Afghan Taliban fighters and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal signed between US and Taliban in Laghman Province, Alingar district on March 2, 2020. Photo: Wali Sabawoon / NurPhoto via AFP

As the Taliban notches victory after victory on Afghanistan’s battlefields, consolidating ever-more territorial control over the war-torn nation, the militant group once widely branded as a terror outfit is also stealing a march on the diplomatic stage.

Meeting by meeting, the Taliban’s budding contacts with China, Russia, Iran and neighboring Central Asian states have lifted the rebel group further above ground, diplomatic legitimacy that is giving it another edge over President Ashraf Ghani’s besieged administration.  

The Taliban is presenting itself in diplomatic circles not only as the leading force capable of stabilizing Afghanistan, but also as an indispensable political actor that concerned states must engage if they seek influence over the nation’s future policy and direction.

By all accounts, Ghani’s US-backed government is now losing its war with a resurgent Taliban, seen in the militant group’s push forward as it seizes ever-larger swathes of territory in the wake of America’s faster-than-expected troop withdrawal.

Despite years of training from US and NATO advisors, Afghan National Security Forces are now abandoning posts, relinquishing weapons and even defecting as the Taliban pushes north and northwest. A US intelligence report cited in news reports anticipates the fall of Kabul within six months.

China, Russia and Pakistan, among others, no doubt saw this writing on the wall much earlier and have hedged their diplomatic bets by engaging Taliban representatives.

In Beijing’s particular case, it has dangled potential infrastructure deals before the Taliban to connect the country to its Belt and Road. Ghani’s recent public complaint about Pakistan’s support for the Taliban reflects Islamabad’s bet that the militant group will likely come out on top in the months ahead.  

Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar points as he attends a press conference in Moscow on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff

While all of Afghanistan’s neighbors believe that some sort of an “intra-Afghan” settlement is necessary for stability and to avoid a large-scale civil war on their borders, fewer and fewer seem to see the current Ghani regime playing a leading role in the future.

Indeed, engagement with Ghani could jeopardize their interests if the Taliban perceives it is coming at its expense.    

Mushahid Hussain Syed, who heads Pakistan’s Defence Committee in the Senate, recently acknowledged that regional countries – namely Russia, China and Iran – have already “reconciled to a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.”

Crucially that includes neighboring Pakistan, which will bear the brunt of any mass refugee flows if Afghanistan descends into full-scale civil war, with the Taliban on one side and Ghani’s national forces backed by various warlords and geographical-based militias on the other.

Videos now circulating on social media show wounded Taliban fighters receiving medical treatment in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, one clear sign of support that likely contributed to Ghani’s recent criticism.

The US, of course, set the Taliban’s diplomatic train in motion through its diplomatic engagement, recognition that resulted in the February 2020 Doha pact that set the terms for America’s troop withdrawal.

As part of that deal, the Taliban promised to cut ties with terror groups like al Qaeda, terms which critics claim the extremist group hasn’t clearly upheld. It has broadly refrained from attacking withdrawing US troops, training its assaults instead on the Afghan national forces the US trained and armed.   

While the Taliban have engaged in talks with Ghani’s government, the exchanges to date have been more about the form than the substance of negotiations. Observers and analysts now await the Taliban’s promised “peace plan”, which its spokesmen claim it will present to Ghani’s negotiators next month.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gestures as he speaks on March 3, 2020. Photo: AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

As such, some now wonder if the Taliban, with a clear eye on conducting foreign policy before it seizes Kabul, may be coordinating and potentially even clearing its military advances with certain of these outside states. The Taliban has in recent weeks seized control of key border trade outposts.  

In a July 11 statement, the Taliban said the purpose of its diplomacy is not only to reiterate its commitment to “dialogue”, but also to develop “understanding” with these states with a view to address their concerns and fears. The statement said:

“[a] delegation of the Islamic Emirate [Taliban] traveled to the Russian capital Moscow because large swaths in the northern parts of the country had recently come under the control of Mujahideen and the Islamic Emirate sought to allay fears of Russia and other Central Asian countries, and to assure them that no foreign country shall face any harm from Afghanistan.”

Turkey is the outlier in the Taliban’s diplomatic blitz. The Taliban has vociferously opposed the possible continued presence of Turkish troops in Afghanistan, including at key infrastructure in the capital Kabul.

While the Taliban clearly see Turkey’s military presence as a violation of national sovereignty, Russia and China likely fear Turkey will seek to support and foment transnational jihadi networks known to be situated in Afghanistan’s north.

These include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an ethnic Uighur extremist group responsible for past terror attacks in China and which seeks to transform China’s Xinjiang region into an independent Islamic state. Turkey is home to a large exiled Uighur community, many of whom fled persecution in China.  

The deputy governor of Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan province recently said in a media interview that the militant groups overrunning national forces in the province are largely multi-ethnic, including Tajiks, Chechens, Uighurs and Uzbeks.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban at a known warlord’s residence in Herat on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoshang Hasimi

While currently allied with the Taliban, the transitional jihadis could switch sides and become a Turkish insurgent proxy if they perceive the Taliban seeks to abandon them in exchange for China’s, Russia’s and Iran’s diplomatic recognition and potential aid for reconstruction.  

Security analysts say the militant groups could be deployed similarly to the war in Syria, a war model that would be directed against China, Russia and their interests in Central Asia. The analysts suspect the militant groups may have helped to stage the recent deadly blast that killed at least nine Chinese engineers and nationals while traveling in a bus in Pakistan.

To some, the Taliban is already showing its willingness to conduct foreign policy in line with the wishes of China, Russia and other key regional stakeholders. While the Taliban is now focused on military victory against Ghani’s crumbling regime, it will still need all the outside support it can get to finally topple and then hold Kabul.