Afghanistan’s new Great Game: militant groups and foreign powers are swooping to secure a stake in the country

·6-min read
 A man standing on the Afghan side of the border holds a Taliban flag near a crossing point in Pakistan (AFP/Getty)
A man standing on the Afghan side of the border holds a Taliban flag near a crossing point in Pakistan (AFP/Getty)

As the US and the west retreat from Afghanistan, new players are being drawn into the country’s violent conflict and its bitterly divisive politics in the latest version of the “Great Game”, with unforeseen and potentially highly dangerous consequences for the region and beyond.

New alliances are being formed and old enmities revived between states and armed groups hovering for a division of the spoils amid continued strife in the country. The Afghan government is struggling to counter a Taliban offensive, following the pull-out of US-led forces.

One example of the new reality is what is happening at the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The Tajik government has reacted to the Tajik Taliban being handed a strategic strip inside Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban, by rushing 20,000 troops to the border between the two countries.

Another is the effect on Pakistani militants. The Pakistani Taliban has declared that the “victory” of its allies, the Afghan Taliban – which has long had the support of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services – has inspired it to escalate its own jihad against the Pakistani state.

Then there is the increasingly important China factor. While the Afghan Taliban met the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, as part of its diplomatic offensive to prove that it is a responsible government in waiting, the Islamist group was also hosting fighters from Xinjiang, the region in China where Beijing is carrying out a brutal crackdown on what it terms Islamist extremism.

The complex, and at times conflicting, scenario is unfolding as the Taliban makes swift gains following US president Joe Biden’s decision to pull out American forces at speed. Large swathes of the countryside are now under the control of the insurgents, who have launched assaults on cities including Herat, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.

Islamic State (IS), the TTP and their affiliates are using their bases in Afghanistan to plan and initiate attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces

Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser

Afghanistan’s land borders are now effectively under Taliban control. The Taliban have also now begun to systematically hit airports, making it difficult for the government to move troops, and further cutting off the Afghan people from the outside world.

The Tajik confrontation began when the Taliban seized the border areas and placed control of five districts in Afghanistan’s Badakhsan province – Kuf Ab, Khwalan, Maimay, Nusay and Shekay – into the hands of Jamaat Ansarullah, aka the Tajik Taliban, which is banned as a terrorist organisation in Tajikistan.

Jamaat Ansarullah has been accused by Tajik and Afghan authorities of working alongside the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP), the regional affiliate of Isis. Footage had appeared recently on social media of insurgent fighters, speaking with Tajik accents, executing Afghan soldiers.

With Ansarullah’s presence growing, the Dushanbe government sent the 20,000-strong contingent of troops to the frontier. It had already carried out military drills with 230,000 members of its armed forces as the Afghan Taliban gathered in the area.

Tajikistan has asked for help from Vladimir Putin’s government. Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu, during a visit to Dushanbe, blamed the deteriorating security situation on the “hasty” withdrawal of US-led international forces. This week the Kremlin announced that around a thousand troops would be sent to take part in a joint exercise with the armed forces of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan starting on Thursday, and urgent military supplies would be sent to Tajikistan.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu blames the current security situation in Afghanistan on the hasty US troop withdrawal (Reuters)
Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu blames the current security situation in Afghanistan on the hasty US troop withdrawal (Reuters)

The Pakistani Taliban has vowed to replicate the success its jihadist allies have enjoyed across the frontier in Afghanistan. The head of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Noor Wali Mehsud, vowed a holy war against Imran Khan’s government, and said he hoped to get support from the Afghan Taliban his group had backed in their armed struggle.

“The victory of Afghan Taliban is the victory of entire Muslim people, and relations with them are based on brotherhood, sympathy and Islamic Principle,” he told the broadcaster CNN . “Our fight is with Pakistan as we are at war with the Pakistani armed forces.”

Mehsud, who recently took over as the leader of the TTP – an organisation that has carried out a series of lethal attacks in Pakistan, and is banned in the country – said that the first stage of the campaign would be to wrest control of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tribal areas.

With military momentum seemingly on their side, the Afghan Taliban have been meeting ministers and officials of other states, including China, Russia, Iran, and even India, arch-rivals of their Pakistani sponsors.

The Taliban claim to be great champions of Muslims, but they never complain about what is being done to the Uyghur population in Xinjiang

Senior Afghan security official

A Taliban delegation met the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, with the US secretary of state Antony Blinken holding that Beijing’s involvement in Afghanistan could be a “ positive” thing if it led to a “peaceful resolution of the conflict” and paved the way for a “truly representative and inclusive” government for the country.

The presence of foreign fighters in the country will impede the chances of the “peaceful resolution to the conflict”. And it is not just Tajiks who have been present alongside the Afghan Taliban in Badakhshan, but also fighters from Chechnya and Uyghurs from Xinjiang, according to a number of officials including Akhtar Mohammad Khairzada, the deputy governor of the province.

A senior Afghan security official said: “The Taliban claim to be great champions of Muslims, but they never complain about what is being done to the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Their double game, in the meantime, continues with hosting Uyghur extremists.

“The fact that they are allowing Tajik extremists to control areas in Afghanistan reveals that their real aim is to create an Islamic emirate across many countries. There are other extremist groups that have the same aim, which is the reason that countries that are actively interfering in Afghanistan, like Pakistan, may regret what they are doing.”

The Pakistani Taliban has carried out 32 attacks inside Pakistan since the start of the year.

Moeed Yusuf, Pakistan’s national security adviser, acknowledged that the security situation in Afghanistan was “extremely bad” and claimed that it was “out of Pakistan’s control”. Major General Babar Iftikhar, speaking for the country’s army, said an Afghan civil war was bound to spill over the border. “We are aware of the situation and have taken several measures to deal with it. Islamic State (IS), the TTP and their affiliates are using their bases in Afghanistan to plan and initiate attacks on Pakistan’s armed forces,” he said.

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China (AP)
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, pose for a photo during their meeting in Tianjin, China (AP)

The Chinese government has recently repeated its criticism of the US for delisting the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, with its predominantly Uyghur membership, as a group. A Beijing official stressed that “as recently as July 2020, the UN identified thousands of Uygur Islamic State fighters in Syria and Afghanistan”.

Last weekend, China’s president Xi Jinping called on his country’s military command to strengthen its solidarity with the Communist Party, as he warned of potential armed conflict along with security concerns at the country’s border with Afghanistan.

The twists, turns and fall-outs from Afghanistan’s long civil wars will continue as the west leaves a divided and shattered land. It is, of course, something the west has done before, walking away after using the mujahideen against the Russians. The result, as we know, was the creation of ungoverned space, the setting up of terrorist training camps – including those of al-Qaeda – and the 9/11 attacks on America.

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