The globally watched withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan which resulted in an extremely swift return of the Taliban to Kabul will remain one of the most pivotal geopolitical events of the year, if not decade. Despite being referred to as ‘Taliban 2.0’ –linked to efforts at building a more political rather than insurgent image –the group’s return brings with it serious security, political, socio-economic and diplomatic challenges for South Asia. For India, which is a traditional power in the region, the Taliban’s return foreshadows the challenges that will threaten its national security and sovereignty, especially as they merge with existing rivalries and tensions along the border. Beyond conventional factors such as Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban and security threats along the Indian boundary as well as in Kashmir, a key denominator linked to Taliban 2.0 has emerged in the form of China’s growing political clout within the grouping and the return to considerable central power of the Haqqani Network. Merging these two threats together, the question arises of China’s ties with the Haqqani Network and what such a ‘bilateral’ means for New Delhi. How will the presence of Haqqani Network in Kabul affect India’s security interests, investments and broader ties with Afghanistan and the official government formed by Taliban 2.0? What role does Beijing play in this regard?
Haqqani Network and Taliban
A Sunni Islamist terrorist organization, the Haqaani Network was established by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who rose to power as a powerful Afghan warlord and guerilla-insurgency commander during the Soviet-Afghan war. When the Taliban 1.0 came to power in the early 1990’s, Jalaluddin aligned with the group as its Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs. He was a known partner of Usama Bin Ladin and was perceived as one of Bin Ladin’s closest guides during his formative years in the Afghan War. At present, Jalaluddin’s son Sirajuddin Haqqani —whose international credentials include being an UN-designated global terrorist since 2007 with a USD10 million reward by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for information leading to his arrest — runs the everyday exercises of the Network, alongside a few of his nearest family members. In August 2015, Sirajuddin became as a deputy to Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansur—the then supreme Taliban leader who took over from Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2015. Mansur was killed in a 2016 US drone strike, but Sirajuddin’s appointment in the Taliban nonetheless successfully established the alliance between the Haqqanis and the Taliban which has grown progressively since.
In September 2021, Taliban 2.0 while awaiting international recognition announced the formation of an interim government —-with heavy representation of the Haqqani Network, showing the endurance of their ties. Taliban’s attempts at presenting its new avatar as more political than insurgent will find in its dependance on the Haqqani Network a key fallback; the Network’s associations with transnational jihad are well documented. With four key individuals from the infamous Network holding cabinet level positions —Sirajuddin himself as Interior Minister; his uncle Khalil-Ur-Rehman Haqqani (a listed terrorist since 2011) as the Minister for Refugees; Najibullah Haqqani (a listed terrorist since 2001) as Minister for Communication; and Sheikh Abdul Baqi Haqqani as the Minister for Higher Education —the group’s power in the new Afghan state and with the Taliban only appears to be growing. However, it becomes important to note that despite Sirajuddin’s induction into the Taliban 1.0 and 2.0, the Network has successfully managed to remain outside Taliban control, often functioning as a separate identity that could draw power from its Taliban connect should it need to.
India, the Haqqani Network and national security
The Haqqani Network, in its aforementioned capacity of operating with an individual identity, has long been a cause of security concern for India. The Network has operated and supported a number of anti-India terrorists and terror activities, often with the involvement of Pakistan, India’s neighbor and strategic rival. Pakistan’s financial and logistical aid to the Taliban –mostly via its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency –has continued across sectors, while Islamabad’s strong direct ties with the Haqqani Network itself have also grown. Pakistan’s ties with the Network are further documented in the shelter it provided to Haqqani leaders post the fall of Taliban 1.0 in 2001, allowing them refuge in North Waziristan. In its bid to undermine Indian influence in Afghanistan –especially as New Delhi enjoys more public support in the country as opposed to the non-state action support behind Islamabad –Pakistan has provided security to the Network which has used the same to carry out lethal attacks, more often than not, targeting India. The 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the 2020 attack on Gurdwara Har Rai Saheb in Kabul and even the introduction of suicide bombing as a non-state action tactic –which was inducted by the Taliban as well –are often credited as works of the Haqqani Network.
Such an outlook has also guided Pakistan’s non-attempts at bringing the Taliban and Haqqani’s together at the peace talks table, even as Islamabad and ISI wield great influence over both terror groups. Frustration on this point is shared by the US, which realized that no amount of persuasion would convince Pakistan to crack down on the Haqqani Network, termed a “veritable arm” of the ISI by a former US Joint Chief of Staff. A testament of Pakistan’s influence within the Network –and readiness to use the same for its national interest –can be seen at present as Sirajuddin Haqqani, in the capacity of Taliban’s interior minister, attempts to mediate talks between Pakistan and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to bring an end to twenty years of militancy by the latter in Pakistan.
However, in lieu of current geopolitics and the Taliban 2.0’s new needs in lieu of a changed world order, Pakistan’s influence within the Taliban –and Haqqani Network –could decrease. This is because both the groups recognize that better political achievements could be achieved by building closer alliances with China and Russia (with both these countries being UN permanent powers) and Iran (based on a religious ideological connect vis-à-vis Sunni populations). Here also, China emerges as the clear choice especially as the Chinese government has long sought to build stronger ties with the Taliban especially in an attempt to make sure the group brings the anti-China Uyghur extremist group East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) under control. ETIM presents a major security threat for China in Xinjiang and has dominated China’s Afghanistan outreach from as early as 2000 when Chinese representatives met with Mullah Omar in a bid to get the Taliban to stop harboring Uyghur militants. This diplomatic outreach was not successful, as Omar failed to restrain the ETIM and in retaliation, China did not stop the US sanctions against the Taliban.
There has now emerged a security and power vacuum in Afghanistan post withdrawal of US-NATO forces; the Taliban’s swift and easy return to Kabul highlighted this overture. China hopes to fill this vacuum, especially by making an exclusive entry into the country via its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and ensuring safety of its own borders against ETIM. This narrative has dominated China’s Afghan –or more specifically, Taliban –outreach since the time of the peace talks itself. The meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Taliban leaders in Tianjin as the US was still withdrawing from Afghanistan in itself lay the diplomatic official cornerstone of China’s warming ties with the insurgent group –official recognition of the Taliban is all but inevitable by Beijing should the grouping manage to give China the political, economic and diplomatic clout it wants in the country, especially to counter India. Post the return of Taliban, China has maintained that it will “respect the sovereign independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan” while hoping that “Afghanistan can build a broad and inclusive political structure” while cracking down on “all kinds of terrorist forces”. Having endorsed the Taliban, China plans to hold the Taliban to its pledge of forming an ‘inclusive’ government, and it has the political sway to shape it narrative. An example of this power was seen when the Taliban extended their interim government by publishing new appointments post the Chinese (along with Pakistani and Russian) envoys met with the Taliban calling for more inclusiveness.
China’s ‘bilateral’ with Haqqani Network
Despite talks to build further its BRI in Afghanistan, China is unlikely to press forward until it receives a guarantee that its own interests will be protected. Nonetheless, Kabul has been reportedly engaging with China over talks on the extension of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan; this would decidedly shape China’s entry into post-US Afghanistan while also adversely affecting the power balance India holds in the region. Strategic assets in Taxkorgan, Wakhan and Gwadar will highly aid China’s economic and political global outreach. Beyond BRI driven outlooks, China’s power in Afghanistan will deter India’s neighborhood power and influence. In this regard, China recognizes that beyond the Taliban, the eventual fate of New Delhi’s US$3 billion (S$4.02 billion) investments in Afghan infrastructure development projects and India’s security interests in the region would extraordinarily rely upon how the Haqqani network assesses the underlying necessities and external imperatives of its activities in its quest for power. This recognition has driven China’s focus on the Haqqani Network —extending beyond the purview of the Taliban-China bilateral, but accentuating it all the same.
In what is emerges as the biggest threat for India, the Taliban have put security for Kabul in the hands of the Haqqani Network, or more specifically, Khalil Haqqani. Khalil’s close ties with the ISI, Taliban and Al-Qaida create a trifecta of potential terror activities that could be directed at India; there is considerable threat to Indian national security as the power of the Network grows, especially in light of Al-Qaeda’s statements regarding ‘liberation’ of Kashmir post-Taliban ‘victory’ have stirred security tensions. Here, the China-Pakistan ‘iron’ brotherhood will allow Islamabad to emerge as a trump card for Beijing in its outreach to Kabul –and the Haqqani Network. It becomes important to note that the Haqqani’s are Pakistan’s “favored Taliban”; furthermore, with growing power, the Network is emerging as the true “kingmakers” in the country, allowing Pakistan to use the strategic geography of Afghanistan to its advantage by positioning itself as an indispensable ally to the US.
China’s outreach to the Haqqani Network has been long built; even during the peace talks phase, reports of Chinese nationals being in touch with the Network fast emerged. At present, the long-nurtured outreach is being used by Beijing to reach its goal to get the Taliban to ‘cut ties’ with militant groups, especially ETIM, while current reports suggest that Chinese intelligence heads are building pressure on Sirajuddin to extradite Uyghur militants. In a state-arranged chartered flight, ten Chinese ‘spies’ reportedly flew out from Afghanistan earlier this year; two of these Chinese nationals were in direct and close contact with the Haqqani Network. Chinese spies have long stayed in touch with key Haqqani leaders, with ISI agents often acting as the intermediaries.
Debate within Chinese public on the Taliban has been divided; a post by the CCP’s mouthpiece People’s Daily was deleted from Weibo after it faced backlash due to its narrative that sought to ‘whitewash’ the Taliban’s violent history. The Chinese public has seemed at odds on whether or not to support the Taliban and its affiliated groups simply because it is an anti-US group, or to focus solely on officially recognizing the grouping should it move away from terror activities. Beijing’s delay in officially recognizing the Taliban –even as its embassy continues to remain one of the last few operating normally in Kabul –could also potentially be due to the public divide in China. Even as the same is rapidly censored, the article by People’s Daily highlights the CCP’s attempts to push forward a more-favorable outlook of the group before making a formal policy announcement.
However, such debate does not exist vis-à-vis ties with the Haqqani Network. China and its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan have both sought to undermine India’s role in the Afghanistan nexus; a key diplomatic example of this was their decision to skip the security dialogue India convened on the situation in Kabul in November. The Taliban has already welcomed Chinese contribution to “rebuilding” Afghanistan; such an overture spells trouble for India. New Delhi’s most ideal choice at present would be to maintain a channel of correspondence open with the Taliban. How New Delhi maneuvers its role in the country will hence have to be decided in close consultation with its partner states like US, Japan and Australia bilaterally or as part of the Quad. Nonetheless, it becomes evident that India’s Afghanistan policy will be driven by the nexus between the Haqqani’s, the Taliban and the China-Pakistan bilateral.
Eerishika Pankaj (@eerishika) is Head of Research and Operations Director at the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). She is also an Editorial and Research Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia, a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section.