America has decided: after 20 years, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, together with the allies who followed them there after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
What remains is a country that has not been fully controlled by any single authority for decades and that is now once again facing conflicts between rival power centers. At present, it is the radical Islamic Taliban who are reclaiming province after province, partly in bloody battles, partly without a fight, by reactivating networks that they have established in recent years.
The withdrawal of US troops is not only a turning point for Afghanistan itself, it could also shift the geopolitical weight in the region. The country, almost twice the size of Germany, has six direct neighbouring states and with Russia an indirect one, which pursue their own interests in the Hindu Kush.
Similar to the withdrawal of the Soviet Army in 1989, the withdrawal of the Western coalition now opens up a vacuum that other regional powers could fill. The situation is reminiscent of the US withdrawal from Iraq, which lasted from 2007 to 2011. At that time, it was mainly Iran that extended its political influence, and shortly afterwards the militant movement of the “Islamic State” (IS), which brought large parts of the country under its control – with dramatic consequences, far beyond Iraq.
It is still too early to predict in detail the consequences of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the motives that drive Afghanistan’s neighbors can be described. So who could be winners and losers? overview:
In principle, Iran’s government welcomes the withdrawal of Western troops from its neighborhood. As ten years ago in Iraq, it is a value in itself for Tehran that its arch-enemy, the United States, continues to withdraw from the region.
But unlike the majority Shiite Iraq, Tehran has always struggled with the majority Sunni Afghanistan, especially the Taliban. If they fill the vacuum left by Western troops, it will be “a recipe for a new war in Afghanistan,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned in April. The states of the region could not bear any further burden. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands, according to the government even millions, have fled to Iran.
The leadership does not yet agree on whether the withdrawal of the West has more advantages or disadvantages for Iran. Iran’s services, including the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran), have maintained contacts with individual Taliban factions for years, especially in western Afghanistan. They seem to be counting on reducing the influence of even more radical groups in Afghanistan. Another camp, like the conservative daily “Jomhouri Eslami”, warns in principle against the “Taliban terrorists” across the border.
Pakistan has much better relations with the Taliban than Iran – and traditionally bad relations with the Afghan government. Kabul, for example, has not yet come to terms with the so-called Durand line, which was drawn between the British Empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan at the end of the 19th century and now forms the border with Pakistan. Afghanistan will “never recognize” this border, said then-President Hamid Karzai in 2017.
At first glance, the weakening of the Afghan government and the rise in power of the Taliban after the withdrawal of US troops therefore play into the hands of Islamabad. But the Taliban is a difficult and by no means docile partner even for Pakistan. The stronger they become, the less influence Pakistan will have on them. Islamabad’s support for other radical groups has also strained its relationship with the United States and Pakistan’s rival India.
Nevertheless, Pakistan is likely to continue to have a strong influence on its fate in the future due to its close geographical and historical ties with its neighbour. In order to safeguard its own interests, Islamabad faces a balancing act: Pakistan wants the Taliban to be in power, but not to dominate Afghanistan. At the same time, the government in Kabul should not be too strong, but also not so weak that another long civil war breaks out.
A profiteer of the US troop withdrawal, critics in Washington warn, will be China. Beijing is just waiting to use the leeway that America frees.
Indeed, China, like Iran, is pleased that America and its allies are leaving after 20 years without a victory. And it is also true that Beijing has plans to include Afghanistan in its global Silk Road initiative-with energy and trade corridors, mining and transport projects.
But the schadenfreude with which some US commentators see China as the next empire to fail in the “graveyard of empires” may be premature. Instead of increasing its presence in Afghanistan (as China did in Iraq after the US withdrawal), Beijing expelled 210 Chinese nationals last week. Many Chinese workers have already left the country in recent months.
For China, Afghanistan is currently less an investment destination than a security problem-in the country itself, and in the Xinjiang Autonomous region, where China connects a nearly 80-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Beijing fears that the conflicts it sees coming in Afghanistan could spill over into Chinese territory. Xinjiang is home to the Uighur Muslim minority, which is oppressed by Beijing. China claims that militant Uighurs used the border to smuggle weapons and maintained training camps in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan-and Russia
Governments in Afghanistan’s northern neighbour states are also concerned by similar concerns. Turkmenistan reported fighting on the border in early July, Uzbekistan set up a tent camp near the city of Termez “for unexpected events” – as did Tajikistan, where more than 1000 Afghan soldiers have already found refuge from the advancing Taliban.
True, Taliban representatives in Moscow vowed that they would not carry their conflicts abroad :” Our territory will never be used against neighboring countries and friendly states.”But neither Russia nor the three other former Soviet republics seem to trust these promises, which are linked to Afghanistan by a history of sacrifice: the invasion of the country, which began in 1979 and ended ten years later without glory, contributed decisively to the decline of the Soviet Union.
In early August, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will hold joint military exercises to simulate, according to a Russian lieutenant general, “the expulsion of banned armed gangs that have entered the territory of an allied state.” The scene is a training ground north of the Afghan-Tajik border, not far from Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz, where German units were stationed until a few weeks ago.
As obviously as the withdrawal of the West is widening the scope of the neighbouring states in Afghanistan, they are still hesitantly considering their options. For most of them, security concerns have so far outweighed the political and economic plans they may have for the long term. Neither winners nor losers are emerging. They are all waiting to see how the situation in the interior of the country develops – this, too, is proof of how little the West has changed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years.