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Tomasz Rydelek  1 grudnia 2021

Will China and Russia take the place of the US? The new Great Game for Afghanistan is just beginning

Tomasz Rydelek  1 grudnia 2021
przeczytanie zajmie 9 min
Will China and Russia take the place of the US? The new Great Game for Afghanistan is just beginning Andre Klimke / Unsplash

With the Taliban’s entry into Kabul, the history of the pro-American Islamic Republic of Afghanistan came to an end. There are many players who would like to decide on the shape of a post-American Afghanistan, and their interests are often conflicting. China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India, to name just a few, are competing for influence. Also the Americans believe that they have not yet said their final word. Meanwhile, the Taliban are struggling for international recognition and the funding that goes with it, which can be instrumental in keeping the new government in power. The final composition of the government may make this difficult.

International recognition or downfall?

The Taliban have captured Kabul for the second time in their history. The first time they succeeded was in 1996, but this time both Afghanistan’s domestic situation and the international situation are very different.

When they last ruled, Afghanistan was in ruins  after years of civil war. The power structures were dominated by Pashtuns, and numerous Afghan minorities were persecuted. Also, the Taliban did not control the entire country – they were resisted by the Northern Alliance until the very entry of the United States into war. Their harsh rule and dire economic situation alienated a large part of the population and translated into the rapid success of the American invasion in 2001.

The Taliban have learnt their lessons from 1996-2001. Today, a large number of them understand that governing Afghanistan without including representatives of local communities in the power structure may prove impossible. This was visible during the fights with government forces, when they seized power in the provinces not only by force but often also through negotiations with local warlords, tribal elders or members of the local administration.

Afghanistan’s budget this year was about 6.1 billion dollars: more than half of the budget was international aid paid by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. After the Taliban took power, Afghanistan was cut off from this aid. The new government was denied access to the Afghan central bank’s reserves (about 9 billion dollars), most of which are in the US. Things are further complicated by US and UN sanctions against the new authorities.

Of course, these are not Kabul’s only financial sources. The Taliban collect taxes, duties and other fees, and their fiscal apparatus is quite effective. They also generate income from the production of heroin and opium.

However, Ajmal Ahmady, the latest head of Afghanistan’s central bank, predicts that without foreign financial assistance the national currency could collapse and inflation shoot up, which could quickly lead to another civil war. If the Taliban want to stay in power, they must be recognised as a legitimate government by the international community and given access to foreign funds.

In order to achieve this, they must improve their reputation, especially in the West, where they are associated with the extensive repression of the 1990s and their collaboration with Al Qaeda. This explains the current media offensive by those in power, who are happy to give interviews to foreign media, and present to Western journalists a vision of creating a stable and inclusive Afghan government that respects the rights of all Afghan minorities.

The truth, however, is different. On 7 September, the Taliban announced the final shape of the interim government. All 33 positions were taken by the Taliban: 30 of them are Pashtuns, two are Tajiks and only one is an Uzbek. One can look in vain for ancien régime representatives among the new ministers, who are still in Kabul and are trying to pact with their successors. The list includes members of the former 1996-2001 Taliban government and Sirajuddin Hakkani, with the portfolio of interior minister, for information on whom the FBI is offering up to 10 million dollars.

The composition of the interim government indicates friction among the Taliban. The power struggle between the various factions took precedence over the idea of an inclusive government that would facilitate negotiations with the West. Considering the rifts in their organisation, their reluctance to share power, and given Afghanistan’s economic problems, remaining in power may prove to be a far greater challenge for the Taliban than defeating pro-government troops and occupying Kabul.

The biggest winner and loser of the changes

By far Pakistan, with significant influence in the new government, may be the most pleased with the Taliban’s seizure of power. After more than 40 years of effort, the Pakistanis have finally succeeded in placing a friendly regime in Kabul that gives them strategic leverage in case of another war with India.

However, not everyone in Islamabad is happy about this turn of events. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is marked by the so-called Durand Line, which artificially divided the land inhabited by the Pashtuns. Some Pakistanis fear that a victory for the Pashtun-dominated Taliban movement in Afghanistan could radicalise members of that community living on the Pakistani side of the border.

The active support of Pakistan for the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan was a big success. The question, however, is whether the installation of the Taliban regime in Kabul will destabilise the situation in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. The victory in Afghanistan may paradoxically have a very bitter aftertaste for the Pakistanis in the end.

The collapse of the pro-American government in Kabul is also a major blow to India, for which it was an important trading partner and a regional ally. India planned to connect the port that it was building in Iran’s Chabahar with Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power, this ambitious project seems to be impossible to achieve. Indians are also concerned that the change of government in Kabul could adversely affect the security of their country. This is because New Delhi perceives the Taliban as an organisation completely controlled by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI). Additionally, in the 1990s, the Taliban aided the Islamists fighting against India in Kashmir.

India sees the Taliban victory in Afghanistan as a de facto victory for Pakistan with Islamabad gaining a strategic advantage over New Delhi.

An uncertain Chinese and Russian engagement

China’s future policy towards the new government is a big unknown. In previous years, Beijing established a close relationship with the Taliban, and hosted their delegations on several occasions. Some people saw this as a sign of a rapid influx of Chinese investment into post-American Afghanistan. The reality, however, is much more complicated.

China has two main objectives in Afghanistan. The first is to secure the cooperation of the Taliban in fighting the Turkestan Islamic Party, an Uighur jihadist organisation. The second objective is to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into the country, which is key for Beijing in securing the transit of energy resources from Central Asia to the port of Gwadar.

The PRC is also interested in exploiting Afghanistan’s deposits of minerals and rare metals, which could be worth as much as 1 trillion dollars. However, these deposits are so unexplored, and the infrastructure deficiencies are so great that we should not expect immediate and large-scale Chinese projects in the country.

Beijing will certainly be one of the first countries to recognise the government formed by the Taliban. However, it is unclear whether the Chinese will decide to provide extensive financial aid to Afghanistan. Much will depend on the shape of the country once they tighten their grip on power. If the new government is able to ensure the security of Chinese investments, money from Beijing will flow to Afghanistan.

Russia, on the other hand, although it regards the Taliban movement as a terrorist organisation, maintains close contacts with them. Their delegations were hosted several times in Moscow. The Russians also tried to act as a mediator in the conflict between the previous government and the Taliban.

In recent weeks, however, Russia has been keeping its distance. The Russian embassy in Kabul remains operational, but Moscow is in no hurry to recognise the new government. Interestingly, when the Taliban asked Russia to mediate a dispute with Ahmad Massoud, whose followers are resisting the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, Moscow refused.

This may suggest that while the Kremlin is interested in maintaining friendly relations with Kabul, it will be reluctant to become more involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. It appears that the key objectives of Russian policy are primarily to strengthen the Russian influence in the post-Soviet regions in Central Asia and to prevent Islamists from infiltrating these areas from Afghanistan.

Proactive action by Moscow to stabilise Afghanistan seems unlikely. This could mainly facilitate Chinese economic and political expansion, which is not in Moscow’s interest.

The US in limbo

When withdrawing from Afghanistan, the Americans anticipated that the government in Kabul might lose control of parts of the country or even collapse. They did not anticipate, however, that the darkest scenario would materialise so quickly. As a consequence, Washington is still unsure how to deal with the new government.

Despite the withdrawal of its troops, the United States still has a huge influence on the situation in the country, including on the Taliban. It is in the US that most of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves are deposited. Moreover, the Americans can effectively block aid to the new government from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The Taliban know this, which is why in recent weeks they have not tried to antagonise Washington in any way. Quite the contrary, as the Americans themselves point out, the authorities have actively supported the evacuation of some 120,000 people from Kabul airport, and have also assisted in retaliatory attacks against the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), responsible for the airport bombing.

Biden faces a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the Taliban have not fulfilled their obligations under the 2020 peace agreement with the US, by failing to search for a compromise with the government in Kabul and taking over the country by force. Moreover, according to US intelligence, they have not severed their relationship with Al Qaeda. On the other hand, however, the new government may prove a useful partner in the fight against the more radical Islamic State. Furthermore, isolating the Taliban internationally could backfire on the US and push Afghanistan into the arms of China.

It seems that the White House will choose neither to openly support any possible insurgency against the Taliban nor to officially recognise the government. From the point of view of the current administration, the US has no military options in Afghanistan. By means of the economic pressures, the Americans will try to force the cooperation of the Taliban in fighting Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, while simultaneously blocking Chinese investments in the country.

The cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda may prove to be the most difficult. The Taliban will be very reluctant to do this. They may agree to exercise greater control over Al Qaeda’s activities, but it is doubtful that they will take any action to dismantle the organisation’s network on their territory.

***

Afghanistan has been continuously torn by conflict since 1979. The victory of the Taliban provides an opportunity to end the fighting and build a relatively stable centre of power in Kabul. However, economic challenges are piling up before the new government, which could spark yet another conflict in Afghanistan.

The situation is all the more fragile because Afghanistan is still an area where various regional and global powers compete for influence. The effect of the Taliban’s seizure of power on international terrorism is also a great unknown. It cannot be ruled out that the change of government will lead to the reorganisation of Al Qaeda and the restoration of some of their former influence in global jihad.

The Taliban have won just the latest episode in the history of the Afghan conflict. The new Great Game for a post-American Afghanistan is just beginning.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.