Russia’s Military Plans Towards Afghanistan Supporting China’s Belt And Road Initiative

Rahim Huseynli Analysis 13 July 2021
Russia’s Military Plans Towards Afghanistan Supporting China’s Belt And Road Initiative

Following the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan beginning in early May, Russia has stepped up its efforts to prevent a total collapse of the country into civil war and impacting on neighboring states, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. China also has a small border with Afghanistan’s east through the Wakhan corridor between Pakistan and Tajikistan, around the Taxkorgan/Kashgar area of China’s Muslim Xinjiang Province.

Foreign forces, including the United States, are withdrawing after almost 20 years of fighting, a move that has emboldened the Taliban to try to gain fresh territory in Afghanistan. That has prompted hundreds of Afghan security personnel and refugees to flee across the border into neighboring Tajikistan and raised fears in Moscow and other capitals that Islamist extremists could infiltrate Central Asia, a region Russia views as its backyard.

At present, the Afghan government remains in power, however, is viewed as a US puppet state by the encroaching Taliban, who are rapidly gaining ground and now thought to control 75% of the country. The Taliban are currently making rapid advances towards Kabul, the Afghanistan capital, and foreign Embassy staff are being evacuated and premises shuttered. The Taliban have denied that Embassy staff or other civilians would be harmed, however this has not always been the case following similar statements.

Afghanistan shares borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and China and has already taken control of border checkpoints with Iran, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. A spokesman for the Taliban said they would allow cross-border commerce to continue as normal through multiple outposts they had seized, and which provide a lucrative flow of revenue.

There are reports of Afghan army soldiers deserting and fleeing to Tajikistan, where Russia maintains a military air base on the Afghanistan border. Moscow has already pledged to help Dushanbe if needed.

Militarily, the Russians have been training the Pakistan army as concerns dealing with insurgents, with Islamabad now less interested in conflicts than in creating stability and wealth. Russia also has troops on standby in Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation along with China and whose remit includes regional security.

The CSTO, the six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) dominated by Russia, said in a statement on July 8 that it was ready to use all its resources if necessary, to contain a crisis on the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the Interfax news agency reported.

The statement came as a Taliban delegation in Moscow held talks with Russian officials and sought to reassure their hosts that the group would not attack the Tajik border or use Afghanistan as a platform in future to launch attacks against Russia itself.

In talks with Russian Foreign Ministry officials in Moscow last week, the Taliban has said it would not attack countries in Central Asia despite its rapid advance through Afghanistan. “We received assurances from the Taliban that they would not violate the borders of Central Asian countries,” Russia’s foreign ministry said last week. However, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have mobilized their military units along their borders, while regional Russian joint military bases are also on alert. 

Both Russia and China have made strenuous efforts to deal with the likelihood of a Taliban government running Afghanistan. Senior Russian military and international officials estimate the group now controls nearly half of the 400 districts in Afghanistan and is fighting in many others. It does not hold any of the major urban areas at this current time.

Intelligence and operational activities will be shared among them. That is already happening, with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stating that Russia’s military airbase on the Tajikistan border with Afghanistan “will do everything to prevent any aggressive moves against our allies, including using the Russian military base on the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Obligations within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, (a Eurasian security alliance) remain in full force.

Representatives of the organization’s Secretariat visited a section of the Tajik-Afghan border, evaluated the situation, and will report to the permanent council.” Lavrov said that Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and was in contact with other Central Asian leaders.

Both Russia and China’s Foreign Ministers have been busy behind the scenes, meeting with all regional Foreign Ministers and Heads of State and military to prepare for the prospect of securing peace. That includes visits by Wang Yi to the Middle East, the source of much Afghani insurgent funding, where discussions would have taken place about Taliban, ISIL and Al-Qaeda support and the desire that once the US and NATO have left, about how the country and the region may be developed as new emerging Central Asian markets. He also met with the Central Asian counterparts in May. Sergei Lavrov also has held talks with PakistanIndia and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The United States has now placed part of its security on the shoulders of the Russians, who will also be keen not to see the Taliban engage in an Al-Qaeda style metamorphosis as previously occurred in 2001. The Moscow Metro was bombed in 2010 by Al Qaeda terrorists; 38 people died in two blasts, 40 minutes apart. Other Al-Qaeda linked events occurred in Volgograd where a suicide bomber killed 50 in a supermarket, while ISIS claimed responsibility for bombings in the St. Petersburg Metro, killing 15 while the same group also blew up an Airbus A321, en route to Pulkovo Airport to Saint Petersburg. All 217 passengers and seven crew members on board were killed.

Both groups (but not the Taliban) have ‘declared war’ on China, and what has often been forgotten in the media coverage of Xinjiang is that some Uyghur separatist movements have been labelled as terrorist groups by the United Nations and the US Department of State. According to the Global Terrorism Database, since 2001, China has had 134 ‘terrorism incidents’ related to Uyghur separatist groups, while 1,458 people have died in incidents mainly in Xinjiang but also taking place in Shijiazhuang, Beijing, Tianjin (an attempted aircraft hijack), Kunming and Guangzhou.

China and Russia appear to be on the same page in recognizing the Taliban is essential to securing peace in Afghanistan. That means shoring it up with financing and aid, supporting its right to rule and in doing so, preventing the factionalism that gave birth to Al-Qaeda and ISIL. There are signs that the Taliban are prepared to be reasonable even while placing Afghanistan under some degree of subjugation. There are reports of Afghan military soldiers, part of the Afghan Army, surrendering to the Taliban in recent days, putting down their arms, to be welcomed as ‘brothers’ and told to return home. If so, this will have an impact on uniting a country long torn apart by violence.

The Taliban are also aware that they will need to raise funds to support their rule. This is why the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project is being allowed to proceed – the Taliban can earn legitimate revenues from transit fees. The TAPI gas pipeline already generates income for the Taliban, others are planned north-south.

In Afghanistan, TAPI pipeline will be constructed alongside the Kandahar-Herat Highway in western Afghanistan, and then via Quetta and Multan in Pakistan. It is nearly complete, with some delays caused by Taliban fighting US forces. China, meanwhile, perhaps to give it more leverage with the Taliban, has also expressed interest in extending the project through to Xinjiang.

Also mooted has been the Trans-Afghan Railway, designed to connect the markets of landlocked Uzbekistan through to Pakistan’s southern Ports. 573km of that would run through Afghanistan from the Uzbek border at Termez and connect Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, to Kabul and onto Peshawar, there linking with Pakistan’s national rail network. The agreement to do this was signed off by the incumbent Afghan Government, who many expect to fall within weeks and be replaced by a Taliban version. That may require renegotiation, it may not. It remains to be seen who will be in power in Afghanistan and how the Chinese wish to be seen or are prepared to deal with them.

To date, Beijing’s contact with the current Afghan Government has been low-key, as dependent upon the United States, Kabul has been wary of encouraging strong China relations. How far that now changes and whether Beijing views the existing Government as too US tainted for peace to be viable is another matter to contend with. It is more likely the Taliban will require unconditional control of the country.

If relations with the Taliban can be fostered, this will almost certainly add some security to Afghanistan. If a Talib government, albeit seen as backward in Western liberal values can be encouraged, and social infrastructure be put in place, then arms may be laid down and the process of rebuilding the country begun. Some logistics viability tests have already begun, with goods already having been successfully transited from Pakistan’s Gwadar Port to Afghanistan. New access corridors are just now starting to open up.

China has apparently drawn up plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan, and Islamabad will be providing glowing references to Kabul to engage. Beijing has apparently offered US$62 billion of infrastructure financing to ensure this happens and to maintain the peace.

This includes the building of a highway between Kabul and Peshawar – the same intended route as the Trans-Afghan railway. China has already been breaking ground on a Special Economic and Development Zone in the region on the Pakistani side – the Rashaki SEZ is designed to service in part local and Afghani markets. If peace can hold, there will be a need for employment of large numbers of well-disciplined men, eager to learn new trades and provide for families instead of being subjected to violence. The Taliban for their part has stated that they will support development projects if they serve Afghan national interests.

Afghanistan would give China and other Central Asian nations a strategic boost as the country is placed as a central hub connecting the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. With a total population of 32 million, the country is also an attractive market for many, although it will take a carefully managed program to lift the country out of poverty – on-going wars have left Afghanistan 169th from 180 countries on the United Nations human development index.

Bordering Pakistan to the south, Iran to the west, UzbekistanTurkmenistan and Tajikistan to the north and northeast, and China to the east, and with planned and existing new BRI road and rail links uniting Central Asia, an Afghani government able to educate and reposition its men to industry and willing to take on trade and investment as an alternative to bullets and bombs certainly has potential.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on July 12 that the U.S. authorities want to dispose their military resources around Afghanistan to have an option to launch strikes at Afghanistan if needed. 

There have been media suppositions that the United States wishes to draw China into an expensive Afghanistan conflict and divert China’s military resources away from frictions with India in Ladakh, in addition to Taiwan and the South China Sea. However, my view is that there is less need for any ‘redirection’ of resources away from Ladakh, Taiwan and the South China Sea, of which anyway the latter two are naval and not army military resources.

Regionally, China’s impacted neighbors and especially Pakistan are friendly, as are other Afghan border nations such as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and Uzbekistan. These nations also have good relations with Moscow.

Funding for the Taliban and similar factions (ISIL) comes mainly from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all onside with China and part of the BRI. I feel that the view will be expressed that to continue infrastructure and energy client relationships that funding must be scaled down. Doing so also then places the Taliban itself in the position of needing to be a client of Beijing: they require finance. Taliban leaders have already said that they would welcome infrastructure investment, provided it is beneficial for Afghanistan.

Consequently, a more likely outcome is that Beijing will do a deal with the Taliban and tell them to keep their side of the border and that what they do in Afghanistan is their own affair, provided it does not upset Beijing or its other regional partners. The Chinese will be more seductive in their approach, less gung-ho and try and change the Taliban mindset (and its component warlords) that peace via trade is better than armed conflict.

The Taliban have not expressed a particular desire to create a caliphate or claim influence over Muslims worldwide, being is a difference in this regard between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIL. China will therefore manage the situation which over time, as tempers cool, some sort of normality returns, and minds can be led towards trade.

The Taliban are about to have a second opportunity to govern their country. Russia, the other Central Asian states, and China will all be supportive. Maybe this time, a strict government yet possessing some of the ancient Taliban views as concerns tolerance may be able to deliver. One always must have hope, and with the suppression and fear of invasive US and other foreign troops behind them, perhaps now, alongside China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that potential may finally be realized.

Afghanistan has a regional consumer export market reach of some 400 million Muslims on its borders. China will be wanting to put in infrastructure to enhance Afghani trade and use that to encourage commerce, keep the peace, and develop prosperity.