Be Careful What You Wish For: Russia, China and Afghanistan after the Withdrawal
The ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan aims to put an end to what has been the United States’ longest war. The departure is accelerating the long-running effort on the part of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Russia, China and other regional stakeholders, to shape Afghanistan’s future and secure their own interests in the wider region. Their ability to do so will depend on multiple factors, not least the extent to which the U.S.-backed Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani can maintain control in the face of escalating Taliban attacks and the questionable willingness and capacity of the security forces to fight back.
For Russia and China, the U.S. departure will be a moment of truth. Both argue that the U.S. is leaving behind a failed state, risking not only renewed civil war in Afghanistan but also wider regional destabilization. At the same time, Beijing and Moscow have long been skeptical of the U.S. ability to solve the Afghan problem, and worry that the conflict was providing Washington an excuse to maintain a military presence in Eurasia that could be used to check their own ambitions.
Now that U.S. forces are finally leaving, Russia and China could find themselves faced with a quandary: whether to wade deeper into a conflict that could—as Moscow learned to its chagrin in the 1980s—readily turn into a quagmire. Should the security environment in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, Beijing and Moscow might feel compelled to take on a greater share of the burden for conflict management and regional security, tasks for which their capabilities remain uncertain.
Back to the Future?
Avoiding a return to the sort of anarchy that plagued Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988-99 remains a fundamental objective for both Beijing and Moscow—one that aligns at the broadest level with the United States’ own ambition to leave behind a “secure, stable, unified, democratic and self-reliant Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
At the same time, Russia and China also perceive Afghanistan through the prism of their respective schemes for projecting power and influence in Eurasia, which entail assuming greater responsibility for regional security and development while limiting the presence of outside actors like the United States.
Russian rhetoric has long been plagued by this tension between the objectives of imploring Washington to fix Afghanistan and guarding against a permanent U.S. presence.
From 2009-15, Moscow allowed the U.S. to transit supplies across its territory and those of its Central Asian partners as part of the Northern Distribution Network. Withdrawing that permission in the wake of Washington’s decision to impose sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine, Putin noted that ten years of U.S.-led operations “has not brought any qualitative improvement of the situation [and] raises serious concern.”
As the U.S. actually began making plans to leave, though, Russia’s tone changed. In October 2020, conversely, Putin claimed that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan contributes “to stability in that country,” denying that Russia had paid bounties to the Taliban to target U.S. troops. During his July 16 summit with U.S. President Joe Biden, moreover, Putin encouraged greater U.S.-Russian coordination on Afghanistan, reportedly even offering Washington access to Russian bases in Central Asia.
With U.S. withdrawal looking increasingly likely over the past several years, Beijing and Moscow have taken steps to manage the consequences. Like the U.S., both Russia and China support negotiations between the central government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani and its opponents (including the Taliban) leading to a compromise peace deal. Both, however, are also hedging against the possibility that negotiations fail, seeking to leverage their ties to local actors (including the Taliban) to prevent violence and instability from spreading beyond Afghanistan.
Like the U.S., Russia and China have come to draw a distinction between the Taliban, whose aspirations are largely confined to Afghanistan, and jihadist groups with transnational objectives such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Afghan wing (Islamic State-Khorasan, IS-K), which has maintained toeholds across the country despite pressure from the U.S., Afghan security forces, and the Taliban. While Beijing and Moscow opposed the Taliban’s 1996 takeover, their attitudes toward the group have evolved over time (even as the Taliban itself has taken steps to emphasize that its ambitions remain confined to Afghanistan). That evolution has even though the Taliban remains on the list of organizations banned in Russia and Kremlin officials insist there are no immediate plans to take it off that list.
Both China and Russia have maintained diplomatic contacts with the Taliban for several years. Moscow sought to leverage its ties to the group to organize a parallel peace process that would sideline the U.S., and more recently sided with the Taliban in disputes over power-sharing talks with Kabul. It even portrays recent expansion of Taliban control into northern Afghanistan as generally positive, insofar as it narrows the scope of operations for the so-called Islamic State (IS) and similar transnational groups.
Beijing, meanwhile, has pressed the Taliban to deny sanctuary to Uyghur separatist groups, while seeking to ensure the movement would not complicate its planned investments under the Belt and Road Initiative. On July 28, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with a high level Taliban delegation in Tianjin, securing a public commitment from the group not to allow Afghan territory to be used for attacks on Chinese interests. China’s state-run press used the visit to emphasize that the two-decade U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan had been a failure, and that the departure of NATO forces provided “an opportunity for the Afghan people to stabilize and develop their country” with Chinese assistance.
At a time of escalating great power competition, China and Russia also appreciate the Taliban’s opposition to outside influence, calculating that for the near-term, enhanced Taliban influence will remain a bulwark against the re-insertion of U.S. or allied power.
In the Graveyard of Empires?
Meanwhile, China and Russia are mulling increased security operations in and around Afghanistan in the event the security environment continues to deteriorate. Should the Taliban’s rapid advance not translate into either a political settlement or the fall of the Ghani government, Afghanistan could face a period of protracted civil war. At worst, a return to the anarchy of the early 1990s could touch off much larger refugee flows and strengthen transnational extremist groups like IS-K or al-Qaeda.
Beijing and Moscow, no less than Washington, would then be faced with a set of difficult choices. Russia—which remains scarred by memories of the 1979-88 Soviet occupation—is not eager to take on responsibility for security inside Afghanistan. For now, Moscow is working with Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to secure their respective borders with Afghanistan, seeking to insulate itself from the spread of instability to the south. Chinese officials have discussed the possibility of sending peacekeepers following the U.S. withdrawal, but have little desire to intervene in an active conflict either.
Of course, a wider conflict could leave Russia and China aligned with the United States in seeking to prevent Afghanistan’s problems from spreading outward. Since the death of Osama bin Laden, though, the U.S. has become steadily less invested in Afghanistan. In a modest policy-reversal, Washington announced in late July that it will continue to provide short-term air support for the Afghan military facing aggressive Taliban advances in summer 2021. It also is seeking partnerships with neighboring states to facilitate intelligence collection and, perhaps, targeting. But Washington is unlikely to want to wade back into the Afghan morass either—until or unless the country spawns another 9/11-style attack.
In that sense, the U.S withdrawal raises the stakes for both Beijing and Moscow. China and Russia have long maintained a dualistic approach to the U.S. presence: calling on Washington to leave while chiding it for failing to stabilize Afghanistan first. In recent years, the calls for Washington to depart have only gotten louder. Once the U.S. is out for good, Beijing and Moscow will face a real test.
Do they have sufficient influence to oversee a managed transition, contain any spillover of violence, and provide reassurance to anxious Afghanistan neighbors? The whole region is about to find out.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the U.S. National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, the U.S. government or any other institution.
Photo of U.S. and Afghan soldiers in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, taken by the U.S. Army and shared via Flickr with a Creative Commons license.