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© Michael B. Watkins

The Real Threat to US Interests in Afghanistan

If Russia and China make progress in Afghanistan, they will be emboldened elsewhere.

On March 9, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stepped into the press briefing room to announce a review of American policy in Afghanistan. His major point? That the White House is “working with … key military leaders to create an approach to address Afghanistan to defeat” the Islamic State (IS), an indication that the Trump administration sees Afghanistan policy and counterterrorism policy as one in the same.

The recent attacks — one on a hospital in Kabul’s diplomatic quarter and one on a convoy of aid workers in Jowzjan — by IS have increased hypersensitivity in Washington about the growing aggression of the terrorist group in Afghanistan. However, the true threat to US interests in Afghanistan is not IS, but encroachment by Russia and China on Afghan sovereignty.

President Donald Trump’s focus on “utterly destroying” the Islamic State has not only diverted attention from a resurgent Taliban’s onslaught in northeastern Afghanistan, but also from Russian and Chinese encroachment in the country that the United States has invested so much time and resources in. Russia and China have started to organize around Afghanistan, to reach out to the government in Kabul and to establish a military presence on Afghan borders. Given all that the US has committed to assembling competent governing institutions and empowering the Afghan people, Washington cannot afford to leave Russia and China to become power players in a country formerly monopolized by NATO.

RUSSIA AND THE TALIBAN

Publicly, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims that his interest in Afghanistan is based on self-defense, because Russia wants to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a staging ground for IS expansion. Nevertheless, Trump should seriously reconsider his demand that US defense officials include Russia as a top partner in the fight against IS, as there is evidence that the Kremlin is furtively supporting the Taliban. In February, the Russian Foreign Ministry revealed that Moscow is sharing intelligence with the Taliban, ostensibly to counter the threat of IS. Russia admits to extensive contacts with the Taliban, and the Taliban has disclosed that the alliance resulted from “a common enemy,” the United States. Afghan officials assert that covert meetings took place between Taliban leaders and the Kremlin multiple times, in both Tajikistan and Moscow.

Russia’s partnership with the Taliban automatically puts Moscow at odds with the US and undermines the progress made by the Afghan armed forces. Russia’s dangerous rhetoric, that the Afghan government has not been effectively tackling IS, empowers the Taliban and dissolves the public’s faith in the fragile government.

Given that the Islamic State is contained in a small part of Afghanistan, the heavy Russian response to the group’s presence in the country may be a result of other incentives. The combination of military moves in Afghanistan, such as partnering with the Taliban, and diplomatic efforts, such as organizing a strategic plan on Afghanistan with other regional powers, is a sign that Moscow is after more than defeating IS.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsMaybe more noteworthy are the Russian efforts to decide Afghanistan’s fate without the input of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the legitimate government in Kabul. In December 2016, Moscow hosted a conference with key allies, Pakistan and China, on Afghanistan’s affairs without any Afghan representatives, a signal that Russia does not believe in cooperating with the democratically elected government in Kabul. Furthermore, it was suggested that the purpose of the meeting was forming an anti-US alliance in Afghanistan.

With the NATO troop presence in the country at the lowest it has been since 2001, and the United States unsure whether or not NATO funding to the Afghan government will be extended past 2017, Russia may see now as its best opportunity to step into the Afghanistan arena. Moscow has every incentive to get involved: an opportunity to exert greater influence among its South Asian neighbors and the chance to undermine US clout in the region.

… AND NOW CHINA

The Chinese have also started to take steps to make their presence known in Afghanistan after years of historical disengagement and a “low-profile approach” to their neighbor. As Central Asian states increasingly fall under Chinese influence, the US needs to cautiously take stock of Beijing’s recent actions in Afghanistan. Beijing has mixed an unusual combination of military and economic measures in Afghanistan, possibly opening a new front of strategic geopolitical competition. China’s new security and economic partnerships in Afghanistan suggests that Beijing is trying to compete with the US as a heavyweight in the country.

For example, according to the Pentagon, the Chinese have reportedly initiated military patrols on the Afghanistan-China border, but Beijing continues to deny any presence in the area. First of all, the continued denial of a troop presence is concerning because it raises suspicion about maligned Chinese incentives. The recent Chinese deployments have been too quickly dismissed as minor maneuvers to prevent terrorism in China’s Xinjiang province. Instead, these maneuvers should be seen as the provocations they truly are, if only because the patrols have upset and alarmed India, a key partner of the United States in the peace negotiations in Afghanistan.

Given that the Chinese have used “soft military power” in several Pacific, Asian and African countries in the past to grow its comprehensive power, the United States cannot afford to have the Chinese take the lead in foreign military operations in Afghanistan. The Chinese efforts to exert military power in Afghanistan, and potentially fill the security hole left by official NATO troop withdrawal in 2014, are concerning because they threaten the traditional US sphere of influence.

China continues to try to develop financial clout in Kabul, as well as using economic partnerships with the Taliban to threaten Afghan commercial sovereignty. China is Afghanistan’s top investor, which China can use to edge out US influence in Kabul. For instance, in September 2016, China partnered with the Afghan government on its Silk Road project to construct the first Afghan rail freight in the country, which is set to carry $4 million-worth of goods through northern Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that China is now poised to become Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, the Chinese also struck a deal with the Taliban. The Taliban recently announced that it was handing over mining rights in Taliban-owned territory to a state-owned Chinese company to start a $3 billion project. By recognizing Taliban territorial rights, Beijing discredited the real government in Kabul and lent the Taliban great legitimacy and economic resources. China appears to be covering all of its bases in Afghanistan — befriending both the Ghani administration and the Taliban rebels in order to stake out broader influence in the country.

The United States cannot afford to have economic, social and political development in Afghanistan derailed by the rapacity of Russia and China. If Russia and China make progress in Afghanistan, they will be emboldened elsewhere. At stake is the success of President Ghani’s government and the infant democratic institutions in Kabul. The US needs to make swaying Russia and China from getting further involved in Afghanistan a priority.

*[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.

Photo Credit: Michael B. Watkins