Russia, China and Iran: The Taliban’s friends?

Russia, China and Iran: The Taliban’s friends?
5 min read
19 August, 2021
With no drastic changes to their embassy operations, it is believed that Russia, China and Iran will be among the first countries to recognise a Taliban government.
The US exit will bring the role of regional actors, some of whom have cultivated close ties with the Taliban, to the fore [TASS via Getty]

As Western embassies rush to evacuate their diplomats and nationals from Afghanistan, the Taliban are desperate to secure international legitimacy.

China and Russia so far appear comfortable with keeping their diplomatic staff in Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov, Russia's envoy to Kabul, confirmed on Monday that the Taliban were guarding Moscow's mission.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also told a meeting in Kaliningrad that the Taliban’s readiness to "respect the opinion of others" and its stated commitment to inclusiveness were positive signals.

The Taliban's leadership has made a number of trips to Russia this year, amid Moscow's broader efforts to project itself as an emerging peace broker for Afghanistan.

But Russia still formally considers the Taliban a terrorist organisation. Fearful of insecurity spilling over into the former Soviet states, Moscow's military has conducted large-scale military drills with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and has vowed to increase the combat readiness of its bases in those countries.

Meanwhile, in the east. the US exit from Afghanistan is paving the way for Chinese expansionism. In an analysis published by The Financial Times on Wednesday, senior Asian diplomats said that Beijing was "ready to pump hundreds of millions of dollars to finance the reconstruction of critical infrastructure in Afghanistan". 

Dr Dawood Azami, an academic and award-winning journalist, sees this as no surprise.

"It is highly likely that Chinese investment will increase in Afghanistan, particularly in mines and minerals and reconstruction. But when it comes to financial assistance, China cannot replace the US, who gave tens of billions to Afghanistan for institution-building over the past two two decades," Dr Azami tells The New Arab.

While the world's second-largest economy might expand its strategic Belt and Road initiative into a country thought to have a trillion-dollar mineral fortune, there are security concerns for some trade corridors, one of which connect Central Asian states to China's restive, Muslim-majority Xinjiang province.

Taliban leader Mullah Baradar met with the Chinese foreign minister in July - the same month a UN report found that hundreds of members of a Uighur separatist movement were present in a province in northern Afghanistan.

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Alongside calls to play an "important" role in peacebuilding in Afghanistan, Baradar's movement was told to crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) - described as a "threat" to China's security.

In a sign of mutual concern about radical Islamism within their borders, in July Beijing also vowed to help Pakistan to tackle a militant spill-over from Afghanistan.

Like Uighur separatists, the Al-Qaeda linked Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which previously aimed to bring down the Pakistani state, now seeks greater autonomy for Pashtun-populated areas, according to Dr Antoni Gustozzi, an expert on militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban's successes in Afghanistan has coincided with a parallel TTP offensive in Pakistan's Waziristan, with splinter groups believed to be effectively unified under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud.

In July, the group carried out over 120 attacks, and the Taliban's hardline Haqqani Network is now thought to host the TTP in southeast Afghanistan.

But Pakistan - along with all of Afghanistan's neighbours bar Iran, "which holds member status" - belongs to the multilateral Beijing-led organisation known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation - whose raison d'etre is mainly to fight extremism and separatism.

Samir Puri, a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies, believes that since Afghanistan is a member state of the SCO, it offers a diplomatic mechanism to a coordinated regional response against the "evolving realities" of Taliban rule.

But Dr Azami tells The New Arab that the Taliban will try to ensure that no actor - including transnational groups such Al-Qaeda or the Taliban arch-enemy ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) - poses a threat to the region or the wider international community.

"The Taliban, as the government of Afghanistan, will be in a better position to control and clamp down on these groups. They will be able to establish a robust intelligence networks in the country and keep an eye on who does what. It's what the international community, including China, Russia and Iran, expect them to do. The world also wants the Taliban doubling down on opium production - if they want international aid," Dr Azami

Iran, which neighbours Afghanistan and never recognised the group rule between 1996-2001, is another country that has announced no changes to the way it operates its embassy in the Islamic Emirate - the Taliban's name for the country.

In an apparent overture to Iran, the Taliban sent a delegation to a Shia-mosque in Kabul’s Hazara-majority Dasht-e-Barchi district on Wednesday.

During the Taliban rule in 1990s, the group was accused of killing many Shias, but they did allow Muharram procession indoors, Dr Azami tells The New Arab.

But since these became public events over the last 20 years and following deadly attacks against the minority, the Sunni Taliban's treatment of Shias will closely be monitored by Iran, as will their dealings with political groups and factions close to the Islamic Republic.

"I think Iran will wait for a bit to see what the Taliban’s policies are like and what shape the government takes before granting any formal recognition to the group," Dr Azami says.

Iran's cautious approach was clear in a statement after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi spoke to Iran and Russia's leaders in separate phone calls on Wednesday, declaring that his country was ready to cooperate with its allies to achieve "peace" in Afghanistan.