By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
The developments in Afghanistan are opening up a new chapter in international relations. The pictures from Kabul mean that the U.S. will stop paying the price in lives of soldiers and trillions of dollars in aid, but they also might lead many U.S. allies to feel that there is a new equilibrium in global politics.
People in countries all over the world and even within the U.S. interpret the news events from Afghanistan as a sign that the American leadership in the international arena is declining. There have also been hints that new alliances need to be forged.
These messages are created by powers with a political agenda, such as Beijing, but also in Washington D.C. Only the future will tell if these predictions of the decline of American leadership are correct or they are simply a talking point heading to the 2022 mid-term election. What is clear to the entire world is that the new reality in Afghanistan makes things complicated for the neighbors of this large country.
China Sees Afghanistan as an Opportunity to Extend Its Power in the Region
The People’s Republic of China has a long border with Afghanistan. Since the collapse of the Afghani government, China has made it clear that it sees the current situation in Afghanistan as proof of the U.S. decline and a sign that there is now room for a new world power.
In a report broadcast on the official state-run T.V. channel, CTGN, Chinese TV host Salwa said that the American withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan proves America’s impotence. She referred to America a “paper tiger.”
Her report also stated, “China will deal with the changes in Afghanistan in a very reasonable way. China has no intention of filling the vacuum created by the United States.
“The principle of refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries has been, and will continue to be, the mainstay of Chinese foreign policy. China will play a constructive role in Afghanistan, in order to achieve peace, and in order to move towards rebuilding [Afghanistan] very soon.”
Beijing representatives have also met with Taliban officials to secure agreements concerning border security and infrastructure contracts.
China has much to be concerned about. For years, China has used an iron fist policy regarding its Uyghur Muslim minority.
Fearing the influence of Islamist forces, Chinese officials continue to attack any manifestations of Islam and violate the human rights of Uyghur Muslims on a massive scale. A radical organization like the Taliban might very well feel obligated to aid the Uyghurs, similar to the way Muslims from all over the world came to assist the Afghani people during their war with Russia in the 1980s.
Russia Is Also Gleeful, But Will Be Cautious with the Taliban
The Russians have a long history with Afghanistan. While Moscow was quick to express its glee at the expense of the U.S., the Kremlin made use of its mouthpieces to warn American allies all over the world that the disaster occurring in Afghanistan is the outcome of all who put their faith in the U.S.
Russia is capitalizing on this U.S. public relations disaster, but no one in the Kremlin has forgotten how their escapade in Afghanistan ended in the 1980s. In a recent report, the Brookings Institute predicted the Russians will attempt to create a relationship with the Taliban but that they will be cautious since they have much to lose.
The report noted the uncertainty in Moscow’s policy regarding central Asia: “In retrospect, the best opportunity for building a stable peace in Afghanistan was in greater regional engagement, but Russia has never supported its cooperation with Central Asia, and neighbors such as Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan tend to believe more in protective barriers rather than in cross-border ties. Each has set its own channel of communication with the Taliban, and Moscow has also hosted several rounds of talks with the militants, but the assertion of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the leadership of the group (still officially defined in Russia as a terrorist organization) was “rational” was an exercise in wishful thinking. “
The Brookings Institute report also pointed to the danger of cross-border attacks northwards and predicted a large wave of refugees, a prediction that will not surprise anyone. Russia is weary of Islamism; the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya are without a doubt informing Moscow’s decisions. The situation in Afghanistan will also test Russian relations with Iran, another neighbor who enjoys a close relationship with Moscow.
Iran Noted That Biden Has the Challenge of Explaining Afghanistan to the American People
The Islamic Republic of Iran was quick to congratulate the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and even faster to ridicule the departure of the U.S. For example, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, the most central Iranian proxy power in the Middle East, compared Kabul to Vietnam’s Saigon in an August 17 report on Al-Alam TV.
Nasrallah stated that President Biden would need to explain Afghanistan to U.S. citizens who are “astonished to see these humiliating images of failure and defeat” and observed that it is not America’s duty to send U.S. forces on the behalf of anyone. Nasrallah also noted that Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for American allies in Lebanon and the region, because America would rather suffer a “historic and humiliating defeat” than fight on behalf of the Afghani people.
The Taliban were quick to grant an interview to Iran’s Press TV and promised cooperation with Iran. In the interview, Taliban leader Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa said that Iran and Afghanistan were both “damaged by the influence of foreign external forces.” He stated that the Taliban will not accept the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and said that ISIS is a “deviant” form of Islam.
Mullah Khairkhwa was the former governor of Herat, Iran, before his arrest and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was released in May 2014 in a prisoner exchange.
In Tehran, there are also people who remember the radical Sunni tendencies of the Taliban and their cooperation with those who see Shia Muslims as infidels. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stated that the Taliban is the greatest threat to the region and to Iran.
The Taliban ‘Victory’ in Afghanistan Could Lead to Regional Problems
While Afghanistan’s neighbors are quick to be gleeful in view of the Kabul withdrawal and the public relations disaster with U.S. allies, the leaders in this region know full well that the Taliban presents a potential problem. Neighboring countries just may regret the day the U.S. left Kabul, and the shrieks of glee from Moscow, Tehran and Beijing might be over sooner rather than later.