Don't count on Russia and China to help America win in Afghanistan

The U.S. administration's new approach to the war in Afghanistan is both necessary and sensible. The alternate option of abandoning that country to the Taliban takeover would be unpalatable. At the same time, the United States will continue to face obstructive actions by both Pakistan and Russia in Afghanistan, while China will at the very least refrain from actively supporting the U.S.-led coalition.

The reasons behind such conduct by these players are rooted in issues far beyond the Afghan borders. One would hardly expect a landlocked country in the middle of Asia to have a part in every single great game that plays out in modern international politics. There are three such games presently: China's challenge to America's maritime and economic primacy, Russia's new cold war against its neighbors and the West, and the multisided, multidimensional mess in the Middle East and wider Islamic world.

Bizarrely, Afghanistan is involved in all three. Afghanistan's connection to the Islamic world game is straightforward enough. Similar to a number of other Muslim nations, it is facing jihadist insurgents who seek to overthrow government and establish totalitarian rule in accordance with their ideology. Its ties to the other two games are more nuanced.


India is one of the nations that actively oppose China's maritime ambitions. Meanwhile, Pakistan is Beijing's strongest and most important ally. Due to this reality, and as a consequence of the endemic Indo-Pakistani frictions, New Delhi and Islamabad will remain strategic adversaries for the foreseeable future. The close ties India has developed with the Afghan government are seen in Islamabad as a potential strategic nightmare. Facing a hostile and stronger India on the eastern border, the Pakistanis believe they cannot allow consolidation of a potential Indian satellite on the western one.

Within its new strategy, the U.S. has invited India to further increase its role in Afghanistan's stabilization. This is a reasonable stance, which might allow Washington to gradually share with New Delhi the weight of responsibility for the future of Afghanistan. This same stance, however, is incompatible with America's request for Pakistan to become a part of the solution rather than a problem. The request might be just, and in full accordance with international law, but it will not be accommodated by Pakistan nonetheless, due to Islamabad's view of its own geopolitical position vis-à-vis India, and its inability to offer the Kabul government better terms of cooperation than does New Delhi.

Pakistan's attitude possibly could be altered if the U.S. reached its objective of convincing the Taliban leadership its best option is a compromise agreement, allowing for its peaceful role within the Afghan body politic. In such case, Islamabad might hope to balance Indian influence through the Islamist forces in the new Afghan political system. This is only a hypothetical possibility, however, and definitely not a short-term one. For the time being, at least, Pakistan will remain obstructive in Afghanistan.

The Americans and their coalition partners will have to labor against this complicating factor. The hopes that China could actively assist the Afghan government are likely to be frustrated as well. It is true that the jihadist movement is a phenomenon fundamentally hostile to China. It is also true that Afghanistan's proximity to China's restive Muslim Xinjiang region is a disturbing factor for Beijing. But Pakistan is China's ally, home of a future naval base in the port of Gwadar, on a developing transit route and, crucially, a very important strategic check on India. The ongoing great power competition in Asia is simply a much more important factor for China than potential Islamist threats. Beijing will not undermine Pakistan's policy in Afghanistan. At best, it will refrain from committing for any side, keeping its options open.

Russia's motives for its present Afghanistan policy also have origins far beyond Afghanistan. Moscow is presently engaged in a sustained effort to disrupt and distract the West, in order to prevent it from foiling the Russian imperial ambitions. Interference in the elections in the U.S. and Europe, subversion in the Balkans, struggle against the Western interests in the Middle East and the support Russia is now providing to the Taliban all serve this general purpose. Moscow's relations with the West will remain confrontational at this stage. Therefore, its motivation to make life harder for the Americans in Afghanistan will remain in place as well. Jihadists or not, in this sense the Taliban are a useful tool from Moscow's perspective. It will keep supporting them for now.

In the very difficult circumstance the U.S. is dealing with in Afghanistan, the course it has now chosen is probably the optimal one. But it will have to be followed in the face of the continuing Pakistani and Russian opposition and without significant support from any quarters beyond the present coalition partners and India.

David Batashvili is an international relations analyst. He previously worked at the National Security Council of the nation of Georgia and is currently with Civil Georgia. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidBatashvili.

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