Prospects and Scenarios for Afghanistan: Russian and Chinese Interests


Russia and China’s Common Interests in Afghanistan

The interests of Russia and China in Afghanistan, as well as those of the adjacent countries in Central and Southern Asia, are arguably as follows.

1. A neutral Afghanistan with no foreign contingents on its territory

As the strife between the United States and China/Russia grows, both Moscow and Beijing regard the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan as a security threat. This risk was previously offset by the neutralizing effect the foreign troops had on certain aspects of the terrorist threat to Russia and China. This largely set the tone for their cooperation with Washington in the fight against international terrorism.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Russia endorsed the U.S.-led “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) and, later, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in Afghanistan, particularly with UN support, since Moscow was encountering difficulties in regulating the Afghan issue, especially on the Tajik–Afghan border.

August 1999 saw the threat of destabilization loom for the whole Central Asia, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [1] was heightening their activity in Kyrgyzstan, acting from the Afghan territory. The armies of Russia and other parties to the Treaty on Collective Security (which would later become the Collective Security Treaty Organization) took military action. On 16 February 1999, the IMU orchestrated a number of large-scale terrorist attacks in Tashkent. The organization was supported by Al-Qaeda [2] and well-received by the Taliban [3].

During the 1990s, Mujahideen from Afghanistan took an active part in conflicts in the post-Soviet space, from Karabakh to Chechnya and Dagestan, involving various parts of the Muslim population. Russia’s biggest threat at the time consisted in ties between underground terrorist movements in the North Caucuses and Al-Qaeda (acting from Afghan territory) as well as the Taliban. In the mid-1990s, one Al-Qaeda emissary, Amir ibn al-Khattab, came to form an alliance with the influential Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, who underwent training in camps in Afghanistan. Together, they set out to seize power throughout North Caucasus. Amir ibn al-Khattab, with organizational and financial support provided by Al-Qaeda from the Afghan territory, notably with the help of the Taliban, succeeded in establising a whole network of schools in the Russian North Caucasus, where future terrorists could learn subversion tactics. Subsequently, graduates of Khattab schools organized a series of terrorist attacks in Russia’s other regions. Besides, from August 7 to September 28, 1999, Khattab and Basayev invaded neighbouring Dagestan, instigating an outbreak of the Second Chechen War (26 August 1999 – 16 April 2009).

It was against this backdrop that the Russian leadership counted on the U.S. military to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia, hoping that Moscow’s participation in the international anti-terrorist coalition would rid North Caucuses of its terrorist threat. China adopted a similar position, noting the need to ensure security in Xinjiang, neighbouring Central Asian nations and the entire SCO region as well as to fight against terrorism at large.

Today, Russia and China have a vested interest in ensuring security in the region on their own, albeit with involvement of other regional powers. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan provides favourable conditions for this, although with certain risks.

2. Providing Security in Central Asia

Three Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are members of the CSTO. As their CSTO ally, Russia guarantees their security and maintains military bases on their territory (Base No. 201 in Tajikistan and the Kant Air Base in Kyrgyzstan) as well as other military facilities. The CSTO believes any potential invasion by international terrorist groups from Afghanistan to be a serious threat. That is why the organization’s key activities in Central Asia focus on conducting exercises for rebuffing a military invasion across the Afghan border and countering associated threats, such as illegal immigration, religious extremism and drug trafficking.

China shares these interests. Although Beijing has no legal commitment to maintain security in Central Asia, military cooperation between China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan is increasingly stepping up. Even so, all Central Asian countries are CSTO members, and they are quite willing to enhance cooperation in the fight against terrorism, separatism and religious extremism.

3. Combatting Cross-Border Terrorism

Russia is keen to combat cross-border terrorism along the axis of Afghanistan—Central Asia—Russia as well as along the contour of Afghanistan—the Middle East—Russia. The threat of militia entering Russia from the Middle East and Afghanistan via Central Asia persists. The same goes for Xinjiang, China, via the respective corridors.

4. Ensuring Central Asia’s Steady Economic Growth to Counter Non-Traditional Security Threats

Two Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Since such membership implies open borders, any unrest caused by a worsening situation in Afghanistan could entail an influx of refugees, resulting in serious problems for Russia.

Steady development in Central Asia is in China’s best interests, since the former is economically, culturally and historically tied to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is particularly evident within the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, its programmes linked to the EAEU as well as to national development programmes (for example, in Kazakhstan).

5. Controlling Migration Flows and Fostering Interpersonal Ties

The Central Asian nations, both in the EAEU and outside it, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, are a source of substantial migration flows into Russia. A destabilized Afghanistan—activities of various terrorist groups in its northern part as well as recruitment and radicalization of Central Asian labour migrants in Russia—might open the door for new security threats for Russia. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic for the Central Asian economies, worsened by a temporary drop in oil and natural gas prices on global markets and falling money transfers from labour migrants in Russia, has augmented the region’s vulnerability to crisis. Reverberations from an increasingly unstable Afghanistan might serve as a trigger that could launch a series of negative events, following a “domino effect” scenario, while reaching Russia and potentially aggravating the exisiting crisis on the borders of the Union State of Russia-Belarus and the EU. All this particularly applies to migration.

Migration flows between China and Central Asia are not so significant, altough interpersonal ties between people living in the XUAR and in Central Asia are rather close. Many Uigurs reside in Central Asia, while many Central Asians, particularly the Kazakhs and the Kirghiz, live in the XUAR. Therefore, negative trends as regards the situation in Afghanistan could have quite an impact these ties.

Within the SCO and other regional forums, China (owing to its economic power and military potential) and Russia (owing to its military-technological power and “soft power” potential) act as the undoubted leaders of the region surrounding Afghanistan. They are naturally interested in both coordinating the positions of regional powers and avoiding a clash of interests in Afghanistan.

General Description of the Current Geopolitical Situation in Afghanistan and the Interests of Regional Powers

The situation in and around Afghanistan is complex and characterised by many contrasting trends.

The U.S. failed to instil the Western notion of liberal democracy in Afghanistan, which will impose its limits on such a policy to be implemented in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. The withdrawal of U.S. troops has diminished America’s influence and standing in the world, primarily in Asia and Eurasia, inducing U.S. allies and Washington-oriented countries to foresee such a situation repeating itself. So, such countries will be looking for an opportunity to “hedge their bets,” through building more trusted relations with Russia and China.

Influential media in the European allies of the United States (even those closest, like the United Kingdom) actively criticize Washington’s withdrawal of troops, which is indicative of centrifugal tendencies in the earlier Western coalition in Afghanistan.

Political turmoil is intensifying in the United States, with opponents of the Biden administration using the Afghanistan profile to discredit the President. Isolationism is becoming more marked in the rhetoric of the administration, with President Biden himself expressing similar sentiments, although he would previously adopt an opposite position. This could seriously affect U.S. policy in the future, at least in relation to the areas of Eurasia that border on Afghanistan. Phenomena similar to the Vietnam Syndrome are emerging in the American society, which could seriously limit the scope of U.S. foreign policy towards the Afghanistan-related part of Eurasia.

For the countries neighbouring on Afghanistan, such as Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Central Asian nations and Turkey, serious questions have arisen regarding how the situation in Afghanistan will unfold, given potential threats to regional security. These include international terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, extremist and separatist movements supported from Afghanistan and radical Islamists in neighbouring countries being encouraged by the Taliban victory.

The positions of the above countries must also be co-ordinated to avoid clashes if they support rival ethnic and political factions in Afghanistan.

Iran has a clear interest in supporting the Hazaras and other Shiite groups living in central and western Afghanistan. In particular, Teheran has established the Hazara military movement “Fatemiyoun”, which is currently involved in the Syrian conflict.

In contrast, owing to the conflict with Iran, the Persian Gulf nations avidly support Sunni and anti-Shiite groups in Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries (Pakistan, Central Asia), including certain activities of anti-Shia groups within the Taliban and attacks against Shiites by radical organizations such as IS.

Pakistan, which is home to a large Pashtun diaspora, is historically associated with Pashtun political movements interested in suppressing the political activity of ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan.

India is interested in containing Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, so it supports any government and political force that pursues a policy independent from Islamabad (above all, this refers to the Tajiks). New Delhi will also support Pashtun political movements seeking either greater autonomy or independence in Pakistan itself.

The main minority group in northern Afghanistan, Tajiks, are closely linked with the neighbouring Tajikistan, a CSTO member whose protection is guaranteed by Russia. Another important minority in the North are the Uzbeks, whose long-time leader Marshal Dostum often calls for help from Uzbekistan, Turkey and Russia (via Tajiks).

Russia is interested in ensuring security of Central Asia, defusing hotbeds of international terrorism and preventing a migration crisis, the first signs of which can be seen on the border of the Union State, Poland and Lithuania. An increase in migration from Afghanistan could trigger a large-scale crisis.

Turkey is already dealing with a big flow of migrants from Afghanistan, second only to Syria, since Afghan refugees can enter the Turkish territory via Iran. Ankara is working on its relations with the Taliban and discussing options for managing Kabul International Airport, although Ankara is maintaining contacts with the pro-Turkish and anti-Taliban (anti-Pashtun) Uzbek minority as well.

Russia and the countries of Central Asia, Iran and Turkey (which include the Balkan and European countries to which they provide access), as well as Pakistan, intersect three drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan (northern, Iranian-Balkan and southern). This opens the door for organized crime and finances the activities of extremist and terrorist groups.

There are no Chinese ethnic groups in Afghanistan that share historical and cultural perspectives. Even so, within the Belt and Road Initiative, China is interested in investing in the country and in the security of the neighbouring countries. The fight against extremism in Xinjiang largely depends on the security situation in Central Asia. In addition, China and India may have clashing interests in Afghanistan. As in the case of Russia, China is seeking to reduce U.S. influence in the region, including within the Indo-Pacific project, having no interest in cooperation between the United States and Central Asia being boosted.

As for the Central Asian countries, their interest lies in preventing Afghan threats from reaching their territory. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are willing to find common ground with the Taliban. Tajikistan, on the other hand, has no choice but adopt a tough stance against them for a number of reasons. Central Asian nations seek to maintain their cooperation both with China and Russia, which will likely be strengthened, as well as with the U.S., which offered economic and military assistance while involved in Afghanistan. Finally, historical and ethnic ties play an important role: amongst others, Tajikistan with Afghan Tajiks, Uzbekistan with Uzbeks, Turkmenistan with Turkmen.

Development Scenarios for the Situation in Afghanistan

The multitude of factors that could affect the situation in Afghanistan make any forecasting a challenge. As for the domestic political situation, there are two likely scenarios, which could be called “A Strong Taliban” and “A Weak Taliban”. Both could have positive and negative implications for Russia, China and other regional powers as well as the global community at large.

Scenario 1. “A Strong Taliban.” Most Russian experts view this scenario as most plausible. It envisages representatives of the Taliban to create a relatively effective system of management, containing the crisis in the country, maintaining unity and suppressing the opposition.

Option A (good). The moderate wing of the Taliban gains victory, and principal agreements with external powers are respected: an all-inclusive government is established, international terrorists are expelled from the country, while there is no aggression demonstrated towards neighbours, primarily the countries of Central Asia.

Option B (bad). The radical wing of the Taliban gains victory, external expansion begins, primarily towards Central Asia, active support is provided to religious extremist and terrorist groups around the world.

Scenario 2. “A Weak Taliban.” The second scenario suggests that the Taliban will fail to establish an effective management system as well as cope with the crisis in the country so that an internal split will occur while—even if there is formal unity—strong discontent will remain in the country. From an applied point of view, this scenario is dangerous considering the importance to the Afghan economy of aid from Western donors and international organizations. Should serious allegations of human rights violations arise, aid could be withdrawn substantially, boosting the likelihood of a serious economic crisis in the country. This might lead to internal conflict within the Taliban (between moderate and radical groups) over resource allocation [4].

Resistance of ethnic minorities to the rule of the Taliban is also growing. The Panjshir Valley plays an important role in this, as two key Tajik representatives are located there at the moment (Ahmad Massoud Jr., who inherited influence and authority in the Valley from his father, as well as Vice President Amrullah Saleh, who took power in the country in the absence of the ousted President Ashraf Ghani).

Option A (good). There is no clash of external powers in the country, meaning that the war is between intra-Afghan forces without external support. The conflict is of an intracountry nature, without regional and global forces becoming involved. In this situation, it is easy to localize border security challenges (although the situation in Afghanistan itself will be very bad). In this case, enclaves controlled by international terrorist structures might arise, but they could be balanced by enclaves controlled by forces more favourable to Russia and other regional players (as in the 1990s).

Option B (bad) foresees external powers playing an active role in the Afghan conflict (a proxy war), as is the case of Syria or Libya. Moreover, highly dangerous terrorist originations might mobilize (for example, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, banned in Russia) in Afghanistan, while the chances of armed groups of international terrorists invading neighbouring countries, including those of Central Asia, will rise.

It is worth noting that the possible rapprochement between Afghanistan’s two most powerful military neighbouring countries and achievement thereby of a consolidated position on the matter would have a greatly positive influence on the situation in Afghanistan. It is also important that Russia maintain good relations with all and China with most of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. So, Moscow and Beijing can help other countries of the region align their interests.

Scenarios for the Geopolitical Situation Around Afghanistan to Evolvd & Security Threats for the Neighbouring Countries

Given the more positive scenario, the situation in Afghanistan will not affect its neighbours and the Taliban will be able to form a stable, inclusive government. The other scenario, also positive for its neighbours but negative for Afghanistan itself, presupposes disintegration of the country with violence localized within its borders.

There are two scenarios that can be considered unfavourable for Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. These are a strong Taliban led by radical groups that will carry out an external expansion in Central Asia – towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In this case, they would benefit from the support of radical Islamist groups throughout the Islamic world. The geopolitical aspects of this scenario have not yet been elaborated in the literature but are still discussed by various Russian experts on social media (Telegram and Facebook). In particular, the well-known Russian orientalist A. Knyazev has noted that adoption by the Taliban of such a policy could be beneficial to the United States, since it would weaken Washington’s main opponents—China, Russia and Iran.

The second unfavourable option is a weak Taliban in the grip of a civil war, which could lead to the collapse of Afghanistan, as was in 1990s. This scenario could cause a “domino effect” for the Central Asian countries considered to be “fragile states.” It is rather easy to imagine, for example, how border clashes between various armed groups over division of the profits from drug smuggling along the northern route could trigger large-scale destabilization of the Tajikistan and Turkmenistan border with Afghanistan. One might recall the case of Kyrgyzstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, but where something similar already took place during the 1999 Batken War (moreover, a number of experts believed that the IMU, banned in Russia, not only tried to “break through” to Uzbekistan but also resolved the issue of consolidating its influence on the key drug transportation northern route, which passes through southern Kyrgyzstan [5]). Further destabilization of Afghanistan could increase the Islamic State’s presence in the country, as well as intensify the activities of Al-Qaeda. In this scenario, there is a threat of the Taliban collapsing, some of its former units becoming radicalized and Afghanistan’s boosted role as a haven for terrorist and extremist organizations from Central Asia and China. These groups would be able to conduct subversive actions from its territory in Central Asia and, from there, in Russia and China.

The traditional threat of a civil war, which has already emerged around the Panjshir Valley, is tied to the ethnic conflict between the Pashtuns (the Taliban is mainly a Pashtu movement) and the Tajiks of Afghanistan. The government of Tajikistan refusing to recognize the Taliban suggests that they might also be drawn into the conflict. Furthermore, Pakistan and India could also easily become involved in the conflict. Vice-President of Afghanistan Amrullah Saleh and former President Ashraf Ghani have made quite unequivocal accusations against Pakistan of being responsible for the fall of the Ghani government [6], which was actively supported by India [7]. So far, the conflict only affects Afghan Tajiks—yet, should the Taliban initiate a policy of persecuting the Hazaras and other Shiites, as it did in the 1990s, Iran will automatically be drawn into the conflict. If the Hazara militia of Fatemiyoun, currently fighting in Syria, move to Afghanistan, they could constitute a serious military-political alternative to the Taliban, along with the Tajiks and representatives of other, weaker, national minority groups (such as Dostum’s Uzbeks). The United States has so far refused to support the Afghan Tajiks. However, in the event that the disagreements between the U.S. and the Taliban intensify, they could do so, for example, as part of a policy to establish a partnership with India in engineering and technical development.

One of the main dangers for Afghanistan is to become somewhat of a battlefield for the Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, between Iran and other countries of the region (primarily, Saudi Arabia)[8]. The Islamic State’s invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan demonstrates this, as do the terrorist acts against Shias in these countries[9]. It is possible that both the IS and other connected Sunni military groups from Central Asia and other countries might actively travel to Afghanistan from the Middle East. Finally, Guardians of the Islamic Revolution from Iran seek to actively involve Fatemiyoun in the Syrian conflict[10].

If this trend persists, the Afghan conflict might develop in a fashion similar to the crises in the Greater Middle East (as in the 1990s). In this case, Afghanistan and, therefore, Pakistan and Central Asia could turn into another theatre of the Sunni-Shiite and Saudi-Iranian confrontation, which already includes Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain. In this case, two parallel conflicts will develop in Afghanistan: the confrontation between the ethnic minorities of the North and the Pashtuns of the South, as well that between the Sunnis and Shia Hazaras. In this case, the conflict will become structurally more complex (like the current conflicts in Syria or Libya). Russia and China might be indirectly drawn into it against their will. So, Moscow and Beijing are most interested in avoiding such a scenario.

Development Dynamics of the Afghan Terrorist Threat

The extent of terrorism overspill from Afghanistan will largely depend on which scenario materializes. Should events follow the negative scenario, the threat will only rise. In the event of the positive scenario, the threat will decrease. There are currently three levels of terrorist threat emerging from Afghan territory:

  1. A Significant Indirect Threat. There is a risk of international terrorist organizations from Afghanistan invading the neighbouring countries. It is worth noting that such terrorist organizations have emerged not as a result of domestic issues but rather of the unstable situation in Afghanistan attracting extremist organizations from the neighbouring countries. Nonetheless, invasion by terrorists from the Afghan territory could cause the neighbouring countries to collapse and call for regional powers to take action in preventing such a scenario, as in the case of the “Batken War”[11].
  2. A Medium Indirect Threat. International terrorist groups from Afghanistan might possibly enter the territory of other countries, especially Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Pakistan, but that their armed forces will successfully protect their borders.
  3. An Indirect Threat. Afghanistan is a haven for terrorist groups from various countries, including those in Eurasia. This affects the security, geopolitical, regulatory and economic interests of many countries, including Russia, China and even countries of the European Union.

Should the favourable scenario play out, current threats arising from the Afghan situation will persist at first but will dwindle in the coming years. If an unfavorable scenario prevails, a significant immediate threat will for some countries turn into a catastrophic one, which will require serious mobilization of all efforts. For other countries, a moderate immediate threat will turn into a serious one, and an indirect one will turn into an immediate one.

Recommendations for Russia-China Joint Action

A coordinated approach by Russia and China is required to deal with the common threat. It could include the following points.

Coordinating their policies towards the Taliban whilst ensuring that the neighbouring countries bordering Afghanistan are on the same page. This might include expulsion of international terrorist groups from the country, safeguarding peace and stability on Afghanistan’s borders, creating an inclusive government, ensuring respect for basic human rights and effective governance of the country.

Implementing joint mediation between the conflicting groups (for example, Pashtuns and Tajiks) within Afghanistan and bordering regions with the aim of maintaining peace in the country.

Regional powers with interests in Afghanistan, both members of the SCO and other regional organizations, should coordinate their activities in the country. This is all the more relevant considering that Afghanistan is an observer country in the SCO and that the Afghan issue is expected to be discussed at the upcoming Dushanbe summit. Other regional powers (like CICA, for example) should also coordinate their policies on the issue.

Given the emergence of various non-traditional security threats from the territory of Afghanistan (terrorism, religious extremism, organized crime), military cooperation and interaction must be strengthened between the Russian and Chinese special services in different formats (joint exercises, exchange of information on extremists and terrorists) on a bilateral and multilateral basis, particularly within the SCO and its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure.

Joint humanitarian assistance should be provided to Afghanistan at both the bilateral level and that of international organizations, which might already be necessary in the winter of 2021–2022 owing to the mounting economic crisis in the country.

Strengthening diplomatic and expert dialogue with countries that are not direct neighbours but might nonetheless suffer from unrest in Afghanistan. These include the EU countries (the threats of uncontrolled migration, drug trafficking, terrorism from Afghan territory). The EU countries are also seeking to increase connectivity with the countries of Asia and Central Eurasia through the interface with the IPP and prevention of a negative impact on these processes exerted by events in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries of Central Asia. The countries of the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia were also major humanitarian donors to Afghanistan and neighbouring Central Asian countries.

Increasing expert cooperation between Russia and China on the topic of Central Asia using existing formats (RIAC, the Valdai Club, academic dialogue), as well as forming new, more specialized formats.

Strengthening the coordination of economic and security assistance to Afghanistan and the neighbouring countries of Central Asia. There are many mechanisms for this within the EAEU, the Belt and Road Initiative, the SCO and other bilateral and multilateral collaboration formats. For Russia, these are the formats of the CSTO, CIS, “5+1”. For China that of consultations on security in China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and others.

  1. A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
  2. A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
  3. A terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation.
  4. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
  5. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
  6. See discussion in the press centre “Russia Today” on 31 August 2021.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
  9. Ibid.
  10. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)
  11. Andrey Kazantsev. International Jihadism Networks: Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East, and Afghanistan. Moscow: MGIMO University, 2019. (in Russian)

From our partner RIAC

Andrey Kazantsev
Andrey Kazantsev
Doctor of Political Science, Director of the Analytical Centre of Institute of International Studies, MGIMO University