After Withdrawal: How China, Turkey, and Russia Will Respond to the Taliban

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An old proverb says that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but the success of Taliban forces in wresting control over most of Afghanistan from the government of President Ashraf Ghani may complicate matters for three countries whose relationship with the United States is always fraught, and often antagonistic. Leaders in Beijing, Ankara, and Moscow likely shed no tears while watching Ghani’s American- and NATO-backed regime crumble, taking with it any lingering hope that the two-decade mission in Afghanistan could create in the troubled country a durable regime sympathetic to America and the West. But the rise of the Taliban creates its own set of challenges for leaders in China, Turkey, and Russia, each of which see themselves as important regional powerbrokers.

China and the Taliban: A Match Made Under Heaven?

Having cultivated a good relationship with the Taliban for the past decade, and with a recent high-profile official visit by a Taliban delegation led by the group’s number two leader Abdul Ghani Baradar on July 28, Beijing sees itself as having finally bet on the right horse in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s takeover of the country, China has demonstrated an unprecedented level of positive reception, political endorsement, and diplomatic support of the Taliban. However, there are ferocious debates ongoing in China as to what the best strategy is moving forward vis-à-vis its poor, unstable, and destabilizing neighbor.

 

 

Having proclaimed the Afghan Taliban a “critical military and political force in Afghanistan,” China’s abandonment of the former Ghani government, and of its balancing diplomacy, was swift despite high-level engagement with both parties as recently as July. Beijing has not moved to recognize the Taliban, or the Taliban-led regime, yet. However, such recognition is implied in the many messages Beijing has sent. On Aug. 18, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson subtly commented that recognition of a government must wait until after the government is established, implying that, after the Taliban establishes its government, China’s recognition will ensue. One day later, the foreign ministry complimented the Taliban’s “good, positive and pragmatic behaviors” and called for the international community to abandon its stereotyped perceptions of the organization.

Beijing appears to have concluded two preliminary assessments about the future. The first is about the Taliban’s victory and its sustainability. There may be pockets of territory and opposition forces that remain outside the Taliban’s control, but Beijing doesn’t see them as posing critical challenges, especially now that America’s withdrawal appears irreversible. The second concerns the Taliban’s improved behavior. China sees the Taliban as becoming more rational and pragmatic, based on the group’s recent outreach to neighboring countries and the policies it has announced so far, including its vow to respect women’s rights. The implication of the two assessments is that Chinese leaders believe the Taliban is here to stay and is no longer as radical and extremist as it was 20 years ago. Translating this belief into practical policies, Beijing will likely give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt and endorse the group as long as it does not repeat anything outrageous, especially regarding its support for terrorist groups. Indeed, terrorist threats are the most significant concerns Chinese leaders have in Afghanistan. The fact that other countries, such as Russia, share similar views about the Taliban reinforces China’s position.

The U.S. failure and messy withdrawal are quite significant in China’s playbook. On the one hand, China has left no stone unturned in its efforts to undermine Washington and the democratic model it tried to implant in Afghanistan. For China, the failure of the “Western model” once again proves that Western democracy is not a universal value, let alone a successful one. This is critical for China as an important validation of its argument for an alternative system. On the other hand, China also perceives the failure of the United States as an opportunity for China to demonstrate that its own agnostic approach to political systems and governance, as well as its preference for building peace through economic development, might be a better approach toward failed states than the militarized nation-building the West has attempted. In Beijing’s view, if China could rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan, the China model would be proved superior and, consequently, China would be proved superior to the United States as a global leader.

While most Chinese policy wonks applaud the failure of the United States in Afghanistan and see the potential for China’s constructive role in the country, there is a large variation in the degree of proposed Chinese involvement. Interestingly, a sharp difference of outlook exists between strategists and country/regional experts. Strategists see Afghanistan as a golden opportunity for China to expand its influence and replace the United States as a responsible and effective leader to help the country. As argued by Zhou Bo, a retired People’s Liberation Army senior colonel, China is ready to step in to fill the void left by the United States and exploit Afghanistan’s natural resources and critical location for the Belt and Road Initiative. In this blueprint, if China treads carefully and supports the Taliban at this opportune moment, there is a potential for China to engineer and create useful loyalty in Afghanistan as a strategic asset.

However, many country and regional experts have major reservations over this bold proposal. Having long witnessed the endless conflicts, ferocious tribal politics, religious and ethnic divisions, and economic difficulties of Afghanistan, they advocate for a sober understanding of Afghanistan’s fame as a  “graveyard for empires” and a much more cautious attitude toward any hasty adventures. Mei Xinyu, a prominent economist from the Ministry of Commerce, has argued that, after the Taliban takeover, China should not rejoice over the post-U.S. Afghan economy and should refrain from large equity investment. Ye Hailin, a veteran South Asia expert at the China Academy of Social Sciences, quickly questioned the Taliban’s ability to absorb the consequences of its easy and swift military success. Most people in this group advocate for China’s “constructive involvement” in Afghanistan, but with a thoughtful approach against hasty decisions to rush into the country.

Given the hostility between China and the United States today, China’s eagerness to use Afghanistan, a U.S. sore spot, for a sense of superiority and leverage is evident, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Aug. 29 phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken attests. During the phone call, Wang lectured on “the need to engage Taliban and lead it in a positive direction.

However, the translation of that eagerness into real and significant actions remains to be seen. China might move faster than Western countries to embrace a Taliban regime, but major investments, political and economic, will depend on the emergence of sustainable stability and the true colors the Taliban reveals.

Turkey: The Middle Man of Europe?

The Turkish government has adapted to changing events in Afghanistan and is prepared to de facto recognize the Taliban and engage with the new leadership in Kabul to advance its own interests. Before the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and the Ghani government, Turkey had sought to formalize its presence in a post-American Afghanistan. To do so, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to walk a fine line of engagement with the United States and NATO, on the one hand, and seeking Taliban acquiesce to a long-term Turkish role on the other.

Turkey’s engagement with Washington revolved around a request for the Turkish military to retain a non-combat presence at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, where it has had soldiers based for more than a decade. These soldiers would help the post-U.S. withdrawal Afghan government run the airport, including to help oversee flight operations at the only international airport in the country. From the outset of these negotiations, the Turkish government demanded financial compensation from NATO and the United States to subsidize the mission and requested that a contingent of American combat forces remain at the base to protect it from external attacks. Ankara had also requested a European presence, approaching both Hungary and Georgia to deploy forces, according to interviews with NATO officials.

Ankara also sought to negotiate with the Taliban, working with its two allies, Qatar and Pakistan, to win support from the group before finalizing the agreement to take over airport operations. Turkey’s engagement with the Taliban before the fall of Kabul foreshadowed Ankara’s policy decisions following the Taliban’s takeover of the country. Since the fall of Kabul, the Turkish-NATO agreement to run the airport after the completion of the withdrawal has collapsed. Ankara, however, has proposed a similar agreement to the Taliban, offering to operate the airport and provide technical support if the Taliban leadership expresses interest in working with Ankara. The Taliban turned down Ankara’s offers to retain troops at the base, and Turkish forces began their withdrawal on Aug. 25. Despite the withdrawal, the Turkish leadership has retained an interest in retaining a civilian presence in the country and is continuing to negotiate with the Taliban about retaining a presence at the airport, with some international support.

Erdoğan’s de facto recognition of the Taliban is part of a broader strategy linked to longstanding Turkish foreign policy and tethered to negative domestic feelings about irregular migration. Since taking power, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sought to deepen its links with Muslim-majority nations. The current national security elite is comfortable working with deeply religious entities, ranging from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria to different affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East. The AKP’s support for the Brotherhood has engendered considerable antipathy from the Gulf states, which view Turkish interference in Arab affairs as a national security threat. Ankara, however, has retained closer ties with non-Arab Muslim states, like Pakistan, that have cordial ties with the Taliban, and with Azerbaijan, which had troops deployed in Kabul under Turkish command.

Turkey’s policy has, almost accidentally, allowed for Ankara to “fence-sit” and be in a position to be of benefit to both its Western allies and to the Taliban. For Erdogan, the broader challenge he faces stems from rising domestic dissatisfaction with his rule, owing to a serious economic downturn linked to his own mismanagement. Turkish political elites have channeled their anger about the economy toward refugees. The AKP is often lauded as being welcoming of refugees, given a pre-2015 open-door policy for Syrians fleeing the civil war. This policy has shifted over the past half-decade, and the ruling party’s policies have become more xenophobic since it allied with the far-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party, to govern.

The collapse of the Ghani government has also stoked concerns that refugees will flee to Turkey via Iran. Images showing Afghans crossing the Iranian-Turkish border are common in Turkish media. The opposition has blasted Erdoğan for his handling of the issue and has falsely accused him of being a lackey of the Americans and of selling out his country in a secret deal with President Joe Biden to host Afghan refugees. The accusation is false, but the narrative is pervasive. The accusation is linked to Turkey’s handling of the Syrian civil war. In 2018, Erdoğan reached an agreement with the European Union to host Syrian refugees, in return for 6 billion euros ($7.1 billion) in aid. This small price has been weaponized, with opposition politicians pointing to the agreement — and Erdoğan’s own opulent lifestyle — as proof that he will sell out the country and allow for migrants to continue undermining Turkish workers.

The AKP has rapidly begun to build a wall along its border with Iran, matching the wall it has built on its border with Syria, and has signaled to European and Russian leaders that it will not serve as a way station for Afghan migrants. The new media is awash with scripted photos of the Turkish military now patrolling Turkey’s eastern border, and the coverage is omnipresent on Turkish television. Erdoğan, then, has an incentive to show that he is securing his borders and, in so doing, standing up to world leaders that would have Turkey bear the burden of refugees.

Despite these domestic considerations, a majority of the Turkish public would like to see the Turkish military withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. Erdoğan, however, appears set on exploring deepening links with the Taliban and using economic incentives to try and induce stability in the capital. This approach is rooted in his comfort with the group but is also part of an effort to appease Turkish firms eager to compete for construction contracts in the country. This core AKP constituency has been hit hard by the economic downturn, and building contracts in third countries, where Ankara has carved out ties, is a key part of their business model.

The Turkish government is clearly adapting to the new reality in Kabul. Ankara is unlikely to follow in lock-step with the United States moving forward and, instead, will seek to carve out its own relationship with the Taliban. The domestic factors in Turkey incentivize this policy, as does Erdoğan’s own conception of Turkish national interests. This reality mirrors the expected actions of other regional countries, all but ensuring that the Taliban will be less isolated than when previously in power, and the United States will have less leverage than it did before the invasion.

A Dual Track Approach From Moscow: Containment and Engagement

With the recent Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, Russia finds itself in somewhat familiar historical territory. Moscow is no stranger to Afghanistan, having fought its own bloody war there for 10 years, from 1979 to 1989. Yet, from a Russian perspective, this Taliban conquest is markedly different from when Taliban forces took over the country in the mid-1990s. Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan reported from a recent meeting with the Taliban that they see relations with Russia as very friendly and have taken up guard outside of the Russian embassy. A Taliban spokesperson claimed that they have “very good relations with Russia.” The contrast with Western reactions, seeing the Taliban’s ascendance as a marker of defeat in the conflict, places Russia’s strategy in stark relief.

After an initially calm and somewhat welcoming response to the Taliban takeover, Russia has sent several transport aircraft to evacuate more than 500 people out of Afghanistan. Moscow is not panicking, but Russian confidence in the safety of its citizens and embassy staff appears to be deteriorating. Russia does not gain tremendously from U.S. withdrawal, beyond a palpable degree of schadenfreude and the visible dent to U.S. international prestige. The messy U.S. withdrawal casts the painful history of Soviet defeat in perspective. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Mohammad Najibullah’s forces fought for another three years, even winning early battles. His regime collapsed in large part because the Soviet Union itself dissolved in late 1991, and Russian support was no longer forthcoming. In contrast, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces units folded rapidly without logistical and political support from Kabul, while Ghani’s government melted away faster than most anticipated.

Some American allies have raised questions about U.S. credibility, engendering a circular firing squad exercise. In the zero-sum nature of today’s confrontation, this may seem a boon to Russia, but Moscow has also inherited significant long-term challenges, as well as regional instability depending on how Afghanistan unfolds. Any Russian glee will be short-lived. Moscow has been making inroads with the Taliban for years in preparation for its potential victory and appears to have chosen a policy of selective engagement together with containment. In brief, the Russian approach is characterized by betting on the prospect of being able to build a working relationship with the Taliban, while at the same time hedging against the possibility that the Taliban can’t or won’t stick to the terms.

What is Russia looking for specifically? No spread of instability from Afghanistan to bordering Central Asian states, no terrorist attacks against Russia from groups based in Afghanistan, and no support for radicalism in Russia. As the takeover appeared imminent, a Taliban delegation visited Moscow in July to assuage Russian concerns on these grounds. At the meeting, Russia’s envoy Zamir Kabulov emphasized the importance of tensions not “spreading beyond the country’s borders” and claimed he had received assurances from the Taliban that they wouldn’t violate the borders of Central Asian states or allow the use of their territory for attacks against Russia. Moscow would also like to see an inclusive government formed, but, in truth, it cares less about the internal workings of Afghanistan and has few interests in the country. An inclusive government would make the Taliban regime less of a pariah state, render it easier to engage, and perhaps present other opportunities. Russia would also like to see a reduction in drug trafficking headed north, but this is a tertiary goal.

At the moment, Russia is in no rush to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate government (the Taliban are still designated as a terrorist group in Russia), but Russian leadership has made it plain that its policy is one of engagement. At a recent press conference with Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin said, “The Taliban movement currently controls virtually the entire territory of the country, including its capital. These are realities.” He added, “we should act based on these very realities, not allowing the Afghan state’s breakup.” It appears that Moscow prefers that Afghanistan remain a unitary state and is unlikely to support opposition groups. Russia has zero love lost for the now deposed Ghani government. Moscow’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, has said on television “If you compare the capacity to make agreements of colleagues and partners, then the Taliban have long seemed to me far more capable than the Kabul puppet government.”

Moscow had opened channels with the Taliban as far back as 2015 and has held multiple rounds of inter-Afghan talks in the capital since 2018. While Russia had justified this reengagement based on a common goal, the fight against the metastasizing Islamic State-Khorasan Province, it was also hedging against the Afghan government, assuming it might fall whenever U.S. forces withdrew. These ties only grew more visible and stronger in recent years, though Russia is unlikely to have much trust in Afghanistan’s new rulers. The Russian government did not care for the U.S.-backed regime, but significantly, Russia also has no alternative options to dealing with the Taliban. Ironically, the Taliban came back quite stronger in 2021 than it ever was in 2001. Forces opposed to the Taliban in the Panjshir valley are now mounting a resistance, but Ahmad Massoud, son of the famed mujahedeen fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, is not a serious challenger to Taliban control of the country. The prospects for a resistance holding out in the Panjshir are slim. Therefore, Russia has few options for contesting Taliban rule and, as Putin has suggested, does not want to see the fragmentation of Afghanistan, which perhaps carries even greater potential for engendering instability.

Russia also seeks to deter further Taliban encroachment, containing their movement to Afghanistan. Moscow held several recent military exercises in Central Asia, including a joint exercise with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the Afghan border. The message to the Taliban is for them to not overplay their hand and pursue any ambitions beyond the Afghan border, which Moscow has signaled will be fiercely defended. Across the way is the 201st Russian military base, a sizable force responsible for backstopping Tajikistan’s security forces. Hence, Russian forces are forward deployed in the region and can facilitate the arrival of further troops from its Central Military District, or supporting airborne units. Russia has substantial capacity for power projection in the region, exercises with Central Asian states regularly, and could respond quickly to a military crisis, perhaps in collaboration with China.

Nearby Turkmenistan is a well-armed hermit kingdom, featuring a personalized authoritarian regime, and it has amicable relations with the Taliban. Here Russia’s task is made easier in terms of local capacity. Central Asia today is not composed of newly independent states, or weak teetering regimes, but rather authoritarian governments that have proven capable of maintaining independence and securing their own interests among intervening external actors. Some have undergone power transfers, and the region as a whole is more stable and consolidated than it was in the 1990s. As Alex Cooley writes, “far from a political vacuum, there is a patchwork of structures that Central Asian actors are increasingly convinced they should use to govern the region.”

Consequently, the Russian bet is that Central Asian states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan can hold their own, while Russian forces fortify Tajikistan. This thesis will soon be tested, as Uzbekistan prepares for an influx of cross-border refuges, and as Tajikistan has called on its allies as part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Moscow’s challenge will be to reconcile divergent regional responses to the Taliban takeover, helping to corral a common approach. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan made inroads with the Taliban, maintaining ties, whereas Tajikistan’s longtime autocrat seems unprepared and overtly hostile to the Taliban’s takeover. This presents new challenges and opportunities for Moscow, which seeks to avoid being sucked in by the security needs of Central Asian states while, at the same time, trying to leverage the situation to improve security ties and its influence in the region. Russia will continue to see these states as buffers against any further spread of instability or radicalization from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Russia has lost economic influence in Central Asia, chiefly to China, but it remains the principal security guarantor in the region, with the most experienced and best-positioned military. Maintaining good working relations with Central Asian states, Turkey, Iran, and China, Moscow is well situated to coordinate a regional response to the Taliban and will likely attempt to don this role. In Beijing, Russia will find a sympathetic party with a common cause, and it will expect China to step up and help maintain regional stability. Russia and China are liable to coordinate their approach to the Taliban, shutting out the United States and positioning themselves as the arbiters of the group’s broader international legitimacy (perhaps along with Turkey). They hold the keys to regional organizations, and both states are likely to attempt constructive engagement, while also seeking to contain Afghanistan’s new rulers.

Conclusion

All three countries are adopting certain hedging strategies. Among the three, China appears most eager to venture into Afghanistan, followed closely by Turkish eagerness to retain a presence at the airport. Turkey, it appears, is the only one of the three eager to have a military presence in the country. However, Chinese enthusiasm is still subject to strong calls for caution. There is a similar dynamic in Turkey, where the population is concerned about an open-ended military deployment to support the airport but is also determined to stem illegal migration. If the Taliban’s victory proves unsustainable, China and Russia will most likely join hands to develop a common security strategy to seal off any spillover effect from Afghanistan. Recent proposals of building a buffer zone in Tajikistan reflect preparations in this direction. The Turkish strategy is not necessarily in tension with those of China and Russia, but it is more focused on cultivating economic links and retaining control over the airport. Between China and Turkey, policy consultations are likely, but cooperative actions do not appear imminent. Moscow won’t be returning anytime soon, with the 1989 Soviet withdrawal still fresh in the collective memory of its political leadership. Engagement and containment characterize Russia’s approach, with Moscow well-positioned to coordinate a regional security response.

 

 

Michael Kofman serves as director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, and as a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security. Previously he served as a research fellow at the National Defense University and as a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his own. 

Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The US War Against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate.

Yun Sun is the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Master Sgt. Alexander Burnett)

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