US Failure in Afghanistan is China and Russia’s Gain
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OPINION: For many years, Russia has been cultivating good relations with the Taliban as it was clear that the US was fighting a losing battle, and it was only a matter of time before the Taliban controlled most, if not all, of the country, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
China and Russia have particular strategic interests in Afghanistan that do not involve military intervention and occupation, but rather ensuring stability in the country.
Stability would enable the powers to reduce terrorist threats in their backyard, further economic co-operation and, one day, allow them to exploit the country’s vast mineral resources. The lessons from past occupations of Afghanistan are clear – the country has been the “graveyard of empires”, and neither of the powers is going to repeat the mistakes of history.
For many years, Russia has been cultivating good relations with the Taliban as it was clear that the US was fighting a losing battle, and it was only a matter of time before the Taliban controlled most, if not all, of the country.
Russia has forged a strong network of contacts on the ground, to the extent that the Russian embassy in Kabul is under the full protection of Taliban forces. Not only did Moscow host the Taliban, but it became the most influential player in the peace process after Pakistan, and its rapprochement with the Pakistani government helped its strategic objectives in Afghanistan align. Russia’s diplomatic activities in Afghanistan also helped reinforce its great power status.
Russia’s approach to the Taliban has been pragmatic, and it has fought hard to reduce the international alarm regarding the Taliban’s takeover.
Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov said there was no reason to panic, civilians in Afghanistan were safe, and the Islamic State was not rising in the country. The Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov even claimed to have seen the Taliban fighting the Islamic State.
Russia’s strategic interest is to thwart US efforts to establish a security presence in Russia’s sphere of influence, and to consolidate its hegemony over Central Asia. It can accomplish the goals by providing security assistance to its Central Asian partners and guaranteeing their security.
As for China, Afghanistan serves as an important connector in its Belt and Road Initiative, but before it can assist in building infrastructure in the country, there needs to be stability. One of China’s strategic interests is to secure a land route to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf through both Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the South China Sea being patrolled by the Quad – Australia, Japan, India and the US, securing a land route for its imports and exports is of strategic importance.
China shares a 50km to 60km border with Afghanistan, but there is no road from the border between China and Afghanistan to Kabul, which would be expensive to build. Peshawar in Pakistan could be used as the closest route in terms of road connectivity. China has heavily invested in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which gives it access to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. China has investments in Afghanistan such as the Aynak copper mine and the Amu Darya energy projects. If Afghanistan were to stabilise, China (like many other countries) would be interested in exploiting the country’s vast mineral wealth, which includes coal, copper, iron ore, talc, lithium, uranium, oil and gas, gold and precious stones.
The US presence in Afghanistan was a geopolitical threat, and the exit of US forces from the region is certainly in China’s interest. But China also wants to push back against Islamist militancy and does not want to see Afghanistan become a haven for militant groups that want to target China. There is particular concern about militant groups in Afghanistan having ties with Uighur extremist groups, and it is alleged that the Turkistan Islamic Party has had a presence in Afghanistan. With battle-hardened fighters returning from Syria, links to those in Western China were a real concern.
China recently met senior Taliban officials, and Taliban spokesperson Mohammed Naeem confirmed that he was invited by Chinese officials. The engagements lent the Taliban a measure of legitimacy, and they have assured China that they would distance themselves from the Turkistan Islamic Party.
It is not only Russia and China that have seen the emergence of the Taliban as the governing power in Afghanistan as an opportunity. Iran did not want to see US forces remain in Afghanistan, and the Taliban could be potential allies of Iran in the new geo-political landscape.
Iran needs to look north and east for new allies, considering that to the west and south they are surrounded by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council that are allied against it. Iran is also eager to reach the South Asia market, and it recently signed a $400 billion (R6 trillion) economic partnership with China over 25 years, in which it will supply China with oil and gas. Good relations with those in power in Afghanistan will make these economic links easier.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor.