Emirates and Empires: The Taliban, ISIS-K, and China in the New Afghanistan

By Alison O’Neil and Brad Settelmeyer

The Taliban delegation at international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow
Image Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

Amidst the chaos of the Taliban’s August takeover of Afghanistan, a new threat to regional security interests has risen to challenge the Taliban government: Islamic State Khorasan, better known as ISIS-K.  

ISIS-K’s most recent round of attacks, including a mosque bombing in Kunduz and another suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in Kandahar, highlights the challenge the group poses for the Taliban. 

ISIS-K and the Taliban have clashed for years across Afghanistan, but the Taliban’s recent rise to power has thrown the challenge posed by ISIS-K into the global spotlight.  As the Taliban jockeys for a position on the global stage, seeking international recognition and outside investment, it has attempted to impose stability by launching attacks on ISIS-K and other potential challengers.  

Put simply, the Taliban seeks to reassure neighboring states that Afghanistan will not devolve into a staging ground for attacks against potential investors.  

But ISIS-K’s recent attacks bring into focus key transnational implications of the Taliban’s struggle to defeat its adversaries.  As AP News reports, the bomber was a Uighur Muslim targeting the Taliban for “its purported willingness to expel Uyghers to meet demands from China.”  

The growing number of attacks perpetrated by ISIS-K stands in sharp contrast to the Taliban’s promise that Afghanistan will pose no threat to China. Beijing benefits from a stable Afghanistan, even if it has not yet made significant strides to invest in Afghanistan itself.  

ISIS-K presents a unique challenge to the Taliban, many of whom have experience as fighters but few of whom are experts in governance. ISIS-K seeks to dissolve nation-state borders and establish an Islamic caliphate with Afghanistan at its heart.  

ISIS-K’s designs pose an obvious threat to the Taliban’s plans on their own, and an even greater threat when considered in conjunction with the existence of regional jihadist groups linked to ISIS-K (such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan).  

The Taliban also has its hands full contending with groups outside Afghanistan at the behest of Pakistan and the PRC. External pressure has led the Taliban to take action against Pakistan’s separatist group Balochistan Liberation Army, which has targeted Belt and Road projects in the past.  

The Taliban has also found itself forced to attempt to reign in the actions of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Taliban-affiliated group responsible for a number of attacks within Pakistan. If left undeterred, the TTP could pose a serious threat to both Pakistani and Chinese interests in the region. 

As Nikkei points out, the TTP (in conjunction with East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uighur militant group hostile to China), could be responsible for July’s Dasu Dam attacks that killed nine Chinese workers on a hydropower project in northern Pakistan.

The slew of hostile groups the Taliban now confronts is not only a major setback to the previously mentioned international aspirations of recognition, but also to the already dangerously low stability of the Taliban’s interim government. The events that preceded the mosque bombing–namely the reported removal of Uighur militants from the Afghan-China border region–signal how the Taliban has decided to confront the crises they are facing.

It would seem like the Taliban’s plan of courting China has not come without payoffs.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s calls for the international community to end its sanctions on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan have provided a definitive show of support for the fledgling Islamic nation.  

Moreover, Chinese military officials are rumored to be looking into occupying the formerly US-controlled Bagram airfield, possibly with Belt and Road-affiliated personnel. (Whether or not the United States’ hasty exit from Afghanistan paved the way for Beijing’s entrance is most likely a subject for another article.) 

Bagram’s status as a former Soviet base, now potentially eyed by China, highlights Afghanistan’s ability to entice hegemons both militarily and economically.  

China might not be “rushing into Afghanistan,” but it certainly has a number of regional security interests tied up in the country’s affairs. China’s success, not to mention the Taliban’s, will depend on its ability to maintain regional security and temper the influence of insurgent groups such as ISIS-K.

Brad Settelmeyer is a regular contributor for the Realist Review. A recent master’s student at Northeastern University, his interests include conflict resolution and humanitarian crises.

Alison O’Neil is a regular contributor for the Realist Review and a freelance writer on international affairs. She is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter: @Alison_Does_IR

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