Following the decision of US President Joe Biden to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, a new phase of regional cooperation is blossoming, reviving efforts to reach consensus on common security challenges. Officials from Islamabad, Beijing, Moscow and Tehran are meeting or planning a meeting with the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government, in addition to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s consultations with Afghan and Pakistani leaders and the March conferences in Moscow and Dushanbe, Tajikistan.
Without a national consensus on a political roadmap for the country, there can be no sustainable solution to the war in Afghanistan. Yet these regional efforts are a parallel and crucial phase in the political peace process because the conflict in Afghanistan is multidimensional. Each country in the region has specific interests that influence its commitment to Afghanistan’s future, and the relationships between regional powers show realpolitik.
Russia, China and Iran in particular have much to gain (or lose) from the peace process in Afghanistan. In recent years they have been directly involved in Afghan politics: both formally through diplomatic relations between states and informally through the support of various political groups. Russia and Iran have become more proactive regional actors in Afghan affairs since the Afghan peace process began in 2018. Additionally, China’s partnerships with these countries will further define the Afghanistan that will emerge after the US military withdrawal.
Russia and China: Hegemonic Allies and Rivals
Russia has its own in the context of great power politics influence in Central Asia. The US troop withdrawal has further motivated Russia to expand its military presence in the region. Moscow’s involvement in the Afghan peace process and its participation in regional platforms – especially through the Troika-plus Grouping of the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan – has more to do with the threats posed by Afghanistan’s insecurity, religious extremism, drug production and drug trafficking. At this point the main concern of Russia and the Central Asian countries is their own security; they want to be sure that Afghanistan’s post-US uprisings or political instability will not exceed their limits. Russia is likely to find ways to work with the Taliban, who many expect to (formally or informally) hold power in the new Afghanistan.
The US withdrawal and a potential power vacuum that is emerging in the region will allow Russia to gain a geopolitical foothold in Afghanistan. To this end, it has already started building relationships with Afghan political groups. Russia continues to see itself as a regional hegemon and sees the departure of the USA as an opportunity to revitalize its role and expand its power by building alliances in the region, especially with China.
Beijing’s keen interest in securing economic gains can be achieved through the use of Afghanistan’s position as a regional link either in the Belt and Road Initiative or in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In addition, since 2007 China has been looking for ways to reach Afghanistan huge mineral wealththat requires security and transportation infrastructure. None of this is possible without a stable Afghanistan, so China is still examining the political landscape in Afghanistan and what it can gain from a peace deal.
According to the rule, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” both Beijing and Moscow seek to undermine Washington. China and Russia are now more closely coordinated than they have been since then Mid 1950s. With a commitment to a strategic and comprehensive partnership, these countries will expand their political reach in the region through bilateral and trilateral agreements, knowing that romances between world powers do not last long historically. For now, both Beijing and Moscow will remain present in Afghanistan to prevent the potential threats that instability in the country could pose to their security.
Although none of the countries would like to have an Islamic emirate nearby, they can still agree to such a system if it serves their interests. That requires maintaining a relationship with the Taliban.
Iran: the power player
Like Russia, Iran, one of the most influential regional actors in Afghanistan, has always seen Afghanistan as a threat to its security, but also as an opportunity to expand trade and access to Afghan and Central Asian markets. Iran never wanted a long-term US presence in Afghanistan and has targeted the United States with both soft and hard powers. Iran opposed the bilateral security agreement negotiated between Afghanistan and the United States, but also supported anti-American insurgents. Tehran has considerable security interests in Afghanistan and has fought against the Khorasan Province of the Islamic State there by doing its Fatemiyoun Brigadewho has recruited Afghan Shiite fighters in the past. Iran will endeavor to maintain its access to the Afghan market, to promote Shiite ideology there and to combat transnational threats such as militancy, drug trafficking and insurrections. It tends to work quietly in the countryside and spread its influence through soft power.
Despite their shared views on U.S. forces, Russia does not want a powerful Iran counteract their own regional influence. Another problem for Russia is rapprochement between the US and Iran, which could undermine and marginalize Russia’s influence.
With the US troop withdrawal, Iran is becoming more direct influence in Afghanistan and will try to protect its interests by building alliances with regional powers, particularly China and Russia. A Contract signed between Iran and China, which pledges $ 400 billion in Chinese investment, is the second Chinese partnership in the region after China’s cooperation with Russia. Although relations between China and Iran are growing, Beijing will be careful not to allow this partnership to jeopardize its relations with the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.
Even if agreements between the regional powers will not have a direct impact on Afghanistan in the near future, in the long term they will affect the Afghan power dynamic, especially when you consider that the Sino-Iranian agreement provides for deepening military cooperation through the exchange of information. Moreover, if continued, these agreements will strengthen China-Iran cooperation, which in principle goes against US domination in the region.
The bilateral agreement between China and Iran and the comprehensive partnership between China and Russia create the conditions for a triangular partnership between all three countries, which could determine the security architecture of the region. China, Russia and Iran would likely never invade Afghanistan, but they will use it as a battleground for their strategic competition with the United States. In addition, these countries, aware of the long-term instability of Afghanistan, fear that the US withdrawal will destabilize the region and trigger it with transnational threats.
In such a context, continued U.S. partnership with Afghanistan through development and diplomacy, information sharing, and other forms of cooperation would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists and allow Washington to maintain a base in the region, to counter its regional rivals. In order to maintain regional order, multilateral diplomacy should continue with US engagement in the region – not abandonment.
In addition, the peace process should involve Iran, Russia and China so that they can negotiate their interests with Afghan political groups and offer their resources to advance Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Ultimately, this serves the economic and security interests of all.
Nilofar Sakhi is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and Director of Politics and Diplomacy at McColm & Company.
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