The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was not a strategic mistake, nor was it a turning point in international relations that will reinforce China’s position as Washington’s rival in the global leadership race or culminate in an alliance with Russia, as argued by some observers in our region, particularly those closer to the Axis of Resistance.
Afghanistan is not Vietnam, and the US withdrawal from the country was not the consequence of a global conflict opposing the US to an ideological eastern camp that stroke a heavy blow to Washington, as happened in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. No one in Afghanistan dealt a single blow to the US. Instead, it was the US who left behind several booby traps in Afghanistan that could entangle China, Russia, Iran, and all other parties involved in regional conflicts should they wish to get involved. As such, as China’s capabilities wane, Beijing would lose some of the expansion and influence it had achieved in the last two decades, and America would remain the undisputed first major power. Regardless of how it looked, the Afghanistan pullout was the stone that hit all birds at once with remarkable wisdom and skill.
One of the main booby traps left by America is the feeling of injustice and persecution that many Sunnis have suffered for two decades at the hands of Americans in retaliation for 9/11. Iran handled the organization and regulation of these practices, skillfully inciting hatred against Sunnis and oppressing them through terror, assassination, and displacement. In parallel, other attacks were taking place across the world, the most criminal of which were in Myanmar and the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, which witnessed a systematic ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, whose voices only echoed with some human rights groups in Europe and America.
With its sharp summits and rough geography, its caves and grottos, its history and the nature of its people, only the short-sighted who do not understand history would genuinely believe that Afghanistan will not become a safe haven and springboard for Sunni extremists, whether the Taliban likes it or not. This is why China, Russia, and some Islamic states are seeking to curry favor with the Taliban.
In any case, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan will leave a big hole that will cast its shadows on neighboring countries. Russia is especially worried and confused after enjoying safe borders for 20 years, during which America inadvertently prevented Islamic extremists from carrying out terrorist attacks and communicating with Russian extremists.
In the 1990s, Russia had paid dearly in Afghanistan, spending lots of money and over 15,000 lives, only for Afghanistan to eventually become an accelerator of the USSR’s fall. Hence, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s post-Taliban political and military choices are limited: he cannot make understandings or agreements with the Taliban on the medium and long terms to protect his allies in Sunni-dominated Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan; but he also does not dare launch into a military adventure that he can neither afford nor be sure to resolve.
When the US-backed Ashraf Ghani government collapsed, Russia found itself in a hard place. Despite Putin’s assurances that Russia does not intend to deploy forces within Afghanistan, the possibility of extremism and violence around Russia burdens Moscow with a bigger responsibility for the security of the region, as internal hardships also escalate.
The fall of the Ghani government and the departure of US forces from Central Eurasia -- probably for good -- could have given Russia the chance to bolster its role as a strong mediator inside and around Afghanistan and boost the regional communication vision that feeds its personal interests and cements its political and military influence in neighboring Central Asia. However, this would require more resources than the Russian leadership is willing to sacrifice and a bigger risk than it is willing to take. Russia’s interest in Afghanistan is centered first and foremost on its fears of the possible effects on nearby Central Asia. Since the fall of the USSR, Moscow has looked at Central Asia as a strategic barrier to instability in the south. Russia is still the dominant security provider in the region, despite the enormous growth of Chinese trade and investments in the last few years. In general, Central Asian states have become more stable and effective than they were in the 1990s, and they still see Russia as the main security guarantor in the region. Today, they are turning to Moscow for help, as the future of Afghanistan slips into a whirlwind of uncertainty with each passing day.
Russia has long asked for recognition of its “special interests” across the former Soviet Empire. Now that Washington has largely yielded the ground in Afghanistan and Central Eurasia, it remains to be seen whether Moscow can really turn into the regional hub it has so long aspired to become, and whether it can secure itself and its neighbors without a violent reaction, all the while managing the repercussions on its competition with the US.
Moscow’s immediate objectives are built on three pillars: guaranteeing that no instability or chaos spreads from Afghanistan towards the north; controlling migration flows, especially concerning the protection of the region from terrorists crossing borders under the guise of seeking refuge; and preventing the spread of extremist ideology and the smuggling of arms and narcotics.
Russia does not require an entry visa for most of its Central Asian neighbors. As such, it fears the possibility that terrorists crossing the border from Afghanistan find their way into Russia without any hindrances. What is perhaps even more concerning is the possibility that the influx of refugees will lead to the destabilization of these Central Asian states and the flight of their citizens to Russia, thus forcing Moscow to intervene more directly in the region. For this reason, the authorities in Russia and Central Asia dread the fall of the Afghani regime, especially in northern Afghanistan, which is home to most native Tajiks and Uzbeks, with whom the Russian and Central Asian governments have long maintained good relations, including figures like Abdul Rashid Dostum.
In the absence of a unified opposition program like the NATO, Russian officials fear that anti-Taliban fighters in northern Afghanistan turn into more extremist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, or Ansarullah, whose founder called for the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Tajikistan. It is also possible that jihadists will recruit some thousands of Russian or Russian-speaking Central Asian combatants who fought in Syria, as these could be motivated to return to Afghanistan now the US troops have left. Moscow and Central Asian governments fear that the jihadists in northern Afghanistan will carry out cross-border attacks like Islamist groups did in the late 1990s, but they are also worried that instability in Afghanistan lead to an influx of refugees and encourage the propagation of jihadist ideology among the peoples of Central Asia, already worn down by corruption, oppression, and the lack of opportunities. As such, just like Central Asian states, Russia is hesitant to host Afghani refugees, fearful that these may include members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other extremist groups.
The departure of the US gives Moscow the chance to reinforce its security presence and boost regional organizations, especially the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russia already has a large number of troops in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose civil war from 1992 to 1997 coincided with the neighboring conflict in Afghanistan. Moscow is the driving force behind the CSTO, which is a regional security block that seeks to guarantee “regional and international peace, security, and stability; protect the independence of member states on a collective basis; and preserve the safety and sovereignty of territories.” Russia has also helped reinforce borders in the region through trainings and the sale and deployment of military equipment, some under CSTO auspices.
As the Taliban approached Kabul, Russian troops conducted joint trainings with the armies and security forces of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Then after the fall of Kabul, Moscow approved a request by the Tajikistan government to hold an extraordinary meeting of the CSTO Security Council and authorized the sale of more weapons. Russia has remarkably boosted security cooperation with Uzbekistan, which has its weight in the region. In 2012, Uzbekistan had withdrawn from the CSTO, but the country managed to maintain balanced relations with Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. In April this year, Moscow and Tashkent signed a new strategic partnership agreement. Some Russian observers believe the current crisis is a chance to bring Uzbekistan back under the wing of the CSTO. Despite its firm refusal of this proposition, Tashkent finds itself forced by the US withdrawal to increasingly turn toward Russia for support, much like its neighbors.
Moscow’s capacity to consolidate more important regions like Central or Eastern Europe will undoubtedly drop. Should the Kremlin decide on a military return to Afghanistan -- which is rather unlikely -- it will surely find itself as disappointed and confused as Washington and the USSR before it, which had ventured into Afghanistan in 1979.
Whether or not the Taliban has changed does not matter. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan rippled through stagnant waters, and these ripples will be felt by all the states in the region, especially when the US turns its focus on China. As for Russia, it has already fallen into the trap.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.
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