Russia, Iran and China are weighing their options for Afghanistan’s uncertain future as U.S. forces reportedly withdrew from its largest airfield as part of a total military exit from the war-torn country.
Major U.S. media outlets reported Friday that the last U.S. troops left Bagram Air Base, a central hub of U.S. and allied operations in the country for nearly two decades since shortly after their 2001 invasion.
The pullout has been part of an ongoing process to ensure what the Pentagon has deemed a “safe and orderly exit” of the U.S. and coalition partners from the country, but regional countries have expressed concern as violence continues to ravage Afghanistan.
Recently, against the backdrop of the completion of the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, we have seen an increase in the activity of the Taliban movement in a number of regions of the country,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters Monday, “especially in the northern and northeastern provinces, in close proximity to the borders of the Central Asian states.”
She then offered details of the amount of territory now controlled by the Taliban.
“In this part of Afghanistan, over the past 10 days, more than 30 counties have come under the control of the militants,” she said. “The Afghan National Security Forces are struggling to contain the onslaught.”
But she signaled confidence that the Taliban might not move into strongholds of the internationally-recognized Afghan government, including Kabul.
“At the same time, large cities and administrative centers of the provinces, including the capital of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Kabul, remain intact,” she said, “which indicates that the armed opposition currently lacks the necessary resources.”
Moscow has its own difficult experience fighting in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union attempted to back a communist government there against a mujahideen insurgency that received support from the U.S. and other regional powers. Moscow was forced to withdraw as the country collapsed into a civil war that ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban, as well as Al-Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks prompted the U.S.-led intervention that put an end to the Taliban’s rule, but prompted an insurgency that Washington and its allies have struggled for two decades to defeat. Last year, the U.S. and the Taliban struck a historic peace deal to facilitate a U.S. military departure while paving a path toward reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban, though the latter has continued to gain ground nationwide.
Even before former President Donald Trump’s administration began talks with the Taliban, Moscow had hosted the group and established ties in hopes of securing its own role in Afghanistan. Now, Russia is counting on these relations to ensure stability in the state.
“According to the statements of the Taliban Movement representatives themselves and according to our estimates,” Zakharova said, “the TM does not intend to aggravate relations with neighboring countries.”
But she voiced concern that continued instability in Afghanistan could negatively impact its neighbors.
“At the same time, the increase in military tension in the provinces of Afghanistan bordering the Central Asian states may lead to a humanitarian crisis and an increase in the number of refugees in the region, which causes our concern,” Zakharova said. “In this regard, we call on both conflicting Afghan parties to an early cessation of hostilities and the beginning of meaningful negotiations on an agenda of national reconciliation, so that this is recorded not only in words, but also in deeds.”
Concerns have also been expressed by former Soviet bloc states in Central Asia including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with which both the U.S. and Russia have sought to shore up relations in recent weeks.
Another regional power watching carefully sits along Afghanistan’s western border—Iran. The fellow Islamic Republic has invested heavily via its Shiite Muslim network of militias in countering Sunni Muslim insurgencies in the Middle East, and, while Iran has welcomed news of U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, any uptick in unrest there would be most unwelcome.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told a press briefing that Tehran saw a need for the establishment of an inclusive government through “peaceful and sustainable solutions.”
He saw the Taliban as a part of the solution, but not its entirety.
“The Taliban does not constitute all Afghanistan,” Khatibzadeh said, “but is part of that country and part of the way out of crisis.”
Khatibzadeh acknowledged a worsening in the security situation in the country, where he said Tehran was monitoring the movements of groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS), which Iran-backed fighters fought in Iraq and Syria.
He emphasized that Iran was prepared to foster efforts for inter-Afghan talks and unity.
“Violence has escalated in Afghanistan,” Khatibzadeh said. “Some ethnicities are under pressure, and we called for respect for their rights. The political solution would guarantee the future of Afghanistan.”
The following day, the repercussions of U.S. policy in Afghanistan were discussed by the country’s top global competitor, China.
Speaking at the Second United Nations High-Level Conference on Counter-Terrorism, a forum established 15 years ago in the wake of the U.S.-led “War on Terror,” Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun commented Tuesday on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.
“Despite the significant progress made in international counter-terrorism cooperation, the world remains confronted with tangible threats of terrorism,” Zhang said. “ISIS is very active in Iraq and Syria, and the withdrawal of foreign troops has led to a sharp deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, with terrorist forces such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement waxing strong and wreaking havoc.”
While a virtual global consensus exists on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the U.S. last year de-listed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or Turkestan Islamic Party, as a “terrorist organization” under the Immigration and Nationality Act last November.
The U.S. has targeted the mostly ethnic Uighur group in past years, but a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last month that the group was removed because “for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist.”
“We assess that ETIM is now a broad label China uses to inaccurately paint a variety of Uighur actors, including non-violent activists and advocates for human rights, as terrorist threats,” the spokesperson said at the time. “China often labels individuals and groups as terrorists on the basis of their political and religious beliefs, even if they do not advocate violence.”
Both China and its strategic partner, Pakistan, another nation heavily invested in the outcomes in neighboring Afghanistan, have raised concerns over the move. Pakistan has deep ties in Afghanistan, and has offered to use its influence, including with the Taliban, to attempt to advance peace talks between the Afghan government and its powerful rival.
Meanwhile, both Pakistan and India have accused one another of sponsoring terrorist activities in Afghanistan.
With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan rapidly winding down, State Department spokesperson Ned Price emphasized during a press conference Monday that Washington would maintain assistance to Kabul in other ways.
“We are withdrawing our military forces, as the president announced, but we intend to maintain a diplomatic presence in Kabul,” Price said. “That is something that is important to us, given our enduring desire to have a continued partnership with the Afghan Government, and crucially with the Afghan people.”
He emphasized that the U.S. was not abandoning Afghanistan.
“It is absolutely not the case that we intend to abandon Afghanistan, that we intend to relent in our support for the Government of Afghanistan, that we intend to diminish our support and our partnership for the people of Afghanistan,” Price said.
He stressed that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan will survive its military exit.
“Obviously, that relationship will look different with the military withdrawal underway, and once it is completed in the coming weeks and months,” Price said. “But that does not in any way diminish the commitment we have to the Afghan government and to the Afghan people.”
The Taliban, for its part, has vowed to play a positive role in the country’s future governance, and welcomed the news that the U.S. military had left Bagram Air Base.
“We consider evacuation of all US forces from #Bagram a positive step & seek withdrawal of foreign forces from all parts of the country,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid tweeted Friday. “Such is in the interest of both them & Afghans. Afghans can move closer to peace & security with complete withdrawal of foreign forces.”