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Russian Support for the Taliban: A New “Great Game”

By supporting the Taliban, Russia risks pushing Central Asia further into greater cooperation with the United States and China.

The geopolitical implications of Russia’s growing support for the Taliban in Afghanistan are enormous. While the Russian Federation is likely doing this purely to spite the United States, it is inadvertently undermining its own interests in the region. This represents an ironic and dangerous turn in what has been popularized as a new “Great Game” in Central Asia. Russia’s aid to and support for the Taliban not only threatens US interests, but Chinese ones as well. Thus, Russia has created an opportunity for the United States and China to push back against its controversial actions in Afghanistan through building cooperation on both security and development issues.

Russia’s warming relationship with the Taliban will weaken the foundation of its strategic partnership of mere convenience with China for several reasons. Supporting the Taliban directly contradicts one of China’s core diplomatic principles: non-interference in another sovereign nation’s affairs — though China’s hypocrisy with regard to this principle is well known.

China cannot simply look past Russia’s actions in Afghanistan, as both nations are supposed to play leading roles in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization dedicated to fighting the “three evils” of separatism, extremism and terrorism. The Taliban can easily be linked to the strains of extremism and terrorism that threaten the stability of every Central Asian nation, as well as China’s Muslim Uighur-minority province of Xinjiang. In fact, the Russia-China divide over Afghanistan and Central Asia has already begun with China’s creation of an anti-terror mechanism with Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan; Russia was notably cut out entirely.

This is unsurprising, as Russian support for a religious fundamentalist organization like the Taliban runs counter to China’s goal of preserving secular stability in Afghanistan, especially at a time when it is cracking down on religiosity in its own Xinjiang Autonomous Province. While China may hedge in its relationship with the Taliban, it does not actively support the group over the preferable secular government in place. Now, with the chances of a Russo-Sino axis on Afghanistan weakening, the United States has an opportunity to expand upon the cooperation it has recently built with China over North Korea by taking advantage of China’s security fears in Central Asia to offset Russia’s actions in Afghanistan.

The United States can also partner with China to provide greater security assistance and capacity training to the Afghan National Army, which has long struggled to establish itself as an effective fighting force against the Taliban. With China’s possible military presence in eastern Afghanistan, a partnership to legitimize and strengthen their presence will go a long way in helping the US stabilize the country and prevent extremism from spilling into Xinjiang. Considering the United States and China’s mutual interest in Afghanistan’s stability, the destructiveness of a Russian-armed Taliban provides ample incentive for US-Chinese cooperation.

Additionally, by supporting the Taliban in a stronger and more overt manner, Russia risks pushing the nations of Central Asia further toward China for security guarantees and into greater cooperation with the United States. There is strong evidence that other extremist organizations in the region have benefited from the Taliban’s resurgence due to Russia’s support. These benefits have come in the form of military successes, sometimes under Taliban direction, and an overall higher organizational morale. The United States should make every effort to highlight Russia’s duplicitous dealings with the fundamentalist Taliban to nations like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and then offer US support to stabilize their Afghan neighbor.

In a blatant attempt to hurt US interests, Russia risks damaging its own security, its fragile relations with China and its sphere of influence in Central Asia. The contradictions Russia has created for China and the nations of Central Asia are simply too great to ignore. The United States is well positioned with the advent of a Trump-Xi personal rapprochement and state-level cooperation on North Korea to cooperate in another area of mutual interest: Afghanistan.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

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