Power Shift: Who Holds The Power Now That The Taliban Have Taken Over Afghanistan?

In 2012, Dr Torfeh was appointed as the UN Director of the Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit in Afghanistan. Here she shares her expertise with The Stack on the power shifts she thinks will occur there following the West’s recent withdrawal.

By Massoumeh Torfeh

22 August 2021

he victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan will change the geo-politics of the Eurasia region by putting China and Russia in overarching dominance, opening up Afghanistan and the Middle East to their designs. In Afghanistan, it will be Pakistan mainly, and Iran to a lesser extent, in charge, each with their own set of power games.

The story of Afghanistan is the documented proof of inept western military operations. It reveals the fragility of attempted US-made democracies, proving that they do not necessarily lead to development, reconstruction or freedom but instead, often, to chaos and violence.

Amongst the over 180 US led operations around the world since the early 19th century none has led to a democracy.

Twenty years after President George W Bush's so-called ‘War on Terror’, the US has in effect reinstated the Taliban, this time with an embarrassing military defeat.

“We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals” said the US President Joe Biden on Sunday. “Get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again,” he said. Yet according to a report by the UN, al Qaida is still operating in cooperation with the Taliban.

The failure to achieve any of the objectives of that mission, and the shambolic way in which the troop withdrawal was implemented, has discredited the United States more than the Vietnam War.

Nothing makes China, Russia and Iran happier than to see Americans discredited. While they may have some concerns about security in Afghanistan, they have been frustrated over the past twenty years by US total dominance.

The defeat of the Afghan forces couldn’t have come without their support. A few Taliban commanders couldn’t have designed the strategy of invading Afghanistan that we’re watching unfold before our eyes now.

Ever since President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of all international troops in February 2020, those three countries have been locked in intense talks with the Taliban and consulted with each other closely.

“Now the Americans are leaving Afghanistan, the most important regional leader is China”

Pakistan: The Main Benefactor

Pakistan’s military intelligence, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), has for years harboured designs for entering Afghanistan.

General Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI revealed in 2014 how Pakistan used the aid money it was sent from the US after 9/11 to continue funding the Taliban. “Machinations by the Pakistani army’s spy agency in the 1990s helped bring the Taliban to power,” said the Economist.

Over the past twenty years Pakistan has played a double-game of harbouring Taliban leaders while also keeping good relations with the Americans. Recently, however, in the face of tightening funds from the US, it has forged better relations with China and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan consulted the Taliban deputy political leader, Molla Abdul Ghani Baradar before his departure to Kandahar, a city in Afghanistan, on Tuesday, where he was returning after 20 years. Ten years earlier he had been captured as a criminal in the Pakistani city of Karachi in a joint US-Pakistan operation.

“The Taliban have just thrown off the yoke of slavery,” said Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier this week.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told us on Thursday that he has “talked to the foreign ministers of China, the United States and the United Kingdom.” China discussed its priorities in connection with Afghanistan, he said, adding that he was travelling to Central Asia and Iran too to brief everyone, reflecting the central coordinating role and the “ownership” position Pakistan has already begun to take.

“The next decade is set to be crucial for a new era of superpower competition between the US and China”

Iran, Russia the Taliban

Over the past two years, we’ve seen the Taliban, a primarily isolated and disbanded terror group, invited several times to high-level political meetings, not just in Doha by the Americans, but also in Tehran. Photos which surfaced in February of Iran’s former Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, showing respect to the Taliban deputy political leader, Baradar, took many by surprise but they were choreographed to send a message to President Biden that Iran cannot and must not be ignored in the region.

Iran has high stakes in Afghanistan after all. After 9/11, it provided military intelligence to the United States (its arch-enemy) during their invasion of Afghanistan, and was the second biggest donor in the first few years of the allied war there, taking an active role in the reconstruction of major provinces along the 1000km Afghanistan-Iran border. But it was soon sidelined when President George W Bush made his famous “Axis of Evil” speech.

With Russia, Iran values close consultations on all regional and international issues. This started during the uprising in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union when Iran was supporting the mainly Islamic opposition. Through direct talks with Russia an understanding has emerged that Iran does not interfere in the affairs of the Muslim Central Asians and Russia in turn supports Iran in international affairs.

It was interesting to see how two days after Baradar’s meeting in Tehran, another Taliban leader, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, led a delegation to Russia indicating that Moscow and Tehran had coordinated manoeuvres.

Russia has kept its distance from Afghanistan while the US has maintained its presence there, but has deep concerns of its own about Taliban links with its Islamic in the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The security of Afghanistan’s northern border is Russia’s top priority.

China’s Overarching Power

Now the Americans are leaving Afghanistan, the most important regional leader is by far China, which harbours bold designs for overtaking the United States and shaping the 21st Century over the next twenty years.

The next decade is set to be crucial for a new era of superpower competition between the US and China that could result in both military escalation and a host of subtler changes to the way the world works. The departure of the US is of major benefit to China.

“China has benefited from the irresponsible behaviour of [the US], which has deeply undermined the international image of the US and the relationship between Washington and its allies,” Zhu Yongbiao, a Chinese government adviser on central Asia told the FT.

Additionally, Western powers have been trying to block China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The first stage involves multi-billion dollar investments in building rail and road links to Central Asia and across to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The project has been held to ransom because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, but may now go ahead if that is stopped.

China has a 25 year Strategic Cooperation Pact with Iran, and large investment in Pakistan’s energy and infrastructure projects. It has also been in constant talks with the Taliban too, who have referred to China as a “friend” of Afghanistan.

The Changing Regional Power Pattern

Since the collapse of Russia’s relationship with the West over Ukraine, the Sino-Russia strategic partnership has become more of a reality. “Their relationship is tactical but marked by increasingly compatible economic, political and security interests,” according to a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is marked by Chinese investment in key sectors of the Russian economy.

Relations between Iran and Pakistan follow a similar pattern. They have fallen out several times over their shared border in Balochistan (a mountainous region in South and Western Asia). Nevertheless, there is an understanding that they should cooperate. Now with the Taliban in Afghanistan that cooperation may become more challenging. The lingering problem is Iran’s close trade ties with Pakistan’s arch enemy, India, and in turn Pakistan’s close relations with Iran’s arch enemy, Saudi Arabia. But these are unlikely to get in the way of cooperation.

In Afghanistan, Iran would tightly control the Hazarajat where the Shia Hazaras have been subject to cruel treatment by the Taliban in the past. Iran has trained a group of Hazara militia for fighting in Syria and Iraq. The Fatemyoun Brigade could always be deployed by Iran inside Afghanistan if the need arises.

With the Americans gone, these four countries will cooperate with a balance of competition and cooperation.

Pakistan’s ability to ensure security in Afghanistan will be the top determining factor. With a group of Islamist militants wishing to make an Islamic emirate to run a highly complex country, while harbouring some 22 terror groups inside, the signs are not promising at all.

Dr Torfeh was appointed in 2012 as the UN Director of Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit in Afghanistan; she has returned to SOAS Centre for Media and Film Studies.

The Short Stack

Dr Torfeh shares her expertise with The Stack on the power shifts she thinks will occur in Afghanistan following the West’s recent withdrawal.

By Massoumeh Torfeh

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