The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan

Meeting between US Secretary Pompeo and the Taliban in 2020 (Credits: U.S. Department of State from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report Volume 11 Issue 1
Authors: Giuliano Bifolchi & Silvia Boltuc

The complete NATO troops withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban mark the beginning of a new geopolitical game in the region, which involves China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India and Turkey. At the same time, the United States seems to have increased their strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific to counter Chinese sea power and in the Middle East to confront Iran.

Yesterday the last U.S. soldier left Afghanistan, an event that marks the end of an era characterised by Western presence on the Afghan territory and the rhetoric that nation-building and democratic values were the main goals that the international community aimed to reach in the country. However, yesterday was also the beginning of a new page of the geopolitical game in Afghanistan and Central Asia identified by regional actors’ attempts to exploit the situation and the vacuum of power and military control left by the United States.

International and local actors in the Afghan geopolitical game

Who are the actors, and what do we know about this new page or version of the geopolitical game which interests Afghanistan and Central Asia? These are the guidelines and possible geopolitical situations that we will monitor in the future.

  1. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda will strongly try to play their cards to influence Afghanistan and establish their training camps and logistic headquarters. The Kabul Airport terrorist attacks conducted by the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) was only the alarm bell for those who have forgotten how serious and dangerous is the terrorist presence in Afghanistan and possibly in Central Asia.  Recent Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s publications and statements demonstrate how terrorist organisations might use the Taliban victory in Afghanistan to spread their jihadist propaganda and reach a broader audience. The feelings of strength and victory might be translated into a series of terrorist attacks on Western soil.
  2. Russia and China might be considered the key players in Afghan and Central Asian local dynamics.  Both Moscow and Beijing can use NATO troops withdrawal and Doha’s agreement to contrast Western strategic communication and underline how disillusioned relies on the United States. The question that both the Russian and Chinese might spread is who can be the next population abandoned due to U.S. domestic and foreign policy. For the Kremlin, the NATO troops withdrawal from Afghanistan can become a profitable communication weapon to influence Ukraine.
  3. Russia will exploit the U.S. debacle to affirm its presence in Afghanistan and secure the Kremlin’s strategy and influence in Central Asia. The significant Russian involvement in the Afghan dynamics was clear when in October 2020, a new Russian ambassador was appointed in Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov.  Zhirnov exposed Moscow’s foreign policy in Afghanistan, stating that the Russian government prefers to see Afghanistan as an independent country without any form of foreign interference. Furthermore, although the Kremlin considers the Taliban a terrorist group, Zhirnov affirmed that Moscow views the Taliban as part of the Afghan society with whom to establish contacts and possible cooperation.
    In addition, to secure its interest in Central Asia and protect the members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU)and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the Kremlin might promote a major Russian military involvement in those Central Asian countries that share common borders with Afghanistan. Since July, the Russian government and military officials have met with Tajik representatives and discussed stronger military cooperation to control the Afghan-Tajik borders and counter a possible Taliban offensive in the region. On the one hand, it is clear that the Kremlin attempts to establish contact with the Taliban. Still, on the other hand, Moscow is cementing its presence in Central Asia to counter the Western presence, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and any terrorist threats.
  4. In the regional dynamics, Iran might benefit from the U.S troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. The relations between Tehran and the Taliban are alternative and shaped by convenience and realpolitik. Although the Islamic Republic of Iran is currently facing a significant internal crisis due to the pandemic, Tehran will try to exploit the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia playing the cards of Shiite Islam and Persian culture. In this context, the Shiite Hazara and the Tajik in Afghanistan might become an interesting tool for Tehran’s regional policy.
  5. China should be aware of the impact of the Taliban in the regional dynamics for its Belt and Road Initiative and domestic management of the Uighurs. Without the U.S. presence on the ground, the Chinese can establish economic links with the Taliban and exploit the vast amount of natural resources of the Afghan territory. On the other side, if Afghanistan will become a ‘safe heaven’ for terrorist organisations,Beijing should be concerned about the effects on the regional stability that is fundamental for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. The terrorist organisations might also threaten China due to the Uighur situation in Xinjiang, taking into account that among the ranks of the Islamic State, there are thousands of Uighurs who have fought in Syria and Iraq and might be transformed into the perfect tool against Beijing.
  6. India might become more active in Asia to counter Pakistan and contrast the possible Taliban and terrorist actions in Kashmir. New Delhi is constantly monitoring the situation in Afghanistan in relation to Kashmir.  Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda recently called for the ‘liberation of Kashmir, underlining one of the possible future battlegrounds in Asia. In this context, India can increase its cooperation with Russia and Iran to guarantee national safety and strengthen its regional position against Pakistan and China.
  7. The future of the TAPI pipeline is uncertain and might depend on Turkmenistan and Pakistan. Before the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, the Afghan government was involved in one of the most important gas pipelines of the Eurasian continent: the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Nowadays, it is hard to believe that this infrastructure will be completed and work, although, in February 2021, there was a meeting between Turkmen officials and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The main problem for the TAPI pipeline is the security of the area of this infrastructure in Afghanistan and even finding the economic resources to finance the project.
  8. Turkey will not lose the opportunity to promote its idea of pan-Turkism and play a more significant role in Central Asia. In the last few days, Erdogan stated that Turkey would maintain its diplomatic presence in Kabul while the Taliban were discussing with Ankara and Doha about the management of Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport. The future Turkish presence in Afghanistan is part of Ankara’s strategy to strengthen its influence in Central Asia and promote the idea of pan-Turkism to create a strong Turkic coalition or ‘nation’ able to influence the future of Eurasia.
  9. Qatar has been raised as a regional actor in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Since the establishment of the Taliban office in the country and the Doha’s Agreement, Qatar has become an important geopolitical actor in the Afghan dynamics. Considering the recent developments in the geopolitics of the Gulf countries and the Middle East, one of the main goals of Qatar is to affirm its economic and diplomatic presence in Central Asia and probably to use Afghanistan as a springboard in the region.
  10. The United States will focus their efforts on the Asia-Pacific to contrast China and the Middle East to exploit their partnership with Israel against Iran.  The Chinese rise as a naval sea power is threatening the United States presence in the Asia-Pacific. Therefore Washington might manage the monetary funds used in Afghanistan to strengthen its military presence and economic cooperation with Asian countries. In the Middle East, Iran can be seen as the primary U.S. target in the next future, considering what U.S. president Biden said during the meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister in Washington.  Although the United States left Afghanistan, Washington will still have interests in Central Asia since the White House cannot allow a superpower in Eurasia (Russia or China). In this framework, the United States might exploit economic cooperation, soft power and strategic communication to counter the Chinese and Russian presence in the region.

All these considerations on Afghanistan and possible geopolitical trends in Central Asia cannot overshadow the humanitarian crisis that the Afghan people live in. We will continue to support all those people and colleagues who worked in Afghanistan or are still there, and we will not forget to monitor the country because Afghanistan still matters!