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Carter Boone

BA in History, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, MA Student at the University of Helsinki

The power vacuum in Afghanistan left by the United States and its NATO allies is quickly being filled by several regional players. Some states, such as Pakistan, hope to take advantage of longstanding ties to the Taliban to exert considerable influence over the Afghan peace process and to gain the upper hand over regional rivals namely, India. States such as Turkey and Iran stand to benefit (to some degree) from the internal instability of Afghanistan.

For Turkey, a greater role in security in the region enhances its Central Asian presence and appeases NATO allies. For Iran, collaboration with the Taliban allows for a greater influence in a territory previously occupied by adversaries while the flow of migrants may mitigate some of its own internal struggles.

China and Russia, relieved that the NATO presence on their borders has been significantly diminished, still have a vested interest in the stability of Afghanistan. For China, the overwhelming majority of its concerns are economic. Stability will allow for greater investment in the region and the protection of existing assets. For Russia, security concerns are paramount in Afghanistan. It fears that instability may spread to its Central Asian neighbors and that it may be forced to play a greater military role in the region as the primary security guarantor for CSTO allies.

These countries have been actively engaging with the Taliban and the Kabul government, hedging their bets in anticipation of a power-sharing agreement between the two parties in the near future. Despite previously viewing the Taliban as a terrorist organization, both China and Russia recognize the need to engage with the group to secure influence in the country going forward.

For all actors involved in the Afghanistan conflict, there is a certain “wait-and-see” mentality; most actors are engaging with all sides hoping to secure influence regardless of the outcome and to avoid a civil war that may spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be and how the situation will develop in Afghanistan following the conclusion of the NATO and U.S. withdrawal from the country.

By September 11, 2021, NATO’s 20-year operation in Afghanistan will come to a close. That date marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil that prompted the invasion of the Central Asian state to eradicate the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda extremist group which used the country as a base for global terrorism.

America’s longest and most expensive war is coming to an end, but the country left behind finds itself in a state of turmoil. Peace talks between the internationally recognized Afghan government based in Kabul and the Taliban held in Doha, Qatar, have stalled. The Taliban’s hand in negotiations is becoming increasingly strong as the group has managed to seize power in roughly ⅓ of Afghanistan’s administrative districts sending Afghan government forces fleeing across the borders of neighboring states. Many districts have fallen to the Taliban without much resistance from the NATO-funded and equipped government forces compounding fears that Taliban influence and power will only grow as coalition forces complete their withdrawal.

The NATO withdrawal creates significant hurdles for regional stability and a power vacuum in Central Asia. There are several players, both internal and external, who are seeking to fill the void left by the Americans and their allies. Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, China and Russia seem poised to play the next “great game” in the so-called “graveyard of empires”. Some of these states have a vested interest in the stability of Afghanistan to ensure regional security and foster economic interests as well as mitigate the spread of extremism and narcotics flows from the state. Some actors stand to benefit from the current instability; supporting rival groups in hopes of enhancing influence and having the upper hand on geopolitical adversaries when the dust settles on the Afghan conflict. This paper will identify some of the most prominent outside actors in the current Afghan crisis, what those actors seek to gain in Afghanistan, and how they will try to achieve those aims.

Pakistan

Pakistan is arguably the most active actor in Afghanistan at this point. Pakistan has longstanding ties to conflict in Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan was an important base for the Mujahidin who eventually waged a guerilla war against Soviet invaders. Pakistan aided the United States in promoting opposition to the Soviets in Afghanistan and was incredibly successful in this role. In the contemporary context, Islamabad has maintained close ties to the Taliban offering support in military hardware, intelligence, being a haven for those fleeing NATO coalition advances in Afghanistan. There are cultural links between Afghan and Pakistani communities with Pashtun tribes living along the borders. Pakistan is one of the major actors that is thriving in the current instability caused by NATO’s withdrawal. The links between the Taliban and Islamabad allow Pakistan to wield considerable influence in Afghanistan; Pakistan has been increasingly pursuing a policy separate from its former close U.S. ally, with relations damaged between the two over Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups. Islamabad also maintains a poor relationship with the internationally recognized government in Kabul. Recently, the Afghan government has recalled senior diplomats from its embassy in Pakistan over the alleged kidnapping of the ambassador’s daughter on the Pakistani soil. Pakistan is also in constant competition for influence in the region in opposition to its historic rival, India.

Despite benefitting from the current turmoil in Afghanistan, its ambitions have become more nuanced in recent years. Pakistan has been growing closer with China, described as its “iron brother” and is a major recipient of investment under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Pakistan is being forced to re-evaluate its policy in Afghanistan to protect its links to China and prospective projects under the BRI. China is interested in promoting stability in the region, it has been hesitant to invest in Afghanistan due to previous experience with instability damaging economic prospects in the country. Pakistan and China have engaged with the Taliban and Kabul in a trilateral format to promote peaceful resolution in the country, solidifying both states’ role in the peace process and protecting a potential economic corridor. There is also the prospect of a rail line linking Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan for both passenger and cargo freight that will not move forward without security guarantees in Afghanistan.

Despite playing the role of destabilizer for decades, Pakistan now seeks to reimagine its role as one of a mediator and promoter of economic stability and regional connectivity. Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban, although still strong in some groups within the Taliban, are strained by the perception of the Taliban as Pakistan’s proxy in Afghanistan. The two do share common interests and goals in the country, including opposition to the Kabul government; the Taliban is careful to distance itself from Pakistan to some degree in hopes of projecting itself as an independent and legitimate actor. The Afghan Taliban has also refused to distance itself from the Pakistani Taliban despite repeated attempts at pressuring the group to do so by Islamabad. The United States has also put pressure on the Taliban in peace talks to remove military personnel and structures from neighboring countries, a direct reference to Pakistan where the Taliban has a significant presence on the ground.

India

India’s aims in Afghanistan are very clear: to counter the influence of Pakistan and to reduce the potential for Afghan territory to be used as a base for anti-Indian extremism. India has long been opposed to the Taliban and maintained a policy of non-engagement with the group. This policy has recently changed due to the changing conditions on the ground. This is not unique to India, many states that have formally declared the Taliban a terrorist organization have been forced to accept the likely scenario that the Taliban will remain a consistent force in the country moving forward. The Indian government has supported the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul through investment and diplomatic support. With the Kabul-based government losing control of large swathes of territory and widely seen as corrupt and unpopular, New Delhi has engaged with the Taliban in direct talks.

Indian assets have been targeted by Taliban groups with close ties to Pakistan, such as the Haqqani Group, for years. Indian investment and support in the governance of Afghanistan were also largely contingent upon the (relative) security and stability provided by NATO forces in the country; these investments are now at risk of becoming a sunk cost with little to show. India under BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to take a more active role in international affairs, particularly in countering Pakistan and China’s influence on the Asian continent. India may seek greater involvement in the Afghan peace process; likely through increased coordination and cooperation with Russia and Iran. Besides, India may want to utilize its position as a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which China and Pakistan are also members, to find common ground on the Afghan security issue with its traditional adversaries. It is also important to note that if the Taliban seeks to become a legitimate governing force in Afghanistan, cooperation with New Delhi will be important as it is an important regional player with significant economic and political clout. This cooperation may take the form of greater separation between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services which India views as a hostile actor and promoter of anti-Indian terrorist activities.

Turkey

Turkey’s position in Afghanistan presents many opportunities for the only Islamic-majority member of the NATO alliance. Turkey’s foreign military presence under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been significant with active involvement in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey’s relationship with the United States and other NATO allies has been tense in recent years. Its military involvement in Syria and Libya has not been received positively by all parties, and its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems drew the ire of the alliance, ending with Turkey’s removal from the F-35 fighter program.

Turkey has recently attempted to restore its reputation with NATO allies and the United States after some viewed Erdoğan as increasingly authoritarian and too close to Russia. It has offered to secure Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, seen as an essential link to the world for international diplomats to remain in Afghanistan following NATO withdrawal. The government in Ankara is also seeking to increase its involvement in Afghanistan as a mediator with the Taliban; Turkey has hosted the Taliban and Kabul-based government for talks in Istanbul earlier this year.

Greater Turkish involvement in Afghanistan as a security guarantor and mediator, welcomed by NATO allies, is not being received positively by all parties. The Taliban have gone on record stating that a continued Turkish military presence in Afghanistan is not acceptable. The group believes that Turkish troops remaining in Afghanistan violate the terms of the 2020 peace agreement with the United States that stipulates NATO troops are obliged to withdraw from Afghanistan. They believe that Turkey, despite being “a great Islamic country”, is still an occupational force that will not be tolerated. Russia may also be unenthusiastic about a greater Turkish role in Afghanistan. While Russia does have a vested interest in maintaining stability in Afghanistan, recent competition with Turkey for influence in its Central Asian sphere of influence (particularly, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict) means an enlarged security role for Turkey in its backyard may be received coolly by Moscow.

Iran

Iran, which shares a 900+ km land border with Afghanistan, also intends to play a greater role in Afghanistan following the departure of its NATO adversaries. Iran, a Shiite-majority nation, has a complicated relationship with the Sunni Taliban. The two have long had ideological differences that have been glazed over due to a common enemy in the United States. The Afghan government has accused both Iran and Russia of training and equipping Taliban militants on Iranian territory for attacks on NATO and government forces. Iran is forced to take a more realist approach to the Taliban. Despite ideological differences, it recognizes that the Taliban will remain a powerful influence in Afghanistan and sees its best prospects for influence in the region through cooperation with the Taliban and traditional allies like Russia.

Iran also has economic and demographic considerations pertaining to the Afghan conflict. Iran is home to 780,000 registered Afghan immigrants and refugees in addition to an estimated 2.1-2.5 million undocumented Afghan migrants. Iran faces a future demographic crisis; its population is aging, its economy is in decline, and fertility rates are far below the necessary levels to spur future economic growth. With the impact of Western sanctions sending the Iranian economy into a tailspin, Iranians are now hesitant to have more children as economic prospects in the country decline. The Afghan crisis provides Iran with a potential surge in migration that may help mitigate population decline and strengthen its negotiating power in resolving the conflict.

Russia

Russia’s position in Afghanistan is multifaceted. The historical memory of the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979-89 which is widely regarded as a significant contributing factor to the decline of the Soviet Union still weighs heavily on many Russians. Russia also maintains close security ties to the states that border Afghanistan, namely: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Russia’s largest foreign military base is in Tajikistan, while the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-led military alliance, figures to play a major role in any fallout from the Afghan crisis to secure the borders of member states. Russia has deployed tanks to the Afghan-Tajik border and plans to hold joint exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in August along the border regions. Russia considers Central Asia and the former Soviet states to be its sphere of influence and maintains this influence through its role as the primary regional security guarantor. The current Afghan crisis represents a significant challenge to this role.

Russia’s long-standing opposition to a NATO presence on its southern flank is well-known, but the “hasty” withdrawal of the coalition forces threatens to provoke instability across the entire region. Russia fears that Afghanistan’s internal instability could spread to fragile neighbor states, such as Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. It also has legitimate concerns about the prospect of Afghanistan being used as a base for extremism targeted towards Russia or supportive of terrorists in Russia’s Caucasus regions. There is also the issue of the Taliban’s role in the narcotics trade in Central Asia. Russia has an interest in the stability of Afghanistan and the ability to reduce the flow of Afghan heroin through Central Asia and into Russia.

Russia will be an important actor in Afghanistan moving forward, and there are unique opportunities to collaborate with traditional allies and old adversaries alike. The Taliban, formally a terrorist organization under Russian law, were invited to Moscow for talks regarding the Afghan peace process in March 2021. Russia will likely coordinate with its allies in the CSTO and SCO to take a larger role in promoting stability in Afghanistan. Direct unilateral military involvement in Afghanistan by Russia is unlikely due to the legacy of the Soviet-Afghan War but collective support vis-a-vis multilateral forums remains in the realm of possibility. It has also recently been reported that Russia has made a surprising bid for cooperation on Afghanistan with the United States. At their summit in Geneva earlier this year, President Putin made an offer to President Biden for U.S. forces to utilize Russia’s Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan military bases for intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The United States has still not committed to acting on Russia’s offer, but after promising greater cooperation at the Geneva summit the potential for enhanced cooperation on Afghanistan is not out of the question despite tensions between the two powers.

China

China shares similar ambitions to Russia in maintaining the stability of Afghanistan. China considers the Taliban a terrorist organization and is wary of the group due to its previous support for separatist Uighur Muslims in its bordering Xinjiang autonomous region. However, like Russia, China understands that the Taliban presence in Afghanistan is an undeniable reality. It recognizes that a degree of cooperation with the Taliban is necessary to maintain stability and influence going forward. In 2019, Beijing held talks on the Afghan peace process with the Taliban seeking to establish ties with the group it had previously opposed. China is seeking to play an active role in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan following the NATO withdrawal. The country’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are significant investments that require regional stability to flourish. China has dangled the prospect of greater Afghan involvement in the CPEC as an incentive to maintain stability in Afghanistan where it has previously been hesitant to invest.

Like Russia, China is incredibly concerned about the prospect of Afghanistan being used as a base for exporting extremism into its territory, particularly in Xinjiang. Flows of narcotics into China via Afghanistan are also a cause for concern for decision-makers in Beijing. The Chinese government has maintained its best prospects for mitigating these potential issues through active engagement with the Taliban and the incentive of monetary support in exchange for stability and non-interference in domestic affairs. The Taliban has responded positively to overtures from the Chinese government and has pledged not to interfere with China’s internal affairs, although the level of control they exercise over its various factions is still unclear. China’s unilateral military involvement in Afghanistan is unlikely. Instead, China is likely to utilize its role as a leader within the SCO to pursue multilateral solutions for promoting peace and stability in the region. It will likely collaborate with Russia and other regional players, including the Taliban and the Kabul-based government, to ensure that the conflict does not spill over into Chinese territory and to secure its investments in the region.

What Happens Next?

The power vacuum in Afghanistan left by the United States and its NATO allies is quickly being filled by several regional players. Some states, such as Pakistan, hope to take advantage of longstanding ties to the Taliban to exert considerable influence over the Afghan peace process and to gain the upper hand over regional rivals namely, India. States such as Turkey and Iran stand to benefit (to some degree) from the internal instability of Afghanistan.

For Turkey, a greater role in security in the region enhances its Central Asian presence and appeases NATO allies. For Iran, collaboration with the Taliban allows for a greater influence in a territory previously occupied by adversaries while the flow of migrants may mitigate some of its own internal struggles.

China and Russia, relieved that the NATO presence on their borders has been significantly diminished, still have a vested interest in the stability of Afghanistan. For China, the overwhelming majority of its concerns are economic. Stability will allow for greater investment in the region and the protection of existing assets. For Russia, security concerns are paramount in Afghanistan. It fears that instability may spread to its Central Asian neighbors and that it may be forced to play a greater military role in the region as the primary security guarantor for CSTO allies.

These countries have been actively engaging with the Taliban and the Kabul government, hedging their bets in anticipation of a power-sharing agreement between the two parties in the near future. Despite previously viewing the Taliban as a terrorist organization, both China and Russia recognize the need to engage with the group to secure influence in the country going forward.

For all actors involved in the Afghanistan conflict, there is a certain “wait-and-see” mentality; most actors are engaging with all sides hoping to secure influence regardless of the outcome and to avoid a civil war that may spread beyond Afghanistan’s borders. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be and how the situation will develop in Afghanistan following the conclusion of the NATO and U.S. withdrawal from the country.


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