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Afghan debacle is a sign of shift in global order: With Russian help, China quickly replacing US as world’s most important country

So far, two answers to that question have emerged. One from the West, and one from the Russians and Chinese. It is the latter of the two that looks the most promising. The Western response has largely been one of panic. Diplomats, journalists, aid workers and others are flocking to Kabul airport in order to escape Afghanistan as fast as possible. By contrast, the Russians and the Chinese have remained calm and collected.

Although Moscow announced on Monday that it would evacuate some of the staff at its Kabul embassy, its doors, as well as those of the People’s Republic of China remain open. Russia’s ambassador in Kabul, Dmitry Zhirnov, expressed confidence in a Taliban promise that “not a single hair will be harmed [on the heads] of Russian diplomats”. 

These two approaches – fleeing or remaining – reflect how the various countries view their future relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan. Two policy options follow naturally from these approaches: isolation and coercion on the one hand, or engagement and leverage on the other. Associated with these are an insistence on ideology in the first instance and pragmatic considerations of national interest in the second.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was quick off the mark in support of option number one, raising the issue of human rights while issuing rather empty threats. He said that the UK wished to “make very clear to the Taliban that we will hold them to account.” Asked how that was possible, Raab said by “working with our partners, through everything from the sanctions that we can apply to the ODA [official development assistance] that we will hold back pending reform.” 

Unlike the UK’s talk of human rights and sanctions, the rhetoric coming out of Beijing and Moscow has been focused on security and engagement. As near-neighbours of Afghanistan, the Chinese and Russians are primarily concerned with ensuring that the country does not once again became a haven for terrorists, and that instability does not spill over its borders into their own backyards. As long as the Taliban can ensure this does not happen, Russia and China seem open to establishing good relations with the new Afghan regime.

Thus, while demanding that Afghanistan would not be used for “acts detrimental to China,” a Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesperson remarked that his country was prepared to develop “good-neighbourly, friendly and cooperative relations with Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, the Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, stated on Monday that, “If we compare the negotiability of the colleagues and the partners, I have long since decided that the Taliban is much more able to reach agreements than the [former pro-American] puppet government in Kabul.” The Kremlin has experience, having hosted a delegation of the movement’s political officers for talks in Moscow, despite the fact the group is a prohibited terrorist organization in the country. 

Kabulov even suggested that Russia might officially recognise the Taliban government, depending “on the behaviour of the new authorities.” “We will carefully see how responsibly they govern the country in the near future. And based on the results, the Russian leadership will draw the necessary conclusions,” he said. 

Thus, if the West seems to be looking at branding a stick, China and Russia appear to be more in favour of offering a carrot.

Cynics may object that hoping for co-operation from the Taliban is naïve. However, there are some reasons to think the situation might be different compared to when the Taliban first took power in 1996. Then, it showed little interest in, or understanding of, the nuts and bolts of governing a country, let alone foreign affairs. Now it seems to recognize that, to survive, it needs to be technically competent and maintain friendly relations with neighbours.

Antonio Giustozzi, one of the best Western analysts of Afghan affairs, comments that the Taliban seem to be thinking of some sort of coalition government, “incorporating elements of the previous regime.” Giustozzi notes that, “The Taliban have also been reaching out to mid-level technocrats and bureaucrats, inviting them to stay in the country to serve the next government.” In other words, the Taliban has become more pragmatic. And this means that there may be some benefits to be derived from working with them.

China, for instance, will no doubt be eyeing Afghanistan’s substantial mineral reserves. A few years ago, the Chinese won the rights to exploit the copper deposits at Aynak, in central Afghanistan, which are believed to be the largest in the world. Until now, they have been unable to put these rights into practice. But if the Taliban can provide order, mineral resource extraction may at last become a real possibility.

This should benefit Afghanistan as well as China. The country is in desperate need of funds, and Chinese investment could provide a valuable replacement for lost Western aid. Russia, meanwhile, may have something to offer in parts of northern Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union previously helped in the construction of industrial projects such as the Sheberghan gas field and the Mazar-i-Sharif nitrogen fertiliser plant.

Meanwhile, the obvious international force to replace the United States and NATO as the guarantor of regional security would be the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Members include most of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Russia, China, Pakistan, and, as of last week, Iran.

Should such things come about, it would be further evidence of a shift in the international order. A multipolar order is fast emerging in which China is displacing the United States as the world’s leading country, and in which Russia is carving out a more limited role for itself as a power in the region.

From Afghanistan’s point of view, there may well be benefits to this. Chinese investment is possibly a change for the better compared with American handouts, which fuelled massive corruption and dependency. Also advantageous may be the SCO’s replacement of America and NATO, given that, as neighbours, the SCO’s members have a direct interest in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability.

Somewhat strangely, therefore, the rise of the Taliban provides certain opportunities for Afghanistan’s development that were not previously available. It’s far from certain that the Taliban will want to make use of these opportunities, but the Russians and Chinese seem to be willing to give it a shot. If they do, they may well reap considerable benefits.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2021, paradox. All rights reserved.

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