Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an acute disaster for Ukraine and Europe. But it also has a profound geopolitical impact — one that will have ripple effects for the major humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. An active war in Europe is bad news for Afghanistan, as this draws away resources, sympathy and attention from the millions of Afghans that are also struggling to get cash, food and protection from human rights abuse. And the Taliban stand to benefit, since they no longer appear to be the world’s most notorious aggressor and will gain political space to consolidate their control over the country.  

Men sell supplies in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in December 2021. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)
Men sell supplies in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in December 2021. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

As Western attention wanes, Afghanistan policy will become more a product of regional interests, dominated by Pakistan and, behind it, China. That may not be welcome news to the region, however, because even though the end of the Taliban’s insurgency has brought about a reduction in violence, the Taliban’s authoritarian rule leaves the state without the money or technical capacity needed for effective governance. This makes it more likely that the Afghan crisis will deepen and last longer, because as disruptive as Western engagement in Afghanistan has been, history shows that Western disengagement has been worse.

Dual Demands on Humanitarian Assistance

The most immediate effect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is to move Western attention away from the Afghanistan crisis and onto Ukraine. Afghanistan has already suffered from NATO members’ war fatigue. Now, the Ukraine conflict offers a familiar Cold-War narrative for Americans and poses a much more immediate threat to Europeans. We can expect this diverted attention to be followed with a shift in resources for humanitarian aid and refugee assistance from Afghanistan to Ukraine. 

An estimated 24 million of Afghanistan’s 38 million people require urgent humanitarian assistance, pushing the United Nations to make a record-breaking appeal for $4.5 billion in humanitarian and $3.5 billion in development assistance for this year.

Ukraine has a similar sized population — and as of today, there are an estimated 3 million refugees and tens of millions who face severe shortages of food, shelter and medicine. And while the United Nations has not released a specific appeal for Ukraine, a key date to watch is March 31, when the U.K. is hosting a donor pledging conference for Afghanistan humanitarian assistance. Will Western donors fill that request with another huge need on the horizon in Ukraine?

Does the Enemy of an Enemy Equal a Friend?

The political impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on Afghanistan are more difficult to discern. Russian and U.S. goals in Afghanistan are largely aligned, as evidenced by a series of joint statements issued by the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan calling for a more inclusive Taliban government, counter terrorism guarantees and respect for universal human and women’s rights. Despite the vastly increased tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, the common Afghan interests remain largely unchanged. 

In the years leading up to the Taliban takeover, Russia developed a tactical relationship with the Taliban, aiming to antagonize the United States and hedge in case the Taliban won (although Russia ultimately hoped the Afghan Republic would remain intact). Russia is now more willing to engage diplomatically with the Taliban but has not recognized the Taliban government out of concern that drug trafficking and terrorism will flow north into Russia’s sphere of interest in Central Asia. 

It isn’t clear whether a deeper relationship with Russia would be worth much to the Taliban, either. The Taliban crave international legitimacy, but little of that will come through support from a newly minted international pariah like Russia, especially since Moscow has no money or military force to spare. The Taliban must also have serious reservations about cozying up to Russia, even in a time of need, when the Russian assault on Ukraine is looking more and more like the Soviet Union’s devastating occupation of Afghanistan. The Taliban have even used the Ukraine crisis to audition for the role of a responsible member of the international community by calling “for both sides of the conflict to resolve the crisis through dialogue and peaceful means."

Moving From the Main Stage to the Side Show

As U.S. and NATO leverage declines in Afghanistan, regional powers will assume a greater degree of influence over Afghanistan’s fate. China is the largest regional power but has so far been minimally affected by the war in Afghanistan. With the Ukraine conflict accelerating the pace of Western disengagement, China will become a more relevant actor in Afghanistan, particularly through its ally Pakistan. Gaining enhanced regional influence and control is not automatically a good thing for China, however, because now Afghanistan is more of a liability than an asset on the geopolitical balance sheet. 

Over the past 20 years, China was a minor economic and political actor in Afghanistan, as well as a non-factor militarily. China’s greatest influence is through Pakistan, which backed the Taliban and now can be considered the greatest political influence on them — although the Taliban resent the patronizing role Pakistan has played and have pushed back in some prominent ways on Pakistani political demands since the Taliban takeover. With the Ukraine crisis causing geostrategic uncertainty on a global level, one can expect China to work even more closely with Pakistan to achieve a condition of stability in Afghanistan. This could include more political support to the Taliban and maybe more aid. Yet China will remain wary of giving too much power to an Islamic fundamentalist group that, in Beijing’s eyes, might make the Uyghurs look harmless in comparison.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has increased the value of stability for Afghanistan’s northern Central Asia neighbors as well. Central Asian states are frightened by President Putin’s justification for the Ukraine invasion because it applies equally to them: All are new states that were initially part of the Russian empire and then received their current boundaries from the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Western economic sanctions have caused collateral damage in the short term in Central Asia because they cut off Russian trade and remittances. This increases the desire of Central Asian states for more stability on their southern flank. But Central Asian states have relatively little influence over the Taliban and, by themselves, cannot alter the economic or political fragility that threatens them from Afghanistan.

An Ounce of Prevention Versus a Pound of Cure

Geopolitically, the Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally alters the context of strategic competition between the NATO alliance and Russia, with implications for Western-Chinese competition as well. One can assume that cooperation on mutual interests like an inclusive and stable Afghan state will become more difficult in an atmosphere of increased tensions — although cooperation was not leading to apparent breakthroughs in Afghanistan before the Ukraine invasion anyway. 

Some argue that dimming the spotlight on Afghanistan could allow for quiet diplomacy to work better. But there is not a great track record of Afghan peace agreements formed without significant outside pressure. More likely, as Western policymakers focus on the resurgent threat of inter-state conflict, they will try to shift the resolution of intra-state conflicts like Afghanistan to regional solutions. In that case, Afghanistan will become even more subject to the foreign policy of Pakistan.

The bottom line is that the Ukraine crisis relegates Afghanistan from a second-tier security threat to major powers before the invasion to probably a third-tier security threat now, which means the major powers will spend less effort trying to solve it. That is, until the Taliban’s inability to govern the country tips into civil war or renewed international terrorism. To avoid that much worse fate, the United States can take several pragmatic steps to mitigate the Afghanistan humanitarian crisis at the same time as confronting Russia on Ukraine:

  • Continue robust humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan because turning away makes civil war and terrorism more likely and the United States and Europe cannot afford state collapse in Afghanistan right now.
  • Walk and chew gum at the same time with Russia: Do not let animosity over Ukraine damage fundamental cooperation and shared interests between the United States and Russia on Afghanistan. The Extended Troika dialogue among the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan should be continued.
  • Seek to counter inherent Chinese geopolitical gains from the Ukraine conflict by consciously investing more U.S. money and attention in Central Asia and South Asia.
  • Avoid inconsistency on democratic ideals. If Ukraine is fundamentally a fight for democracy and free choice, ensure those principles are applied to an Afghan political solution. Do not recognize the Taliban if they dictate an insular and authoritarian form of government.
  • Make it clear to Pakistan that the Pottery Barn Rule applies to them with respect to Afghanistan.  Their support is a key reason the Taliban were able to overthrow the elected government in Kabul, and they must help to mitigate the negative humanitarian and security consequences of Taliban rule.

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