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Nobody Wins in Afghanistan

For China and Russia, the country is a liability, not an asset.

By , a research fellow at the Quincy Institute.
The Afghan Embassy in Beijing
A Chinese paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Afghan Embassy in Beijing on Aug. 16. Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghanistan attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and troops from dozens of countries, especially NATO members, over the course of the last 20 years. This has abruptly come to an end as Washington completes its withdrawal, foreign embassies scramble to evacuate, and the Taliban take control of the country. Afghanistan’s lifelines to the outside world will now run through China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and a handful of smaller neighbors.

When U.S. President Joseph Biden announced his decision to proceed with the planned withdrawal in April, he reasoned that rather than continue a war with the Taliban, the United States must focus on more pertinent challenges including “an increasingly assertive China.” A steady stream of rebuttals now claim that leaving Afghanistan is a loss for the United States in the age of great-power competition. But this is little more than another attempt to redefine the legacy of America’s longest active war in the terms that fit the geopolitics of the Washington chattering classes in 2021.

NPR recently warned that “China could gain a foothold in the region” and listed it as one of four reasons why a Taliban-led Afghanistan should concern the world. The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis called the withdrawal “a thrilling prospect to the Kremlin.” Republican Sen. John Kennedy took it a step further to claim, “our enemies—China and Russia—are laughing.” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described the Taliban takeover as a “defeat for the Western world.” Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA clandestine services officer, argued that remaining in Afghanistan was part of a “forward defense” against terrorists and larger state enemies such as China and Russia. A flurry of articles cited the possibility of China unlocking Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth.

Afghanistan attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and troops from dozens of countries, especially NATO members, over the course of the last 20 years. This has abruptly come to an end as Washington completes its withdrawal, foreign embassies scramble to evacuate, and the Taliban take control of the country. Afghanistan’s lifelines to the outside world will now run through China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and a handful of smaller neighbors.

When U.S. President Joseph Biden announced his decision to proceed with the planned withdrawal in April, he reasoned that rather than continue a war with the Taliban, the United States must focus on more pertinent challenges including “an increasingly assertive China.” A steady stream of rebuttals now claim that leaving Afghanistan is a loss for the United States in the age of great-power competition. But this is little more than another attempt to redefine the legacy of America’s longest active war in the terms that fit the geopolitics of the Washington chattering classes in 2021.

NPR recently warned that “China could gain a foothold in the region” and listed it as one of four reasons why a Taliban-led Afghanistan should concern the world. The Daily Beast’s Julia Davis called the withdrawal “a thrilling prospect to the Kremlin.” Republican Sen. John Kennedy took it a step further to claim, “our enemies—China and Russia—are laughing.” European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell described the Taliban takeover as a “defeat for the Western world.” Daniel Hoffman, a retired CIA clandestine services officer, argued that remaining in Afghanistan was part of a “forward defense” against terrorists and larger state enemies such as China and Russia. A flurry of articles cited the possibility of China unlocking Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth.

It’s long been assumed that China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan would much prefer the United States and its military installations to leave Afghanistan. But anxiety over an open-ended U.S. military presence faded away long ago for Afghanistan’s neighbors. Moscow and Beijing were perfectly content to watch the Taliban make gradual gains while Washington hemorrhaged resources to serve as a stopgap to state collapse. The status quo suited them just fine. China, Russia, and other regional countries are far from thrilled about the supposed opportunities presented by a U.S. withdrawal. If anything, the last 20 years taught them that Afghanistan is a liability to be managed, not an opportunity to be prioritized.

China evacuated its embassy when the Taliban first rose to power in 1996 and was already engaging with the Taliban in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. Beijing’s ambassador to Pakistan met with the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in November 2000. Then, like now, the main concern was seeking assurances from the Taliban to assuage China’s grossly exaggerated fears over Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. After 9/11, China recognized the Afghan government but took steps to prepare for the eventuality of a restored Taliban emirate.

Rather than fully embrace or push away the Taliban, Beijing will opt for cordial relations at an arm’s length. As the expert Yun Sun recently observed, “China has been burned badly in its previous investments in Afghanistan and will tread carefully in the future.” Resurrected headlines about trillions of dollars in mineral wealth at Afghanistan’s Mes Aynak mine do not change its track record as a money pit. Any attempt at the country’s mineral wealth will still be hindered by lack of infrastructure and deeply challenging terrain even if violence declines.

Beijing’s interests in Afghanistan will remain focused on maintaining regional stability and denying potential Uyghur separatists’ use of the country as a base of operations. Chinese national security thinkers have expressed doubts about the Taliban’s ability to control the latter given their loose hierarchy and lack of complete control over the country.

China will find that its real security threats in the region stem not from the Uyghurs but from growing unrest inside its “all weather friend” Pakistan. In April, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) detonated a car bomb at the Serena Hotel in Quetta, where the Chinese ambassador was staying. In July, a TTP-claimed bus blast killed four Chinese workers in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Violence committed by Baloch separatists and a resurgent TTP is growing and threatens Islamabad’s most important bilateral relationship. More specifically, it threatens progress in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is sometimes referred to as a “pilot project” of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Groups like the TTP have only been emboldened by the Taliban’s victory, including the release of TTP members from custody, and they maintain close links with the organization.

Like China, Russia views Afghanistan as a risk to be managed rather than an opportunity. Russia viewed the Taliban as a terrorism risk and threat to stability in Central Asia throughout the first decade of the U.S.-led war. Over time, it began to view the Taliban as a powerbroker it needed to work with, and the rise of the Islamic State-Khorasan in Afghanistan only solidified this calculation.      In the months leading up to the U.S. withdrawal, Moscow was far more concerned about an intensified Afghan civil war than an ascendant Taliban. It does not view August’s events as a direct threat to its own security interests, nor is it planning some spectacular return to a country synonymous with quagmire and failure in Russia.

Moscow led a parallel intra-Afghan dialogue over the last several years and maintains a good working relationship with the Taliban. It also clamped down on the U.S. military presence in Central Asia, which led to the closure of the U.S military transit center in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, in 2014. Moscow was already reaping the benefits of the U.S. quagmire in Afghanistan. Washington’s withdrawal and the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan only add risks for Moscow. It’s clear that Moscow understands this risk. From August 5-10, Moscow used SU-25 attack aircraft intended to engage small ground targets in training exercises in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu expressed hope that the Taliban would hold up their agreement not to engage in terrorism but added that Russia can use its base in Tajikistan to respond to threats.

Not all critics of the U.S. withdrawal base their concerns on alleged Sino-Russian designs for Afghanistan. Writing in the Atlantic, Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk warned that “the U.S. departure from Kabul could end up undermining, rather than strengthening, America’s strategic hand against China.” This argument, which preceded the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, claimed that engaging in counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan from outside the country would poach naval resources away from a focus on China. Others claim that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is sustainable and that Indo-Pacific partners are important beneficiaries of U.S. counterterrorism efforts there. According to the analyst Derek Grossman, “[t]here is no separating the future of Afghanistan from the security of the U.S. homeland and its most important allies in the Indo-Pacific.” The resources required to maintain a waning U.S. military presence may have paled in comparison to those available, but the strategic bandwidth it consumed did not.

The reality is Afghanistan always played second fiddle to competing foreign-policy interests. In 2013, the United States decided to equip the Afghan military by purchasing 30 Mi-17 helicopters made by the Russian company Rosoboronexport—a company that is part of the same Russian agency that supplies Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Department of Defense favored the Mi-17 because it was designed to operate in Afghanistan’s terrain and Afghan pilots were familiar with it. But this prompted bipartisan opposition in Congress and ultimately led the Pentagon to purchase comparatively complex UH-60A Black Hawks for the Afghan military. This is one of many examples—including reliance on Pakistan for ground transportation and overflight rights due to America’s acrimonious relations with Iran, which in turn forced it to ignore Islamabad’s double-dealing with the Taliban—that demonstrate how an open-ended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan became a liability in Washington’s efforts to prioritize interests.

America’s departure from Afghanistan will have mixed effects on Washington’s growing competition with Beijing and enduring desire to contain other regional actors. But so would staying. Few countries outside of Pakistan and Iran arguably have vital interests at stake in Afghanistan. China and Russia certainly do not—and it is a mistake to view the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover solely through the prism of great-power competition.

Adam Weinstein is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute.

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