U.S. President Donald Trump's announcement late last month about the imminent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria grabbed all the headlines, but it wasn't his only notice about a coming pullout. According to reports, Trump has also ordered the withdrawal of half of the 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan. Although the White House subsequently contradicted the reports on Dec. 28, Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the long U.S. involvement in the country. What's more, Washington's current efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban highlight its increasing impatience with the enduring war in Afghanistan and its desire to leave the conflict.
While the Taliban and the Afghan government will celebrate and bemoan, respectively, a big reduction in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the pullout will force regional neighbors Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia to weigh their options and consider their strategies in an Afghanistan with few or no American forces. Their differences notwithstanding, all these countries have a significant stake there, yet none is likely to adopt a significant, on-the-ground presence in the wake of an American withdrawal. Instead, they are all likely to enhance their ties with Afghanistan's various dominant actors and carve out zones of influence in the country to promote their interests and insulate themselves from the scourge of transnational terrorism.
After more than 17 years of conflict, the White House has signaled its intent to withdraw from Afghanistan. But in the absence of any regional power willing — or able — to step into the breach left by departing U.S. forces, neighbors such as Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia will have to develop strategies to manage a post-American Afghanistan.
The Taliban's Choice
Afghanistan's war is currently locked in a stalemate. The Taliban dominate large swaths of the countryside while the U.S.-backed government holds the urban areas. Meanwhile, the Islamic State maintains a small but dangerous presence, frequently clashing with both the Taliban and the central government. International forces assisting Kabul, including the 14,000 U.S. troops and smaller NATO and other allied contingents, are indispensable to the government. While a significant drawdown or outright withdrawal of these forces would not necessarily prompt the immediate collapse of the Afghan security forces, there is little doubt that a pullout would allow the Taliban to seize and maintain the initiative and gradually capture ever more territory.
Washington remains especially critical to Kabul's security operations, because it provides much-needed air power, logistics and training. The United States also conducts the lion's share of strikes and special operations raids on key Taliban targets, often at night. Critically, the Western presence in Afghanistan also brings in desperately needed funding that foots most of the bill for the Afghan security forces, as well as the wider Afghan economy. The cessation of such funding would deal an even bigger blow to Kabul than the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
It is little surprise, then, to read that the reports of a U.S. drawdown have shaken and dismayed many Afghan government and security officials. In contrast, Taliban social media accounts erupted in jubilation at the news. Although the Taliban have yet to formally enter peace talks with Kabul, any withdrawal could harm the chances of an end to hostilities because the militant group might withhold concessions in the hopes of waiting Washington out. At the same time, the Taliban might be more amenable to a transition deal with the United States due to their concerns about the growing strength of the Islamic State and other more radical extremist groups. Regardless of how a drawdown occurs, it is clear to all concerned that the Taliban will remain a pivotal political player in the future of the country.
As the United States signals its intention to leave Afghanistan — at least partially — neighbors such as Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia will have to develop their own strategies to deal with the vacuum. For all their critical differences with the Washington, none will be particularly happy to see the United States leave, especially since they all lack the desire and, in some cases, the capability to deploy a replacement force. Instead, the foursome will focus on building influence with key Afghan actors while placing a special emphasis on securing the areas that abut their territory.
As the United States signals its intention to leave Afghanistan — at least partially — neighbors such as Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia will have to develop their own strategies to deal with the vacuum.
Pakistan: Taking Care of Imperatives
Islamabad's overarching goal in Afghanistan is to ensure that Pakistan does not become encircled by India and a hostile government in Kabul, although it also wishes to convince any post-conflict Afghan administration to renounce its territorial claims to Pakistani soil. To this end, Pakistan has long cultivated its ties with the Taliban as a relatively friendly force to counter the emergence of a more India-aligned Afghan government. Pakistan has also been loath to sever its support for the Taliban, even at the cost of harming its wider relationship with the United States. For Islamabad, securing its northern front from potential threats is simply more urgent.
Even so, Pakistan's differences with the United States do not mean that a rapid U.S. withdrawal will please Islamabad. It would prefer to see a methodical, negotiated drawdown that ensures its preferred Afghan factions retain a significant stake in Kabul. This preference is driven by increasing concerns over the emergence of radical transnational forces such as the Islamic State, which would likely grow in strength if a vacuum emerges in Afghanistan.
As a result, Islamabad will likely encourage the Taliban to engage in negotiations while attempting to maintain its own seat at the table so it may advance its interests. But to the United States' likely chagrin, Pakistan won't sever its ties with the Taliban when the group is on the cusp of acquiring an even more pivotal role in Afghanistan's future — a development that would certainly help insulate Pakistan from threats from the north.
Iran: Shifting Sands
Even before the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Iran had to contend with threats from its eastern neighbor varying from spillover fighting to drug trafficking. In 1998, Iran even came close to invading Afghanistan after Taliban forces murdered 10 Iranian diplomats after they seized the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. At the time, Tehran largely backed the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which eventually partnered with the United States to remove the Taliban from power. But their ties have since shifted. Iran has begun supporting certain factions of the Taliban in recent years to gain more traction and influence in western Afghanistan amid an increasingly tense standoff with the United States.
Tehran will be somewhat relieved to see Washington leave Afghanistan, if for no other reason that it would eliminate a possible staging post for an American attack on Iran. (A U.S. RQ-170 spy drone that crossed over into Iran in December 2011, for instance, reportedly departed from a base in Afghanistan.) Still, Tehran will also harbor worries about a quick U.S. pullout, because that would elevate the risk of Afghanistan's instability spilling over into Iran. Tehran's previous enmity with the Taliban aside, Iran has suffered a number of high-profile Islamic State attacks, meaning it is keen to insulate itself from such a threat as much as possible. Accordingly, Iran will likely work to expand its influence in western Afghanistan and pursue closer ties with Pakistan in the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal.
China: Worried About a Spillover
China's primary interests in Afghanistan relate to its concern over militancy, especially in relation to the wider unrest in its Xinjiang region, as well as how instability in the country could complicate its Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing is already alarmed at the growing strength of the Turkistan Islamic Party in northwestern Syria, where the group has acquired significant combat experience and has also amassed a powerful arsenal of weapons. China fears that members could end up closer to home in a place such as Afghanistan if they are pushed out of the Middle East. Militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have already attacked Chinese interests, meaning Beijing will be apprehensive that a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will provide room for extremist groups to develop and eventually launch cross-border attacks in China proper.
Fearful of such a prospect, China will likely accelerate its security involvement in northeastern Afghanistan, particularly in Badakhshan province, whose Wakhan corridor borders China. The People's Armed Police has been conducting patrols in the corridor, while Beijing has reached agreements with Kabul to train mountain troops for the Afghan security forces. In such a situation, China is likely to be receptive to strengthening its ties with the Taliban if it emerges as a dominant player in the northeast that can keep transnational extremist groups at bay.
None of Afghanistan's neighbors is willing or, in some cases, even able to assume the U.S. mantle.
Russia: Hedging Bets
Russia is another country that, despite significant tensions and adversity with the United States, would be alarmed by a hasty U.S. pullout on its southern front. Although it does not directly border Afghanistan, Russia harbors deep concerns about the robust drug trade there, as well as the threat from terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and, more recently, the Islamic State. The Kremlin had previously supported the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, especially during the first decade of the war, when the aftermath of the invasion effectively crippled the IMU. Russia provided logistical support to the U.S. effort through the Northern Distribution Network, assisted in the establishment of the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan and provided military equipment to Afghan government forces.
In recent years, however, Russian actions have increasingly challenged the U.S. mission there. These moves, in part, reflect the increasingly acrimonious ties between the two countries, but they are also tied to Russian concerns about growing Afghan instability and the potential for spillover into Central Asia. While the United States continues to focus on bolstering the central government, for instance, Russia's fears that it could lose significant strength — or see a collapse — have led it to hedge its bets by fostering ties with the Taliban and perhaps even provide the group with weapons and funding. A U.S. withdrawal would galvanize Russia into solidifying its security presence in neighboring countries such as Tajikistan in an attempt to insulate Central Asia from any spillover. At the same time, Moscow would look to strike up ties with a number of other groups in northern Afghanistan in addition to the Taliban, as well as former strongmen from the Northern Alliance, such as the Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Although they don't see eye to eye with Washington on many things, Afghanistan's neighbors have relied upon the long U.S. presence in the country to limit spillover from the conflict. Whether this has worked remains a topic of debate, because drug production has exploded over the past decade and dangerous transnational terrorist groups such as the Islamic State have established a foothold in the country. But there is a real possibility that these threats will only worsen if the United States withdraws hastily, leading Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia to brace themselves to engage more actively with Afghanistan. None of these countries is willing or, in some cases, even able to assume the U.S. mantle, but they hope to maintain a strong enough buffer on their respective borders by establishing relationships with various powerful local groups. Such action, however, might be little more than a cosmetic solution — if not a cause of greater problems down the road — as Afghanistan continues to come apart at the seams.