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Afghanistan Presents Challenges for China, Iran, and Russia, along with Opportunities for the United States

While the United States is perceived as having been weakened by its withdrawal from Afghanistan, this perception is flawed. While its exit was at times messy and chaotic, the United States has freed itself from an open wound. Being freed from an endless war where it shouldered most of the burden, the withdrawal from Afghanistan will allow the United States to concentrate more power elsewhere.

The immediate consequences for most of Afghanistan’s neighbors will be increased insecurity due to the Taliban’s return to power. For Pakistan, this is an opportunity to expand its influence, due to Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban for the last 20 years.

While Russia does not share an immediate border with Afghanistan, one of the countries that Russia has a security relationship with, Tajikistan, does.

China’s approach to Afghanistan is transactional. It sees an opportunity by working with the Taliban in exploiting the country’s mineral resources. With that said it is also concerned about how the rise of the Taliban could influence the security situation in its Xinjiang region. China expert Tom Clifford writes, “What this really means is that China will help the Taliban in aid and investment through the conduit of Pakistan. In return, the Taliban must not interfere in China’s restive region of Xinjiang, where Muslims are in the majority and up to a million are imprisoned by Beijing.”

Russian security concerns

Russia has a military base in Tajikistan, and Russia is the dominant presence at a military base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia must also consider its security situation if China attempts to replace the United States in Afghanistan.

While Vladimir Putin’s Russia appears to have a tacit alliance with China against the United States, Putin realizes that China represents a far deadlier threat than the West. Russia shares a large border with China, and with China now able to land link with its client state, Pakistan via Afghanistan, Russia’s southern border could be faced with a well-armed and modern Chinese military. A look at a map of southern Russia, after Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, reveals a flat open plain with no natural boundaries to an invading force; leaving southern Russia vulnerable to a massive land invasion. With these circumstances, Russia must be considering strengthening its defenses in this part of the country. Russia has never forgotten its nightmare of subjugation under the Islamic Tartars from 1240 AD to 1480 AD and will take measures to ensure its security.

With the changing strategic environment in Central Asia, Russia must contend with the fact that China can now strike Russia from many points on the map and must soon make a choice to possibly seek a détente with the West. Russia has not forgotten that China has claimed that Siberia was taken from her hundreds of years ago.

Besides a military threat, Russia must also consider the possible radicalization of the majority Muslim population in Tajikistan, where Islam is the largest religious group as well as the population of Kyrgyzstan where 88.8% of the population are Muslim. With the fundamentalist Taliban in control of the majority of Afghanistan, Russia faces a new ethnic threat which could threaten its regional influence, with a majority Muslim population alongside its borders. Russia must be concerned that Islamic violence can spill over into Russia.

Indeed, Nicolai Patrushez, Chairman of the Russian Security Council, recently outlined Russia’s immediate concerns. Among them: controlling migration flows from Afghanistan, protecting its allies in Central Asia from radical Islam, and protecting its Central Asian allies from terrorism.

Iranian security concerns

While the withdrawal of the United States was publicly welcomed by the ruling religious caste in Iran, privately, the primarily Shia sect in Iran has to be concerned about the establishment of a radical Sunni fundamentalist group on its borders.

In addition to the fear of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism encroaching into Iran, there is a sizable minority of Shia inside Afghanistan. The Hazaras inside Afghanistan constitute roughly 10 percent of the Afghan population. There have already been terrorist attacks against the Hazara community. In June of this year, ISIS-K attacked miners who worked for Halo Trust, deliberately targeting members of the Hazaras. While the Taliban aided in the aftermath, the Taliban did not interfere until after the attack had happened. Earlier in May, a car bomb exploded next to a school for Hazaras killing 85 children.

The Brookings Institution opined in an editorial: “If the Taliban does not prevent the leakage of anti-Shia terrorism into Iran — from Taliban factions, foreign fighters, or [ISIS-K] — Iran could attempt to activate its Fatimiyoun units in Afghanistan. The Fatimiyoun are Afghan Shia fighters, numbering [in] the tens of thousands, whom Iran trained and deployed to fight in Syria and Libya. Having returned to Afghanistan, they could battle the Taliban’s rule.”

Besides the risk of religious warfare spilling over into its borders, Iran has to be considering seeking an understanding with its arch-rival Saudi Arabia to shore up its geographical position, to lessen tensions in the Gulf, while at the same time deploying more resources alongside its border with Afghanistan.

Lately, Iran has announced that it would like to resume nuclear talks with the West. This is a subtle change in Iran’s previous position where Iran demanded that sanctions be removed before talks could proceed.

China’s opportunities and dangers

The popular convention has that China will be the biggest beneficiary to the ascension of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan. And while there have been numerous articles of China extending a friendly hand to the new Taliban regime, China’s treatment of other Muslim sects within China’s borders will enrage Muslim fundamentalists despite the Taliban’s public statements that any Muslim issue in China is a Chinese domestic issue.

Previously, the Taliban have expressed support for Uyghur militants, in particular, for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), now known as the Turkistan Islamic Movement (TIM). With hundreds of militants returning to Afghanistan, the Taliban will have a hard time controlling their actions and behavior. With the Taliban still attempting to gain control of the country, and not able to control the TIM, the chances are high that there are going to be TIM militants carrying out terror strikes into Xinjiang.

China regards the TIM as a terror organization. When the United States delisted the TIM as a terror organization, China expressed deep anger. In a phone conversation in August, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken to help lessen frictions in Afghanistan and discussed the decision of the United States to delist the ETIM as a terrorist organization.

China has long eyed Afghanistan’s rare earth mineral deposits as an economic opportunity. The amount of mineral wealth in Afghanistan has been valued at times as high as $3 trillion.

Security concerns for India

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a strategic loss for India and a strategic win for China and Pakistan. According to Gautum Mukhopadhaya, India’s former ambassador to Pakistan, the new political realignment will “change things upside down.” By placing increased military and political stress on India, both Pakistan and China have favorably increased their position in Central Asia regarding India.

This might induce India to move closer to the United States, possibly allowing the U.S. to gain a naval base for an American carrier task force in India. It is not inconceivable that the United States might also pre-position military equipment in India, allowing the United States to quickly move military power into India in the event of a crisis.

The U.S. advantages

With the United States no longer bogged down in Central Asia, the United States can continue its pivot to Asia, and bring greater political, economic, and military power to bear.

Additionally, with Russia facing new security threats on its southern border, Russia would have security interests that could dovetail with the United States. The United States may soon be presented with an opportunity to make a common cause with Russia against radical Islam, and possibly China.

So, while political pundits cry about strategic catastrophe, the withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States strengthens its position in the world, not lessens it.