Report

China, Russia Look to Outflank U.S. in Afghanistan

Meanwhile, Pakistan urges Washington to pump the breaks on sanctioning the Taliban.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet at the Friendship Palace in Beijing on April 26, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/POOL/Kyodonews

Leaving Afghanistan

As U.S. forces beat a hasty retreat from Afghanistan, surrendering the country to an uncertain future under the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden and his top national security advisors preached the importance of diplomacy over military intervention. “We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid,” Biden said last month.

But Washington is running headlong into the limitations of diplomacy in a country with no Western boots or even a U.S. ambassador on the ground and an array of regional powers, principally China and Russia, seeking to undercut whatever remaining leverage the United States might exercise over the country’s new rulers. In recent weeks at the United Nations, China, Russia, and Pakistan have openly challenged three central pillars of a potential U.S. diplomatic pressure effort: the threat of international sanctions, the withholding of diplomatic recognition, and the restriction of reconstruction aid for the Taliban as they try to form a new government.

In an address to the U.N. Security Council, a senior Chinese diplomat, Geng Shuang, said it was time to bring the Taliban into the international fold and hold U.S. and other Western forces accountable for crimes in Afghanistan. Russia also took issue with the U.S.-led evacuation effort, noting how the ensuing “brain drain” of Afghan professionals threatens to jeopardize the country’s effort to run the government and pursue the country’s development goals.

As U.S. forces beat a hasty retreat from Afghanistan, surrendering the country to an uncertain future under the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden and his top national security advisors preached the importance of diplomacy over military intervention. “We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence, and our humanitarian aid,” Biden said last month.

But Washington is running headlong into the limitations of diplomacy in a country with no Western boots or even a U.S. ambassador on the ground and an array of regional powers, principally China and Russia, seeking to undercut whatever remaining leverage the United States might exercise over the country’s new rulers. In recent weeks at the United Nations, China, Russia, and Pakistan have openly challenged three central pillars of a potential U.S. diplomatic pressure effort: the threat of international sanctions, the withholding of diplomatic recognition, and the restriction of reconstruction aid for the Taliban as they try to form a new government.

In an address to the U.N. Security Council, a senior Chinese diplomat, Geng Shuang, said it was time to bring the Taliban into the international fold and hold U.S. and other Western forces accountable for crimes in Afghanistan. Russia also took issue with the U.S.-led evacuation effort, noting how the ensuing “brain drain” of Afghan professionals threatens to jeopardize the country’s effort to run the government and pursue the country’s development goals.

“It is necessary for the international community to engage with the Taliban and actively provide them with guidance,” the Chinese diplomat told the 15-nation Security Council this week. “The international community should provide Afghanistan with urgently needed assistance for the economy, livelihood, and humanitarian needs in order to help the new authority maintain the normal operations of governing institutions, maintain public order and stability, curb currency depreciation and price increase, and embark on the path of peaceful reconstruction as soon as possible.”

Pakistan, too, urged more carrots and fewer sticks. “Sanctions is a blunt tool that mostly hasn’t worked. It was not a solution in Iran, it was not a solution in North Korea, and it’s not going to be a solution in Afghanistan,” Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador Munir Akram told Foreign Policy. Pakistan, which has long provided a safe haven for Taliban fighters, has been urging key powers to engage with the new Taliban victors and help them rebuild the country.

Although the Taliban ignored a commitment to the United States to negotiate a peaceful political transition, instead seizing the country’s major cities by force, U.S. officials insist they have some sway over a movement that it has failed for decades to pacify through the use of military force. The Taliban, they say, ultimately cooperated in the U.S. effort to evacuate more than 120,000 foreigners and Afghans from the country. Senior U.S. officials have even raised the possibility of limited cooperation with the Taliban—which provided a safe haven to terrorist Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—to fight the Islamic State, a common enemy.

U.S. officials are also holding out hope that China and Russia, which share U.S. interests in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for international terrorists, will cooperate. Despite differences over the approach, U.S. officials noted China and Russia have not yet formally recognized the Taliban as they work to form a government. The two countries also recently allowed the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that reflected U.S. policy goals, including a demand that Afghan territory not be used to support terrorism, calls for aid workers to be granted unfettered access to the population, language on the importance of upholding human rights for women and minorities, and an urge for an “inclusive, negotiated political settlement” with key Afghan constituencies.

The Biden administration will soon face a difficult test of its willingness to apply pressure on the Taliban.

Later this month, the U.N. Security Council will need to extend a sanctions waiver that allowed senior Taliban leaders to travel to Doha, Qatar, and other world capitals to participate in peace talks with the former government. In early August, as the Taliban unleashed a major military offensive, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the senior advisor for special political affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, warned the United States would “not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan or a return of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate” and any threat to the stability and security of Afghanistan would influence the council’s decision on whether to extend the waiver.

But with the Taliban in control of most of the country and the United States moving its diplomatic delegation to Doha, the case for ending the waiver conflicts with United States interest in maintaining contact with Taliban leadership.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has leaned heavily on multilateral diplomacy to pressure the Taliban to honor their commitments, including allowing Afghans and foreign citizens to freely leave the country after the United States withdrew. In recent weeks, Blinken has conducted a flurry of phone calls and virtual meetings with his counterparts in NATO, the G-7 nations, and other foreign countries to try and coordinate an international response.

Yet for all the talk about diplomacy’s importance, the United States has yet to engage in serious negotiations beyond the evacuation effort, said Scott Smith, a former U.N. official in Afghanistan who currently serves as the senior expert on the Afghan peace process at the U.S. Institute of Peace. What Washington has done is try and flex its muscles: Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department froze billions of Afghan government dollars currently held by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

The decision to freeze Afghanistan’s central bank assets threatens to “crash the Afghan economy,” Smith said, making it impossible for the Taliban to pay civil service salaries or engage in international trade—and it’s fueling a rise in inflation. The United States, Smith said, can only exercise leverage with the Taliban if Washington is willing to give and get. “Despite all this talk of diplomacy, that conversation is not happening,” he said. “Without negotiation, there is no leverage.”

U.S. officials say they are taking a wait-and-see approach to engaging with the Taliban. “Our relationship with the Taliban will be guided by what they do, not by what they say,” Victoria Nuland, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a press conference on Wednesday in response to a question about recognizing the Taliban government. “I think we need to see them live up to their own commitments and live up to the standards set by the [U.N. Security Council] before we go very far down this road.”

The Taliban, she added, “have a lot to gain if they can run Afghanistan far, far differently than they did the last time they were in power.”

But many critics remain skeptical that the Taliban can be trusted to abide by any of their pledges. “We have been engaged in delusional diplomacy,” said Karl Inderfurth, who led U.S. negotiations with the Taliban during the Clinton administration, in an interview last month as the Taliban marched on Kabul.

“I don’t want to come across as an ‘I told you so’ kind of guy, but if anyone ever thought they were not going to pursue the full restoration of the Islamic Emirate, they were fooling themselves,” he said. “Now, we are seeing the true face of the Taliban. Their actions demonstrate they have no desire to pursue a peaceful political settlement. Their actions demonstrate they intend to take over the country and return it to Taliban rule.”

“They are not going to share power, and I don’t think they really care about all the leverage we say we have: recognition, legitimacy, credibility, foreign assistance, taking them off the U.N. sanctions list. I don’t think they care. They will deal with that later. What they are dealing with now is a military victory,” he said.

The United Nations is also trying to figure out how to deal with the Taliban and will likely wait before crafting a broader diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan, especially as China and Russia—permanent members of the Security Council—are taking a more conciliatory approach.

“China and Russia certainly seem to be signaling they won’t go along with a coercive approach to the Taliban,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group. “At the end of the day, the Chinese and Russians aren’t going to sacrifice their relations with the Taliban on the altar of Western states’ concerns about human rights in Afghanistan. They will do whatever they think is necessary to keep their neighborhood stable.”

Nearly every other country evacuated their diplomatic staff from Afghanistan as the Taliban closed in on Kabul, but both China and Russia kept their embassies open—the starkest symbol yet that both countries are exploring ways to capitalize on the U.S. defeat and develop inroads with the new Taliban victors.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration will open a new diplomatic office for Afghanistan in Doha, Qatar—around 1,200 miles from Kabul—to liaise with the Taliban as they form a new government and help process visas for Afghans still trying to escape the country. Veteran U.S. diplomats concede that fending off China and Russia’s increasing clout in Afghanistan will be exceedingly difficult from afar without any permanent U.S. diplomatic footprint in the country to engage in meetings with locals or routine aspects of diplomacy.

At the same time, Beijing and Moscow are using the blistering U.S. defeat in Afghanistan after 20 years of war as a propaganda coup against Washington. “The moral of the story is: don’t help the Stars and Stripes,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of one of Russia’s leading state-funded media outlets, RT. “They’ll just hump you and dump you.” The Global Times, one of China’s most prominent propaganda rags, ran op-eds describing the Taliban victory as a “major failure of Western civilization’s expansion.”

A U.S. State Department spokesperson rebuffed the talking points coming out of Moscow and Beijing.

“Nothing that has happened in Afghanistan weakens our resolve to do what is necessary to defend our interests, to implement our long-standing treaty alliances, and protect the American people,” the spokesperson said.

“It is also unfortunate that [Chinese] and Russian state media are exploiting the human suffering in Afghanistan to take shots at the United States,” the spokesperson added. “That is not what responsible powers do.”

Still, some experts believe the schadenfreude in Moscow and Beijing will be short lived as regional powers brace for an uncertain future and the potential rise of new terrorist groups from the chaos.

“Russia and China are trying to make hay out of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan,” said Lisa Curtis, an expert at the Center for a New American Security and a former senior U.S. National Security Council official.

“But I think once the dust settles and they recognize what an important role U.S. forces served in keeping a lid on the terrorist threats from Afghanistan, they’re going to be really worried.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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