No one should have harbored any illusions about the fate of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.
Still, the collapse of the Afghan military and the Taliban’s advance in recent weeks were more rapid than almost anyone imagined. Debate and the inevitable recriminations about “the loss of Afghanistan” will be long and bitter.
Considerably less attention will be paid to how Central and South Asian countries respond to the return of the Taliban, but those political dynamics, and the roles played by China and Russia, may well determine whether Afghanistan becomes a threat to the region and the wider world.
When I began this column last week, the Taliban was on a roll as provincial governments surrendered without a fight. New intelligence estimates reportedly gave the then Afghan government 30-90 days to survive after the U.S. withdrawal. By Sunday, the Taliban was only miles from Kabul; by Monday, the former government had fled.
The Taliban’s return will almost certainly create a human rights nightmare for Afghans, and the many gains made by women in that country will be erased. Appalling though that may be, President Joe Biden has made it clear that it is not sufficient reason for him to maintain a U.S. troop presence in the country. Instead, his chief concern is the terrorist threat and he believes the decapitation and eradication of al-Qaida ended that threat and with it justification for a continuing military deployment.
It isn’t just Washington that worries about terrorists. Afghanistan’s neighbors — secular, authoritarian governments — are alarmed by the Taliban’s radical ideology and its readiness to accept foreign fighters into its ranks, both of which could spread the Islamic contagion throughout the region. The former government in Kabul tried to contain and eliminate the extremist threat, winning support from its neighbors. Those governments hope the Taliban will continue that policy.
That isn’t their only concern, however. They also worry about large numbers of refugees crossing the border — destabilizing in the best of times, but even more dangerous amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as flows of guns and drugs.
In short, they fear a vacuum in Afghanistan and a government in Kabul that either turns a blind eye to, or actively promotes, destabilization of neighboring countries.
Those neighbors have responded by sending troops to their borders — a potentially dangerous move that risks clashes with either fleeing former government forces or the Taliban fighters — as they reach out to the Taliban and intensify consultations among themselves.
Leaders from five Central Asia states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) met in July and again earlier this month to discuss developments. At their August sit-down, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, president of Turkmenistan and host of the meeting, called Afghanistan “the question that worries all of us.”
The Taliban has embarked on a charm offensive to assure those governments that it will not be a threat. There is good reason to be skeptical: The group provided sanctuary to Central Asian militants in the past. Much will depend on whether Afghanistan’s neighbors are equally serious about sealing their own borders. Central Asian frontiers divide ethnic groups and clans; when they were in power in the 1990s, the Taliban faced opposition from northern Afghan groups that enjoyed financial and military support from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Central Asian governments can’t handle this on their own. There is no purely regional solution to the Afghanistan problem. Even the inclusion of other regional governments like Pakistan — a key player, given its longtime support for and protection of the Taliban — and Iran and India won’t do the trick.
The main power brokers are likely to be Russia and China, each of which has substantial and growing economic interests in Central Asia; fears the spread of extremism and the Islamic contagion to its own territory; and seeks to extend its influence into the region. Both have been preparing for this moment.
Two decades ago, the two governments set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and focuses, among other things, on fighting terrorism, separatism and extremism. Russia leads the Collective Security Organization (CSTO), a treaty-based alliance that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tajikistan has reportedly asked the CSTO for help securing its border with Afghanistan.
Both organizations, and various individual members have with Russia, held joint training exercises to combat those threats. Gen. Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian General Staff, warned that “The main threat to the Central Asian region today comes from the Afghan direction,” and his military has held drills with the Uzbek and Tajiki armed forces “to practice actions to repel terrorist threats.” Russia is also increasing supplies of weapons to the region.
Russia and China are also quite active together. In July, the two countries’ defense ministers met to discuss conditions in Afghanistan and Central Asia and pledged to coordinate efforts “to maintain regional peace and stability.” What that might include isn’t hard to imagine. The two militaries have been holding regular joint land, sea and air exercises since 2005, and a frequent scenario includes a mock invasion of territory seized by terrorists.
Earlier this month, the two nations held a joint counterterrorism exercise with over 10,000 troops, artillery, aircraft and armored units. According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, the exercise “demonstrated the determination and ability of Russia and China to fight terrorism, and jointly protect peace and stability in the region.” Another exercise, under the auspices of the SCO, is set for mid-September.
The Taliban has recognized this reality as well and has reached out to both Moscow and Beijing to try to dampen concerns about its return to power. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the group’s promise to keep militant groups under its control. And the Taliban reportedly assured Beijing that it will not complain about the treatment of its Uyghur population in exchange for Chinese support to rebuild Afghanistan.
A successful Russian-Chinese effort to stabilize the region poses troubling (from the U.S. perspective) dilemmas. A government in Kabul that is a human rights nightmare but does not threaten to destabilize its neighbors and contains and controls militant Islamic groups would address security problems while eroding the importance of values and rights in diplomacy; it also validates the authoritarians’ claim that a tough hand is more important than liberal values.
A regional security system that maintains peace in Central Asia but is guaranteed by Russia and China strengthens their claims to regional leadership and undercuts boasts of U.S. “indispensability.” Achievement of both objectives — domestic stability in Afghanistan and regional peace — which the U.S. could not achieve in over two decades would be embarrassing to Washington and would undermine its credibility.
Given Afghanistan’s history, predictions are worth what you pay for them. If that is correct, I recommend shelling out a few dollars (or a few hundred yen) for “Shadow Intelligence” by Oliver Harris, one of the most fun spy novels I’ve read in a while. It’s about a rogue British op that aims to start a war between Russia and China over their struggle for influence in Kazakhstan. If the scenario is far-fetched — it is a summer read — the underlying dynamics are very real.
Fiction may prove to be as accurate as newspaper reporting given the pace of change in Afghanistan and the historical tendency of hopes to masquerade as reality in that country. Sadly, the one virtual certainty is that the lives of many Afghans, and its women in particular, will soon become much much worse.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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