The fall of Kabul will have profound implications for Central Asia and wider Eurasia — presenting both risks and opportunities. The risks associated with the Taliban in control of Afghanistan can be construed as an opportunity to test and advance the Greater Eurasian Partnership, writes Valdai Club expert Glenn Diesen.
The unipolar moment ends in Central Asia and Eurasia
NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan represents a wider defeat of the unipolar moment. The US invaded Afghanistan as a response to terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, although Washington was somewhat open about the geopolitical objectives. Since the beginning of the war, there was no shortage of analyses about how Afghanistan could be a bridgehead to assert US influence in the energy-rich Central Asian region and oust Russian and Chinese influence.
The offshore security strategy of both the UK and the US as de-facto island-states has throughout history been to prevent the emergence of a hegemon or collective hegemon in either Europe or Eurasia. In Europe, this entailed preventing a Russian-German alignment, and in the wider Eurasia it entailed obstructing a Russian-Chinese alignment. As Kissinger noted:
For three centuries, British leaders had operated from the assumption that, if Europe’s resources were marshalled by a single dominant power, that country would then resources to challenge Great Britain’s command of the seas, and thus threaten its independence. Geopolitically, the United States, also an island off the shores of Eurasia, should, by the same reasoning, have felt obliged to resist the domination of Europe or Asia by any one power and, even more, the control of both continents by the same power.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US pursued a hegemonic security strategy that equated power maximisation with security maximisation. This strategy clearly stated that the endurance of global hegemony depended on preventing the emergence of a state or group of states capable of challenging US power. The objective of containing Russian and Chinese influence in the centre of the Eurasian continent was aided by developing a democratic US-aligned Afghanistan.
The defeat in Afghanistan discredited the unipolar world order. First, a US-aligned Afghanistan demands security dependency on the US, which undermined the government’s legitimacy and ability to defend itself. Second, US security guarantees to the Afghans, much like the Kurds before them, proved to be unreliable, a lesson not lost on US frontline states from Ukraine to Taiwan. Third, President Biden dismissing that the mission in Afghanistan was nation-building undermines the promotion of liberal democracy as a hegemonic norm.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan should ideally be replaced with multilateral solutions as an absolute gain. Although, Washington has been explicit that its withdrawal from Afghanistan is not part of a strategy of transitioning from unipolarity and instead become “the first among equals” in a multipolar world. Rather, as specified by the 2018 US Security Strategy, the US is preparing for renewed great power rivalry with Russia and China. The US rhetoric concerning Afghanistan similarly suggests that the “forever wars” are abandoned to free up resources and focus on the direct confrontation with China and Russia.
During the disastrous evacuation from Afghanistan, Washington should have sent its top diplomats to Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad and other relevant capitols to negotiate a cooperative framework for a mutually beneficial post-NATO settlement for a stable Afghanistan. Instead, Washington sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Singapore and Vietnam to mobilise an East Asian front against China, akin to the NATO alliance containing Russia. The zero-sum Cold War mind-set is also expressed in Brussels. Rather than engaging Moscow in Beijing in collective efforts to bring security and stability to Afghanistan, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell uttered: “What we cannot do is to let the Chinese and Russians to take control of the situation... We could become irrelevant”. Yet, it is the obsession with containing Russia and China that incentivises both Moscow and Beijing to reject cooperation with NATO powers in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Are Western policies towards Afghanistan compatible with that of the Eurasian powers? Instability looms due to the rapid and uncontrolled NATO pull-out from Afghanistan that enabled terrorist groups such as ISIS to assert themselves, the threat of future US airstrikes against Afghanistan, the possible funding rebel groups to counter the Taliban, the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s reserves and threatening sanctions. Unravelling Afghanistan and pushing it off a cliff is a recipe for a regional disaster as the US left behind approximately 85 billion dollars of military hardware.
Washington’s effort of having Russia and China bandwagon behind the US policy of “holding the Taliban accountable” implies containment and confrontation rather than engagement, which could result in Moscow and Beijing inheriting the mess left behind by Washington.
Engaging with the new reality in Afghanistan
There is little enthusiasm for the Taliban’s rise to power among Russia, China, Iran or the Central Asian neighbours as the radical Islamic group creates security concerns. However, imposing a foreign system of governance through military power resulted in a spectacular and predictable failure. NATO’s military presence became a recruitment drive for the Taliban who could style itself as a liberation movement against the foreign occupiers. 40 years of war gave the Taliban greater territorial control than it had in 2001, and more coercion and sanctions will only harden radicals.
The solution to Afghanistan is realistic goals based on low expectations rooted in traditional security. Rather than revolutionising the social, cultural and political fabric in an elaborate nation-building initiative without the consent of the people, traditional state security will focus primarily on preventing extremism from spilling Afghanistan’s national borders. Russia’s recent military exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan aimed to stabilise their borders with Afghanistan, which also strengthens Russia’s role as a regional security provider.
Engagement should entail incentivising Afghanistan to act in its interests by offering economic connectivity and a place in the Greater Eurasian Partnership. As Western governments abandoned their embassies, Russia and China kept their diplomatic missions open. Moscow and Beijing are engaged in diplomacy with the Taliban to reach agreements for peaceful coexistence in the Eurasian neighbourhood. The Taliban has referred to China as a “friend” and welcomed any investments in reconstruction, while concurrently reassuring Russia about its benign intentions. This could be a mere temporarily strategy by the Taliban whilst it consolidates control over the country, although preventive actions against Afghanistan cannot lay the foundation for stability.
Afghanistan as a test for the Greater Eurasian Partnership
One of the first Russian Eurasianists, Petr Savitsky, argued a century ago in the tradition of Mackinder that global politics is largely a struggle between maritime powers and Eurasian land powers. Maritime powers, seeking to control the Eurasian continent from the oceanic periphery, were inclined towards imperialism as they relied on a strategy of division among Eurasian powers to dominate. Savitsky argued that “Eurasia has previously played a unifying role” and Russia could assert this role as a middle kingdom in Eurasia.
Statements from both Moscow and Beijing indicate that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is envisioned as the key institution to manage the risks and opportunities from Afghanistan. The SCO is an ideal institution as it includes Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Central Asian powers — with the possibility of including Iran in the foreseeable future. The SCO was established to fight terrorism, which places Afghanistan at the centre, although the organisation gradually develops economic competencies.
The SCO is also an instrument for harmonising interests as the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seek to align their Eurasian integration initiatives under the umbrella of the SCO. The EAEU aims for a wider role to connect the economies region with free-trade agreements, while the Chinese BRI will likely be the leading driver in the reconstruction of Afghanistan to connect its economy with the region.
There are evidently profound tensions between SCO members and competing interests regarding Eurasia and Afghanistan. Case in point, the rise of the Taliban, closely engaged with Pakistan and possibly in a close partnership with China, is a disaster for India. However, stabilising the shared neighbourhood is a common gain. Benign and inclusive security institutions are tasked with improving security with other member states, while exclusive security institutions are more capable of enhancing security by mobilising against non-members.
The Greater Eurasian Partnership was created by Russia and China at the centre to restore their political subjectivity in the international system. The vulnerability of excessive dependence on the US geo-economic infrastructure resulted in the creation of alternative and autonomous Eurasian high-tech industries, transportation corridors, banks, trading currencies and payment systems. As the US considers returning to sanctions and airstrikes, the Greater Eurasian Partnership can be tested and advanced by reorganising the regional economic and security architecture. For better or worse, the troubled and war-torn Afghanistan now has a Eurasian future.