Competition for the Ownership of the Taliban
By: Mohammad Ali Nazari
At the beginning of the book “Afghanistan During the Five Years of Taliban Rule,” Vahid Mozhdah, an Afghan writer, said that those who have witnessed the political events of Afghanistan from the 1978 (Sawr coup) until today, know very well that no military movement without foreign support and intervention has been able to fight and act in Afghanistan and the movements have collapsed and disappeared with the end of foreign support. (Mozhdah, 1381: 19). He cited Hizb-e-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as a prominent example of a foreign-backed military movement that at one time, received the most foreign aid. He stated that the military movement of the Taliban is not an exceptional case since it was created and continued to exist with the support of foreign countries.
The Taliban have always been accused of being created and nurtured by the United States, Pakistan, and England. According to Mozhdah, Hekmatyar was the first person to accuse the Taliban of serving foreigners, and on November 21, 1994, after the fall of Kandahar to the Taliban, he considered the emergence of the group as a “foreign conspiracy”. Later, Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, also confirmed that the Taliban was a joint project of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). (Ibid., p. 20) William Wiley also wrote in the book “Afghanistan, Taliban, and World Politics” that the Taliban were strongly supported by Bhutto, at the time.
The fact is that without internal contexts, the efforts of intelligence organizations cannot create a group like the Taliban at once. Until the formation of the Taliban, many countries supported Islamic parties, predominately the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. Supporting these parties had led society toward extremism. From within such a society, the Taliban emerged with the plan of the United States and England, the management of Pakistan, and the money of Saudi Arabia, taking control of the country immediately. Mullah Muhammad Omar, the founder and first supreme leader of the Taliban, used to be a member of the Islamic and National Revolution Movement and was one of the commanders of this group.
In the beginning, the Taliban pretended that they were not interested in power and government, but after taking over the country in 1996, they monopolized the entire power and created a system called “Islamic Emirate”. The emirate was recognized only by three countries supporting the Taliban: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Pakistan. When the United States and its allies gradually opposed this group due to Osama bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban, Pakistan, while being an ally of the United States, did not stop supporting the Taliban by playing a dual game. However, later when the “First Emirate of the Taliban” collapse became imminent, Pakistan was one of the contributors to it.
After the Taliban were defeated, they were displaced to the border areas of Pakistan, being supported by the Pakistani army for two whole decades. During that time, they were reshaped and various countries provided a platform, financial support, and weapons for the Taliban, enabling them to re-enter Kabul. Now that nearly two years have passed since the Taliban rule over Afghanistan, the families of many of the group’s leaders are still in Pakistan, Qatar, and the UAE, and it is even said that the Taliban’s defense minister is traveling to Karachi on a Pakistani military plane to meet his family. This issue has kept Pakistan as the main claimant of ownership over the Taliban.
Which Countries Support the Taliban Directly or Indirectly?
According to Mozhdah, military movements cannot be created and continue their existence without foreign financial and intelligence support. Taliban also acquire this support from several countries. The United States and India indirectly and China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar and to some extent, Uzbekistan directly support this group. Each of these countries has its own method; one by sending packages of dollars, the other by direct engagement with the Taliban, and the third by global lobbying for this group. The countries are discussed below:
The United States
The United States somehow provides the ground for the survival of the Taliban by injecting packages of dollars, since part of what is transferred to Afghanistan under Taliban control in the name of humanitarian aid goes to the pockets of Taliban leaders and another part is distributed to the fighters of this group in the name of deserving people. On the other hand, with these packages, the salaries of doctors and teachers across the country are paid, which is a big help to the coffers of the Taliban regime. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has also told the U.S. Senate that their assistance may inadvertently strengthen the Taliban.
However, some analysts believe that these packages of aid keep the Taliban financially dependent on the United States, which brings them under the control of the United States; a country that is accused of planning to create the Taliban in coordination with England and Pakistan in order to secure the oil and gas pipeline from Central Asia to South Asia with the interference of Unocal Oil Company. It is even said that during the first period of the Taliban, Chris Takkrit, one of the officials of the Unocal Company, asked the U.S. government to recognize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
During the 20 years of the United States’ presence in Afghanistan, Russia worked quietly under the radar in the beginning, but in the last years of the republic period, it strengthened its relationship with the Taliban, hosting the leaders of the group in Moscow to give them a platform. The issue of providing arms to the Taliban by Russia is also discussed. Brigadier General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in 2018 that it has been proven to them that Russia provides weapons to the Taliban and smuggles them into Afghanistan from the Tajik border, and gives them to the group.
When the Doha talks were going on, Moscow also hosted Taliban leaders and some political leaders opposed to Ashraf Ghani’s government. After the Taliban took control of the country, Russia has been one of the few countries that kept its embassy in Kabul open and accepted Taliban diplomats, although it temporarily closed it after Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K) attacked the embassy, killing two Russian diplomats. Russia’s efforts are aimed at keeping the Taliban away from U.S. influence. In the last two decades, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was largely out of Russia’s reach, but now Moscow is trying to reverse it.
Considering the Taliban’s need for foreign political and financial support, the group also tries to behave between the two hostile superpowers (the United States and Russia) in such a way that neither of them will be offended. Therefore, the Taliban promised Moscow that they will not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan’s soil against Russia and its allies, and simultaneously promise the United States the same things, although it does not fulfill any of them. However, Russia still pretends that it is a stakeholder in the regime of the Taliban and feels ownership over them due to supporting and giving them a platform.
Iran, which formed and supported the “Mashhad Council of the Taliban” during the Republican era, provided training and educational camps for the members of the group and hosted some of their leaders, also has a sense of ownership towards the Taliban. Although the presence of the Taliban in Iran has not been officially accepted, this presence has not been ruled out. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister in Hassan Rouhani’s government, in an interview with Tolo News, in response to a question about the presence of Taliban leaders in Iran, said that he was not aware of such a thing, adding that people who are related to the Taliban may travel to Iran, but there is no such thing as having a headquarters or a camp in Iran. Here, Zarif only denied the existence of a Taliban military base on Iranian soil but expresses ignorance about the presence of Taliban leaders. However, in the same interview, he accepts the presence of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the former leader of the Taliban, in Iran, but says that this trip was “temporary”.
After the fall of the republic, Iran also maintained its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, accepting Taliban representatives as diplomats and handing over the Afghan embassy in Tehran to the group. The same promise of preventing the use of Afghanistan’s soil to attack other countries has been given to Iran. However, despite the fact that Tehran feels the threat of ISS-K, it owes the Taliban too much to settle with such promises. Before the fall of the Republic, there were many reports about Iran’s support of the Taliban. For instance, six months before the Taliban took control of the country, Iranian snipers and even the military uniform of the Revolutionary Guards in Herat fell into the hands of the Afghan security forces from a Taliban base. Iran now wants something further than the promise of fighting ISS-K in exchange for all those services. Like Russia, this country hosted Taliban leaders both secretly and openly, and now has close relations with them, therefore, like Russia, Iran considers the Taliban beholden to it.
Pakistan; the Main Claimant
Pakistan is another neighbor and the main claimant to the Taliban as it has been engaged in the issue of the Taliban since its creation and growth. Following the collapse of the “First Emirate,” by hosting thousands of Taliban members and then giving a platform and providing lasting support to them until they returned to power again, Pakistan considered itself the main owner of the group. In the first days of the Taliban’s control of Kabul, when there was a power struggle between different factions of this group, General Faiz Hameed, the head of the Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), traveled to Kabul and distributed positions among the Taliban leaders.
He announced the purpose of this trip was to solve the issue of migrants crossing the border of the two countries and provide technical support to Afghanistan’s airfields under the control of the Taliban. However, sending the head of intelligence for such a mission by Pakistan was suspicious. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the responsibility and authority to solve issues such as migrants crossing the border, not the head of the army. Also, Hameed went to Kabul last year to discuss a ceasefire agreement with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), which was hosted by the Haqqani group.
On March 4, 2023, a military delegation led by Khawaja Mohammad Asif, Pakistani Minister of Defense, and General Nadeem Anjum, the Directorate General of ISI, traveled to Kabul. Although the contents announced in the statements were mostly not closely related to the positions of the head of the intelligence organization and the minister of defense, sending a military and intelligence delegation instead of a diplomatic delegation indicated that Pakistan still maintains a sense of ownership over the Taliban and considers the group a militia rather than being a government, who get orders from army generals and the head of the intelligence organizations.
Although Pakistan has recently been somewhat marginalized due to Qatar’s strong presence and its relationship with the Taliban, it is trying to tell the world that the Taliban issue and the relationship with the group cannot be solved in the absence of its main owner (Pakistan). On the other hand, the meeting of the Pakistani generals with the Taliban is carried out deliberately to strengthen the claim that the Taliban are the puppet of ISI. For this reason, when Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Mutaqi traveled to Islamabad to participate in a trilateral meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and China, he also met with General Asim Munir, the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army. This meeting probably was held at the request of Islamabad to once again emphasize the connection of the Pakistani army and ISI with the Taliban group and to show the world that the communication route with the Taliban goes through Rawalpindi, not Doha. Although it was said at that time that the meeting was held to convey the message of the Doha meeting to the Taliban, two days ago the Qatari government also sent a delegation led by its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Abdul Rahman Al Thani to Kabul and then to Kandahar. The government of Qatar and the Taliban announced that Al-Thani had a message from the emir of Qatar to the emir of the Taliban. Some analysts also said that this trip was probably done to convey the message of the Doha meeting to the Taliban.
Qatar; the Possible Replacement
Qatar has been hosting the political delegation of the Taliban since 2013. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the leaders of the group were hidden in Pakistan, but in 2013, with the agreement of Hamid Karzai’s government, Qatar hosted the political office of this group in Doha. In addition to that, this country has done many favors to the Taliban, including giving the leaders of this group a share in the lucrative projects of building football stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. On the day of the opening of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, the Taliban’s press conference was covered live by the Al Jazeera network, established by the Qatar government, to convey their message to the world and the countries of the region. In a situation where the Taliban did not have an important media, this was not a small favor. Since then, the rulers of Qatar behave as if the communication route with the Taliban passes through Doha, which has upset Pakistan. Playing such a role indicates taking Pakistan’s traditional position in relation to the Taliban. Consequently, when the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army met with the Mutaqi, Qatar also sent a delegation to Afghanistan to meet with the Prime Minister of the group. Although it was said that the prime minister and the head of Qatar’s intelligence were also meeting Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Taliban, they only met the Taliban Prime Minister Mullah Hassan Akhund in Kandahar.
Abdullah Al-Khalifi, the head of Qatar’s intelligence, was also present in the Qatari delegation. On that day, Taliban Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted that in the meeting of the Prime Minister of Qatar and his delegation with the Prime Minister of the Taliban in Kandahar, they discussed “strengthening bilateral relations and increasing trust” and also the assistance of the Qatari government in the educational, medical and economic sectors. However, it is explicit that the strength of relations and increase of trust or the kind of educational, economic, or health aid cannot be among the missions of the intelligence chief of a country. Al-Thani who is both the foreign minister and the prime minister was enough to follow up on such issues.
The presence of the head of Qatar’s intelligence in the delegation can be in response to Mutaqi’s meeting with General Asim Munir. By sending a delegation with such a combination, Qatar sends the message to Pakistan that the era of exclusive domination of Rawalpindi over the Taliban group is over and now another chapter has begun.
Is Pakistan’s Exclusive Dominance Broken?
It appears that hostile countries like Pakistan and India, Iran, Russia, and China on one side and the United States and its allies on the other side are trying to take the Taliban from the control of each other. This situation benefits the Taliban in the short term as they can have US dollar packages, diplomatic exchanges between Russia and Iran, economic contracts with China, and lobbying by Pakistan and Qatar at the same time, but in the long run, it will be to the detriment of this group since they cannot play with all parties and keep everyone pleased forever. The main reason is the heterogeneity of the demands of these countries. What the United States and its allies want from the Taliban is not even close to what Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan expect, except for the formation of an “inclusive government”. Although Pakistan is a traditional ally of the United States, its concerns regarding the Taliban are not even close to those of the United States.
These trips and meetings are the continuation of the fight over the ownership of the Taliban. Lately, Pakistan considers itself to be a marginal country in the affairs of Afghanistan, and in order to return to the context of the affairs and thereby provide its political and economic interests, it has turned to various options. The disclosure of Hassan Abbas, the author of “Return of the Taliban” about the relations of the group with Pakistani institutions, including the ISI, as well as the statements of Afrasiab Khatak, the former senator of Pakistan, about the fact that the policies of the Taliban are determined from Islamabad, can be done in this direction. Politicians like Khatak may have disagreements with people in power; however, when it comes to the national interests of one’s country, everyone can move in the same direction.
As the countries compete with their opposite sides by getting closer to the Taliban, the peaceful conflict over the ownership of the group will continue. However, what is certain is that Pakistan’s monopoly on the Taliban has been broken, and nor does Doha have exclusive dominance over the Taliban.