Russia, Turkey, and Iran: Regional Powers React to U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan
The eyes of the world were on Afghanistan as the last U.S. military planes exited the country on August 30th, 2021. “I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third country nationals, and vulnerable Afghans,” General Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, stated at the Pentagon. President Joe Biden thanked the final American forces for their efforts to execute the mission promptly and safely and declared an end to the two-decade-long U.S. military presence in the country.
However, the Afghan issue is far from being resolved. With the Taliban having successfully seized power, major regional and global players, concerned with the safety and stability of international borders, are now actively seeking ways to approach the new regime in Kabul. The following essay describes how three Eurasian powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – have responded to the actions of the U.S. and recent developments in Afghanistan.
When the Western states were rushing to evacuate their citizens from Kabul, Russia was one of the few countries that did not seem to be alarmed by the Taliban. Russian ambassador Dmitry Zhirnov met with a Taliban representative shortly after they seized power, while President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, even declared that it was easier to negotiate with the Taliban than with the “puppet government” of former President Ashraf Ghani. President Putin himself asserted that the outcome of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan “is only tragedies and losses of life for those who did it, the United States, and even more so for those people who live on the territory of Afghanistan. The result is zero, if not a negative one all round.”
However, even if the Kremlin seems undisturbed, experts say that the U.S. exit has already caused Russia a number of problems in the security domain. According to Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, Moscow is deeply troubled as the Taliban takeover might lead to disturbances in Russia’s north as well as along its borders, especially in Central Asia. In recent weeks, Russia already held military exercises with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, two Central Asian states that border Afghanistan.
Besides military training, two high-level meetings were organized between member states of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes China, on September 16 and September 17, respectively. Russia has also expanded its engagement with India and Pakistan. President Putin held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to establish a new channel for consultations on Afghanistan. Therefore, the Kremlin intends to enhance its ties with the major regional actors within bilateral and multilateral frameworks to ensure stability along its borders.
Turkey has long held a deep and pivotal position in the War on Terror in Afghanistan, the primary thrust of which was providing security in Kabul, sometimes with thousands of troops. A key element of Turkey’s involvement was the protection of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, which it controlled right up until the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban.
Since then, Turkey has responded with cautious optimism to the change in Afghanistan’s leadership, leaning both on the strong historic ties between the states of Afghanistan and Turkey and an opportunity to increase their diplomatic leverage. By August 27, President Erdogan and the Taliban had offered overtures to each other on religious grounds, insisting on continued positive relations, and entered talks on an agreement for Turkey to oversee the logistics of Karzai Airport, allowing Ankara to flood Afghanistan with cheap Turkish goods. The Taliban, for its part, will control the airport’s security. Turkish influence over the airport would also make it one of the primary guarantors of international aid into Afghanistan, a possible bargaining chip Turkey could use to salvage its diminishing favor with the West and especially the United States.
The Turkish public was fierce in its social media backlash to Taliban Spokesman Suheyl Shaheen’s assertion that Afghanistan and Turkey were “brothers in faith,” as well as Erdogan’s reciprocation of the sentiment. However, Turkish leadership has remained mindful that provocative moves on the Afghan status quo could stimulate two undesirable security risks. The first of these is the resurgence of Islamist activity in Central Asia, a partially Turkish sphere of influence with a long history as a hotbed for radicalization, especially during the Syrian War. Moreover, the violence in Afghanistan has left the status of 18 million Afghans in the balance, raising the specter of the Syrian refugee crisis, where those fleeing Assad flooded Turkey on their way to the European Union.
In a delicate balance between increasing its leverage with the Taliban and its importance as gatekeeper to Afghanistan for the West, Turkish activities concerning the region can be expected to be cautiously pragmatic while stopping just short of jeopardizing its diplomatic standing or national security.
Prior to the US-led invasion in 2001, Iran and the Taliban were bitterly opposed over religious, ethnic, and political cleavages, and owing to the assassination of several Iranian diplomats by the latter, almost went to war in 1998. Since U.S. intervention, however, Iran increasingly assumed the role of a cautious benefactor to the Taliban, forming strong links with the hardline Haqqani network and proliferating signatures of its arsenal among Taliban fighters. Even leading up to the takeover, Iran had hosted talks with the Taliban on the future status of a post-American Afghan state. As such, Iran was well-positioned to welcome the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, cheering the expulsion of thousands of American troops along its northwestern border. While reactions have been mixed among the Iranian elite, the citizens remain highly suspicious of the Taliban, particularly with regard to the security of the majority Shia Persian-speaking Hazara minority. For its part, the Taliban has been cautious not to provoke Iran, allowing Shia Afghans to celebrate the holiday of Ashura.
Even as Iran’s media shifts its tone to avoid inflammatory characterizations of the Taliban’s brutality and prepares its population for a milder view of the group, Tehran’s leadership still recognize a number of risks associated with its increasingly powerful role as a Taliban interlocutor. Among these are the proliferation of antagonistic hardline Sunni militias. Already, ISIS-Khorosan, one of the stronger of these such groups, has launched an attack on Kabul Airport killing 182 people. Similar to Turkey, Iran is also a likely destination for a large number of westbound refugees. Should the Taliban become more confrontational with Tehran, the latter has a number of options on the table to retaliate, including the mobilization of Shia militias recruited from Afghanistan and trained over the course of the Syrian War.
It remains in Iran’s best interests to establish cordial working ties with the new Taliban-led Afghan government, but it would not be without serious liabilities for the Islamic Republic.
Prepared by Tina Dolbaia and Michael Robinson.
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