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Commentary: U.S. retreat from Afghanistan threatens China and Russia

  • August 17, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 1:25 p.m.
  • English Press
  • ,

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator


TOKYO — A U.S. defeat in war should be good news for China and Russia, considering that any blow to American prestige and leadership is a win for its main strategic rivals.


And such a blow is precisely what has happened in Afghanistan. As the Taliban seized Kabul, the Afghan capital, after taking control of other major cities, they declared victory over the U.S. in the 20-year war across the landlocked country perched at the crossroads of Central and South Asia.


Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the U.S. invaded the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, contending that the country harbored the main culprits of the coordinated violence on the World Trade Center and other targets in the U.S. Since then, Washington has spent a total of $88 billion to train and equip Afghanistan’s army and police.


However, the Afghan government collapsed quickly in the face of the recent Taliban onslaught. The U.S. retreat from the country underscores the limits of its power and influence, a development that should be welcomed by both Beijing and Moscow.


China, however, has expressed anger. “The chaos currently in Afghanistan is directly related to the hasty withdrawal of foreign troops,” Geng Shuang, China’s deputy UN ambassador, told the Security Council on Monday.

In a July 29 news conference, Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesman Wu Qian called the U.S. a world-renowned “blame-shifter.”


“As the initiator of the Afghan issue, the U.S. should earnestly shoulder due responsibilities to ensure a smooth transition in Afghanistan and avoid chaos and wars caused by the withdrawal,” Wu said.


While Russia has trumpeted the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, multiple diplomatic sources say that Russian policymakers have been troubled by the Americans’ quick and total troop pullout.


That is not to say that China and Russia wanted to see U.S. forces stay in Afghanistan. But Chinese and Russian policymakers loathe the prospect of the Taliban retaking full control following the U.S. departure. They fear that a revival of the harsh Islamist code and rule by intimidation that underpinned the fundamentalist group’s government in the 1990s would lead to a resurgence of Muslim extremists.


China is concerned about an inflow of Muslim extremists into the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which borders Afghanistan and is home to a large Muslim population that has been allegedly subject to Beijing’s brutal suppression. An infiltration by Muslim extremists could fuel terrorism and the separatist movement in the region.


The China-Afghanistan border stretches only 70 km. But China shares a long border with Tajikistan, adjacent to Afghanistan. Extremists could enter Chinese territory via Tajikistan.


For years, Beijing has kept a vigilant watch for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Islamist militant group based outside China and outlawed as a terrorist outfit by Beijing.


But Chinese leaders now most fear the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an Uyghur Islamist extremist organization founded in western China, said Andrew Small, a senior trans-Atlantic fellow for the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, a U.S. think tank, on its podcast program.


Most TIP members hail from Xinjiang. Some say the TIP is identical to the ETIM, but little is known about either group. With thousands of combatants, the TIP has been involved in the Syrian civil war since the mid-2010s. The group has recently been leaving Syria and is now reporting establishing a foothold in a Taliban-controlled area of Afghanistan.


Moscow is worried about the possibility that Muslim extremists could flood into the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia and organize a powerful and entrenched presence in the region.


In a military move to escalate preparations, Russia carried out joint military drills with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan from Aug. 5 to 10 in areas along the Afghan border. On July 8, the Kremlin held talks with the Taliban in Moscow.

Alarm is running high. The landscape in and around Afghanistan and Central Asia carries significant global implications because the region is the “fulcrum” of Eurasia.


A century ago, British political geographer Halford Mackinder called areas stretching from interior Asia to Eastern Europe the “heartland” or “pivot region” and predicted that the power that controlled this vast swath of land would rule all of Eurasia and the world. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Central Asia was the main battlefield as Britain and Russian empires competed for hegemony.


In light of recent events in the region, three scenarios appear likely: China and Russia will become more deeply involved as they face the need to boost security in the region, precipitating the emergence of a new order led by the two countries; the five Central Asian nations will unite to stabilize the region while preventing rule by either Russia nor China; or the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan will supply thrust to Muslim extremists, destabilizing the entire region.


The third scenario would be the worst. But Beijing and Moscow predominating the region would not be a desirable outcome either. The Eurasian heartland is a crossroads for trade and traffic between Asia and Europe and stretches from the Arctic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.


If China and Russia take control of the region, they will gain greater influence over not only Eurasia’s economic interests but also political landscapes. China and Russia could eventually jockey for leadership, heightening regionally.


The second scenario would be the best for regional stability. Frederick Starr, distinguished fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council, said, “The international community must prevent major powers such as China and Russia from controlling the Central Asian region and Afghanistan.”


He noted that Uzbekistan hosted an international conference of more than 40 countries last month to lead discussions on regional peace and economic integration.


“Central Asian countries also do not want to be built into the sphere of influence of the great powers and are actively trying themselves to lead the economic integration of the region,” said Starr. “Major countries should support such efforts by the Central Asian countries, which champion the region itself but without posing a threat to any external powers.”


For its part, Japan can also play an important role in international efforts to support Central Asia’s independence and development.


Tadamichi Yamamoto, who served as special representative of the UN secretary-general for Afghanistan under the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan program for four years until March 2020, stresses Japan’s early-starter advantage.


“Japan was among the first major industrial nations to place importance on Central Asia and has been building cooperative ties with the five nations,” Yamamoto said. “Japan’s cumulative aid to Afghanistan is the second- or third-largest in the world. Japan can make a great contribution to the region’s overall development through joint efforts with other nations to help build infrastructure connecting the nations.”


The power vacuum left by the U.S. departure should be filled through multinational cooperation. Whether the international community will succeed in this mission will go a long way toward defining the future global landscape.

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