‘Great Game’ Redux in Afghanistan?
The U.S. campaign in Afghanistan “was a failed enterprise from the start even though Russia supported it during the first stages,” said former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, commenting on the U.S. withdrawal after a 20-year war. Even American leading political scientists described the U.S. mission as “fatally flawed from the outset” because of impossibility of transforming Afghanistan into a unitary state.
Gorbachev has a unique perspective: In 1989 he oversaw the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, called by some the “graveyard of empires” due to failures to conquer it throughout the 19th and 20th centuries when Russia and England played the “Great Game” seeking control of the territory. The Soviet Union, in an attempt to maintain the loyalty of Afghanistan’s political leadership, initiated a military operation in 1979 that lasted 10 years, with around 15,000 Soviet troops killed. Now the United States has contributed to the list of failed missions, adding the lives of almost 2,500 servicemembers to Afghanistan’s sorrowful track record.
Today most global media predict that Russia and China would fill the U.S.-left void. However, Russia is cautious, since it has not completely recovered from the “Afghan syndrome,” referring to traumatic memories of the conflict nationwide. President Vladimir Putin stressed that Russia knows Afghanistan well and is aware of “how counterproductive it is to try to force unnatural forms of governance.” The Taliban remain banned in Russia, which limits prospects for a swift recognition of the Taliban government by Moscow. The primary threat for Russia is that Afghan militants could infiltrate nearby countries, spreading terrorism.
Meanwhile, the recent spike in regional terrorist attacks targeting Chinese interests – most notably, the July-August suicide bomb attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan – has China concerned that the Taliban could turn a blind eye to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which has used Afghanistan as a training ground. The group reportedly has 500 fighters stationed in the northern Afghanistan province that neighbors China’s Xinjiang via a narrow strip of mountainous land known as the Wakhan Corridor. Even before the Taliban takeover, China had heavily securitized the area, which Beijing views as the most important stretch of border to guard against infiltration by ETIM terrorists.
China famously welcomed a Taliban delegation to Tianjin in late July. The group clearly seeks expanding engagement with Beijing, calling China a “friend” and welcoming investments for reconstruction. China, in turn, opted for pragmatism, being one of the first global powers to recognize the Taliban “an important military and political force” while holding the bilateral summit on July 28. that followed the Taliban’s reassurance to Beijing that they will not “interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
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All that happened before the Taliban had claimed its first provincial capital – Nimroz on August 6 – and before it took total control of Afghanistan. U.S. President Joe Biden had claimed that the Taliban takeover was “not inevitable.” China’s early embrace of the Taliban, then, might signify better intelligence demonstrated by Chinese authorities compared to the U.S. agencies, which failed to predict the Afghan government’s breakup and expected it to last from three to six months.
China welcomed the Taliban’s overtures, saying that it is ready for “friendly and cooperative” relations. Beijing has not recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban’s government yet, although there is growing speculation that it may happen soon. China recently claimed that the Taliban had become more rational, saying that recognition can follow when Afghanistan forms a “broadly representative government.”
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However, Beijing is cautious about fully embracing the Taliban. It warned its citizens to leave Afghanistan and remains skeptical about whether the Taliban will keep its promises. The Taliban issue may add more tensions to the China-U.S. rivalry, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticizing Washington in his recent conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken for offering “opportunities for a resurgence” of terrorism through its swift withdrawal of forces. China’s foreign minister also called on the United States to assist Afghanistan in its economic and political reconstruction and “positively guide” the new Taliban leadership, eschewing “double standards” and a selective fight against terrorism.
Russia, similarly to China, is tentatively exploring channels to establish some working contacts with the Taliban as it sees “no alternative” to the hardline group. In a stark contrast to the Western politicians’ comments, Moscow even praised the Taliban’s conduct following its takeover. Moscow hosted a Taliban delegation for the talks on July 9 in order to exchange recent information. It was the second get-together between the two sides in 2021, following a meeting in January. Unlike the China-Taliban meeting, however, which had a more bilateral agenda, the two summits in Russia were conducted within the framework the Doha Agreement, with the participation of other powers. Both China and Russia have kept their embassies in Afghanistan open so far.
Beijing has already promised to contribute to the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan and also called for the United States to join in. China is set to capitalize on the power reshuffle by promoting its multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects within the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which are meant to boost China’s trade with the region and activate natural resource extraction. Afghanistan is home to up to $2 trillion worth of extractable rare earth metals, with a great chunk of lithium – an irreplaceable material for the high-tech production prioritized by China’s leadership.
Russia, by contrast, is focused more on security than economic prospects. When the Taliban retook power, Putin immediately contacted his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, to discuss the escalation. Earlier, both states had held joint military drills on August 2. On August 5, Moscow conducted trilateral military exercises on the Afghan border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with former being a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a host to Russia regional military outpost.
The CSTO held a high-level meeting on August 23 to “compare notes” on unfolding developments in Afghanistan, with Putin forging closer coordination with leaders of Central Asian countries in order to avoid a spillover of “radical Islam” into the region. The CSTO is making its way to the central stage of the regional security system. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has recently prioritized the security alliance, vowing to strengthen interactions within the bloc. Russia has also placed citizens of CSTO member-states on par with Russians when it comes to Russia-led evacuation flights out of Afghanistan.
The CSTO, combined with regular China-Tajik anti-terrorism collaborations, may form a regional buttress for stability. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may also play a more invigorated role as regional security guarantor, since all member-states are interested in regional stability and curbing terrorism. As a sign of this, September 11 marks the commencement of the SCO’s two-week long annual anti-terror drills, known as “Peace Mission 2021.”
One more pillar of regional security are intensified China-Russia military exchanges. In the most recent China-hosted military exercises, Russian servicemembers used Chinese weaponry, while China’s most advanced military hardware, such as J-20 fighters, participated in the drills. These developments signify trust and deepening collaboration. Continuing the trend, Beijing sent its top-notch military aircraft to make their debut at the International Army Games in Russia.
In a show of growing partnership and political bromance, Russia and China have agreed to foster collaboration over Afghanistan and pledged to strengthen strategic communication and mutually “safeguard the rightful interests.” On August 25, Putin and Xi Jinping aligned their stances on the Afghan issue, sharing mutual concerns and interests and vowing closer cooperation to prevent interference by any foreign country. Breaking away from the Western-led efforts to pressure the Taliban on human rights and evacuation deadlines and procedures, China and Russia jointly abstained from any calls echoing the G-7’s statement.
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Against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s political imbroglio, Russia and China have once again displayed their close interaction om international platforms. They jointly abstained from voting for a resolution on Afghanistan that was passed by the other 13 United Nations Security Council members on August 30. Among other points of disagreement, such as concern over the suspension of Afghanistan’s financial assets, Moscow also wanted the resolution to specifically criticize ETIM – a critical factor for Beijing, which has many times called on the United States to reconsider its decision last November to delist ETIM from the State Department terror designation list.
Such an active international move by Russia and China to break with Western-led efforts on Afghanistan caused resentment in other countries, which view such ambitions negatively and suspiciously. Writing for Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer stressed that China and Russia are “seeking to undercut whatever remaining leverage the United States might exercise over the country’s new rulers.”
The Financial Times reported earlier that Beijing would choose political instruments to deal with the Taliban, for which it has gained Russian and Pakistani support. A distant sign of China-Russia political backchannels was provided by Putin when he opposed any U.S. military role in Central Asia during his June 16 summit with Biden – the Russian president claimed that China would reject any such plan as well, though Beijing has not said so publicly. Another example came in comments made by Wang concerning the failure of some Western forces that “are trying to drive a wedge between our two nations” – a nearly word-for-word paraphrase of Putin’s previous remark in an interview with NBC.
Throughout the rapid changes in Afghanistan, China and Russia have effectively exchanged relevant information. Both view the deteriorating situation as a menacing threat to regional stability. But they have also sought to use the situation to their advantage by highlighting the global decline of the United States, slamming its “hasty” and “hurried” withdrawal, and turning the case of Afghanistan into an infowar weapon by warning Taiwan and Ukraine about being similarly abandoned by Washington.
China and Russia’s increasing influence in global affairs has not come without opposition. Their stance on Afghanistan, in particular, is being read in the context of the looming new cold war between Beijing and Washington. Major U.S. media highlighted that the Taliban’s ascendance to power is a “thrilling prospect” to Moscow and Beijing. U.S. Republican Senator John Kennedy claimed that “our enemies – China and Russia – are laughing” after the Taliban takeover. The EU also chimed in, with its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, saying that EU “cannot … let the Chinese and Russians to take control of the situation.”
Is the stage set for redux of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan, as the major powers jostle for influence?