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Russia and China: The Taliban’s New Best Friends?

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Mark Episkopos 

Moscow has found a like-minded partner in its handling of the Afghanistan crisis in the form of Beijing, holding joint military drills of an unprecedented scale with the People’s Liberation Army on Chinese soil earlier in August.

With the Taliban on the verge of victory in Afghanistan, Russia and its Central Asian allies are scrambling to contain the conflict’s regional spillover effects.

“The war is over,” proclaimed Taliban officials on Monday after taking the presidential palace in Kabul. The seizure of Kabul marks the latest in a string of major Taliban gains over the past month, as the militant group moves to establish itself as the country’s sole political authority in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But the Taliban’s swift ascent has brought with it a new wave of regional instability that is already spilling over into neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The problems are as numerous as they are complex. Thousands of Afghan refugees, composed in large part of Afghan government forces and officials, as well as Afghan citizens at odds with the Taliban’s fundamentalist policies, are flooding into Tajikistan. Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu said last week that the Taliban now controls Afghanistan’s border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, adding that the militants have vowed not to cross over into Central Asia. But this blanket assurance, even if taken at face value, hides a litany of dangerous nuances. First, the Taliban is not and does not function as a traditional government with a clearly defined and enforced military chain of command. Recent reports corroborated by eyewitness accounts show that the Taliban has outsourced control over the Tajik border to Ansarollah—an Tajikistani militant group that carried out terror attacks against Afghani government assets in late 2020. It is not at all clear that the Taliban, which denies working with Ansarollah, will have either the will or the means to prevent the latter from carrying out raids into Tajikistan and skirmishing with Tajikistan’s border forces in the near term. Secondly, the Taliban has no shortage of covert tools at its disposal to destabilize Tajikistan; among them, the infiltration of militants among refugees, the creation of sleeper cells, drugs and weapons smuggling, and the northward proliferation of radical Islamist literature. “We must be careful not to exaggerate the number of such fighters traveling [from] Central Asia to Afghanistan, but we have seen from the past decade in Syria and Iraq that it takes just a few individuals to cause trouble for regimes back home,” Jennifer Murtazashvili of the University of Pittsburgh told Eurasianet.

Tajikistan has appealed for outside help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)—a six-member Eurasian security alliance headed by Russia. Even as the Kremlin cautiously courts the Taliban in hopes of minimizing the geopolitical spillover effects from the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan, Russian and CSTO officials are signaling their ironclad commitment to protecting Tajikistan’s side of the Afghan-Tajik border. “The organization continues to attach priority in its activity to political and diplomatic methods. If the situation escalates and a threat emerges to the security of the Republic of Tajikistan, all the necessary collective measures stipulated by the statutory documents will be taken to render assistance to the ally,” said CSTO Secretary General Stanislav Zas.

Moscow has found a like-minded partner in its handling of the Afghanistan crisis in the form of Beijing, holding joint military drills of an unprecedented scale with the People’s Liberation Army on Chinese soil earlier in August. For now, Moscow and Beijing are aligned in their policy of pursuing diplomatic ties with the Taliban whilst reinforcing the Afghan-Tajik border. The Russian and Chinese embassies in Kabul are among the only diplomatic missions functioning normally in Afghanistan, following a wave of western evacuations in recent weeks.

The Putin administration has made it clear that direct Russian military intervention into Afghanistan is not on the table, but experts warn that this could change if Moscow’s uneasy early truce with the Taliban were to crumble. “If it becomes necessary to stabilize Afghanistan or the neighboring territories, then we will see the formation of a coalition under the leadership of Russia and China,” Vasily Kashin, a senior research fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies, told Nikkei Asia.

Earlier this month, Russia’s Central Military District announced that Russian forces held joint exercises with the Uzbek and Tajik militaries to maintain preparedness against the “threat of penetration of radical terrorist groups into the border countries of the Central Asian region.” Those exercises were preceded by bilateral military drills between Russia and Uzbekistan at the Termez training ground. Shoigu noted at a separate event on August 10 that Russia will continue to conduct drills with regional partners near the Afghan border, a measure that partly serves to reassure the Kremlin’s anxious Central Asian allies amid its ongoing overtures to the Taliban.

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters