What does US withdrawal from Afghanistan mean for regional countries?
With the United States’ 20-year operation in Afghanistan coming to an end on August 31, Afghanistan appears to be heading for even greater uncertainty.
Over 200 districts and five provincial centers have fallen under Taliban control since May when US forces officially began to leave the country.
Clashes between the Taliban and central government forces continue intensely.
In addition, ongoing peace talks between the Kabul administration and the Taliban in Doha, the capital of Qatar, have stalled.
With the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban are expected to intensify their attacks.
The Taliban’s rapid advance raises the prospect of a scenario similar to the civil war that erupted following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Countries in the region have increased diplomatic efforts because they do not want to be caught off guard if such a scenario unfolds, affecting the entire region.
Many countries in the region want to address at least their own security concerns in Afghanistan, which has earned the moniker “graveyard of empires”.
In order to share concerns about the latest developments in Afghanistan, Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing have hosted Taliban delegations in recent weeks.
While some of these countries support Afghan stability for the development of regional trade, the fight against human trafficking and drug smuggling, and the prevention of irregular migration, others see the current instability as an opportunity to expand their spheres of influence.
Iran, which shares an almost 900-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan, wants to play a larger role in the country following the US withdrawal.
Tehran came to the brink of war with the Taliban in 1998 and cooperated with the US to overthrow this organization in 2001, but with the conjuncture changing following the 2000s, it began to collaborate with the Taliban against the US presence in Afghanistan.
Particularly since the US intensified its withdrawal negotiations with the Taliban in 2019, a significant shift in Tehran’s attitude toward the Taliban has been observed.
During this time, Iran hosted a Taliban delegation twice: once in November 2019 and again in February 2020, shortly after the US reached an agreement with the organization.
Despite ideological differences, Iranian officials recognize the importance of continuing to cooperate with the Taliban, which has emerged as a key player in Afghan politics.
As a result, Iran has changed the language it used to refer to the Taliban.
For example, adjectives such as “takfiri” and “jihadist,” which were widely used in the country’s press not only for the Taliban but also for many other groups posing threats to Iranian interests and were used as significant arguments even during the Karabakh war, have vanished.
However, the now-realistic prospect of the Taliban becoming Afghanistan’s sole power to reckon with remains a red line for Iran.
In fact, following the Taliban’s rapid advance in recent months, which has threatened the central government’s existence, Tehran hosted a surprise meeting.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif hosted Taliban and Kabul delegations in Tehran on July 7.
During the meeting, Zarif urged both parties to return to the negotiating table.
Zarif declared that his country was ready to assist in bringing Afghanistan’s conflicting parties to the negotiating table, stating that “...political leaders of Afghanistan must make difficult decisions.”
Although there has not been much friction with the Taliban so far, which has taken control of areas close to the Iranian border (including border crossings), the prevailing view in Tehran is that a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan would pose a threat to Iran’s national interests in the medium and long term.
For this reason, Iran has expressed a desire to use the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia (which it has used on different occasions in Syria) in Afghanistan as well.
The dominance of traditional cultural codes in both administrations, as well as the way these largely religious administrations treat the minority sects within them, suggests that long-term stability in Afghanistan-Iran relations is unlikely if the Taliban gains complete control of the country.
Russia, another important actor making efforts towards a political solution in Afghanistan, maintains contact with both the Taliban and the central government.
Moscow has recently hosted a series of Afghan peace talks.
Russia sees the US withdrawal as a critical opportunity to reestablish Moscow’s influence in the post-Soviet era.
But on the other hand, it does not want the power vacuum created by this withdrawal to pose a security risk to its immediate vicinity.
Moscow is also concerned that Afghanistan may end up becoming a safe haven for radical elements hostile to Russia or supporting separatist groups in the Caucasus region.
For this reason, Russian authorities are keeping a close eye on the developments in Afghanistan.
Following the Taliban’s rapid advance, the Kabul delegation led by Hamdullah Mohib, President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Advisor, visited Moscow in July at the invitation of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev.
It was reported that the parties discussed the issues of security, terrorism, and fighting jointly against drug smuggling, and that it was highlighted during the meeting that the instability in the north of Afghanistan threatened Russia and Central Asia.
Following this meeting, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia was prepared to use its base in Tajikistan to protect its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) if necessary.
On August 6, the Russian army conducted joint military drills with the armed forces of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan along the Afghan border in order to intimidate the Taliban, which had taken control of the border regions.
Russia, which considers Central Asia and former Soviet Union member states to be within its natural sphere of influence, acts as the security guarantor of these countries.
In this regard, the Afghanistan crisis represents a significant challenge to Russia’s role.
However, it is unlikely that Russia, which has a very negative image among Afghans as a result of the long Soviet invasion of their country, would launch an armed intervention unilaterally.
China is another important player who is expected to be active in Afghanistan in the near future.
Beijing’s main concern about Afghanistan is that a country-wide turmoil following the US withdrawal could turn the region into a security nightmare for Beijing.
China is concerned that the revival of Daesh and similar formations in Afghanistan could then fuel the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
In this context, one of the scenarios that have Beijing concerned is a cooperation between the Taliban and the ETIM.
Following allegations in recent years that members of the Turkistan Islamic Movement were being trained by the Taliban and sent to China, Beijing’s desire to establish a military base in Wakhan, Afghanistan’s border region, came to light.
However, Beijing, which has developed good relations with the Taliban as a result of its proximity to Islamabad, has so far been able to prevent such cooperation.
Beijing has acknowledged that it needs to cooperate with the Taliban to some extent to avoid having problems in Afghanistan.
The Taliban has also responded positively to Beijing’s warm attitude.
The Taliban delegation that recently visited Beijing at the invitation of the Chinese government promised not to interfere with China’s internal affairs and to not allow the territories of Afghanistan to be used by groups that would threaten China’s national security.
In addition, Afghanistan is an important country for Beijing as it is located along the route of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Beijing prefers a stable Afghanistan not only to prevent the country’s turmoil from affecting the Xinjiang region, but also to ensure the security of the Belt and Road Initiative.
China wants to play an active role in the economic field in Afghanistan but does not want to intervene militarily.
One of the other important powers in the region, India, has a policy in Afghanistan that can be summarized as combating the influence of its traditional rival Pakistan and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for extremist anti-Indian groups.
The New Delhi administration, which had previously avoided contact with the Taliban on the grounds that it was acting on Pakistan’s orders, has reversed this policy.
As the Taliban began to rapidly expand their control area, Indian officials engaged in direct talks with the Taliban.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s minister of external affairs, also paid diplomatic visits to Iran and Russia to discuss the developments in Afghanistan.
India would like to be more active in Afghanistan as part of its efforts to play a more active role in the international arena under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.
In conclusion, the power vacuum that will emerge in Afghanistan with the withdrawal of the US and NATO raises security concerns for and whets the appetite of many regional actors.
While countries such as Pakistan and Iran seek to expand their spheres of influence by forming new militia groups or exploiting the instability in Afghanistan and their influence over the Taliban, China and Russia are concerned that this instability will spread to their own borders and spheres of influence.
These countries are in contact with both the Taliban and the Kabul government in anticipation of a power split between the two.
Ultimately, the aim of the actors involved in the issue is to secure their spheres of influence and to prevent the Afghanistan crisis from spreading beyond its borders.
When making plans involving Afghanistan, particularly the Kabul Airport, Turkey must carefully consider the various groups of interest and the shaky alliances within this multi-actor playing field.
In particular, the rapid dissolution of the Northern Alliance, which could be described as a “Plan B”, Pakistan’s silence on the Turkish proposal, and the central government’s suspicious ineffectiveness in dealing with Taliban attacks all demonstrate the importance of meticulous calculations.
This article was first published in 11.8.2021 at Anadolu Agency.