While the Taliban’s swift advance into Kabul over the weekend has left much of the West reeling, Afghans themselves will bear the brunt of the militant group’s rule. Beyond Afghanistan’s borders, its neighbors will feel the most immediate impact. Earlier this year, Russia, China and Pakistan affirmed that the future of Afghanistan should be decided through dialogue and political negotiations. How will they engage with the Taliban now? As thousands of Afghans attempt to flee, can Iran and Pakistan — who already officially host roughly 2.5 million displaced Afghans combined — deal with a potential mass exodus of refugees? Could Taliban rule disrupt regional efforts to enhance economic connectivity between South and Central Asia? How will India respond to the loss of its ally in Kabul?
USIP experts examine how Afghanistan’s neighbors have responded to the fall of Kabul and what it means for their interests.
Iran: Treading Carefully, Leaning on Diplomacy
Nada: Iran had long sought the withdrawal of U.S. forces from its eastern neighbor, with which it shares a 572-mile border. But the chaotic aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover had a ripple effect that undermined Iran’s long-term interests. Iran’s top concerns include stemming the flow of migrants and refugees, containing narcotics trafficking, maintaining cross-border trade, mitigating the threat from the Islamic State group’s Khorasan branch, sharing water resources and ensuring the safety of Afghanistan’s Shia minority.
To deal with the influx of Afghans, Iran set up temporary camps in three border provinces — Razavi Khorasan, South Khorasan, and Sistan and Baluchistan. As of 2020, Iran already hosted some 950,000 documented Afghan refugees and at least 2 million more undocumented Afghans.
Iran had already taken precautions on the ground. Earlier this month, Tehran reduced staff at its embassy in Kabul and evacuated staff from three out of four of its consulates to the capital. Only guards and local workers remained in Jalalabad, Kandahar and Mazar-i-Sharif. Diplomats remained in the Herat consulate after the Taliban took control of the western city but were safe, according to Iran’s foreign ministry. Major General Hossein Salami, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said that Iranian forces had secured the eastern border and were closely monitoring the situation.
Iran has used diplomacy to try to defuse tensions in Afghanistan. After President Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal in April, Iran increased contacts with both the Taliban and Afghan government. In July, Tehran hosted peace talks with Taliban and Afghan government representatives. In August, Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, hailed the withdrawal of U.S. forces as “an opportunity to restore life, security and durable peace.” He encouraged all Afghan groups “to reach a national agreement.” The U.N. secretary-general’s envoy for Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, met with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran to discuss ways to stop the violence. Zarif later welcomed former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s formation of a coordination council to meet the Taliban and manage the transition.
Russia: From Surprise to Schadenfreude
Jensen: Russia’s reaction to the Taliban takeover was one of surprise but satisfaction that the long military campaign of its major rival had failed. Senator Aleksey Pushkov, a frequent critic of the United States, called the events “the revenge of history” over “modernity and globalism.” Many observers compared the events to the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89, noting that great powers failed to impose their will on the country in both cases. Still others wondered if the events provided a lesson for the Kremlin when it eventually withdraws from Syria.
Experts could not agree on how much the experience would alter U.S. foreign policy. Commentator Konstantin Remchukov suggested the withdrawal could indicate a fundamental change — that the United States will conduct anti-terrorist operations but would no longer engage in nation building or regime change to promote democratic values. He argued that Afghanistan would continue to play a key role in U.S. calculations, but primarily as a platform to counter China. Influential expert Fedor Lukyanov speculated that the U.S. withdrawal signaled a turn toward greater isolationism and “naked pragmatism.”
The Kremlin has long been concerned about the security threat posed by Islamic extremism. Russian officials, who have been in contact with the Taliban recently, expressed a willingness to work with the Taliban going forward should the new rulers curb their terrorist behavior. Still, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the Kremlin was in no hurry to recognize the group. Russian Ambassador Zhirov praised the Taliban forces, saying that they initially made a good impression and ensured the safety of the Russian Embassy.
Central Asia: Prioritizing Security, Trade and Transit
Helf: Central Asian states lived with the Taliban in the 1990s and will adjust to living with them again. Central Asian leaders had no particular interest in maintaining the status quo in Afghanistan and no motivation for supporting the weak, fragmented and corrupt government in Kabul. An Afghanistan engulfed in civil war would pose serious security and economic challenges to Central Asia. A descent into chaos could return Afghanistan to a hub for jihadist and criminal organizations that would greatly destabilize the entire region and impede any progress on South-Central Asia economic connectivity, trade and transit.
The Taliban, on the other hand, have tried to position themselves to be a centralized and strong government in Afghanistan — something that the Central Asian leaders are very familiar with. As long as the Taliban are willing and able to fight the Islamic State group and eliminate or contain other transnational violent extremist groups such as al-Qaida and the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; secure their borders; and provide for safe passage of goods and trade between Central and South Asia, Central Asian states are likely to adjust to working with them again. The Taliban have even promised to eliminate the drug trade.
The frontline Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have all reacted with a demonstrative flexing of military muscle by shoring up border security. Afghan government security forces have fled to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as have some civilians. Tajikistan has already accepted Afghan refugees and reportedly set up tent camps for hundreds of fleeing Afghans. They have also requested support from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in anticipation of more refugee flows across their border. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on the other hand, have been very cautious in opening up their borders for refugees, with the Uzbek authorities even turning back Afghan military personnel who escaped to Uzbekistan after their bases were overrun by Taliban fighters.
China: Seeking Stability on its Westernmost Border
Scobell: On the heels of the Taliban takeover, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that China desired a “soft landing” for the country. What did Beijing’s top diplomat mean? Wang’s words highlight China’s paramount priority for Afghanistan: stability above all else. What Beijing fears most is a period of uncertainty during which the country devolves into protracted chaos marked by widespread violence, a humanitarian catastrophe on epic scale and an Afghanistan that is once again an epicenter and exporter of transnational terrorism and extremism. While never comfortable with the U.S. military presence in the country — which abuts China’s westernmost and sensitive frontier region of Xinjiang — Beijing had privately hoped that Washington’s efforts would bring lasting stability to the troubled country. Today, Chinese leaders view America’s exit from Afghanistan with mixed emotions.
Beijing’s communist rulers are pragmatists and have long been agnostic about who governs Afghanistan as long as China’s vital interests are safeguarded. In August 2021, these vital interests boil down to a smooth transition to a new national government that can maintain stability and domestic order. Over the years Beijing has shrewdly continued to engage diplomatically with the Taliban, most recently welcoming a high-level delegation to China in July. Beijing is actively pursuing an accommodation with the new authorities in Kabul as it seeks assurances that a Taliban administration will neither foment trouble in Xinjiang nor disrupt China’s economic endeavors in Afghanistan.
India: Warily Watching the Regional Fallout
Salikuddin: For New Delhi, the Taliban’s ascendancy in Kabul is seen through the lens of the India-Pakistan conflict and its friction with China, making the fall of the India-friendly Ghani government a significant challenge to India’s security. Many observers in New Delhi are describing the U.S. military withdrawal and the subsequent Taliban takeover as a triumph of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. India chaired the special session of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier this week and pushed for a resolution calling for the immediate cessation of all hostilities in Afghanistan and the establishment of a new government that is united, inclusive and representative.
Before the Taliban takeover, there was discussion in New Delhi about possible engagement with the Taliban while maintaining support for the Ghani government; however, with the fall of Kabul, India is primarily concerned about regional fallout. India’s main concerns regarding the Taliban revolve around the future of the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, whether the group ceases violence and how it manages it links with terrorist groups that threaten India.
India has evacuated all its diplomatic personnel and Indian nationals by special military flights. It has offered special emergency visas for Afghan nationals, with the priority for Hindu and Sikh Afghans. India has also offered to allow Afghans to stay in India while being processed for resettlement to third countries. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar is currently in New York for the UNSC session and spoke to Secretary Blinken about the need to secure Kabul airport to facilitate continued evacuations.
Pakistan: A Pyrrhic Victory?
Salikuddin: On August 16, Pakistan’s National Security Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to an inclusive political settlement representing all Afghan ethnic groups as the way forward. The Pakistani official statement also lauded the fact that the Taliban had averted major violence in Afghanistan, and it called on all parties in Afghanistan to respect the rule of law, protect fundamental human rights and ensure that Afghan soil is not used by any terrorist organization against any country. Pakistan has not officially recognized the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan and has largely evacuated its diplomatic personnel. In contrast to the careful official statements, there is a sense of triumph within Pakistan that its policy of hedging and supporting the Taliban has paid off.
Through the lens of its rivalry with India, the Taliban victory is seen as the defeat of a pro-India Afghan government. Also, many right-wing Pakistani politicians are painting the Taliban ascendancy as a pan-Islamist victory over the superpower United States, a theme that plays well to right of center domestic politics. In recent remarks, Khan said Afghans are breaking “the shackles of slavery,” referring to Western cultural imposition on Afghanistan. His comments have been controversial and seen as a tacit approval of the Taliban’s ascendancy, but Pakistan insists that his statements were taken out of context.
Within the Pakistani establishment, there are pragmatic voices worried about the future security implications. There is significant worry about the militant spillover into Pakistan, especially amid the re-emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and the emboldening of other militant and sectarian groups. With Pakistani leverage over the Taliban evolving, Pakistan continues to push for a political settlement that allows for Taliban legitimacy but includes other Afghan groups. This week, a group of non-Pashtun former Northern Alliance Afghan politicians met with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad to discuss the possibilities of engaging with the Taliban to form a new “inclusive” government. Worried about a spillover from the fighting, Pakistan had shut its side of the border prior to the Taliban's takeover. But after brief closure it was reopened for trade and restricted pedestrian movement.