August 17, 2021


AFGHANISTAN: China and Russia look for gains, but terrorism a rising worry

BY Andrius Tursa, Gabriel Wildau, Jon B. Alterman

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( 5 mins)
  • China and Russia will build on the disorderly US withdrawal from Afghanistan to strike their own relationship with the new regime, protect their respective regional interests, and undermine US global influence.
  • The return of the Taliban to power is a boost to terrorist groups, and will complicate counterterrorism efforts for Western intelligence services with less visibility into Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

For Russia and China, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a prime opportunity to undermine US global hegemony. Not only is it another demonstration of the limitations of US military power, but it is likely to emerge as a demonstration of the limitations of US diplomatic power as well. With a new regime in place in Kabul, the US will seek to use conditionality to advance its many items of unfinished business in Afghanistan: human rights, women’s rights, counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, and more. NATO allies of the US are likely to go along, but Russia and China will not.

Both countries will reinforce the message that the US model of remaking the world by combining military force with civilian reform initiatives is a failure, and the Russian and Chinese contentment to take the world as it is represents a much saner path forward.

Russia has its own tragic history in Afghanistan, which helped spur the unraveling of the Soviet state. However, Moscow has maintained dialogue with the Taliban in recent years, and these ties will now be leveraged to advance its own agenda. The Kremlin’s primary objective is to prevent the spread of instability and Islamic extremism into Central Asia, which would pose a heightened risk to Russia of terrorism, increased refugee flows, and drug trafficking. As a result, Russia has already conducted joint military exercises with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan and will seek to ramp up its military presence in these countries, thereby solidifying its image as a reliable security guarantor for the former Soviet states.

China has less history in Afghanistan but even more at stake. Recognizing the Taliban in Afghanistan would be consistent with Beijing’s longstanding policy of non-intervention in other countries’ domestic politics. China’s foreign ministry alluded to this approach with its statement that “we respect the will and choice of the Afghan people” and that China hopes to develop “good- neighborly, friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.”

But Beijing is unlikely to immediately grant formal recognition of a Taliban- led regime. Instead, China’s foreign policy leaders will take a wait and see approach as they assess the Taliban leadership’s character and priorities. Beijing’s top concern will be to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a base for supporting separatist militants from Xinjiang. Another priority is that the Taliban and its affiliates in Pakistan not target Chinese personnel and infrastructure projects in Pakistan and Central Asia. Nine Chinese workers died in a suicide bombing last month, which Pakistan’s foreign minister blamed on “the Pakistani Taliban out of Afghanistan.” The ideal scenario for Beijing would be to leverage infrastructure and other investment as a means to cement stable relations with the Taliban, but this strategy would only play out over the medium to long term.

For both countries, Afghanistan’s return as a hub of terrorists using the slogans and symbols of Islam would be a serious setback. Each has expended considerable effort fighting militant groups within its Muslim minority population. While Russia appears largely to have subdued the Caucasus, the Chinese government continues to feel a threat from Uyghurs in western China.

The more acute counterterrorism threat, however, is more likely in the wealthier and more open societies in the West. There, terrorists are able to operate more freely while using Afghanistan as an operational hub. Privacy laws and civil rights protections in Western states provide shelter to such groups. In addition, the large number of Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Western countries will provide a population in which radicals could hide.

For several years, the fortunes of political Islam of all stripes have been declining. This is partly due to government efforts in Muslim-majority countries to suppress such movements, the groups’ generally poor performance in those instances where they have come to power, and their persistent defeat on the battlefield. Yet, with the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq in disarray, and jihadi groups largely atomized in conflicts from eastern Libya to northeastern Sinai Peninsula to southern Yemen to the southern Philippines, Afghanistan could yet emerge as the crossroads of jihad for the small minority of Muslims who embrace its violent vision.

In Afghanistan’s previous incarnation as a jihadi hub, the persistence and creativity of malign actors was a greater threat than their numbers. Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks with a small number of operatives and a few hundred thousand dollars. As Western intelligence services will soon have less visibility into the country than any time in the last two decades, and as their ability to take action will be sharply curtailed by lacking a cooperative government, the counterterrorism task will soon grow much more complicated, and more dangerous.

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