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This article is part of a Fox News Digital series examining the consequences of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan one year ago this week.
The Taliban control of Afghanistan presents numerous opportunities for Russia and China to extend their influence in Central Asia and gain an ally in an important region on the international landscape, according to experts.
Afghanistan spiraled into a staggering humanitarian crisis following the U.S. withdrawal in Aug. 2021. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has provided assistance to Afghanistan – through non-profits and international aid groups – to help with food, shelter and health care.
However, the country continues to struggle with a number of issues stemming from a lack of international recognition, which has resulted in a lack of support from other nations as the Taliban struggle to stabilize the political and economic problems within its borders.
“Many countries, particularly neighboring countries around Afghanistan, as well as countries like Russia and China, they’ve moved forward with de facto engagement,” Peter Mills, an Afghanistan Researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, told Fox News Digital. “They haven’t formally recognized Taliban government, but they have at times accepted Taliban diplomatic representatives … So essentially, they’ve stopped just short of that formal recognition, but they’ve continued to engage with the Taliban.”
The U.S. has remained a significant roadblock to any efforts at international recognition – even freezing $7 billion in assets that sit in Afghanistan’s banks – which could allow other nations to step in and exert influence in a nation that is as vulnerable as it is vital to regional stability.
Lisa Curtis, former deputy assistant to the president and NSC senior director for South and Central Asia and current Vandenberg Coalition advisory board member, has argued that the U.S. should condition any engagement with the Taliban, but acknowledges that other nations without the same scruples will step in to achieve their own operational goals in the region.
“I think we have to ask, what are we trying to achieve? We’re not just engaging the Taliban for engagement’s sake,” Curtis said. “We have to be achieving our objectives, which are cracking down on terrorists and [ensuring] they’re not repressing human rights, particularly the rights of women and girls.”
“Now, the Chinese and the Russians, they’re going to try to accomplish their own objectives,” she continued. “For instance, the Chinese want the Taliban to crack down on the ETIM, the Islamic Turkistan Movement … Russia will focus on ISIS and its concerns about ISIS, so each country will have its own concerns with the Taliban, but the Russians and the Chinese are not going to care about women and girls’ rights. That’s not something that they’ll condition their engagement on.”
Afghanistan’s economic weakness provides China with the ideal opening to utilize its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to establish influence over the country. The initiative, which some critics have labeled as debt-trap diplomacy, involves Beijing authorizing loans to struggling and developing nations with huge penalties in the event that the debts cannot be repaid.
That economic approach has helped China establish a widespread and deeply-enmeshed influence in various areas around the world, including countries on the other side of the planet, but any such projects remain in the early stages, according to Mills.
“Despite this continuing engagement and continuing talks, you know, we’re still not really seeing China put forth substantive investment,” Mills said, noting that there is “a lot of talk” but not much movement on several project ideas, including mining in the country or establishing a power plant in northern Afghanistan.
“We haven’t so far seen large numbers of Chinese engineers or construction workers or, you know, equipment – all the things that you would expect if you were to actually start a major mining project or build major infrastructure … this could change in the near future, but so far, we haven’t seen concrete action so far,” he added.
China has more of an interest in Afghanistan than does Russia – especially with the continued conflict in eastern Ukraine – but that does not mean Moscow is not paying attention to what is going on in the country. Russia might not have the economic capital to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis, but it does have other offerings.
“One just basic big one is, frankly, food,” Mills explained. “The fundamentals of the situation really haven’t improved: We’re still expecting potential famine conditions for this coming winter, which bottom line means Afghanistan is going to continue to need quite a bit of food aid to avoid that worst case scenario where, frankly, you have millions of people starving to death.”
Russia and Ukraine together account for roughly 30% of the world’s wheat supply – something that Moscow could leverage to gain some influence within Afghanistan. Mills also raised another, and potentially more problematic offering Russia could exploit: Military equipment and weapons.
“The Taliban continue to really prioritize both in maintenance and development of their military capabilities, including, you know, the vast quantities of military equipment that they captured when they conquered the country last August,” he said. “So that very much is a priority for them.”
“We are seeing them prioritize, for example, restoring to an operable status for like helicopters and including fixed wing aircraft,” Mills continued. “They have all fixed wing aircraft, which they are returning to service and actively using to support their military operations against anti-Taliban rebels, particularly in northeastern Afghanistan … this is an area where Russia for relatively low cost, could provide spare parts and equipment.”
However, a relationship with the Taliban also provides benefits at a time when a significant number of countries maintain strict sanctions against Russia in response to the Ukraine invasion. President of Doctrine & Strategy Consulting and former DIA intelligence officer Rebekah Koffler noted that Russia continues to develop closer ties with the Taliban despite still listing the group as a terrorist organization, highlighting how desperately Moscow needs allies at this time.
“Although the Taliban is officially still designated as a terrorist organization in Russia, Putin is being pragmatic in fostering partnership with Kabul,” Koffler told Fox News Digital. “There are economic and other reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that millions of dollars worth of sophisticated military hardware was left in Afghanistan during the chaotic withdrawal of US forces from the country, driven by the Biden Administration’s self-interest to stick to artificial timeline.”
The best course for the U.S. to possibly pursue would see it building partnerships with other countries in the region as a way to deter Chinese and Russian influence, especially after Russia showed a willingness to invade another, smaller nation on pretense alone in order to expand its sphere.
“We should definitely be engaging in that region, which is becoming even more important by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, because now you’ve got countries like Kazakhstan that shares, a 4000-mile border with Russia and has ethnic Russians in its northern areas,” Curtis argued. “So it is concerned that Russia might try to make a move in northern Kazakhstan like it’s done in Ukraine.”
“So we certainly do need to be engaged in the Central Asian countries and competing with Russian and Chinese influence there,” she added.