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The Myth of Sino-Russia ‘Takeover’ of Afghanistan
Rivals for regional dominance step gingerly
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
A year after the fundamentalist Taliban stormed into Kabul, ending 20 years of war, the regime remains an unrecognized government, most certainly not something that they expected. In the West as well, the anticipation was that Russia and China – which supposedly saw a vacuum being created after the US withdrawal – would quickly step in and establish their control.
However, Russia is yet to take the Taliban off its list of designated terror groups, and the extent of China’s engagement with Kabul remains limited to providing relief only. Nor, notwithstanding expectations from Russia and China to replace the US, Washington has not withdrawn in the fullest sense either.
Without recognition, with few resources and little help, the country’s 40 million people remain in desperate straits, with widespread starvation after most humanitarian organizations suspended aid and with the Taliban worsening the situation by returning women to 12th-century status and with jobs disappearing as they practice a most severe version of Islam. Government salaries, one of the few sources of income in a country with virtually no commerce, haven’t been paid in months, leaving people arguably more in fear of economic collapse than religious repression.
The US drone strike that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri showed both that the Taliban continue to harbor extremists and that Washington remains serious about conducting “over the horizon” operations in targeting them. Secondly – and this might sound ironical – the US remains the single largest external donor with almost US$774 million of aid it has so far provided. Within the US, pressure is increasing on President Biden to release financial assets the US froze following the August 2021 takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and its refusal to form an ethnically inclusive government.
A decision to release these assets – which would most likely require a new deal between Washington and the Taliban over the latter’s ties with groups like al-Qaeda – would further diminish the prospects of Afghanistan becoming an exclusive zone of Sino-Russian influence. The US will continue to play a role.
Expectations notwithstanding, Afghanistan was never set for an automatic and total Sino-Russian domination. One of Russia’s key demands has been establishing an inclusive i.e., multi-ethnic, government in Kabul. Most recently, Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that recognition of the regime was linked with inclusivity. To quote him: “[An] inclusive ethnopolitical government should be the first step towards this. We make no secret of this and we say so outright to our Afghan partners.”
While Russia is not the only country making this demand, there is little denying that it directly undercuts the Taliban’s claim to represent all Afghans. Before the August victory, Taliban-run websites featured articles and commentaries that would not only cement their ‘movement’ as a national struggle for the independence of Islamic Emirates, but would also claim to speak for all the people.
Calling the elected regimes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani “illegitimate” and “puppet,” the Taliban projected itself as the sole representative of the people. While the claim was always bizarre, it reflected the Taliban’s uncompromising projections about its identity as the guardian of the nation. Now that states like Russia are demanding that the Taliban include other ethnic groups means that their claim to power is being denied. The Taliban, therefore, have repeatedly denied this demand. In fact, the decision of Afghanistan’s Tajiks – who form the second largest ethnic group in Afghanistan – to organize a resistance movement known as the National Resistance Front (NRF) shows that all roads do not lead to peace in the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s neighbors – including Russia – are aware of the dangers that a new civil war poses to the whole region. Widespread instability would directly enable various transnational jihadi groups to spread their tentacles and activity across the region. For Russia, therefore, the demand to establish an inclusive government that enjoys (non-Pashtun) people’s confidence is essential.
Avoiding instability is Moscow’s raison d’etre. It is for the same reason it has repeatedly demanded that the US release Afghanistan’s assets. Instability, famine, and a dilapidated economy could send waves of Afghans to Central Asia, which could be a perfect way for jihadi groups to infiltrate.
While China’s concerns vis-à-vis the internal composition of the regime are not so deep as Moscow’s – in fact, Wang Yi told his Taliban counterpart that China respects their traditions (of rule and power organization) – it remains that the Taliban have been unable to address China’s biggest concern: the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The group is not only very much present in Afghanistan, but it has also established an alliance with the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). It is expanding.
According to the July 2022 report of the United Nations Security Council, the ETIM has even established “several strongholds in Badakhshan, expanded its area of operations and covertly purchased weapons, with the aim of improving its capabilities for terrorist activities.”
According to the same report, a faction of ETIM fighters defected and joined the IS-K. The fact that the IS-K has its own anti-China agenda means that Afghanistan remains a territory not suitable for China to really expand its footprint. China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), therefore, is unlikely to make any inroads in Afghanistan anytime sooner. This is the key reason why no major state-owned Chinese companies have any presence in Afghanistan.
With Beijing unsure whether it can protect its businesses and interests, whatever presence that Chinese businesses have in Afghanistan is so far limited to exploring business and investment opportunities, as well as assessing the overall environment.
China’s concerns are not imaginary. Chinese personnel and businesses have been attacked several times in Pakistan by various militant groups, including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. The TTP itself is based primarily in (eastern) Afghanistan and has close ties with other groups, including the IS-K. The July 2022 report of the UNSC said that the TTP has “the largest” component of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.
In addition, given that the Taliban’s ties with groups like al-Qaeda remain firm, both China and Russia are unlikely to extend any undue favor to the regime and become official sponsors of a group that, according to the UNSC report, has al-Qaeda as its advisory group.
Therefore, despite all the activity that we see between Chinese/Russian diplomats and Taliban representatives, the Taliban’s ties with both remain a form without any real substance, let alone domination. Both countries see Afghanistan still too unstable for a quick recognition.