In December 1979, when my 6-month stay in Moscow was drawing to a close, I was surprised, as were all my Russian friends, by the news of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. How to explain such a sudden decision in a period considered to be one of relaxation, of détente in the still ongoing Cold War? There had been negotiation, and even weapon control treaties (SALT- Strategic Arms Limitation Talks-1 in 1972 and well-advanced negotiation into SALT2) between the superpowers. Even I experienced a much more relaxed attitude towards foreigners in Moscow. Later on we learned that this decision had more to do with a fear of Islamic influences spreading into the Central Asian Soviet republics following the Islamic revolution in Iran than with any strategic move against the US. Whatever the reasons, Soviet intervention in Afghanistan would mean an end to the relaxation period between the two superpowers, the opening of a Vietnam-like hell for the Soviets, and the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. It is also tempting to make a historical comparison. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would come to represent for the Soviet Union of 1979 what the 1904–5 war with Japan became for Czarist Russia: a sign of profound weakness and decadence contributing to its eventual demise.
It is difficult to learn from the mistakes of others. In their attempts to prevent Afghanistan acting as a dangerous base for radical Islamists engaged in transnational crusades, the US thought they could succeed where the Soviets had failed. The US believed that generous investment in military equipment and training, and support in building a Western-type democracy could create a safe, stable country in a region of recurrent instability. Much has been written on the failures of the Western project in Afghanistan following the Taliban defeat in 2001. Suffice it to say, this was an underestimated task in a feudal region where nation-building had never really existed. It was a project doomed to fail because, among other things, it lacked realistic strategies. The fabulous investments fed enormous corruption and dissatisfaction, and constructed the Potemkin village mentioned by Florian Kühn. However, my focus is not the failure of the state-building project in Afghanistan but the consequences of this failure for the region.
Before the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban there were already 2.2 million Afghan refugees in neighboring countries and 3.5 million internally displaced people inside Afghanistan. This refugee crisis was not just precipitated by the Taliban’s seizure of power but also by food scarcity caused, in part, by recent droughts in several regions of the countryside. We can only suppose that these numbers will soon multiply and ring alarm bells in Europe and the US. But it has been mostly Pakistan and Iran who have, up until to this spring, received these refugees: 1.5 million and 780,000 respectively during 2020. Iran closed its border following the Taliban’s seizure of power because it could no longer cope with the large numbers trying to flee. In the case of Pakistan, we can see geopolitical, ethnic, and religious interests as Pashtuns, who compose the majority of the Taliban, are also a significantly large ethnic group inside Pakistan. According to many observers, without the support of Pakistan, the Taliban would have barely survived and reorganized subsequent to 2001. Moreover, the Pakistani government resented the rapprochement of the last Afghani government towards India, Pakistan’s enemy. This situation may have pushed Islamabad towards ever more closer contact with the Taliban leadership.
In the case of Iran, there has been the protection of the Hazara Shiite minority, traditionally harassed by the Taliban and by other Afghan Sunni groups for social and ethnic reasons. As we know, some of these Hazara refugees were later encouraged to travel to Syria to defend the Assad government. Whatever the religious differences, Iran has declared—in the same fashion as Pakistan—that they are no longer accepting refugees. Iran may yet find ways to negotiate with the new Taliban regime in order to achieve some kind of peaceful coexistence. One of the conditions for such an agreement would need to be a promise on the part of the Taliban for a zero tolerance policy regarding radical Islamic groups operating inside Afghan borders. This would include groups such as the feared ISIS-K, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of the Khorassan Province, who claim to have carried out the terrorist attacks at Kabul airport and its surroundings during the chaotic flight from Kabul.
The Chinese government also wants assurances that the Taliban will not accept Uygur resistance groups coming from Xinjiang. Xinjiang is the Chinese province that has attracted so much media attention due to the enormous re-education campaigns Beijing is carrying out there in a bid to repress any potential or perceived Islamic nationalism. At the end of July this year, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi welcomed in Tianjin a nine-man delegation of Taliban representatives headed by one of the Taliban’s main leaders, Abdul Ghani Baradar. Pragmatism and economic interests lie behind the generous offers of investment that China has already made to the new Taliban regime. This is not just about reconstruction. It is also about integrating Afghanistan into the well-known Silk Road projects (Belt and Road Initiative – BRI), in which Pakistan is already included. There is already a highway project set to link Peshawar, in the border region of Pakistan with Kandahar in Afghanistan. This is part of a larger infrastructure complex aimed at creating new terrestrial communication linkages between Iran, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Russia, like China and Iran, has quietly welcomed the American defeat, but is nevertheless concerned with the new geopolitical situation in Afghanistan. Russia kept its embassy in Kabul open for a long time, trying to avoid the chaotic exodus in the days immediately following the Taliban's arrival in the city. However, Russia did eventually send home a significant portion of its diplomatic mission. Russia’s aim will be to establish good, pragmatic relations with the Taliban regime. The historical memory of the Soviet invasion and occupation may still prove a burden impacting Russia’s desire to exert influence in the region. Above all though, Russia, just like all the countries previously mentioned, will want assurances from the new regime that Islamic extremist groups will not be tolerated in Afghanistan. Russia is seeking to avoid a scenario in which the Central Asian republics that once belonged to the Soviet Union become destabilized. Moreover, these ex-Soviet republics are being pressed by Moscow to join the Euro-Asian Economic Union that already counts Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan among its members.
The security concerns expressed by all these countries are, of course, shared by the whole Western part of the world. It has been said that the Taliban represent a Muslim school that is not interested in spreading itself worldwide in contrast to several other radical Muslim groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaida. However, even if the Taliban try to keep to their word and provide the assurances demanded of them by their surrounding neighbors and the Western powers, they are unlikely to succeed in limiting the activities of other radical Islamic groups on Afghan soil until they control the entire territory.
The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul has given way to many speculations about future power dynamics in the region. We are speaking of neighboring states like China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia (with its influence over the Central Asian republics), all with pragmatic concerns related to their economic, trade and resource-related ambitions in addition to geopolitical/security interests. Even if all of them share a certain satisfaction with the American retreat, it is by no means certain they will agree on what the region's future should look like.
Edmé Domínguez R. is Associate professor in Peace and Development research, with a PhD on the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Her present interests are on Latin America, International Political Economy, and gender issues but she keeps an eye on the former Soviet republics, in particular regarding the women’s situation.