The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in pursuit of its ultimate enemy: Al-Qaeda. And then it stayed.
Twenty years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States and amid its chaotic troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has declared the end of an era of great military intervention.
America’s rivals and adversaries have been taking notes all along.
Russia, China and Iran see the latest developments as clear evidence that American international influence, which after September 11, 2001 seemed invulnerable, brought America almost universal international support and sympathy, is waning. And while the US leaves a vacuum, it gently embraces Afghanistan’s new militant rulers.
That Russia, China and Iran are trying to step up their roles in Afghanistan should come as no surprise, said Barnett Rubin, former senior advisor to the Foreign Ministry’s special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“They were staring us straight in the face the whole time,” he said of the three nations. “It’s just another incident in the decline of US relative power.”
The scenes of chaos and heartbreak at Kabul airport when thousands of desperate Afghans tried to get on planes before the August 31 deadline for military withdrawal gave these countries ample public relations opportunities.
“The result is zero, if not negative,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin last week about Washington’s 20-year intervention in Afghanistan.
Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russian RT broadcaster, who is considered the voice of the Russian government, also interfered.
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“It is as if [they were] Fought with a tank against a snail for 20 years and in the end lost against this snail and then hardly got away with the tank, ”she wrote in a tweet.
In China, a State Department spokeswoman cited the death of Zaki Anwari, a teenage soccer star who fell to his death trying to hold on to the landing gear of a departing American C-17 plane.
“American myth down,” said Hua Chunying on August 20th. “More and more people are waking up.”
In Iran, too, the US trigger was a gift.
Experts have come to the conclusion that the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is more important than the evacuation of troops from Vietnam, said Esmail Ghaani, commander of the country’s expeditionary quds force, according to state media on Tuesday.
But the overt glee obscures a delicate dance by Russia, China and Iran, weighing the potential chances of US withdrawal against the more overt risks of the spread of extremism. By gently hugging Afghanistan’s new rulers, these countries seem to be betting that they can limit potential threats.
“Cemetery of Empires”
At the interface between South Asia and Central Asia, Afghanistan is bordered by China in the east and Iran in the west. Zoom out and Russia looms large in the north.
The closeness to Russia, China and Iran puts them back from being drawn into Afghanistan and ultimately taking on responsibility in a country devastated by more than 40 years of war. The then Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and occupied it for 10 years until 1989, and its withdrawal was also seen as an international humiliation and a harbinger of the country’s impending disintegration with the fall of communism.
China, which shares a short border with Afghanistan, is concerned about the infiltration of extremism into its western Xinjiang region, where the government has detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities.
But Beijing also sees an opportunity to revive potentially lucrative oil, gas and mining projects in Afghanistan that have been delayed by security concerns and other issues. On Wednesday, China said it would provide $ 31 million in emergency aid to Afghanistan, including food and 3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine, while urging the Taliban to cut ties with terrorist groups.
Iran, which almost went to war with the Taliban in 1998 after killing ten Iranian diplomats, has since improved its relations with the group and is now one of Afghanistan’s largest trading partners. But the Shiite leaders in Iran fear that the Sunni Taliban could again allow the persecution of Afghanistan’s Hazaras and other Shiite minorities. They are also concerned about a flood of Afghan refugees as Iran grapples with its worst coronavirus outbreak in the pandemic.
Nations have interfered in Afghan affairs for more than a century, helping turn the country into a swamp of human suffering before retreating exhausted and demoralized and earning Afghanistan its name as the “Graveyard of Empires”.
Now Russia, China and Iran have laid the foundations for relations with the country’s new rulers.
Taliban representatives followed suit in July Russia and China Offer security guarantees and in return receive an increase in international reputation. Tehran had also hosted talks between the Taliban and representatives of the Afghan government at the time.
The three countries have decided to maintain their diplomatic missions in Kabul, even if other nations have closed embassies and evacuated staff. It remains unclear whether they will officially recognize the new Taliban government.
The Taliban announced Tuesday an all-male transitional government occupied by veterans of their hardline 1990s regime, a far cry from the inclusive vision that the international community – including Russia, China and Iran – had been calling for.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said his country was ready to maintain communications with the new Afghan government, but did not directly say whether Beijing would recognize it.
It is logical for neighboring countries to develop a relationship with the Taliban, said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
“If you have any concerns, the first thing you will do is try to deal with whoever is in power there,” he said.
On the question of whether these countries really fill a vacuum, Pantucci said that although there had been a lot of rhetoric, it had done little so far.
“We see a lot of joy with the West walking its tail between its legs, but I’m not sure we see the same joy in what it means for them to take responsibility now,” he said.
“Established contacts with the Taliban”
The fact that al-Qaeda planned the September 11, 2001 attacks from Afghanistan and is under the protection of the Taliban will not have escaped the leaders of Russia, China and Iran. A willingness to work with the Taliban could therefore be the first line of defense for those countries who fear that extremists will again use Afghanistan as a base for attacks elsewhere.
“Russia is clearly interested in [a] Afghanistan consolidated under a stable rule, ”said Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Russian foreign policy expert who heads the Moscow Foreign and Defense Policy Council. “For Moscow it is not so important who is in charge in Kabul.”
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said that despite the American invasion in 2001 that aimed to destroy al-Qaeda, after 20 years of US occupation, the group felt lightness, as did the Islamic State terrorist group and other extremist groups on Afghan soil.
“They see Afghan territory as a base to transfer their activities to the states of Central Asia, to the Chinese Xinjiang, north of Iran, to India,” he said in an interview with the Russian newspaper Izvestia on August 19.
Afghanistan remains the deadliest land for terrorism on the planet and beyond the Taliban, a subsidiary of the Islamic State Group and Al-Qaeda are both present there.
“We see the security of Afghanistan as the security of Iran and the insecurity in Afghanistan as the insecurity of Iran,” said Abolfazl Amouei, a spokesman for the influential parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy.
“Iran has established contacts with the Taliban to ensure the security of its borders,” he said in an interview before the Taliban takeover.
Since the capture of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban have tried to consolidate control over Afghanistan, but it remains unclear whether they can keep their promises to prevent Afghan soil from being used to threaten the security of other countries.
A suicide bombing by the Islamic State’s Khorasan group outside Kabul airport on August 26, killing more than 100 people, including 13 US soldiers, has already exposed the limits of the Taliban’s influence in the country.
20 years after hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; the Pentagon near Washington; and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, it’s not just the United States that has an interest in what the Taliban does next. As the US leaves the region, its geographic location means that neighboring powers will have to play a greater role in Afghanistan’s future.