the same in Pakistan.

China is concerned about extremist ideology spreading with the potential for Afghanistan to become a base of support for Uyghur militancy, threatening the already weak stability of Xinjiang. Xi and Khan’s goal so far was to stabilize the situation through economic development and with the possibility of recognition, but experts say that the ability to clamp down on terrorist threats will be a major factor in China’s and Pakistan’s future involvement in the region.

What is driving Muttaqi?

Answer: Muttaqi aims to form ties with actors that will provide formal recognition and financial support, without compromising the Taliban’s grip on power and ideology.

While wanting to stay close with Pakistan, Muttaqi is refusing to compromise on the issue of separatist groups. Pakistan wants the Taliban to deter the TTP specifically by fencing the border between the two countries – which Afghanistan does not officially recognize – as violence by the TTP continues to occur in areas along the border on both sides.

Muttaqi and other Taliban officials met with Pakistan’s national security adviser Moeed Yusuf at the end of January and refused to address the fencing issue. Other than refusing to recognize the Durand Line border, as all previous Afghan governments have, the Taliban have also been reluctant to contain the TTP due to fears of pushing it more towards another terrorist group — the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) — the Taliban’s main internal enemy. 

As Muttaqi faces a complicated relationship between Kabul and Islamabad, he continues to look to more nontraditional allies for support. In this regard, Xi and Khan’s interest in forming closer ties with the Taliban through Muttaqi is bringing India and Iran to the Taliban’s table as they do not want to play a secondary role to Pakistan in influence over Afghanistan.

In fact, Indian and Iranian Foreign ministers have been cooperating to ship aid to Afghanistan as they both have interests in pressuring the use of Chabahar Port in southeast Iran to overcome Pakistan. While Iran and India could provide needed investments and recognition, Muttaqi doesn’t want to go against one of the Taliban’s only, and therefore most important, allies, Pakistan. 

Nevertheless, Muttaqi met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in January, hoping to gain recognition. Iran clarified that legitimization will depend on inclusivity of ethnic minorities and national political reconciliation. Although claiming to be willing to recognize and engage with the Taliban, Iran is simultaneously maintaining close ties with the Taliban’s rival to the government, the National Resistance Front (NRF). In fact, leaders of the NRF strategically only agreed to have talks with Muttaqi in Iran, turning down previous invitations by Pakistan. This again emphasizes to Muttaqi that he is better off focusing on ties with Pakistan which has an interest in keeping the Taliban in power. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: An empowered Taliban government has implications for the stability of Afghanistan as well as the stability of the region.

While the West tries to appease the Taliban by engaging more with Muttaqi and other representatives, experts have warned about the dangers of empowering the Taliban, as the more they consolidate their power, the more unlikely they will be to give in to domestic demands and external pressures. Muttaqi and the Taliban expect that, in the end, the international community will give in and allow them access to financial and political resources. As unlikely as this may appear, the West may make such a decision sooner rather than later as it focuses its efforts on other humanitarian crises, e.g. Ukraine. 

In the meantime, terrorist activity in the region continues to rise, threatening the stability of neighboring countries such as Pakistan. Due to evidence that the Taliban are maintaining close ties with terrorist organizations including Al-Qaeda, there are significant concerns that an economically stronger Taliban will deteriorate stability in the region.

Domestically, the Taliban government continues to carry out arrests and repress the opposition to tighten its grip on power; applying restrictions, particularly on women while the number of people facing hunger gets worse by the day. While investment from China could be of help to Afghanistan’s economy, the protection of human rights inside Afghanistan is unlikely to be a Chinese priority. 

In sum, the situation is not going to get better anytime soon for the population of Afghanistan or for stability in the region. Aid is merely a short-term fix but, for Afghanistan to recover, it needs to begin flowing into the country again soon. Western governments should thus continue to pressure Muttaqi and the Taliban to compromise and live up to the expectations of a government, and convince Pakistan and China to apply the same pressure.