This article by Amin Saikal, Associate Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, originally appeared in The Strategist on July 12.
World politics has entered an ominous phase of polarization. The struggle between the US-led democracies and the Russian-Chinese-led autocracies underpins this development above all. But there is another dangerous dimension: the emergence of close ties between the autocratic powers and such extremist theocratic forces as the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 certainly ushered in a new era of optimism in the West. In the eyes of many, particularly US leaders at the time, it ushered in the end of the Cold War as we knew it, marking the triumph of democracy over communism and free enterprise capitalism over stifling centralized socialism. It prompted a thinker like Frances Fukuyama to claim “the end of history.” Few saw the lateral shift in power from west to east, with the rise of a very challenging autocratic communist China and a confident Russia.
Similarly, not many could foresee the spread of power described by Joe Nye, exemplified by transnational violent extremist groups and networks such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. It was also generally unthinkable that the US and its NATO and non-NATO allies would withdraw defeated from Afghanistan and the Taliban, protector of al-Qaeda, who perpetrated the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States , which would allow return to power in the country. Or that Russia would invade Ukraine as the embodiment of the power ambitions of a modern-day autocrat, Vladimir Putin.
The more troubling development, meanwhile, is that the two pools of rival powers don’t care which countries they attract into their orbit, as long as they are on the right side of their opposing interests. The US administration under President Joe Biden has abandoned its initial emphasis on human rights and the promotion of democratic values in foreign policy. China and Russia align themselves with forces actually or potentially opposed to the United States. For example, while Biden is now taking back the country he declared a pariah (Saudi Arabia) and abandoning any pretense to pressure Israel to end its brutal occupation of the Palestinian territories, his Chinese and Russian counterparts are very kind to him Taliban.
Beijing and Moscow no longer see the Taliban as an extremist force, but as a potential ally. Aside from formally recognizing the group’s regime in Afghanistan, both have developed close diplomatic, trade and economic ties.
Beijing has welcomed the Taliban leaders with open arms and the Chinese foreign minister has visited Kabul to promote bilateral ties. China is now the largest potential investor in Afghanistan, particularly in the minerals sector, and has eliminated tariffs on imports of Afghan goods. Beijing is emerging as a very influential player and welcomes the Taliban’s declaration of making China their preferred economic partner.
China’s influence, combined with its economic and strategic partnerships with Afghanistan’s two neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, and Pakistan’s critical support for the Taliban, gives Beijing a fairly formidable regional grouping. It is remarkable to see how China’s “godless” secularist communism has conveniently come to interact positively with the extremist form of Taliban Islamism, as well as with Iran’s politically pluralistic theocratic order.
The same applies to Russia, which has all recognized the Taliban regime. It has allowed the Taliban to run the Afghan embassy in Moscow – the only state after Pakistan. Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, recently announced that Russia is effectively negotiating with the Taliban regime as a recognized entity.
Russia has offered to sell gas to Afghanistan at discounted prices, though it’s not clear through which pipelines. The Taliban have backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it is possible that some of the group’s battle-hardened fighters will be stationed on that front. Russia has all but abandoned its fears of the spread of Taliban radical Islamism into its Central Asian backyard, and the Taliban appear to have forgotten Russian atrocities during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and overlooked Putin’s renewed belief in Christianity in support of his autocratic rule .
The US and its allies have pledged to provide long-term support to Ukraine. They have labeled Putin’s Russia an enemy trying to change the European, and hence world, order, and China a threat in the Indo-Pacific. The two Eastern powers have tried to get to bed with the support of anyone they can win over. This even includes theocratic forces like the al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban and their affiliated organizations in various parts of the world – particularly in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
The front lines now drawn make the global situation more tense and dangerous than during the Cold War.
Amin Saikal is co-author of Islam Beyond the Borders: The Umma in World Politics and The Afghanistan Spectrum: The Security of Central Asia, and co-editor of Russia In Search of Its Future.