14 November 2023

Russian and Chinese involvement in Afghanistan since the US retreat

Authors: Anastasiya Shapochkina and Paul Cmok

Introduction

Long before the US entry into and withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kabul has been courted by foreign powers with a historic presence in the region: China and Russia. Their renewed interest in Afghanistan is important to understand for the implications it has, not only for the legitimization sought by the Taliban and for the future of Afghanistan but also for the security and geopolitical alignment of a greater region, stretching from Central Asia to India and the Middle East.

This research project explores the geopolitical interests behind China’s and Russia’s engagement in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover in August 2021. It analyzes the two countries’ objectives and priorities in Afghanistan, the reasons why Kabul is important to them, and their means of involvement: from political involvement to security agendas and economic engagement on the regional, national, and local levels.

The analysis explores the nature of the Russia-China relationship through their interactions (partnership or competition) over Afghanistan within the regional organizations and bilateral diplomacy. The report addresses the security and military situation for China, Russia, and Afghanistan’s neighbors, considering that the US and NATO’s departure has opened up a significant security void that may prove difficult to fill, especially in China’s Xinjiang region, Pakistan, and the bordering Central Asian countries. Finally, while the void left behind by Western firms and organizations is hard to fill, the report investigates the existence of trade and investment projects in Afghanistan and Chinese efforts to integrate it into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other routes. The report will use microeconomic analysis, study the activities of companies, and rely on information from interviews with experts and practitioners.

The report is split into three chapters, respectively dedicated to China, Russia, and regional connectivity and engagement. The analysis for the country-specific chapters proceeds in three parts:

1. Part one analyzes China’s political, economic, and security interests and in Afghanistan, the level of Chinese involvement and engagement with the Taliban and competing groups, the limited economic engagement of Beijing and diplomatic support (of the lack thereof) on important issues for the Taliban in international and regional organizations.

2. Part two delves into Russian involvement in the country, from the far-reaching historic ties to Moscow’s engagement after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the domestic and foreign policy factors that explain the evolution of Russia’s strategy toward Afghanistan. In light of Russia’s limited current involvement, the paper interprets the military and security aspects of Moscow’s cooperation with the Taliban, and how they are driven by a larger strategy of Russia toward the United States, and by Moscow’s perception of itself as a regional leader, which is now contested by China. It will analyze the security threats Afghanistan poses for Central Asia, how Russia has been addressing them (or how it has failed to do so), and what it tells us about Russia’s role in regional and global geopolitics, especially since the invasion of Ukraine.

3. Part three will look at Russia’s and China’s claimed and actual involvement in Afghanistan through interconnectivity projects, including transportation, water, and energy infrastructure. It seeks to compare the depth of China’s and Russia’s involvement and interest versus that of other neighboring countries, like Pakistan, India, or the Central Asian countries.

The conclusion will assess the evolution of Russia’s versus China’s influence in the region and their capacity to impact the developments in Afghanistan, and with it larger regional security.


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