This article has been contributed by CHRISTIAN NOVAK, who has undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in history from the University of Sydney. He is working for a private company in Wellington in a government relations role.
While attention has been focused largely on the US and its allies as they abandoned Afghanistan, China and Russia have been waiting in the wings to fill the void. From energy and construction projects to military and diplomatic initiatives, both countries will be an integral part of any international effort to influence and/or reign in Taliban behaviour.
Although Beijing senses an opportunity to press its belt and road interests, it worries that the disorder created by the Taliban could spill over the narrow border it shares with Afghanistan into Xinjiang province. Indeed, the Taliban has long acquiesced to the presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which contains Muslim Uyghurs from Xinjiang – where more than 1 million are being held in “re-education” programmes.
When Taliban representatives travelled to Tianjin for a two-day visit in July, the delegation assured China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, that it would “not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China”. Beijing, in turn, reiterated its commitment to not interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
But such goodwill doesn’t immediately translate to trust. Over the past two decades, Uighurs have launched several terror attacks in China in pursuit of their own independent state. As a result, Beijing will be watching on closely to see if Taliban leaders can bring some sort of control to the beleaguered country.
But Beijing remains pragmatic and is prepared to exercise patience in pursuit of potential returns, such as its Mes Aynak concession.
Back in 2007, the state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation won rights to lease the giant Mes Aynak copper ore deposit in Afghanistan, which is said to be the second largest in the world.
Operations are yet to start, because of safety and security issues – but that is only part of the story. Beijing and the Afghan government also remain deadlocked over contractual terms, with Beijing standing firm on wanting the top royalty rate slashed from about 19.5 per cent to 10 per cent.
In 2010, US officials estimated that Afghanistan could be holding $1 trillion of untapped mineral deposits, including lithium and copper. Given the global economic recovery from COVID-19, which has sent commodity prices to all-time highs, this figure is likely to be much more.
Lithium, for starters, is an essential component in the rechargeable batteries for electric cars.
The same goes for the country’s vast copper deposits. Worldwide usage of copper has grown considerably in the past decade, largely driven by the move towards electric vehicles. To put it into perspective, electric vehicles contain anywhere between 40kg and 83 kg of copper, while the average car with an internal combustion engine has 23kg. As indicated at the time, reports of such untapped wealth were considered likely to intensify competition among key regional players.
Meanwhile, Russia has moved to upgrade its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and has conducted military manoeuvres with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, its four allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO).
Moscow’s reliance on the CSTO highlights a serious problem: Turkmenistan, which has a 700-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan, is not a member. But given the weakness of the Turkmenistan army, which continues to use Soviet-era equipment and is riven by tribal and clan divisions, this is hardly likely to be sufficient.
Moscow has voiced its appetite to step into the void left by Washington, even offering the US use of its central Asia bases for Afghan intelligence. Given Europe’s fear of a refugee crisis, and of the instability potentially giving rise to a resurgence of terrorism, the situation could create new opportunities for Russia to play an important role in a volatile region.
Central Asia is becoming a key node in transcontinental transit corridors linking the markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Russia’s ability to effectively project military forces in Central Asia could lead to greater bargaining leverage with the EU, particularly in discussions around the prolonging of Ukraine-related sanctions.
Moscow and Beijing have increased their engagement with Pakistan, a long-standing, albeit uneasy, partner of Washington in Afghanistan. In the wake of the US withdrawal, Pakistan’s foreign policy has undergone a major shift.
Significantly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan categorically refused to host any American bases on Pakistan territory for CIA counter-terrorism operations inside Afghanistan. With Islamabad reluctant to fight a US proxy war, it has been growing its relationship with Moscow.
Russia’s foreign minister visited the country earlier in April, the first such visit in nine years, while Moscow has also pledged to strengthen Pakistan’s counterterrorism capacity.
Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency does not always follow Islamabad’s lead, so all is not lost for the US. But for the immediate future at least, it appears that the CIA will have to find a new approach.
Many commentators have pondered over what happens next. Given the possible resurgence of terrorist activity, there is a distinct possibility that international forces could return in years to come, under even worse conditions than now.
Then there are the humanitarian implications. While the US does not provide security for international aid organisations, it has long supplied intelligence about threats and the safety net of evacuation support.
And in terms of distributing aid, how will it be siphoned through to the Afghan people?
Sufficient numbers of in-theatre personnel are required to manage and oversee aid delivery, but how many will be lost with the closing of western embassies and their staffs?
Ultimately, the answers to such questions will depend on the priorities of China and Russia – the leadership role they’re willing to assume and at what cost.