Afghanistan: a new page of the geopolitical game

The map of Afghanistan (credit mapchart.net)

by Giuliano Bifolchi and 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.

Even though our team at ASRIE Analytica was not surprised by the Taliban offensive’s rapid success when Kabul was surrounded, and the media started inundating the mainstream with continued news and report from Afghanistan, a shared feeling of sadness and defeat pervaded our minds and souls. Our only and main concern was to reach those colleagues and contacts on the Afghan territory and check for their safety and possible travel abroad. We did not think about reporting or ‘speculating’ neither evaluating the U.S. exit strategy.

Although since the beginning of our activity in 2013 we have established a network of contacts among experts, diplomats, and specialists of Afghanistan and, in the last years, we have intensively monitored the local situation producing reports (Taliban attacks increased in Afghanistan in the last quarter of 2019; Washington signed a deal with the Taliban, but this is not the end of the war; Kabul: a terrorist attack against the Afghan Vice-President) and interviews (Afghanistan today: security status and possible future development. Meeting with H.E. Helena Malikyar; Afghanistan today between terrorism and geopolitics: interview with Jill Suzanne Kornetsky; Pashtun tribes’ life and security along the Durand Line: interview with Ahmad Khan Mumtaz; TAPI Pipeline Project and the US-NATO Troop Withdrawal from Afghanistan. An interview with Ambassador Khaled Ahmad Zekriya ), we felt that human relationships were more important than business.

Today, we are ready to write some of our considerations about Afghanistan and what is happening in the region. 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.

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 (Daesh alla conquista dell’Asia Centrale la nascita del Vilayat Khorasan; L’Afghanistan tra l’insorgenza talebana e la minaccia dello Stato Islamico).  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 (Ucraina tra nazionalismo e militarismo: report da Kiev).
  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 (Russia confirms its interests in Afghanistan).
    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 (Afghanistan: Taliban offensive in the north alarms Central Asia). 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 (Tajikistan: the Kremlin’s frontier against the Taliban). 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 (Iran and Tajikistan expand their cooperation in the security sector; The role of pro-Iran Shiite militias in Afghanistan).
  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 (Afghanistan briefing: regional and international foreign relations). 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 (Russia and India partnership on Afghanistan on Indo-Pacific).
  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 (Gasdotto TAPI tra speranze future e interessi geopolitici).
  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 (Turkey and pan-Turkism in Central Asia: challenges for Russia and China).
  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 (Qatari interests in Turkmenistan underline Central Asia’s geopolitical role; Cooperation among Qatar and Uzbekistan).
  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 (Geostrategy and military competition in the Pacific). 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 (US strategy in Kazakhstan: more investments and economic partnership; Kazakh-US cooperation to repatriate citizens from former IS territories; Stati Uniti ed Europa supportano il settore energetico del Tagikistan).

All these considerations on Afghanistan and possible geopolitical trends in Central Asia cannot overshadow the humanitarian crisis that the Afghan people live in (Humanitarian situation in Afghan territories under the Taliban). 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!