The top stakeholders in post-withdrawal Afghanistan are far from united, unlike what the most optimistic observers had hoped would happen, with two apparent camps emerging between them. These are India/Iran and China/Pakistan, the first of which are sceptical if not outright hostile towards the country’s de facto Taliban rulers. In contrast, the second is much more eager to welcome them into the international community cautiously. Russia’s stance is in between these two and represents the most balanced position.
The Kremlin officially regards the group as terrorists, but it still pragmatically engages with it in the interests of peace and security. However, Russia has recently begun constructively critiquing the Taliban for the lack of inclusiveness in its interim government and confusion over the now-cancelled inauguration of those authorities. Russia believes that the Taliban’s return to power is an irreversible political reality in Afghanistan that must be acknowledged, but it doesn’t think that formal recognition should come without certain conditions.
Iranian media and even some officials have recently begun making pretty provocative comments about Pakistan’s alleged role in Afghanistan, with the emerging narrative being that Islamabad has militarily intervened in the Taliban’s support despite the alleged evidence of this having already been widely discredited as fake news derived from video game footage and photoshopped pictures. The new Iranian Foreign Minister will be travelling to India soon, prompting many to speculate about what he plans to discuss there.
Some observers believe that Iran is attempting to promote some degree of Indian interest in Afghanistan to revive the Chabahar port project that was earlier made redundant by February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway. That second-mentioned project essentially functions as the northern expansion of the Belt & Road Initiative’s (BRI) flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
That’s not to imply that Iran is anyone’s puppet, but just that it has some shared interests with India in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, especially concerning their scepticism of the Taliban’s intentions. Tehran and New Delhi nowadays seem to be on the same page when it comes to their suspicion that the group is nothing more than Pakistani proxies. This theory lacks credibility when considering that the Taliban is still politically allied with the TTP (“Pakistani Taliban”) that Islamabad officially considers terrorists.
Nevertheless, it’s beginning to appear like the India/Iran camp is preparing to compete with the China/Pakistan one in Afghanistan. The first pair’s advantages lay in their soft power appeal to those in that country who aren’t fully happy with the Taliban’s return to power, specifically the Tajik minority that comprises approximately 25-30% of the population and the much smaller Shiite Hazara minority. Neither seems ready to arm anti-Taliban groups, nor are they prepared to recognize the Taliban’s legitimacy.
The second pair politically and economically supports Afghanistan’s de facto Taliban leaders out of simple pragmatism. They’re eager to jumpstart the PAKAFUZ project and even the “Persian Corridor” for connecting China with its new 25-year strategic partners in Iran through Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Although this latter initiative is objectively in Tehran’s long-term interests, the Islamic Republic is still reluctant to follow Beijing’s footsteps by pragmatically engaging with the Taliban. At this moment, Iran thinks it can gain more from India.
This emerging competition can inadvertently destabilize post-withdrawal Afghanistan in ways that could worsen its recovery. India’s/Iran’s possible arming of anti-Taliban groups could also lead to a power vacuum that results in ISIS-K expanding in the worst-case scenario, which could, in turn, provoke a regional refugee crisis if it spirals out of control. It’s therefore in Russia’s interests to manage this growing rivalry between those two pairs by balancing between them to the best of its ability.
From Moscow’s perspective, the Taliban’s de facto leadership does indeed seem to be an irreversible political reality in Afghanistan. Still, the group has failed to fulfil its prior promises of ethnopolitical inclusiveness in its government. The Kremlin doesn’t want the Taliban deposed; it just hopes that it’ll “moderate” some more since this would arguably be the most effective way to ensure the country’s long-term socio-political stability. Russia is also uncomfortable with any of those two pairs dominating post-withdrawal Afghanistan.
This strategic calculus results in the Eurasian Great Power attempting to balance those competing pairs’ interests in this new geopolitical arena of rivalry between them. It remains unclear precisely what end game Moscow might have in mind, just that it’s compellingly operating in pursuit of these objectives. The Taliban will likely survive even if it only clinches close partnerships with China, Pakistan, and perhaps a few influential Muslim countries like Qatar and Turkey. Still, it’ll need cordial ties with Iran and Russia to thrive.
After all, PAKAFUZ and the “Persian Corridor” will lay the structural connectivity basis for Afghanistan’s sustainable post-war economic recovery, without which its de facto leadership will always remain beholden to foreign aid from its few most likely partners. The only way Iran and Russia would likely have anything greater than pragmatic embassy-level interactions with the Taliban is if the group finally fulfils its promise to form an inclusive government representative of all ethnopolitical groups, which is also in India’s interests.
It probably wouldn’t do that without a so-called “gentle nudge” from its top Chinese and Pakistani partners, ergo the importance of Russia convincing them to make any additional aid pledges dependent on these envisioned political reforms, even if communicated discretely for the Taliban to “save face”. China and Pakistan’s short-term interests might still be met by declining to do so. Still, their respective complementary long-term ones will have difficulty being achieved if Iran and Russia remain displeased with the group.
To prevent any unintended escalation of the emerging rivalry between Iran/India and China/Pakistan, the first pair should clarify that arming anti-Taliban groups is entirely off the table and won’t ever be countenanced under any circumstances. That could put the group and its top two partners at ease, thus facilitating Russia’s envisioned plans to encourage China and Pakistan to “gentle nudge” the Taliban towards these pragmatic political reforms, which represent the fulfilment of their prior promises.
Only in that best-case scenario can the rivalry between those pairs be responsibly managed without destabilizing Afghanistan any more than it already is. Russia, therefore, stands to play the greatest role in balancing their competing interests and thus hopefully enabling the de facto Taliban-ruled country to get back on the track of ensuring its sustainable economic recovery, which could also eventually incorporate the Chabahar port project, even if to a lesser extent than previously now that PAKAFUZ is its connectivity priority.
This week’s SCO heads of state summit in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe from 16-17 September will allow observers to assess just how successful Moscow has been in attempting to balance these competing pairs of rivals. Expectations should be tempered, though, since none of its members or observers has yet to recognize the Taliban formally. Even so, they might agree to coordinate some aid for the Afghan people to stave off their impending humanitarian crisis, which would be a step in the right direction for now.