U.S. Leaving Afghanistan Could Threaten India and Pakistan, but Russia, China and Iran Are Getting Involved

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could lead to an emboldened Islamist insurgency by the Taliban, threatening nearby India and Pakistan, but Russia and China have already begun getting involved.

Although the White House has offered no official confirmation of a partial U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, numerous media outlets have reported on an upcoming plan to halve the roughly 14,000 troops fighting in the country's longest-ever conflict. Despite 17 years at war there, however, the Taliban have managed to stage a major comeback, and even the Pentagon has conceded that a military solution would be impossible.

A resurgent Taliban not only threatened to stir unrest within the country itself but also volatile disputes in the region. In a commentary posted Wednesday to the India-based Observer Research Foundation's online blog, distinguished fellow Harsh V. Pant of King's College London argued that a resurgent Taliban could draw in Pakistan and India, which are already locked in a decades-long dispute over the Kashmir territory that separates them, as well as China, Iran and Russia.

"Pakistan's backing for its proxies will intensify even as other regional players like Russia and Iran join in," Pant wrote, noting New Delhi's own engagements with Beijing and Moscow. "A gradual descent into a civil war is likely as various regional stakeholders try to reshape the battlefield in accordance with their own strategic priorities counting on American forces to eventually leave."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and representatives of both the Afghan government and the Taliban pose for a photo prior to international talks on Afghanistan in Moscow, on November 9. The flags of China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iran, India and the U.S. are seen behind them. YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan by funding mujahideen rebels in a successful uprising against a Soviet intervention attempting to salvage the communist government in Kabul in the 1980s. The nation soon devolved into a total civil war, with the Taliban rising to the top in the 1990s, allying with the Al-Qaeda militant group that would go on to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The U.S. invaded shortly after, overthrowing the Taliban-led government but facing a fierce insurgency that has worsened in recent years.

The U.S. has all but abandoned defeating the Taliban by force and attempted to reach a peace deal between the Afghan government and the militant group, although no comprehensive agreements have been attained. A report published last week by the Pentagon explained that the U.S. has "a single vital national interest in Afghanistan: to prevent it from becoming a safe-haven from which terrorist groups can plan and execute attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. citizens, and our interests and allies abroad" and that the "ultimate goal in Afghanistan is a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban."

That same report noted the increasing involvement of Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, New Delhi and other regional governments in the conflict. The document said that "Russia is engaging a wide range of actors in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, to secure its interests in Central Asia and to expand its influence in the region," while "China's military, economic, and political engagements in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security concerns that terrorism will spread across the Afghan border into China, and also by China's increasing desire to protect its regional economic investments."

As for Iran, the Pentagon accused it of supporting the Taliban, as the revolutionary Shiite Muslim power "seeks a stable Afghan government that is responsive to Iranian goals, the elimination of ISISK, the removal of the U.S./NATO presence, and the protection of Iranian concerns, such as water rights and border security." The document also referred to India as "Afghanistan's most reliable regional partner and the largest contributor of development assistance in the region" and called on Pakistan to address border security issues with Afghanistan.

Contacts between these countries have also been expanding. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi met with the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia over the past week alone, while Beijing and Islamabad discussed "new changes" in their shared understanding of the conflict Tuesday, and Moscow held a bilateral meeting with New Delhi last week to forge a common path forward. A week after Washington officials met with the Taliban, Tehran revealed Wednesday that it also held talks with the group.

Soldiers conduct a night fire mission while supporting combat operations in Afghanistan, on December 20. Widespread reporting suggests a partial U.S. pullout from the war-torn country, paving the way for regional powers to take up greater roles. Captain Johnathan Leigh/U.S. Army/Department of Defense

These powers have also joined in separate geopolitical groupings such as the Regional Security Dialogue comprising China, Russia and Iran, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Russia, India and Pakistan. The latter, an eight-nation grouping, managed in August to facilitate the first-ever training sessions in which Indian and Pakistan troops jointly participated despite their decades-long history of conflict. Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey came together earlier this month for their second annual conference of the speakers of parliament.

While Russia and India, and China and Pakistan, respectively, have enjoyed strong ties for some time, they have since expanded and diversified regional security cooperation. Russia held the Indra 2018 naval drills with India earlier this month, just days after participating in joint maritime maneuvers with Pakistan. China and India wrapped up their Hand-to-Hand counterterrorism exercise earlier this week that followed the Shaheen VII air simulations held alongside Pakistan at the beginning of the month.

A reduction in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would not only make good on Trump's campaign promise to end costly wars abroad—just as he announced a total withdrawal from Syria last week—but also fulfill regional desires for a more multipolar framework. The Pentagon's top military rivals, Russia and China, in particular, have sought to curb global U.S. influence.