A Hedged Approach to a Prickly Future: China and Russia’s Diplomacy in Post-Withdrawal Afghanistan
China and Russia’s approach towards the evolving conflict in Afghanistan appears to be converging. In late July, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with leaders of the Taliban, and a few weeks earlier, Taliban representatives arrived in Moscow to speak with the Russian Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov. In both meetings, the Taliban emphasized that they were not a threat to regional peace and stability, while Russian and Chinese diplomats highlighted the importance of stability. These conferences demonstrate a relative apathy towards the internal governance of Afghanistan but also the conflict’s regional ripple effects on China and Russia. The two countries’ diplomatic engagement with the Taliban, combined with their security preparations, represents a new regional political reality.
The Chinese government explicitly stated that its main concern in Afghanistan is specific extremist groups, like the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that are affiliated with, but separate from, the Taliban that could launch attacks against China from Afghanistan. While Russia has not publicly spoken about violent extremist groups in Afghanistan, its recent and planned military exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan along their border with Afghanistan indicate Moscow’s ongoing security worries. In the 1990s, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) used Afghanistan as a launchpad to carry out campaigns against Russia’s partner states in the region. Since then, the IMU’s military capacity has deteriorated, but other groups have emerged that Central Asian republics and Russia view with anxiety, like Jamaat Ansarullah and Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari. While none of the violent extremist groups presents an existential threat to Russia or China, they could inflict violence against regional allies and their populations.
The Taliban’s international diplomatic expeditions demonstrate that many actors in the region believe that the insurgent group will continue to play a significant role in the future of Afghanistan, a sentiment fueled by recent military gains. However, the Taliban is not a monolithic organization. Within its ranks are numerous commanders, leaders, and partner organizations with their own agendas and goals distinct from the Taliban leadership’s objectives. This question of the Taliban’s political unity will continue to worry regional players. The most recent report from the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team estimates there are between 8,000-10,000 foreign fighters operating in Afghanistan, many of whom come from Russia, Central Asia, and China. The Taliban denies allowing foreign fightersin its ranks, but, nonetheless, foreign fighters still seem to bolster their troops. In meeting with the Taliban, it is likely that both China and Russia emphasized their concerns about various groups using Afghanistan as a base for attacks beyond Afghanistan’s borders. In response, the Taliban likely aimed to demonstrate political cohesiveness and persuade China and Russia that a Taliban victory would not present a threat to any of Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Even as Chinese and Russian engagement with the Taliban increases, both countries are preparing to act, should Taliban assurances of security fall short. In August, the two countries will conduct joint military exercises to improve their anti-terrorism capabilities. By meeting with Taliban officials, both countries have signaled they are not inherently opposed to the Taliban playing a larger, perhaps even dominant, role in Afghanistan. Through strengthening their security posture, Moscow and Beijing are also indicating they still do not entirely trust the Taliban to protect their interests in the region.
Russia and China are not “pro-Taliban,” and both countries are critical of the United States’ rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their concern is that the swift pullout from Afghanistan by international forces and the resulting change in power dynamics will cause serious regional instability. Earlier in July, Chinese President Xi Xinping spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, and the two discussed many of the same issues that China’s Foreign Minister later raised with Taliban leaders; namely the need for a peaceful settlement between the Taliban and Afghan government and the importance of Afghan-led negotiations. In March, Russia hosted negotiations between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban. It appears that neither Russia nor China wants to pick a side in the escalating conflict. Both want the ability to communicate with the eventual victor and to prevent violent extremist groups from using Afghanistan as a springboard for terrorism in Central Asia.
Image Source : AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko.