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US withdrawal from Afghanistan creates challenges for China, Russia and Iran

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Withdrawing U.S. military forces from Afghanistan was never going to be easy, especially after 20 years. The Taliban’s immediate takeover of the country and the terrorist attack at the Kabul airport have created considerable concerns for the U.S., but there is another situation worth considering.  

U.S. military presence was providing de facto security for China, Russia and Iran, enabling them to avoid hard policy choices and allocating resources tied to their relations with Afghanistan. The challenges Afghanistan poses for each nation are unique, but they are connected by the common bond of a need for the stability that the U.S. military provided. With that gone, they must respond to the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan.  

China’s concern is the potential for terrorist attacks in Xinjiang province where the Chinese government is persecuting the Uyghurs. When the Taliban last was in charge of Afghanistan, they gave safe haven to militants fighting in Xinjiang. The Chinese government is concerned that radical groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM) will use Afghanistan as a base of operation for attacks in China and for fundraising. To prevent this, China reportedly is stationing troops in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, near the Afghanistan-China border. China has developed a relationship with the Taliban, but it evidently is uncertain whether that relationship would hold against possible terrorist attacks from Uyghur militants. 

China also is pursuing economic interests in the region, including with Afghanistan, where China would like to exploit the alleged $1 trillion in mineral wealth. China’s arrangement with Pakistan — the Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor — and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are part of China’s economic and foreign policy efforts in South Asia and globally. An unstable, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan affects Pakistan politically and economically because of the close relationship between the neighboring nations. Central Asia, an important part of China’s regional BRI initiative, also is vulnerable to the instability of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.  

Russia’s primary focus with regard to the crisis in Afghanistan is connected to its hegemonic interest in Central Asia. In particular, Russia is worried about the effect that instability there might have on Tajikistan, where a civil war in the 1990s involved militant Islamists. Russian officials reportedly are concerned that an influx of Afghan fighters into Tajikistan could incite a potential terrorist threat and create a humanitarian crisis. Russia has offered the Tajik government support and recently conducted military training exercises in Tajikistan. 

The Russian government has spoken out against the U.S. establishing bases in Central Asia. In his June meeting in Geneva with President Biden, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed that the U.S. and Russia “coordinate on Afghanistan and put Russia’s bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to ‘practical use.’” Russia has reached out to the Taliban and has indicated it will try to work with them, but Russia nonetheless is concerned about how a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan could affect its interests.  

Iran has its own issues with the Taliban and Afghanistan. There is a natural tension between Sunni Afghanistan and Shia Iran. The Fatemiyoun brigade, which operates in Afghanistan with the support of Iran, consists of members of the Afghan Shia community, as well as Afghan Shia living in Iran. They fought in Syria and are prepared to do the same in Afghanistan. The Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan is forming its own militia because, like many other Afghan groups, it fears what the Taliban’s takeover will mean. There is mutual concern between Iran and the Taliban about each other’s motives. The threat of Shia fighters is a problem for the Taliban, as is unwelcome Iranian influence in Afghan affairs. Instability in Afghanistan and its impact on the Shia there are issues of concern for Iran.

In addition to the uncertainty and security threat that the U.S. troop withdrawal has created in Afghanistan, China, Russia and Iran are also attentive to the dangers of narco-trafficking in Afghanistan. This has been big business in Afghanistan for decades. In 2017, there were 590,00 opium-related jobs in Afghanistan — more than the number employed by Afghan defense and security forces — and in 2018, the value of the opium economy was equal to that of government revenues. In addition, in 2019, Afghanistan produced 82 percent of the world’s opium supply.   

The drug trade is an important source of revenue for the Taliban, “which taxes cultivation, processing and smuggling of drugs; and units and members of the Taliban are deeply involved in all these elements,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who specializes in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and conflict mitigation. China, Russia and Iran are worried about the impact that Afghanistan’s involvement with narcotics trafficking will have on their domestic drug problems.  

President Biden’s decision to remove combat forces from Afghanistan was difficult — and its execution has been complicated. As Biden has said, the agreement with the Taliban to withdraw military forces was made by former President Trump, and if Biden had decided to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan, there was the possibility of increased fighting between the Taliban and U.S. forces, with potential U.S. casualties. It is worth noting that the American people supported the withdrawal of U.S. forces. An April poll from Morning Consult indicated that 69 percent of registered voters supported the decision to withdraw.

The collapse of the Afghan government is a blow to the U.S. and its NATO allies, and a tragedy for the Afghan people. But it also will be problematic for China, Russia and Iran. These nations have taken advantage of the security that the U.S. and NATO have provided in Afghanistan, and the Taliban ascendancy now becomes an existential problem for them. 

William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan–Pakistan relations China Donald Trump Iran Joe Biden Russia Taliban

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