US exit from Afghanistan 'opens door to Iranian influence'

Vacuum left by Nato could lead to competition among regional powers, experts say

Two US Marines share their water with a young girl during evacuations at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan. AP Photo
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The US’s undignified exit from Afghanistan is a propaganda boon for its rivals in the region and could allow Iran to expand its influence, a panel of experts at the Chatham House think tank have said.

They said Afghanistan could become an area of competition for regional powers as the end of the 20-year Nato mission there leaves a power vacuum in Central Asia.

Iran, which said it was willing to work with China and Russia, was reported by Reuters to have resumed fuel exports to Afghanistan in recent days.

Tehran was seen by US intelligence services as building links with the Taliban before the fall of Kabul, while also maintaining ties with the former government.

Sanam Vakil, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, said Iran would now look to boost its economic influence in Afghanistan.

“Iran has relied on the economy there to export its products, to access currency. That is going to be a huge priority,” she said.

“Iran would like to prevent other countries in the region from using Afghanistan as a base to infiltrate or weaken Iran’s influence. There is a risk of Afghanistan again becoming an area of competition.”

Like Iran, Russia and China have maintained their embassies in Kabul. Beijing has previously invested in Afghanistan's mineral wealth and explored including the country in its Belt and Road infrastructure plans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday that he was willing to work with Beijing to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan, Chinese state media said.

However, experts said the fallout from Afghanistan could still pose security concerns for the two nuclear-armed powers, for example by inspiring militant groups to destabilise Central Asia.

The Kremlin, which suffered its own humiliation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has sought assurances from the Taliban that its staff will be safe.

But Kate Mallinson, a Russia expert on the Chatham House panel, said Moscow's optimism masked potential security threats in the region.

“The Russians are very much using the defeat of the American-backed and trained government as a significant propaganda coup against the US,” she said. “In reality, there are major concerns for the Kremlin and for Central Asian governments.”

She said Moscow should be concerned about extremists crossing into Afghanistan’s ex-Soviet neighbours and then moving into Russian territory. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have both increased security at their borders.

US President Joe Biden raised concerns on Tuesday about an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, targeting the airport where the last Nato evacuations are taking place.

The rescue mission led by Nato troops is entering its final phase as military forces prepare to complete their withdrawal by the August 31 deadline.

Rejecting calls from Europe to extend the deadline, Mr Biden said the danger of an attack by ISIS-K would increase if the evacuation efforts were dragged out further.

Unlike in the 1990s, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance does not control significant territory along the borders of Central Asian countries.

Some countries in Central Asia suffered from a similar sense of corruption and disenfranchisement which helped to bring about the fall of Kabul, Ms Mallinson said.

“The Kremlin and the Central Asian governments have reason to be nervous,” she said.

“Even if the Taliban keep their promises to the Russians, they face vast challenges in not letting the conflict in Afghanistan spill over.

“Despite the military prowess that Russia’s got, they’ll be having to deal with much more asymmetric warfare and it will be much more unpredictable.”

China shares a short border with Afghanistan, and the Taliban have signalled that Beijing could play a role in rebuilding the country.

Beijing’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomed a Taliban delegation to China only weeks before the fall of Kabul.

But there are risks to China if Afghanistan remains unstable and Beijing is unwilling to be the next superpower to intervene militarily, said China expert Kerry Brown.

“In the grand scheme of things, what’s happening in Afghanistan is validating China’s view that America is a declining power,” he said.

“The problem is that if it becomes a vacuum, it’s hard for China to really fill that vacuum. Why would it do it when it saw what the US and the Soviet Union suffered?

“The symbolism of that would be immense. It would be the moment when China suddenly becomes an interventionist power. That’s a red line that I think China is not, for this issue at least, remotely willing to cross.”

Updated: August 25, 2021, 1:32 PM