Changes in Afghanistan: Regional and International Implications

The Taliban’s return to power has fundamentally changed the political environment of Afghanistan, both internally and externally. The internal leading forces inside Afghanistan have turned to be the Taliban instead of the political forces represented by the former Afghanistan government, and the external forces with the greatest political responsibility began to shift from the United States and Europe to the neighboring countries, including China and Russia. Of course, the role of the United States and Europe is still very important and indispensable. China and Russia have swapped roles with the United States, and the relationship between China and Russia and the new Afghan regime is closer. They are more willing to help the new Afghan regime achieve stability and establish normal relations with the international community. The United States, however, has alienated the new Afghan regime being suspicious of the Taliban rule. Afghanistan’s politics have changed fundamentally and the country’s development is set on a totally different trajectory.

The regime change in Afghanistan has transformed the context and agenda of the Afghan issue. On the one hand, it makes the Afghanistan issue much simpler because a series of problems that used to be very difficult and exhausting suddenly disappeared. There is no longer the concern of how to maintain the Afghan government, no need to worry about a possible large-scale civil war, no longer the headache for international society of how to push the Afghan government and the Taliban to the negotiation table that both sides have been reluctant to or refused to do, surely, no negotiation process any more, which, had it started, would be endless and painful, while its success would not be guaranteed. On the other hand, though, it has brought about new problems and challenges, creating new difficulties and complexities.

Barring a serious conflict within the Taliban—perhaps, it is one of the biggest potential threats to the Taliban—the regime is likely to persist for a long time. At present, there is no political or military forces in Afghanistan that can compete with the Taliban. Terrorist groups are a serious threat to the Taliban, but not to the extent of toppling the Taliban regime. Since its founding in 1994, under extremely difficult conditions, the Taliban has not declined but has grown stronger over the past 25 years, which shows its strong vitality. Comparing the current situation with the situation after the Taliban’s first takeover in 1996, it shows that the current situation and conditions for the Taliban are much better. At that time, the Taliban was almost completely isolated in the world. Except for a few countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, no other countries recognized the Taliban regime. Some countries listed the Taliban as a terrorist organization, and the Taliban regime was sanctioned by the United Nations (Security Council Resolution 1267 and 1333). The Northern Alliance, backed by outside forces, continued fight against the Taliban. But even in those difficult circumstances the Taliban regime could have survived for five years, and it could have maintained without US waging the war in Afghanistan. Now that all these handicaps for the Taliban are gone, the Taliban are better placed to stay in power for a long time.

It’s clear that the state power of Afghanistan will be dominated by the Taliban, with other political forces or ethnic groups taking some secondary positions, but not the central ones. The logic here is simple. If the former government had put up strong military resistance, though it could not defeat the Taliban, it could get negotiating chips to bargain with the Taliban over power distribution. But the government had given up without fight, its army and police had been utterly routed, and what is lost on the battlefield will not be given in vain by the Taliban. The international community can ask the Taliban to form an inclusive government and balance the distribution of power, it could have some effects but will not be great. External forces cannot prevent the Taliban from seizing power, let alone to force it to give up the power in its hands. The Taliban’s domestic policy ultimately depends on the political operation of its internal factions.

Afghanistan is still in the transition stage. The final composition of the Taliban government has not been fully formed, its system has not been finalized, its political, economic and foreign policy formulation has not been completed, and there are still many variables and uncertainties in the future of Afghanistan. At present, one of the biggest problems facing the Taliban is the extremely difficult economic situation, and whether the Taliban can successfully overcome this crisis is a serious challenge to it.

For all the countries to achieve their goals and interests in Afghanistan, developing normal relations with the Taliban regime is the most appropriate way. It is difficult to achieve their goals by coercion or pressure, and the result may be even counterproductive. In anticipation of the long-term maintenance of the Taliban regime, it is already possible to plan for a more long-term policy design with Afghanistan.

In case the Taliban regime is stabilized and implement the domestic and foreign policies that are not extreme, it may be only a matter of when and how before most of the countries recognize the Taliban regime. This means that the international community’s relationship with the Taliban regime will be of a long-term nature. It is possible to influence the composition and policies of the Taliban regime in an appropriate way, because the interests of local countries are also at stake, but expectations should not be too high. Since the Taliban regime follows basic international norms in its foreign relations and does not go extreme and harsh in its domestic policies, it will reach the basic preconditions acceptable for surrounding countries to develop normal relations with the Taliban at the present stage. Higher requirements will be difficult to achieve.

For nearly half a century, Afghanistan has been the epicenter of instability in the region, the biggest external security threat to Central Asia, and a thorny problem for all the countries. Now, although Afghanistan remains a major challenge for neighboring countries, the situation has changed significantly.

The Taliban has promised not to threaten neighboring countries, not to allow terrorist organizations to engage in activities against other countries on Afghan territory, and to fight against IS and other terrorist organizations. If the Taliban can fulfill these promises, the security threat of the Taliban itself to neighboring regions has been reduced or will disappear. The main security threat will be the development and spread of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan. More seriously, if the Taliban regime poorly controls – whether by will or inability – Afghanistan could become a haven and base camps for international terrorists. Drug problem, refugee problems, problem of possible spillover of political and social instability of Afghanistan will also continue to be major concern for neighboring regions.

As Afghanistan has moved from a secular to a religious state, an emerging question is whether religious extremism could be politicized and institutionalized. That might be true if radical factions within the Taliban dominate. The fear is also coming from the memories of the Taliban when they first came to power in 1996. It will take time for the Taliban regime to prove that it has turned its back on extremism and become a regime that politically moderate and friendly to the world. It goes beyond the simple relations of the Taliban with some terrorist groups, because it is not simply a political issue, but a religious issue as well. Religious ideology has an important influence on policy orientation. Extremism and terrorism are inseparable, and pursuit of extremist religious ideology cannot help but support terrorism in policy. Moreover, if the Afghan state system moves toward extreme religiosity, it will greatly encourage religious extremists in neighboring countries, stimulate the development of religious forces in the region and beyond, and create a new model of turning back from a secular state to an extreme-religious state.

It had long been the policy of the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. In February 2020 the United States had reached the agreement with the Taliban. The Taliban’s return to power was not entirely unexpected, as it had been widely predicted. The sensational international reaction is due to the dramatic effect of the changes in Afghanistan. The United States turned a normal withdrawal into a second Saigon, and the Ghani government collapsed incredibly quickly, and the Taliban took over the state power so easily, almost without firing a shot. However, the essence of the issue remains the same, namely the pullout of the United States from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power.

It can be believed that when the United States launched the war in Afghanistan, it did not plan to wage a long-term war. The main reason why the war had evolved into a war that lasts for 20 years is the expansion and change of the initial goals of the war by the United States. At first, the war in Afghanistan was mainly of a retaliatory and punitive nature, and it was a “war of necessity”. In the face of such a horrific terrorist attack and thousands of civilian deaths, all major powers will retaliate, and with good reason. That is why it was widely understood and supported by the international community at the time. However, after defeat of Al-Qaeda and overthrow of the Taliban regime, the goals of the war began to change quietly. The United States had shifted from retaliating against al-Qaeda and the Taliban to maintain a regime that is in line with Western values and pro-American, while geopolitical purposes have entered into the main pursuits of the United States also. Thus, the nature of the war had changed and lost its rationality and morality.

The American war is a complete failure. The Afghan government designed and installed by the United States had no social foundation, and the 300,000 Afghan army and police trained by the United States were useless. Afghanistan remains economically backward and impoverished, with about half of the population living below the poverty line. The drug problem is even more serious, millions of refugees are displaced. It is the Afghan people who are paying the heaviest price. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 110,893 Afghan civilians were killed or injured between 2009 and 2020 only, about 25% of those were caused by government forces or international coalition forces.

The disgraceful withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan may not mean the collapse of American hegemony. It is just a regional war it has lost. But it did seriously blow American prestige, damaged American credibility as an ally, and it does show the limits of American capabilities, suggesting that America cannot change even a small country by its will. It also suggests that the United States overestimated its own capabilities, which may lead the United States to constrain diplomatic caprices and reinforce the trend toward strategic retrenchment.

Biden’s rationale for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is to focus on dealing with China’s challenges, but that explanation is not entirely accepted. Opponents in the U.S. say keeping military bases in Afghanistan is a better and cheaper way to contain China. From the general law of geostrategy, establishment of military presence in the strategic rear of the opponent is obviously a major strategic advantage. Afghanistan war, while costly, had been a war with relatively not heavy human casualties for the United States, with more than 2,400 Americans killed and more than 20,000 wounded in 20 years. The United States lost more than 56,000 dead and more than 300,000 wounded in the 10-year Vietnam War, while the Soviet Union lost more than 12,000 dead and more than 35,000 wounded in the 10-year Afghanistan War.

The exit of the United States is more likely motivated by the thought of strategic retrenchment that began under the Obama administration. America may feel that Afghanistan had become a strategic burden. Not only because the United States had been bogged down in a war with no hope to win, but also because, in a sense, had been bogged down by the Afghan government. Ghani’s government knew that America cannot accept its collapse, therefore, it was totally living on the support of the United States, had little sense of responsibility to the country and the people, completely relied on foreign aid, keen to fight for power and profit, corruption was rampant. With regard to the withdrawal and rapid collapse of the Ghani government during the withdrawal of the United States, Biden not only did not feel remorse for the withdrawal, but believed that it more proved the correctness of the withdrawal. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, also accused the Ghani government of seeking to preserve the status quo for its own ends rather than political reconciliation. Of course, the Afghans tell different story with all the blame lies with the US.

America finally needs to get rid of this heavy burden, which was raised and nurtured by itself. The United States reached the withdrawal agreement with the Taliban without the participation of the Ghani’s government, and the withdrawal was not coordinated with it as well, leaving it to its own fate. In fact, the Ghani’s government was abandoned by the United States. After pulling out from Afghanistan, the United States has sought to establish new military bases in Central Asia or Pakistan. It says that the United States still wants to keep military presence in the region, but prefer not to keep it in Afghanistan, probably because of the lack of confidence in the Ghani’s government and did not want continue to be its security guarantor anymore.

After the America’s exit and Taliban’s takeover, how the U.S. will reassess its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia is a new question. In the past 20 years, the Central Asia policy of the United States was mainly of subordinate nature. In the early period of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asia policy of the United States was subordinate to the policy of “Russia First”, aiming at ensuring the transformation of Russia. After the Afghan war broke out in 2001, the Central Asia policy of the United States was subordinate to serving the Afghan war. After the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the Central Asia policy of the United States was subordinate to preventing Russia from controlling Central Asia, in the name of providing Central Asian states “more alternatives” besides Russia. The New Silk Road Strategy of the United States was put forward in this period, one of its major targets was to veer the Central Asian countries to the direction of South Asia. Central Asia was all but forgotten in US diplomacy in the early days of the Trump administration, only to be gradually remembered in the latter times. It remains to be seen what kind of Central Asia policy the United States will pursue in the future. It is likely the U.S. will reposition it in the framework of China-Russia-U.S. relations, that is, to view Central Asia from the perspective of competition with China and Russia, but the main target of the U.S. may shift from Russia to China, or to focus on both at the same time.

It is also questionable whether the United States will continue to push for Central Asia-Afghanistan-South Asia integration, but it’s possible that the US will continue to push for inter-Central Asian integration. At present, the Indo-Pacific strategy is the focus of the United States in this region, but the possibility of promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy to Central Asia is small.

After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States and Europe will feel less committed to Afghanistan, and their aid is likely to decline, but terrorism and refugee problems will still remain major worries for them, so the Afghan issue will continue to be an important concern for them.

For the regional countries, the withdrawal of the United States naturally means that their influence has grown, at the same time their responsibilities have increased too. However, withdrawal of foreign troops, restoration of Afghan autonomy, and increased responsibility of the regional countries is the normal state that has to be restored sooner or later.

Under the changed circumstances in Afghanistan, the local countries have deepened their involvement in the Afghan issue. They all try to exert influence on the future development of Afghanistan and make the changes in Afghanistan beneficial to themselves. While sharing common interests, each of the regional countries has its own specific interests in Afghanistan, which are not completely the same, some of them even are contradictory or conflicting. For example, in the case of India and Pakistan, the change of Afghan regime will have potentially important geopolitical implications for both countries. Tajikistan’s statement that it will never recognize the Taliban regime also marks a significant departure from the attitude of its Central Asian neighbors. If the local countries fail to coordinate and cooperate, it will not only bring new complicated factors to the Afghan issue, but also cause new contradictions between the them.

The SCO faces the question of how to deal with the Taliban government. Afghanistan is an observer state of the SCO and regularly participated in SCO’s summits and other activities. There is also an SCO – Afghanistan Contact Group. The SCO needs to consider whether it is prepared to allow the Taliban to succeed the seat of the former Afghan government and what impact this will have on the internal unity of the SCO, because some state members, for example, Tajikistan and India, have difficult relations with the Taliban. In the absence of recognition of the Taliban regime by the SCO member states, it is obviously not possible to accept the Taliban as the SCO’ observer state. However, Afghanistan is a major variable in regional issues and regional relations. If Afghanistan is not admitted into the framework of the SCO, it will be a major political deficiency for the SCO as the organization covering Central, South and West Asian regions, and marginalization in regional politics for Afghanistan. At a time when the Taliban regime is not allowed into the SCO as observer state, the SCO can establish contacts with the Taliban within the framework of the SCO – Afghanistan Contact Group. There will be no political and legal obstacles for doing so. As the largest organization in the region, the SCO should play a greater role on the Afghan issue. It should also play an active role in coordinating the positions of the countries in the region

With the changes in Afghanistan, much of the original international consensus on the Afghan issue has lost its footing. The Afghan government supported by the international community no longer exists, the Afghan reconciliation process promoted by the international community is no longer needed, and the Istanbul Process and other mechanisms in which the international community participated have lost momentum.

The international community may become differentiated in its policies towards the Afghan issue in future. There may be differences and contradictions in the international community on the issues such as diplomatic recognition of the Taliban regime, the domestic policy of the Taliban, the relationship with the Taliban and others. The international community needs to seek new consensus on the Afghan issue, update the platform for cooperation. Terrorism, drug trafficking and refugee problem are important common topics for international community to cooperate, while the immediate priority is to help Afghanistan survive the harsh winter and prevent a new humanitarian disaster. From a broader perspective, the international community should avoid the Afghan issue becoming a new source of international conflicts, and in particular, avoid Afghanistan becoming a new stage of geopolitical competition among major powers.

In this regard, the positions of China, Russia, the United States, and the EU are of most importance. Afghanistan is an issue on which China, Russia and the US can find common language. The enlarged trilateral format of China, Russia, the United States plus Pakistan is one of the most active and effective multilateral dialogue mechanisms on the Afghan issue. Cooperation between China, Russia and the US could play a guiding role in leading the international community to coordinate and cooperate on the Afghan issue.

The EU also has a significant role to play. Compared with the US policy in Afghanistan, the EU had been placing more emphasis on economic and social development in Afghanistan. With the end of the war period in Afghanistan and the beginning of a possible construction period, the EU’s role in Afghanistan’s rebuilding is likely to become even more prominent. The EU had also been a particularly important donor to Afghanistan over the past 20 years. During the G20 meeting on Afghanistan in October 2021, the EU announced a humanitarian package of 1 billion euros, the largest single contribution to the interim government of Afghanistan to date.

The basic goal for the international community should be to help Afghanistan become a normal country, and to help Afghanistan to establish normal relations with the world. The international community should to assist stabilize the Afghan situation, first of all the economic situation, rather than to make it difficult for the Taliban to rule. This does not mean liking or disliking to the Taliban regime, but it is the most reasonable choice under the established situation, which is in the best interests of peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the interests of security of the surrounding region and beyond, because under the current situation. Suppose the Taliban regime collapses, Afghanistan will be plunged into more serious chaos, the national economy and people’s livelihood will suffer greater disaster, a new wave of refugees will emerge, terrorist forces will develop without restrictions, and even the possibility of a renewed civil war is not completely out of the question. It certainly will bring greater problems to the neighboring region and the international community. The positive influence of the international community through engagement will also help Afghanistan move in the right direction, and the international community should not pass up the possibility that could help Afghanistan becoming a stable, peaceful, friendly country.

America’s failure in Afghanistan is not just a failure of the war; it is also a failure of the attempt to rebuild Afghanistan on the western model. Over the past 20 years, the issue of Afghanistan has consumed a great deal of energy from the international community. Countless meetings have been held, a series of bilateral, trilateral, quadrilateral and multilateral mechanisms have been established, many ideas, plans, roadmaps have been put forward, and billions of dollars in aid have been provided each year.

However, in the end, the solution to the problem was so fast and simple, and it is completely contrary to the ideas and expectations of the international community, which makes previous efforts come to naught. It shows that, alongside with many other factors, there was deviation in the basic thinking and path of the international community to solve the Afghan problem. Of course, it does not mean to deny the tremendous efforts and assistance made by the international community for Afghanistan, nor the achievements in economic development and social progress that Afghanistan has made.

Against the backdrop of the new start of Afghanistan’s rebuilding, the regional countries can come up with new ideas and approaches to assist Afghanistan’s reconstruction. In this regard, as the two largest countries in the region, China and Russia should assume greater responsibilities in coordinating the regional countries, to approach the Afghan issue not only from the perspective of the interests of their own countries, but also from the perspective of regional interests and even the interests of the international community.

The new approach should draw on the lessons of the past 20 years and adapt it to the realities and possibilities of Afghanistan. It should adhere to the “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” principle, refrain from taking matters into its own hands, not to bear responsibility in place of the Afghan government, and take cooperation and assistance with Afghanistan as the basic model

Politically, it should to insist on the basic principles and bottom line, to wish that Afghanistan will have an inclusive government, implement moderate religious policies, cut off relations with terrorist organizations, gradually shift its focus to economic development and social construction, establish good-neighborly relations with neighboring countries and develop normal relations with the international community. This is not only a requirement of morality and values, but also a requirement of pragmatic politics, which is the basis for Afghanistan to establish and maintain long-term political stability, economic development and social harmony.

The economic goal should be to help Afghanistan become self-reliant. International assistance is essential to Afghanistan, especially at present period, but it can only provide emergency relief, not a fundamental solution to the problem. Afghanistan’s economic problems have not been solved by the huge amount of international aid it had received over the past two decades. From long-term perspective, the ultimate solution is to help Afghan economy develop and stand on its own feet. As the Chinese saying goes, “It is better to teach a man how to fish than to give him a fish.”

Integrating Afghanistan into regional economic cooperation mechanisms and developing trade and economic cooperation with Afghanistan, including investment and joint project construction, are the important ways to help the Afghan economy to develop and go to economic self-reliance. It is also the advantages that the regional countries possess, and it will also open a new window for regional integration. Of course, Afghanistan also needs to create corresponding conditions, including domestic stability, basic security guarantees, practical and feasible economic policies, favorable cooperation conditions and investment environment.

Afghanistan cannot be expected to prosper economically in the short run, but it also has its own economic potential and advantages, in particular for its rich natural resources and transit potential. Once the situation stabilizes and conditions for economic cooperation and investment are ready, the international community, especially the neighboring regions, will actively engage in cooperation with Afghanistan. Afghanistan occupies a special geographic position, locating at the connection of Central, South, and West Asia. If the railway networks, road networks and gas pipeline networks connecting Central, South and West Asia were completed, a new transport and trade corridor will be formed. Afghanistan will benefit greatly as its hub and transit country. It will also boost trade and economic cooperation between Afghanistan and the surrounding regions. Opening of transport channels leading to the Indian Ocean, both through Pakistan and Iran, will also provide conditions for development of Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Ironically, connecting Central Asia, Afghanistan and South Asia was once the goal of the New Silk Road strategy by the United States, but none of its flagship projects realized, such as TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline), CASA1000 (Central Asia-South Asia Transmission Grid), railway network construction, etc. The TAPI project, which framework agreement had signed in April 2008, was scheduled to be put into operations in 2015 and was later changed to 2018, but the construction of the pipeline has yet to be completed. Political changes in Afghanistan could have some uncertain effects on these programs, such as the possibility that TAPI could be turned into TAP, with India excluded from by the Taliban, but this is still just talk at this point. Regional connectivity is in line with the needs of regional development, and these projects may get new dynamics in the future, but will be under completely different political background.

(The author thanks A. Kortunov for his reading and valuable suggestions.)

From our partner RIAC

Zhao Huasheng
Zhao Huasheng
Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, Expert of the China Forum