Regional powers will see their influence increase dramatically in Afghanistan as the US executes a hasty, haphazard withdrawal and the Taliban return to power after 20 years.
Russia, Pakistan and China have all signalled a readiness to transition smoothly into engaging with Taliban authorities with varying levels of enthusiasm.
But the Taliban’s return has also stoked fears in those countries that Afghanistan will once again become a haven for foreign terrorist organisations that could carry out attacks on their own soil.
In Pakistan – long accused of aiding the Afghan Taliban – the prime minister, Imran Khan, said the Taliban had “broken the chains of mental slavery in Afghanistan”. The leader of a key religious political party said the “Taliban has freed their country from superpowers”.
China is ready to develop “good-neighbourly, friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan”, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said, but also noted Taliban promises that Afghanistan would not serve as a staging ground for “acts detrimental to China”.
And Russia, which has formulated much of its foreign policy around the fight against international terrorism, reacted to the Taliban’s return to power with cool realpolitik.
“If we compare the negotiability of the colleagues and the partners, I have long since decided that the Taliban is much more able to reach agreements than the puppet government in Kabul,” Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, said on state television on Monday.
Newspapers in Pakistan on Monday carry news about the fall of Kabul. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images
Of all its regional neighbours, Pakistan appeared the most exuberant in welcoming Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The hope for Pakistan is that it would enjoy more influence and leverage in Kabul under Taliban rule, giving it a strong regional ally aligned with its Islamic values.
Khan, who has personal and political reason to cheer the fall of the Afghan government, was not alone in portraying the Taliban’s victory as a triumph. Influential religious clerics and senior Pakistan military generals also celebrated publicly.
Siraj ul Haq, the chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an Islamic political party, said in a speech it was a “historic win over a superpower” and would create “an exemplary Islamic government in Afghanistan”.
For years Pakistan, which has a long and porous border with Afghanistan, has been a sanctuary for Taliban leaders and their families, and is where fighters often receive training and medical care.
Pakistan has denied giving the Afghan Taliban any military assistance, and said it pushed for peace during the Doha negotiations, but many believe the main priority for Pakistan has been to keep the Taliban onside.
However, many fear the strength of the Taliban’s resurgence will further embolden already powerful radical Islamist groups in Pakistan and make the country more vulnerable to jihadists.
Ayesha Ijaz Khan, a Pakistani lawyer and writer, tweeted: “Pakistanis just don’t know what’s about to hit them yet.”
Russia has long criticised the US intervention in Afghanistan and its spectacular failure has evoked obvious schadenfreude in the Kremlin.
More than three decades ago, the Soviet Union evacuated its last tanks in Afghanistan over the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan. This week, US-allied warlords and their fighters were forced to flee over the same bridge.
Vladimir Putin has made anti-terrorism a cornerstone of his foreign policy, comparing it to the fight against nazism. In Syria and Libya, Russia justified its backing of authoritarian leaders by saying they provided a bulwark against the rise of radicalism and chaos.
Yet in Afghanistan, the calculus is different and a cooler realpolitik is at play. Despite naming the Taliban a terrorist group, Russia appears ready to engage if it can ensure security for its own diplomats and prevent militants from launching assaults against its central Asian allies such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Zamir Kabulov, Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan, even dangled the possibility that Russia would recognise the Taliban government based “on the behaviour of the new authorities”, a major prize for the Taliban that would also indicate Moscow sees itself as a potential intermediary as the west pulls out.
For now, the Russians are staying put. Taliban forces have “taken the external perimeter of the Russian embassy under protection”, Kabulov said on Monday, and its Afghan ambassador, Dmitry Zhirnov, said Russia had a promise that “not a single hair will fall [from the heads] of Russian diplomats”.
Further negotiations are planned for Tuesday, he said. Should those fail, Moscow has also prepared for greater instability in the region.
In the last month, it has held military drills with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as separate exercises with China, which were aimed at “demonstrating the determination and ability of Russia and China to fight terrorism”. The timing, as the Taliban raced to victory, was no coincidence.
The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, meets the Taliban’s Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China, last month. Photograph: Xinhua/Reuters
While China was uneasy about the US military engagement in Afghanistan, it has also been critical of its “irresponsible” withdrawal of late.
In recent years, Beijing has begun to see the US’s continued presence in Afghanistan as a lesser of two evils, according to Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund, a US thinktank.
“But judging from last month’s meeting between the Taliban and the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, Beijing seems to have been well prepared for this eventuality – perhaps even better than the US itself,” he said.
On Monday, China’s propaganda agencies took this opportunity to discredit US foreign policy, but Beijing is treading a careful line in its policy towards the new Taliban regime.
This is because China sees the issue of Afghanistan as a quagmire where great powers have found themselves entrapped – from Britain to the Soviet Union, and now the US.
Chinese state media calls Afghanistan a “graveyard of empires” and Beijing does not want to be mired in “the Great Game” in the centre of the Eurasian continent.
American presence in #Afghanistan: 20 years.
Time #Taliban took to gain nationwide military victory: 10 days.
The bomb-dropping-loving Uncle Sam may now wonder: Why can’t even 20 bombs a day keep the Taliban away? pic.twitter.com/FfVkkjXeXv — China Xinhua News (@XHNews) August 16, 2021
China is also showing its pragmatism in its approach. “What China could do is participate in the postwar reconstruction and provide investment to help the country’s future development,” the Global Times quoted a senior Chinese government expert as saying on Sunday.
And on Monday, China’s spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said Beijing welcomed the Taliban’s promise “that they will allow no force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China and its expression of hope that China will be more involved in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process and play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development”.
For many years, China has been concerned about its far-west Xinjiang Uyghur region, with Beijing demanding the Taliban refrain from hosting any Uyghur groups on their territory.
“It was the primary reason for Beijing to meet Mullah Mohammed Omar in 2000, and it’ll still be on top of China’s concern list after the Taliban’s Sunday takeover,” said Small.