The Taliban’s Neighbors Fear Afghanistan’s ‘Boiling Pot’ of Terrorism

A three-day conference in Uzbekistan has united the region, worried about the guerrillas in their midst.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters
Taliban fighters stand guard outside a mosque in Kabul on July 9. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban’s failure to make the leap from insurgency to governance is coming under scrutiny this week as they meet with representatives of countries that are growing increasingly concerned that after almost year in power, the extremists have again transformed Afghanistan into a global terrorist haven.

The July 25-27 conference in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, follows the latest report on Afghanistan by the United Nations Security Council, which contains alarming details on the activities of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, now enjoying the Taliban’s protection in Afghanistan. The report indicated that Afghanistan has essentially reverted to the state it was in before Sept. 11, 2001, when it hosted Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, while the group planned the big terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. 

Officially, the theme of the conference is “security and economic development,” though sources among participants say the real focus will be on counterterrorism. More than 20 countries and international organizations will attend, including Iran, Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian states. The United States, Russia, and India are also set to attend, as are U.N. delegates.

The Taliban’s failure to make the leap from insurgency to governance is coming under scrutiny this week as they meet with representatives of countries that are growing increasingly concerned that after almost year in power, the extremists have again transformed Afghanistan into a global terrorist haven.

The July 25-27 conference in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, follows the latest report on Afghanistan by the United Nations Security Council, which contains alarming details on the activities of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, now enjoying the Taliban’s protection in Afghanistan. The report indicated that Afghanistan has essentially reverted to the state it was in before Sept. 11, 2001, when it hosted Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, while the group planned the big terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. 

Officially, the theme of the conference is “security and economic development,” though sources among participants say the real focus will be on counterterrorism. More than 20 countries and international organizations will attend, including Iran, Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian states. The United States, Russia, and India are also set to attend, as are U.N. delegates.

This week’s gathering to discuss Afghanistan’s descent into rising lawlessness and corruption and sinking human rights will be the first for the Taliban as participants. They shouldn’t expect diplomatic recognition, as they are still widely seen as illegitimate. The European Union’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Andreas Von Brandt, says there is a general consensus on nonrecognition and an emphasis on helping the people, not the regime.

“The main goal of the event is to develop a set of measures and proposals for the approaches of the world community to promote stability, security, post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and its integration into regional cooperation processes in the interests of the multinational Afghan people and the whole world,” Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry said.

Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, and the Central Asian states were united in support of the Taliban’s victory over the former government last August, as they were happy to see the United States leave the region. Now that they’ve got the Taliban on their hands, few appear to know how to halt their brutality and transform them from murderous drug-dealing thieves into politicians. The resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan is also giving its neighbors fits.

Uzbekistan, host of this week’s conference, has seen its southern border region hit repeatedly this year by rockets fired from Afghanistan. While the local Islamic State franchise has mostly claimed responsibility, observers doubt that the so-called Islamic State-Khorasan is anything more than a Taliban cover, deftly serving as a lightning rod so that the Taliban can pretend to cooperate on counterterrorism. 

“The Uzbeks are furious that rockets have been landing in the center of [the border town] Termez,” a delegate to the conference said anonymously, as he was not authorized to speak publicly. “The military are furious and want to react with force; the civilian authorities are having to try to calm them down.”

Tajikistan is also concerned about anti-state groups operating just over its border with Afghanistan. China, another neighbor, has been unable to cajole the Taliban into handing over members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which supports a Uyghur homeland in Xinjiang. Pakistan, which enabled the Taliban by providing safe haven, funding, and arms throughout their insurgency, has lost control of the group and finds itself negotiating with them for peace with their affiliate Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Despite the proliferation of regional terrorist threats, the biggest problem with the old-new Afghanistan is the return of al Qaeda, the U.N. report concluded. The U.N. Security Council says al Qaeda poses the world’s major long-term terrorism threat, but with its protege in power, it’s keeping a low profile so as not to “cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”

But the capability appears to be there. Huge amounts of military hardware, like night-vision goggles, automatic weapons, rocket launchers, steel-penetrating bullets, and frequency-jamming equipment left behind by the U.S. and coalition militaries last year are now in the hands of terrorists, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the report said. Specifically, al Qaeda is developing methods for delivering large bombs. The U.N. report says al Qaeda leaders have an “advisory role with the Taliban.”

Since taking control of Afghanistan last August, the Taliban have presided over the country’s slide into even deeper poverty and corruption than what prevailed under the corrupt Western-supported governments. The Taliban offer no security and no answer to rising food and fuel prices, while oppressing women and minorities and cracking down on the once-vibrant free media. 

“It’s like a boiling pot with the lid about to explode, but it is what we were expecting,” said a Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to media. “We will see it get worse, but right now this is a stable, peaceful period,” he said, despite pockets of armed resistance and vicious Taliban retribution across large parts of the country’s north.

The Taliban appear to believe the conference is an opportunity for the international community to offer further support to Afghanistan to solve “problems, including instability and the humanitarian crisis,” domestic media quoted regime spokesman Bilal Karimi as saying. The United States has offered almost $1 billion in assistance since August, though a lot of humanitarian aid is filtered through Taliban-affiliated organizations, enabling them to pilfer it for distribution to their own supporters and soldiers.

The Uzbeks are hoping the Taliban—represented by U.N.-sanctioned terrorist and de facto foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi—will make a commitment to curtail terrorist activity and stick to the deal they struck with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who pulled out U.S. troops in exchange for a would-be Taliban break with terrorists. But few participants or observers expect anything meaningful to result, as the Taliban have yet to be held accountable for the violence, repression, and incompetence that mark their second turn at trying to run the country.

Enayat Najafizada, the now-exiled founder of the Kabul-based think tank the Institute of War and Peace Studies, said the Taliban “have displayed a pretty fair image of themselves as bound by religious ideology that is not compatible with the values and principles of Afghan society.”

“Contrary to their claims, and those by their domestic and international sympathizers, the Taliban did not change and I believe they will not change. The international community must exert pressure to make them accountable,” he said.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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