AFGHANISTAN: TOWARD A NEW GREAT GAME?





Analytical Brief n. 14, August 2021



American Departure: Questions without Answers

The consequences of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan are not yet fully understood, but it is the observers view that the American retreat is a monumental failure of US foreign policy in the region. According to this narrative, the Americans lost Afghanistan because of their shortsightedness, incompetence, lack of commitment, or poor planning. As a result of this blunder, the wheel has come full circle on the post-9/11 US “war on terror” in Afghanistan and the US is now back to square one.


This narrative, however, does not explain what happened in Kabul in the first two weeks of August 2021. The American withdrawal and its aftermath raise many questions to which, so far, there are no answers. Of course, the US-led coalition departure had turned into a P.R. disaster and damaged American reputation; the reputation of NATO and the EU also suffered respectively in this process. But we still have no answers to explain this P.R. debacle. What happened to the US air support for the Afghan troops? What happened to the Afghan air force trained and equipped by the US?(1) What accounts for the near-total meltdown of the US/NATO trained and equipped Afghan Army and Police forces (the ANDSF), without much of a fight, against lightly armed insurgents? What is the role of Pakistan in recruiting and planning the Taliban advancement and arms supply? Why did the US decide to pull out its troops unconditionally, without waiting for a negotiated political settlement regardless of consequences that were almost entirely predictable other than the speed with which it occurred? Since 2001, the US spent in various forms of military expenditures and civil assistance in Afghanistan, around two trillion dollars (according to its own recent estimates). If the US abandons Afghanistan, it would appear as tremendous waste of resources and manpower, unprecedented in modern history. Did the US decide to forsake its investment in Afghanistan?


The lack of coherent answers to these questions may indicate that the US orchestrated a plan with Pakistan and the Taliban at the time of the Doha negotiations (February 2020), that involved a de facto transfer of Afghanistan under the protectorate of Pakistan.(2) US departure from Afghanistan may also be a calculated decision to convert what originated as a counter-terrorist operation against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban into a long-term geopolitical project to destabilize the region and to keep China, Russia and eventually Iran off balance with Afghanistan. Once the American administration accepted the impossibility of winning the war or fixing the Afghan failing state, it decided to shift the burden of maintaining peace in Afghanistan to its strategic rivals. Whatever may distract China and Russia from their “revisionist”(3) plans, drain their resources, destabilize their borders and create a persistent sense of insecurity may be considered beneficial for the United States regardless of its human cost. As Joe Biden recently said: “China and Russia would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”(4) In other words, the situation in Afghanistan should now be a matter of concern for Moscow and Beijing, not Washington. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, the United States opened a new chapter in the Great Game competition between regional powers in Afghanistan, the outcome of which seems even bleaker than the outcome of the US occupation of Afghanistan.

Regional Stability

Afghanistan borders China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Although the Taliban does not pose, so far, any direct military threat to its neighbors, there are no guarantees that it will not do so in the future. Most importantly, the true danger comes no so much from the Taliban control of Afghanistan, but from the terrorist groups, that can challenge the Taliban and each other or use Afghan soil to attack Afghan neighbors. The next major conflict in Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Islamic State and its affiliates. This conflict will turn Afghanistan into a battleground dominated by extremists and reverberate throughout the region.

China

  • · The Uyghur Issue
  • The situation in Xinjiang remains China’s biggest security concern. Beijing needs to ensure that the insurgency does not spill over into Xinjiang. Since 2017 the United States is trying to play the Xinjiang card against Beijing; recent accusations of Uyghur genocide are meant to rally global public opinion against China and strain its relations with the Muslim world.

China is particularly concerned about the resurgence of Uyghur Muslim fundamentalists like the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM also known as the Turkistan Islamic Party or TIP) and the growing influence of Islamist ideologies in Uyghur separatist movement. ETIM seeks to establish an independent Islamic state for the Uyghurs and has vowed to carry out jihad against the “Communist Chinese occupiers” of Xinjiang. In June 2021 U.N. sanctions monitors reported that ETIM has hundreds of fighters in northeast Afghanistan, as well as a larger presence in Idlib, Syria; ETIM moves fighters between the two areas. As China's deputy permanent representative to the UN, Geng Shuang, told the UN Security Council on August 16 2021: "All countries… should take resolute actions to prevent terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the ETIM from taking advantage of this chaos”.


There is a significant Uyghur diaspora outside of Xinjiang in Central Asia - in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. China has long sought to get these states to prevent Uyghurs of their countries from supporting Uyghur separatism in China. This consideration was one of the reasons for China’s establishment in 1996 of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.(5)


· China and the Taliban

Despite China’s pragmatic approach to dealing with the new Kabul masters, whether China can find common ground with the Taliban is an open question. Afghanistan remains a high-risk environment for China. Despite declarations about the China-Taliban “cordial relations”, Beijing is unlikely to rush to Afghanistan to fill the power vacuum left after the US departure. Chinese investment in Afghanistan will also remain limited. China has already had the experience with failed investments in Afghanistan, notably the copper project at Mes Aynak. It put on hold the state-owned MCC-JCL Aynak Minerals (MJAM) consortium’s 30-year lease on the site, signed in 2007 in a $2.8 billion deal that has been described as the largest foreign investment project in Afghanistan.


The Taliban and its allies are Muslim fundamentalists, while China is a tightly controlled communist state, persecuting a Muslim minority. Despite assurances that Afghanistan's soil would not be used against any country's security, it is difficult to conceive that Muslim fundamentalist would abandon their oppressed Uyghur brethren, as it would go against the principles of Islam. The Taliban is not a centralized, well-disciplined military organization, but rather an alliance of different factions, enjoying various degrees of operational autonomy. Currently, it is unlikely that the Taliban central command is capable of controlling all of its fighters.


In April 2021, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Pakistani Taliban) carried out a suicide bombing at a hotel where the Chinese ambassador stayed. In July 2021, a blast on a Chinese shuttle bus in northern Pakistan killed nine Chinese engineers working on the $4 billion Dasu hydroelectric dam. The project is overseen by state-owned China Gezhouba Group Co and is financed by the World Bank. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Pakistan, but given how many of the IS operatives in Pakistan are former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan fighters and how close the relations between the Pakistani Taliban and some elements of the Afghan Taliban are, the collaboration between these groups cannot be excluded.

Russia

Russia had its own experience in dealing with Islamist insurgencies in Central Asia and in the Caucasus region. In the XX century Russia invaded Afghanistan three times to prevent radicals from attacking its territory or supporting a friendly Afghan government against radical insurgents.(6) Today Russia faces multiple potential threats that may be amplified by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. First there is threat of gradual penetration of Muslim radicalism to Russian regions like Tatarstan or Bashkorstan.


Second, there is a large Central Asian Muslim diaspora in Russia that in the past provided recruits for radical groups like Katiba al-Tawhid wal-Jihad - an Uzbek organization that consists of predominantly Uzbek and Kyrgyz militants. In 2015 it pledged alliance to Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Quada affiliate). In 2017 it carried out a bomb attack in the St. Petersburg metro that killed 16 and wounded 103 people.


Third, there are jihadist groups in Syria composed of Russian citizens, like Katibat Junud al-Makhdi(7), Junud al-Sham and Ajnad al-Kavkaz (8), Islamic State-affiliated Vilayat Kavkaz (9) and others. As the war in Syria is drawing to a close, some of these fighters could move to Afghanistan and others may return to Russia.

Central Asia

Perhaps the most obvious threat to Russia’s interests is destabilization of Central Asian states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Central Asia is a fertile ground for radical political Islam. Islamist activity there is fueled by unemployment, the lack of ideologies that consolidate society, the problems of legitimizing political elites, the weakness of the official clergy, and the changing geopolitical realities. The social base for radical Islam in Central Asia consists mainly of unemployed youth.


· Tajikistan

Tajiks in Afghanistan make up over 25% of the Afghan population with over 10 million people while only 7 million live in Tajikistan (10). While some Tajiks were coopted by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban and are actively supporting the movement, others backed the Kabul government. Tajikistan would be a logical target for the Tajik fundamentalists affiliated with the Taliban, like Jamaat Ansarullah (the Society of Allah’s Soldiers), a Tadjik Muslim fundamentalist group banned in Tajikistan, but supported by the Taliban. Other radical Muslim groups operating in Tajikistan are Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islamiyya (Islamic Party of Liberation), Ҳizbi naҳzati islomi Toҷikiston Tochikiston (Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan) and the Islamic State-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In July 2018 the Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four foreign cyclists in Tajikistan’s Danghara district.


Tajik and other anti-Taliban fighters reassembled in the Panjshir Valley by Ahmad Massoud (11) are counting on its neighbors like Tajikistan, Russia, Uzbekistan and India to help them with arms and logistics. Some Tajiks in Tajikistan openly expressed their readiness to fight the Taliban. However, in the event of actual confrontation between the pro- and anti-Taliban fighters, the fighting will most likely spill into the Tajik territory.


The Tajik government take this treat very seriously. Already in 2019 Tajik officials publicly warned about a high concentration of Islamist militants on the Tajik-Afghan border. In May 2021 Tajik President Emomali Rahmon went to Moscow to ask for help to protect the Afghan-Tajik border. In July 2021 over 230,000 Tajik troops were assembled for a combat maneuver at the request of Rahmon. Tajik President had previously ordered an additional 20,000 troops to be deployed to the Tajik-Afghan border region. Another exercise involving Tajik, Uzbek and Russian troops took place in early August. In September, the Shanghai Treaty Organization is planning a military exercise in Russia while Russia promised significant military assistance to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan houses the largest Russian military base outside Russia.(12)

· Uzbekistan

Threats that Uzbekistan may face are similar to those facing Tajikistan and other Central Asian states. There are over 2 million Uzbeks living in Afghanistan and 16 million in Uzbekistan. Afghanistan is the home base for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) affiliated with the Islamic front. Already in in the years 1999 and 2000, operating out of bases in Tajikistan and Taliban-controlled areas of northern Afghanistan the IMU launched a series of raids into Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan.


· Turkmenistan

The Afghan-Turkmen border is another Central Asian point of terrorist spillover. Since January 2015 Turkmen security forces have been forced to engage militants, not always successfully, along its border. In May 2016 twenty-seven Turkmen soldiers allegedly died in a border skirmish with the Taliban militants. After this incident Russia pledged military assistance to Turkmenistan.


· Kyrgizstan

Kyrgyzstan has been the target of Islamist propaganda since the early 2000s. Radical Islamist influence comes from difference sources, the most important being Saudi Arabia. Fergana valley and the Osh region are particularly vulnerable to radical Islamist ideas. Salafi terrorist group like Jaishul-Mahdi and ETIM operate in Kirgizstan since 2010 and are responsible for a number of violent attacks in Bishkek and elsewhere. In 2017 Islamic militants, using a suicide bomber, attacked Chinese embassy in the Kirghiz capital.

Iran

Iran and the Taliban have a long and turbulent history of relations. In the 1990s and early 2000 Iran openly opposed the Taliban and supported its enemies. However, after 2001 and despite Iran’s aid to the new Afghan government, Iran and the Taliban were able to find mutual interests in opposing a common enemy - the United States.


In 2015, Tehran and the Taliban began to cooperate to protect the territories bordering Iran. Clandestine security cooperation led to the expansion of diplomatic relations. In late 2018, Tehran acknowledged that it had hosted Taliban envoys. Since then Taliban delegations came regularly to Iran. U.S. intelligence repeatedly accused Iran of supplying weapons to the Taliban.


Iran’s reaction to the Taliban victory reflects the ambivalence that characterize Iranian perception of the Taliban. While some Iranian politicians increasingly refer to the Taliban as an integral part of Afghanistan with which Iran can talk, others, like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, characterize the Sunni radicals as “the devil”, aiming to impose its views by force. Yet others, like Iranian Sunni clerics praised the Taliban’s “great victory” over “the occupiers of the puppet government” in Kabul.


Iran would like to collaborate with the Taliban on the water projects around the Helmand River and elsewhere. Iran equally sees the Taliban and its conservative ideology as an instrument of checking the expansion of Panturkism and the Muslim brotherhood ideology backed by Turkey.


Whether Iran and the Taliban will be able to overcome their differences and mutual mistrust and create a lasting partnership of convenience remains to be seen. However, there are issues that concern Iran directly.


· Sectarian violence

Iran is a home to the largest Hazara community outside Afghanistan; between 2,5 – 3 million Hazaras live there. Hazaras are Shia Muslims and have a history of persecution by the Taliban and the Pushtuns. Iran trains and arms the Hizbollah Afghanistan militia (Liwa Fatemiyoun). The group is led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and trained and supplied by the Iranian military. Iranian officials are providing weapons and money to members of the Hizbollah Afghanistan who have been returning to Afghanistan and are building a structure that can be quickly refilled if necessary. If the Shia community in Afghanistan is threatened by the Islamic State or other Salafist groups, Iran-affiliated Shia fighters will most likely retaliate.


· Drug Trafficking

One of the key issues for the Iranian side remains the drug trafficking of opiates coming from Afghanistan. In 2019 the U.N. estimated that Iran accounted for 90 percent of the world's opium consumption, as well as 72 percent of morphine and 20 percent of heroin. Iranian authorities claim that there are about 2 million opiate addicts in the country.

Pakistan

Even if Pakistan appears to be a true beneficiary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) and the Islamic State in Pakistan are a clear threat to Pakistani security. Pakistan’s position remains highly ambiguous. On one hand Pakistan is implicated in arming, training and financing the Taliban. The core of the new Taliban leadership (Hasan Akhund, Haibatullah Akhunzada, Abdul Ghani Baradar, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mohammad Yaqoob, Abdul Haq Wasiq and others) is made out of men who were either were part or are related to the Peshawar Seven – seven major mujahideen groups in the 1980s recognized and financed by Pakistan and its allies. So there is a continuity in Pakistan’ stirring the armed conflict in Afghanistan in the past forty years.


On the other hand, in the past Pakistan has been taking up the issue of use of Afghan soil by the TTP for “terrorist activities” against Pakistan with the Afghan government. Pakistan wants to ensure that the TTP is not provided any space in Afghanistan to operate inside Pakistan. At the same time there are regular accusations leveled against Pakistan’s intelligence of financing and manipulating terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Khorasan, the Haqqani Network and others, with working ties to the TTP.


Following the US withdrawal, Pakistan may use some of the Taliban-affiliated groups in the Kashmir conflict against India. This would be a logical development of the Pakistan intelligence game in Afghanistan.

India

India may be one of the biggest losers in the Afghan war. India considers the Taliban to be a Pakistan proxy and made clear so far that it will not recognize a government forced on Afghanistan. Since 2001, India has invested around $3 billion in Afghanistan’s infrastructure.(13)


India will support anti-Pakistani/Taliban forces to destabilize the Afghan-Pakistan border region and prevent Afghan radicals from infiltrating Kashmir. Recently, the outgoing Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri accused India of engaging in terrorist activities in Pakistan and using Afghan soil for this purpose. India will also assist Tajik and Hazara anti-Taliban forces and do everything to reduce Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.

European Union

The Taliban’s victory is a success story for radical Islamist forces in Europe. Taliban victory in Afghanistan is viewed as a defeat of the West, therefore mobilizing Muslim radicals worldwide. It may contribute to the radicalization of certain Muslims in Europe and have negative consequences for the security of the EU. The collaborative relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remains alive, with al-Qaeda supporting the Taliban. Eventually al-Qaeda and the Islamic State may forge some kind of opportunistic alliance to strike common targets.

Turkey

Turkey already faces rising Salafist activism. In September 2020 some Turkish clerics warned that there are 2,000 Salafi associations around the country that are capable of challenging Turkish authority, especially in the southeastern provinces of Batman and Adiyaman. Adiyaman was previously known as a hotspot for recruiting and deploying the Islamic State cells in Turkey.


Turkey will most likely face a large influx of Afghan refugees, as a result of which the Turkish government will have to deal with a political backlash at home. Turkish public is apparently tired of refugees and accompanying political rhetoric. The rise of xenophobic attitudes became evident during anti-Syrian riots that broke out in Ankara on Aug. 9-11 2021. There are an estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees and migrants, living in Turkey. There are also hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Turkey in an irregular situation. Since the refugee crisis of 2014-15, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has focused on hosting refugees in exchange for EU aid, while also playing up the party’s pan-Islamist ideological credentials by hosting fellow Muslims from war-torn countries. However, AKP is now finding its refugee approach to be a potential threat to the party’s prospects in the 2023 national elections.


Yet Ankara’s drive to play a more pro-active role in Afghanistan may somewhat challenge the security and stability policy of the European Union. Despite internal difficulties Ankara policymakers might conclude that the ongoing political upheaval in Afghanistan will make it difficult for the West, and specifically for the United States, to criticize President Erdogan’s regional policies in countries like Syria and Libya or to put additional political pressure on Turkey.


Following the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Turkey does not only acquire the role of a liaison between Brussels in Kabul, but by closely cooperating with the new Afghan authorities becomes a potentially important power-broker. Ankara has already announced its desire towards a more thorough and broad cooperation with the Taliban. As for a possible refugee inflow from Afghanistan, Turkey reinforced the Turkish-Iranian border, building a fortified wall to prevent refugees from crossing into Turkish territory.


These developments may indicate that Ankara is ready to take a firm stance in its’ dialogue with the EU. President Erdogan may well put on the agenda the issue of leveraging additional financial assistance from Brussels to help counter the Afghan refugee crisis. Ankara might very likely try to tie in its efforts of countering the refugee flows into the European Union with obtaining additional preferences from Brussels, including the review of EU-Turkey Customs Union agreement as well as a modernization of visa regimes for Turkish citizens.





  1. As of November 2019, the Afghan Air Force had at least 183 aircraft and approximately 6,800 personnel.
  2. Commander of the Afghan 215 Maiwand Corps, General Sami Sadat openly accused US of betrayal in a recent OpEd piece in The New York Times (25 August 2021)
  3. According to the 2018 US National Defense Strategy (NDS).
  4. On the 16th of August 2021.
  5. Its founding members were China, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan; in June 2001 the group was joined by Uzbekistan.
  6. In 1929, 1930 and 1979.
  7. The group is composed exclusively of Tatar and Bashkir fighters mainly from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as well as other areas in Russia with Tatar and Bashkir populations.
  8. Junud al-Sham and Ajnad al-Kavkaz are composed of Chechen fighters.
  9. Previously known as Imarat Kavkaz, a Chechen-dominated group.
  10. Tajiks inhabit mostly northern and northwestern Afghan provinces.
  11. The son of the leader of Northern Alliance Ahmad Shah Massoud killed in 2001. Some experts, however, consider that Ahmad Massoud Jr.’s claim to unite the Taliban-opposed forces and to reconstitute the Northern Alliance may be more of a wishful thinking than a reality on the ground.
  12. The 201st Military Base in Dushanbe.
  13. As recently as February 2021 Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India for the construction of Shatoot dam to provide drinking water for Kabul.