Afghanistan finds itself in the middle of a major geopolitical game between Russia, China and Pakistan on one side, and the U.S. on the other. Russia and China – bringing Pakistan along – have come to replace the U.S. in Afghanistan to put an end to what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time: the spread of radicalism and terrorism. While Washington is sounding the alarm over Russia’s ever-growing role in Afghanistan, the war-torn country has become a time bomb that could explode if it ends up in the wrong hands and is handled improperly.
With the Trump administration warning the Russians and Chinese against lending support to the Afghan Taliban and with Moscow and Beijing being reluctant to include Washington in multilateral talks on Afghanistan, Kabul has ended up right in the middle of a major geopolitical game, with chaos and war being two possible outcomes.
Russia vs. U.S.: bloody war for Afghanistan
The U.S., the main foreign power in Afghanistan that has been militarily involved there over the past 15 years, hasn’t been included in a series of multilateral talks on Afghanistan. On top of that, Russia and China have agreed to reach out to the Taliban to seek a peaceful solution to the long-standing Afghan war. And they’re doing so behind Washington’s back and without seeking approval from the U.S., which is a vocal opponent of holding a dialogue with the Taliban.
Russia got involved in the Afghan conflict in December when it hosted a trilateral meeting between Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad. The trilateral meeting was followed by a multilateral meeting that expanded to include Afghanistan, India and Iran. Despite finally receiving an invitation to the most recent conference on Afghanistan last week, the U.S. skipped out on the meeting in Moscow less than 24 hours after dropping a massive bomb on ISIS targets in Afghanistan.
U.S. warns Russia, China, Pakistan against contacts with Taliban
On Sunday, days after dropping bombs on targets in Afghanistan, the Trump administration urged Russia, China and Pakistan to not lend support to the Taliban and its armed resistance against the Afghan government.
During his first trip to Kabul, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster met with Afghan leaders. He reiterated America’s support for the Afghan government and warned Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad against “perpetuating this very long conflict” by supporting the Taliban. Trump’s adviser made the comments when asked about Russia’s dialogue with the Taliban.
“What we would like is all countries in the region to play a productive role, a positive role and to help the Afghan people rather than to try to perpetuate this very long conflict,” McMaster said, adding that those who would prolong the Afghan conflict “ought to be exposed and held accountable.”
The U.S. military has been waging a war against the Taliban since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. Ever since, Washington has focused its efforts in Afghanistan to eliminate the Taliban for harboring Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
However, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama softened America’s military involvement in the Afghan war and withdrew more than 20,000 U.S. troops from the war-torn country during his presidential term after his disastrous surge policy. As a result of the Obama administration’s softer military involvement in Afghanistan, the Taliban was able to gain control of more territory than at any other time since the U.S. invaded the country in October 2001. Last year, the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan soared past 11,000.
Russia views Taliban as “partner,” U.S. as “enemy”
Russia had initially supported Washington’s efforts to eliminate the Taliban, but in 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin changed his views on Afghanistan as ISIS wreaked havoc in the war-torn country. Putin came to realize that the Taliban is less of a threat than ISIS, while the U.S. continues to fight against both the Taliban and ISIS. In 2015, Putin’s special representative for Afghanistan declared that the Taliban’s interests “objectively coincide with ours.”
Without seeking U.S. approval, Russia and China have established contacts with the Taliban, which is waging a turf war against ISIS, earlier this year, in order to put an end to the Afghan war. The outcome of that, and of ISIS pushing back against Moscow’s efforts to eliminate the terrorist group from the region could bring more ruin and destruction to Afghanistan.
Earlier this month, reports emerged claiming that the Taliban has been seeking Russia’s help in the form of military equipment and money to launch a large-scale military operation from within Afghanistan. If Moscow and Beijing agree to strengthen the Taliban militarily, Washington would have to wage a war against a much stronger Taliban or seek a peaceful resolution by holding a dialogue with the Taliban along with China, Russia and Pakistan.
Major geopolitical game – Russia’s three objectives in Afghanistan
Russia’s efforts to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan stem from three main objectives in the region. One is to protect its own borders and the borders of the neighboring former Soviet republics and China and Pakistan from radicalism and terrorism spilling inwards. There have been multiple worrying reports indicating that ISIS terrorists are knocking on Russia’s doors.
The second objective is to stop Russians from dying from drug overdose. About 90,000 Russians die from drug overdose every year, and much of those drugs come from Afghanistan, which is currently the biggest heroin maker in the world. By achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan, Russia would make it possible to limit production of drugs in Afghanistan.
The third objective of the Russians is to increase their influence in the region. With the U.S. and NATO withdrawing most of their troops from Afghanistan and offering no viable plan on eliminating ISIS, Russia has come into the war-torn country to enter a major geopolitical game against the U.S., expanding its influence in the region and improving ties to neighboring states in the process.
But if handled improperly, the Afghan crisis, in a manner of a time bomb, could explode and consume the region and even the world.