Russia, China and Iran step in to fill void left by Nato’s withdrawal from Afghanistan

James Pierson

Senior Researcher, Tactics Institute For Security & Counter Terrorism

In early July 2021, US forces in Afghanistan did a remarkable thing.

They disappeared.

Furtively, they slipped away from their last major outpost of Bagram airbase, cutting the power and not warning their Afghan military counterparts. They thus left the base to looters, and it was some hours before the Afghan authorities realised what had occurred and stepped in to secure the base once more.

Perhaps the Americans feared traitors in the Afghan military – there’s a history of attacks on coalition personnel by Taliban who have infiltrated the Afghan army or police – might alert the insurgents who might attack while they were vulnerable. Or maybe they just wanted to avoid their ignominious retreat being captured by a journalist.

Whatever the reason, they avoided a “Saigon moment”, and disappeared into the night.

Like the Soviets before them in 1989, the US in 2021 left Afghanistan having failed in their objectives. Admittedly, these have been harder to define as time has passed and have gone through various iterations – counter-terror, nation-building, drug interdiction. But whichever measure one chooses, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to suggest they’ve been met. And even if they have, with the Taliban ascendant, it’s hard to see how any gains will last.

So, with both the Soviets and the Americans humbled by Afghanistan, one might assume no country would want to risk an intervention ever again, and Afghanistan would be left to its own devices forevermore. But in fact, several countries are lining up to fill the void left by the Americans. Admittedly, none are looking to invade or send in soldiers, at least for now, but China, India, Iran and perhaps most surprising of all after the experience of the Soviet Union, Russia, are all jostling for the affections of both the Afghan government and the Taliban.

They each have their own reasons.

Pakistan has long been the Taliban’s sponsor and is the neighbour with the most historic interest in the country. With a history of war with India, and one in which it has often come out the worst, Pakistan has seen Afghanistan as offering “strategic depth”. This refers to an expanse of territory into which one can withdraw when under attack, and which can bog down the invader. Elements of the Pakistani military have seen a client state in Afghanistan – and Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan have met this purpose, even if they don’t control the entire country – as an indispensable part of their strategy for any future all-out war with India.

India is aware of this strategy and thus has a powerful motive for countering it. Pakistan also has a history of sponsoring militant Islamist groups in Kashmir, and many of these have trained alongside al Qaeda in terror training camps in Taliban controlled Afghanistan. This gives India further reason to take an interest in Afghan affairs.

The Salafist and Wahhabi militant philosophy to which al Qaeda and the militant Kashmiri groups adhere is intolerant of other religions and views Hindus as pagans. Indeed, when the Taliban first came to power, they demanded Afghanistan’s small community of Hindus and Sikhs identify themselves by wearing yellow cloth badges. This sinister diktat was only reversed after international outrage, a rare example of the movement responding to such feeling, and evidence perhaps, that even they understood the policy’s hideous historical connotations.

Considering this, India’s support for the Afghan government is easy to understand, but what might be a surprise is that they now court the Taliban. Of course, with the insurgents threatening to overthrow the Afghan government this is realpolitik, though with the Hindu nationalist BJP in power in India, they undoubtedly make for curious bedfellows.

Russia too is engaging with both the Afghan government and the Taliban and is stepping up its efforts post-US disengagement. This is a continuation of a trend throughout the region. Under Trump, the US took a turn towards isolationism and scepticism of foreign intervention. Despite differences in approach, this has broadly continued under Biden. Russia has been keen to fill the void, most noticeably with their intervention on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. Many view Russia’s intervention as decisive in saving the Syrian regime and keeping ISIS at bay. In Afghanistan, Russia has a self-interest, as the country shares a northern border with former Soviet republics and thus instability threatens their backyard. War in Afghanistan could well spill over the borders and so Russia is both bolstering its allies – announcing plans to hold joint military exercises with their militaries – and seeking to head off any problems before they occur. For example, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, recently praised the Taliban for its rationality and for being sound of mind, while criticising the Afghan government for stalling negotiations.

Iran has an immediate interest in Afghanistan akin to that of Pakistan, India and Russia. Iran is the Shi’ite regional power and has a natural affinity for the Afghan Shia minority, the Hazara and the Ismaeli. The Taliban are Salafist Sunnis who see the Shia as apostates. They ruthlessly oppressed the Hazara and Ismaeli when in power. In 1998, shortly after the Taliban came to power, they besieged the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, captured the Iranian consulate and executed eleven Iranian diplomats and journalists. Since then, there has been an uneasy relationship between Iran and the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. On the one hand, Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance, the opposition to the Taliban and the force the US eventually used to drive the Taliban from power. But Iran was never comfortable with a US presence in its neighbour and was not beyond sheltering al-Qaeda militants and helping them to fight their common enemy. Now the US has withdrawn, Iran is once more walking a tightrope, especially as the Afghan Government falters.

Finally, China has its own reasons for showing interest in Afghanistan, though, unlike the others, their’s is predominantly economic. China’s economy relies heavily on imports of raw materials and exports of its products and in this context, we can see the importance of its Belt & Road Initiative. The “belt” refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt, a series of proposed road and rail routes through Central Asia and tracing the historical trade routes of old to the West. The “road” refers to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the Indo-Pacific sea routes which connect China to South-East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East and Africa beyond. Both entail big infrastructure projects and the construction of roads and railways and ports. The Chinese plan for the “belt” of road and railways to run through Afghanistan.

Then there’s Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth. The value of these deposits has been estimated to be worth between $1-3 trillion, and according to a United States Geological Survey, might include 60 million metric tonnes of copper, 2.2 billion tonnes of iron ore and 1.4 million tonnes of Rare Earth Elements (REEs), as well as aluminium, gold, silver and various others. It’s the REEs that might be particularly coveted, because they’re an integral component in groundbreaking technology, such as smartphones, laptops, electronics and lasers. They’re also key to many advanced military applications such as jet engines and missile guidance systems. China isn’t the only country to take an interest in Afghanistan’s mineral potential of course. During the twenty years of America’s military presence, there were various discussions of how they might be tapped, and indeed many conspiracy theories suggested this was the reason behind the US intervention in the first place. But the US was never able to stabilise the country and so such plans as might have existed remained purely theoretical. It remains to be seen whether China’s diplomacy can be any more successful.

A powerful argument can be made that a cause of Afghanistan’s misery is foreign meddling. Throughout its recent history, it has been at the mercy of outsiders. There was the Soviet invasion of 1979 and the US/Saudi/Pakistani sponsorship of the Mujahideen resistance which it spurred; the civil war and the Pakistani/Saudi support for the Taliban; the US invasion which followed 9/11, and the twenty years of war and strife which were the result. We can only hope the current engagements by foreign powers will have a more positive impact on the country and its people. At least this time the engagement is primarily diplomatic. But behind the suits and the fine words, the various militaries are never far away, and should further conflict break out, Afghanistan’s woes can only continue.

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