By Jacob Levitan
The United States withdrew its last soldiers from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021. By August 15, the Taliban entered Kabul, marking the end of a week-long campaign that saw them conquer Afghanistan. Officials from Beijing, Moscow, and Islam gloated on how the mighty American empire had been humbled. After 20 years and $2 trillion, the United States had lost in Afghanistan. But whether anyone has won remains an open question.
The Taliban would have the world believe that they won. But while the United States has retreated, daunting challenges face the new Islamist regime in Kabul. The Taliban are still working to cement their power in the country and meet a bevy of challenges. The United States froze over $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets, cut Afghanistan off from the global financial system, and imposed a set of sanctions so complex that it has discouraged many states and companies from providing the Taliban with humanitarian support, let alone investing in the country.
Meanwhile, the Taliban government faces internal challenges. Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-K) – a successor to the original Islamic State and equally brutal – has challenged the Taliban, accusing them of being stooges of the United States and sycophants to China. IS-K has launched several major terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and has continued to wage war on the Taliban.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has upset the delicate power equilibrium in Central Asia. Since the 19th century, the region has frequently played host to imperial competition, whether as an imperial metropole or a zone of great power competition. Central Asia straddles a major international crossroad and is a vital component of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Russia and China both have historical presences in the region and have sought to build influence by playing Central Asian countries off each other. When the United States became more fully involved in the region in the early 2000s, Washington acted as a balance to Beijing and Moscow, encouraging the post-Soviet Central Asian states to pursue economically and politically integrative projects. The United States also facilitated Afghanistan’s reintegration with Central Asia through connectivity projects such as the CASA-1000 electric power project, which linked Kyrgyz and Tajik electricity to Afghanistan, and the TAPI natural gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan.
Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims the region falls within Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence. Moscow maintains a significant hard and soft power presence across the region. Kyrgyzstan hosts the Russian Kant Airbase, while Tajikistan hosts the 201st military base – Russia’s most extensive foreign military base.
Russia remains the premier destination for Central Asian migrant laborers, and its universities continue to draw Central Asian students. Between 2016 and 2020, over 2.6 million Central Asian migrants worked in Russia, while nearly 162,000 Central Asians studied in Russian universities. While in relative decline in Central Asia, the Russian language is the region’s lingua franca, and Russian news sources blanket the area. In addition, a “united network” of Soviet-era power lines connects Russian and Kazakhstani power grids, which supplied Kazakhstan’s emergency power when Chinese cryptominers drained its power grid. Railroad and other infrastructure also physically link Central Asia to Russia, allowing one to travel from Moscow to Dushanbe by train in four days.
Russia’s regional heft relies mainly on its military power. However, China’s growing economic investment in the region through the BRI increasingly challenges this hegemony. As a result, the two forces have mainly understood that Russia will cover the region’s diplomatic and security spheres, while China will handle the economic sphere. However, this unofficial agreement is primarily due to Russia’s inability to compete economically with China, which is quietly expanding its regional security role.
To reinforce Russia’s position, Putin has sought to build up the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. In late 2021, Putin conducted CSTO military exercises in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. And for the first time, the CSTO answered a member state’s call for assistance after refusing Kyrgyzstan’s request for aid during the ethnic riots in 2010 and Armenia’s request during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Led by Russian troops, CSTO states deployed troops to assist Kazakhstan as its government sought to crack down on the bloody protests.
“Russia doesn’t have the money to go into this region economically, but it has the military resources,” said retired Ambassador Richard Hoagland, Chair of the Security and Politics Program at the Caspian Policy Center and former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. “What these exercises are doing is strengthening Putin’s claim that the entire region, the entire former Soviet Union, is Russia’s special sphere of influence.”
According to Dr. Marsha Olive, a former World Bank official in Russia and Central Asia who teaches at SAIS, “Russia would like to strengthen the CSTO and is using it to deter the encroaching terrorist threat from Afghanistan by a demonstration effect.” In the short term, Moscow sees the U.S. withdrawal as a means to bolster its military presence in the region.
But in the long run, the U.S. withdrawal may hurt both Russia and China, according to Dr. Olive. “It will force Russia and China into the role of security providers,” Dr. Olive said. “And, given their differing stakes in Central Asia and Afghanistan generally, this may increase competition between them.”
Moscow has assured the Afghan government in exile that de jure recognition of the Taliban remains off the table, and Russia still lists the Taliban as a terrorist organization. But at the end of the day, the only constant in Russian foreign policy is adaptability. “The Russians are never going to be locked into any ideology,” said Ambassador Hoagland.
And so, Russia has cultivated ties with the Taliban per its policy of maintaining maximum flexibility. The Kremlin invited Taliban leaders to Moscow in 2019 to discuss the war (without inviting Ghani government representatives) and for an October 2021 summit. The Taliban, in turn, strive to convince the world that they are no longer the fanatics of the early 2000s. Taliban leaders have (on paper) pledged policies of reconciliation and respect for women’s rights. But, given their dubious history, reports of bride kidnappings, and forced disappearances, the Taliban have much to prove. The international response has been mixed, particularly in Central Asia.
The Central Asian response to the Taliban takeover has been far from unified. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan and have large diaspora populations there, swiftly advocated for unfreezing Afghan monetary assets and delivering humanitarian supplies. While Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have taken neutral positions, they have started putting out feelers for cooperation with the Taliban. Tajikistan, on the other hand, has been openly hostile to the Taliban, hosts members of the Afghan government-in-exile, and has demanded ethnic Tajik representation in the new Afghan government.
However, there is reason to believe that the Central Asian states could start taking a more favorable stance towards Afghanistan if the Taliban do not act provocatively. “You can’t do any water or energy politics in the region without Afghanistan,” Dr. Olive noted, “There’s been a huge planning framework to connect a southern export route from Central Asia [through Afghanistan]…which could reduce Central Asia’s reliance on the northern route through Russia.” Should the Taliban prove to be responsible actors capable of controlling Afghanistan, the Central Asian states, Russia, and China may shift towards official recognition of a Taliban government.
Nations across Eurasia are still managing the fallout of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover. Afghanistan remains a vortex of instability and uncertainty as the Taliban seek to gain international legal recognition, consolidate control over Afghanistan, and confront impending drought, famine, and conflict with IS-K. While Putin has taken advantage of the uncertainty to expand Russian influence in the region, this could be short-lived, as Beijing has yet to act. The United States lost in Afghanistan, but it is still far from certain that anyone has won.