The 23rd of October, 2014 marked the handover of the last U.S. Marine Corps base to Afghan control. During the ceremony, Camp Leatherneck, along with British-run Camp Bastion, were handed over to Afghan forces, marking the close of the NATO and allied mission in Regional Command Southwest, overseeing Helmand and Nimroz provinces. On 28 December, 2014, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. John Campbell, handed over control of the mission to Afghan forces.
By 2016, it is expected that the only U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will be at the embassy in Kabul. Now that U.S. focus seems to have turned toward ISIS, training the Iraqi military, and other parts of the globe, many are asking what’s next for Afghanistan, and should anyone care? To me, the answer is yes, the world should care, and what’s next might include a bid (albeit a quiet one) for regional influence from both China and Russia. But given Afghanistan’s history, current internal strife, and use as a breeding and operations base for terrorism, is any endeavor into the region worth it?
Between 27 and 28 April, 1978, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) wrested political power from the legitimate Afghan government in what became known as the Saur (from the Dari word “taurus,” the second month of the Persian calendar in which the event took place) Revolution. After declaring that, in keeping with its socialist ideology, women were to be granted equal rights in everything from voting to education, the new government then changed the national flag from the traditional Islamic green to a flaming-red flag that was an almost exact copy of the Soviet one.
As the influence of communism became more and more apparent, the U.S. embassy in Kabul sent a cable to Washington that read, “What the British first, and later the Americans, tried to prevent for a hundred years has happened: the Russian Bear has moved south of the Hindu Kush.” Soon after, on 24 December, 1979, and under direct orders from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, the Russian 40th Army crossed the border and seized Kabul.
China has had a mostly cordial relationship with Afghanistan, beginning with the trade of fruit and tea via caravans. In January 1957, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and Vice Premier He Long visited Afghanistan in what was the first-ever visit made by Chinese leadership to Afghanistan. After an invitation from China in October 1957, Prime Minister Mohammad Daud of Afghanistan visited China. On November 22, 1963, China and Afghanistan signed the Boundary Treaty, settling the territorial dispute over the approximately 57.5-mile border, including the Afghan-controlled Wakhan on the border between Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.
The Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan from December 1979 to January 1989 cast a shadow on Chinese-Afghan relations, with China condemning the action and refusing to recognize the Soviet-backed regime. Soon after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001, China began to re-engage the Karzai government, initially sending a team from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then opening an embassy. In 2003, the two countries signed the Agreement of Economic and Technical Cooperation, under which the Chinese government provided a $15 million USD grant to the Afghan government.
With the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, it is likely that both China’s and Russia’s main concerns in the area are stability and economy. Both have a valid concern with extremism (although China to a lesser extent) within and just outside of their borders. Instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan would likely spill over into Central Asia. While the security “leadership” burden would fall on both countries, both China and Russia are actively working to lessen the other’s influence on the world stage. Russia is working to retain, regain, and strengthen its influence on the “stans,” while also looking to hold off any Chinese leverage. Recent moves in the Ukraine and other areas may well have weakened the country’s ability to effectively do both, however.
Economically, China views Afghanistan and the surrounding region as a resource and investment hub, with oil and copper topping the list. Russia, of course, also has a stake in the oil game, which Afghanistan could play a major part in, but China is slowly gaining momentum. Another aspect of Russian and Chinese interest in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of a U.S. withdrawal, are narcotics. It is estimated that Afghanistan produces upwards of 90 percent of the world’s opiates, and nations like Kyrgyzstan are already suffering as narco-states.
For now, it appears that Russia will continue to hold overall responsibility for security in the region, and China will make gains through its investments and economic ties to the region. Militarily, neither seems to have a desire to encroach into Afghanistan, content to rely on first the United States, then ISAF, and now the Afghan government to contain the terrorism and extremist elements. This is already proving to be a tall order. In the end, it may be that neither Russia nor China “wants” Afghanistan, but they both may end up with more of it than they bargained for.
(Featured image courtesy of cgoa.ca)