On August 15, 2021, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken responded to the question of whether the Biden administration would recognize the Taliban’s new government by stating, “A future Afghan government that upholds the basic rights of its people and doesn’t harbor terrorists is a government we can work with and recognize.”
Echoing Blinken’s remarks, Ned Price, the U.S. State Department spokesman, declared on August 20 that the United States has several tools at its disposal to hold the Taliban accountable for its treatment of women and minorities. Among the tools are designating the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) or including its members in Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG). In fact, one of them already is.
Washington has already frozen nearly 10 billion dollars of Afghanistan’s assets, denying the Taliban access to the international financial system. Due to the U.S freeze of Afghanistan’s assets, Afghanistan’s currency has depreciated while prices have spiked, and banks remain closed. Several Taliban members have also been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
The Taliban cannot be held to the American standards of liberal democracy, free market, and civil liberties. Nevertheless, the Taliban have repeatedly acknowledged the need for an inclusive government, women’s rights to study and work, independent media, viable relations with the international community, and reforms in various sectors, though it is not clear whether they will follow through on these promises.
While President Joe Biden has the power to restore full diplomatic relations with the Taliban, such an action would occur as part of broader efforts to engage with them. These efforts must account for America’s three major rivals in the region: China, Russia, and Iran. All three have vowed to recognize the Taliban government.
This triangle of belligerent countries, while apart in their regional tendencies, remain united against the United States, seeking to undermine Washington’s interests and ultimately drive the United States out of the region.
For China, Afghanistan is important not only for security reasons but also economic ones. Afghanistan’s geostrategic position as the crossroad of major trade routes, connecting Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East on the one hand and the country’s abundant industrial materials on the other make Kabul an attractive economic and political partner for China.
The Taliban are in a position to enable China to implement its Belt and Road Initiative in the region by facilitating the importation of much-needed industrial materials from Central Asia and the exportation of goods from China’s coastal inlands to markets in the Middle East and Europe—all by rail. Central Asia also possesses large energy deposits. Given China’s future energy demands, Central Asia is likely to see an increasing Chinese presence.
Additionally, the Taliban can offer Beijing security guarantees on its northeastern border. Chinese officials have long worried about the rise of extremism in Xinjiang province which is home to the Uyghur Muslims. In return for Chinese political and economic support, the Taliban could deny safe heaven to Uyghur separatists in Afghanistan.
For Russia, Afghanistan is also a major security concern. As a landlocked country, Russia has legitimate political and security sensitivities all around its borders, especially on its southern border.
Halford Mackinder’s twentieth-century geopolitical dictum that “all lands are politically connected” bears truth in the present time. The 2010-11 uprising in Tunisia was a testament to that fact. A protest by a fruit vendor in Tunis to change the country’s political landscape spilled to the rest of North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.
Under the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Russia’s influence on the Central Asian countries will depend on Moscow’s sway in Kabul. Thus, Moscow seems to have a vested interest in working with the Taliban.
Finally, Iran has benefited from U.S. involvement and subsequent withdrawal in Afghanistan and Iraq. In both wars, Tehran has supported specific militias to target and kill Americans. The U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan will give Iran yet another opportunity to advance its revolutionary vision well beyond its border and threaten Washington’s interests far and wide.
In all, China’s strategic intention to march West, Russian’s vision to create a Eurasian Union, and Iran’s ambition to prevail as the dominant force in the Middle East place Afghanistan at the intersection of all three countries’ geostrategic priorities. Thus, the fundamental question confronting U.S. policymakers is not whether Washington can keep China, Russia, and Iran in check in Afghanistan but whether Washington has the will to do so.
Sami Jabarkhail is a Ph.D. Candidate in Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University. Sami was a delegate to the 2014 NATO Future Leaders Summit in Wales, UK. Follow him on Twitter @SamiJabarkhail.