October 1, 2021
IntelBrief: The U.S. is Gone from Afghanistan, How Will Regional Powers Respond?
Now that the United States has withdrawn its last remaining troops from Afghanistan, many expect the result will draw in regional powers, each seeking to cultivate proxy forces to work through. Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China all have their own designs for the future of Afghanistan, and their own economic, political and security priorities. Each country will seek to increase its influence and reach within Afghanistan, directly as a result of the U.S. departure.
Iran maintains longstanding connections to Shia groups in Afghanistan, and throughout the conflict, has provided varying levels of support to the Taliban, including training and weapons. Iran is concerned about its border, and a civil war that spirals out of control. As insurance, Tehran may seek to deploy its own foreign fighter brigade, the Liwa Fatemiyoun, comprised of Afghan Shia and battle hardened from fighting in Syria for the past several years. Iran has a complicated history with the Taliban, and while strategic priorities for each may overlap at times, Tehran may also look to support anti-Taliban groups as a way of hedging bets and gaining leverage. But overall, Iran seeks a stable Afghanistan that does not lead to spillover violence and attacks on Iranian soil. Iran is also concerned about the potential for large numbers of refugees to seek shelter in Iran, further pressuring a government still struggling to deal with its economy and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pakistan has been dubbed “the winner” of the conflict in Afghanistan, not least because the Afghan Taliban are largely a creation of Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Even though Islamabad is nominally a partner of Washington in the so-called Global War on Terrorism, the Pakistanis played a “double game” throughout the duration of the conflict. Pakistan cultivates and nurtures relationships with a bevy of militant groups throughout South Asia, conceived of as “strategic depth” in any potential future conflict with India, particularly regarding Kashmir. There is a downside for Pakistan, however, as the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) or “Pakistani Taliban,” which is at odds with the Pakistani state and security forces, has already increased its operational tempo and begun launching attacks with greater frequency. Moreover, Pakistan will bear the brunt of a refugee influx if conditions further deteriorate in Afghanistan.
Russia is concerned about the prospect for a Taliban victory to embolden religious extremists throughout Central Asia, increasing the chances for blowback on Russian soil. Moscow is also concerned about an uptick in illicit flows—weapons, drugs, humans—being smuggled and trafficked across porous borders, a priority it has reiterated in several international forums, including the United Nations, for the last few years. Afghanistan and areas along its various borders will be attractive for criminals and terrorists, and could lead to a strengthening of the crime-terror nexus in Central Asia. Since 2018, Russia has engaged in talks with the Taliban and will seek to maintain working relations, albeit with a wary eye. Moscow has a complicated history in Afghanistan, but will also be pragmatic. As the major military power in the region, Russia will continue to work with its allies in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and it will likely boost the role of relevant regional organizations, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The United Nations has to date played a limited role on security matters in the region, though the UN Regional Center for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA) does also have a mandate to cover counterterrorism issues and UN bodies like the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED) have actively engaged with all the states in the region.
Like Russia, China is also concerned about spreading instability and the revival of Islamist militancy throughout Central Asia. China is cautious of getting dragged into the same morass from which the U.S. just extricated itself, and Beijing will likely be parsimonious in its commitments to Afghanistan. While there are clear economic interests at play, including valuable minerals that China covets, the unpredictability of Afghanistan’s security situation will give Beijing pause. In the meantime, China will not forfeit the opportunity to use the U.S. withdrawal in its propaganda, describing Washington as a declining power and a force for instability in the world. Still, true to the realpolitik nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the government has engaged in outreach with the Taliban and spoken positively of its behavior. The Taliban, in turn, have so far remained mum about the plight of the Uighurs, Chinese Muslims being persecuted by the government in what some have labeled a modern-day genocide. Should China retain access to the natural resources it requires and gain the Taliban’s support in managing the largely Uighur Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), it is likely to play its traditional role in supporting the approach of “non-interference in internal affairs.”
While many of these countries are happy to see the United States and its allies withdraw, the resulting power dynamic is a cause for concern, from Moscow to Islamabad and beyond. An unstable Afghanistan is not in the interest of any country in the region. Furthermore, while Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and China are relieved that Western militaries are no longer deployed in their neighborhood, each understood that the U.S. was spending considerable resources to remain bogged down in what many considered an unwinnable quagmire. The Biden administration believes that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will better enable Washington to respond to near peer adversaries. Yet, the failure to see Afghanistan through the lens of great power competition has left many wondering if the Administration truly understands the concept – or the region - at all.