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China and Russia’s deal with the devil Both superpowers have everything to gain from cosying up to the Taliban

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid plays the Great Game (Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid plays the Great Game (Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


August 23, 2021   5 mins

Of all the footage that has emerged from Afghanistan over the past week, the most disturbing clip does not contain shooting jihadists, exploding buildings or screaming civilians. It appeared a few days ago as the Taliban took Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, and it shows a small group of them in the gym at the captured presidential palace.

One man peddles on a cross trainer; one struggles to operate a weights machine; another uses his arms to work a leg press. Then one hops off an exercise bike and scoots gleefully across the room, squealing with delight.

It’s his look that I can’t forget: his eyes twinkle, his mouth explodes into a grin. It’s the same look that I’ve seen a thousand times on the faces of my godchildren and young cousins when they know they’re misbehaving. The video was of fighters triumphing in a captured building, but it was also of a pack of brutal man-children fooling around with expensive toys they will eventually break. There could be no clearer metaphor for what is happening to Afghanistan.

These men — and they are always men — are always the same; adults who revel in their savagery like misbehaving adolescents, child arsonists driven by the same violent impulses — to shoot a woman for wearing the wrong sort of Naqib or none at all; to kill a man for being the wrong religion; or simply to pull the wings off a fly.

It’s no surprise, then, that Britain, the United States and even the UN are evacuating their embassies as well as — to greater and lesser degrees — the Afghans who worked alongside them and now face torture and death. But while most flee, others see opportunity. Not least Russia and China, who are already exploiting the nascent Taliban monster that is emerging while its creators helicopter themselves to safety.

If you think the Taliban are a mob of disheveled thugs, you’d be right. But they’re also now a political force that two of the world’s most powerful states want cosy up to — even as their foot soldiers beat and murder in the name of an Islam they long ago perverted for their own ends.

Russia is historically an imperial power; so it is unsurprising that, for Moscow, Afghanistan comes freighted with history. Its “graveyard of Empires” tag may be a clichĂ© but only because it retains so much aphoristic value. The 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan War, a cruel and sanguinary conflict that Russia lost, is carved into the historical memory of both countries. Up to 2 million Afghans were killed, while for the Soviets it hastened the end of the USSR. The bearded features and baggy trousers of the Mujahideen fighter loom large in the PTSD of a generation of Soviet soldiers.

Oliver Carroll, The Independent’s Moscow Correspondent, described Russia’s policy toward the Taliban to me as “pure schizophrenia”. On the one hand, according to its ambassador to Afghanistan, they are reasonable guys, and “not crazy terrorists”. Indeed, they have managed to arrange a deal for the security of the embassy, and have announced what appears to be an exclusive deal to evacuate Afghans “without limit or hindrance”. But, he continues, “the official FSB still officially lists the Taliban as a terror organisation — and everything I’ve seen suggests Russia isn’t ready to remove it”.

It’s a tricky situation for Russia. Authorities across the country — from Chechnya to Dagestan — have spent years terrifying their people about the radical Islamic threat, and Muslims generally. Yet Russia is also concerned about its diminishing influence in its former central Asian colonies, three of which — Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan — border Afghanistan. All now fear not only refugee flows but the increased threat of Taliban cross-border attacks and terrorism.

The Kremlin is therefore selling its diplomatic efforts with the Taliban to its people as the pursuit of national interests — nothing more. At any rate, Moscow prides itself on what it calls its “multivector foreign policy” of cosying up to Iran and Israel, Qatar and the Saudis, Azeris and Armenians, and Turkey and the Kurds. Look for logic there and feel your head spin.

Then there is the question of that classic political obsession: state competition. Carroll’s contacts in the Russian foreign ministry are, he says, obviously happy at the clear defeat for a rival ideology — and what it shows potential US allies in Central Asia. There is, he told me, “lots of glee on the fall of a major pillar of US foreign policy. Russian propaganda is going in for the kill on Joe Biden, presenting him as a hypocrite only interested in the US. TV is showing lots of footage of the poor Afghan in the undercarriages of planes, juxtaposed with Biden declaring that “I wouldn’t do anything different.’”

But there are limits to this reading. First off, Russia knows that, whatever happens, it will sooner or later have to deal with huge migrant flows pressing on its borders. Millions will now start to flee the Taliban’s barbarity — something Moscow has neither the cash nor inclination to deal with. This might give it a reason to return to “police” its former colonies, but it will also be an economic, security and public relations headache.

And the Russians are not stupid. Too close association with what is a variegated mob of Jihadist slaughterers (despite their recent attempts at PR) will no doubt soon backfire. Already videos of Taliban atrocities are unspooling across social media. Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s description of the Taliban as “reasonable” was foolish when he said it and will only look worse as time goes on. That’s why many in Russia will remain cautious. After all, an alliance with Moscow might suit the Taliban for now — but how long until they decide that Russians are infidels, too?

For China, meanwhile, the problem is first and foremost one of security. China shares a 57-mile border with Afghanistan. And with the Taliban in control, Beijing fears the jihadists next door might let the Uyghur-militias who have escaped use Afghanistan as a springboard to attack Xinjiang, which lies close to the border. There is form here. In 2020, reports surfaced that foreign fighters showing up in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan included Uyghurs, who ran their own terror organisations but were happy to collaborate.

Then, as always with China, there is the question of resources. Afghanistan may be famous for violence and war but it is also estimated to have between $1-$3 trillion worth of rare earth materials (used in tech, automotives, clean energy and defence). China has about 35% of global reserves but in 2018 produced 70% of total rare earths. Doing a deal with the Taliban, then, could be tempting.

Indeed, perhaps it’s not surprising that China recognised the Taliban government from the get go, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hua Chunying, announcing last week that she “looks forward to China’s participation in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development”. In fact, it seems they knew it was coming. Just weeks before the Taliban’s advance to Kabul, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to reaffirm friendly cooperation between the two countries and the “just and positive” role of China in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process.

This is all deliberate. Good relations can give China access to a resource bonanza. It would enable Beijing to do what it’s been doing in Africa for years: hoover everything up, and power a final march to global hegemony.

Meanwhile, in terms of PR, Beijing is also more than happy to see two decades of pious American rhetoric about bringing freedom to Afghanistan end in the images of Afghans tumbling to their deaths from the undercarriage of fleeing US planes. Washington looks incompetent, heartless and most of all an unreliable, if not outright dishonest, ally.

And so for now, Russia and China will happily cosy up to Kabul, while pursuing their respective interests, united by common goals of expanding their influence, protecting their borders and seeing the Americans chased out of the region. Both countries have more to win than to lose from cooperation with the Taliban.

But neither should feel assured. This gang of fanatics is only just getting started. The problem with monsters is that they are difficult to control — as every nation who has ever tried to meddle in Afghanistan has learned to their cost.


David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)

dpatrikarakos

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Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
2 years ago

Patrikarakos thinks too much of the West. No doubt many in the White House and in Whitehall can operate machines in the gym and their technology is more advanced than the Taliban’s. But the handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and of the pandemic, shows us they are not so much more advanced in their abilities to plan and orchestrate. And with the culture wars raging, the West cannot say that it is ideologically more coherent either.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

And Pakistan. There has been a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese associated with their Belt and Road colonial project and ‘investment’ in Gwadar port as the Chinese fishing fleet hoovers up local fish and locals are outraged at Chinese influence. Let’s see.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

There’s a tendency in the west to assume there will be some kind of anti-colonial resistance to China in Africa and other parts of the world. This to my mind is largely wishful thinking. In fact China remains fairly popular in Pakistan although there’s some hostility in Gwadar.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I live in Africa and many love the Chinese here. It is the communist thang.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

While the Shi’a Shiite muslim split adds complications, there are signs of mutual support between Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan that could extend up to a central Asian regional power, possibly extending into the more northerly khanates. It would have money, nuclear weapons, oils and gas with trade routes into Russia and China, and be a non-Arab muslim counterweight to US-backed Saudi influence. Large wheels are turning…

Last edited 2 years ago by Saul D
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

I up voted as it sounds interesting – but Iranian Mullahs and Pakistani Sunni Kleptocracy, the Taliban, and the Northern post USSR Tajiks, Khazaks, Uzebks, Turkmenistan, forming a power block seems very unlikely indeed. They really have no common bonds, and all are hot headed and fiercely independent and economically, culturally, linguistically, very different. There just is no commonality like in Europe to make the EU.

No more likely than if Vietnam and Indonesia and all the surrounding joined up to make a SE Asian Superstate – I do not see it at all.

Michael Sweeney
Michael Sweeney
2 years ago

“Look for logic there and feel your head spin.”
I am absolutely stealing this line and now applying it to MANY MANY current issues in the world. Common sense is gone. Well, I like to think I still have it, but I/we are clearly outnumber in many ways.
I have a brief two year history of working with Afghan women. There are no words for Afghan men…

Alyona Song
Alyona Song
2 years ago

Pointing finger at Russia and China is easy, isn’t it what they are there for after all, right? The article represents a pathetic refusal to glace at the mirror.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

An interesting read with realistic forecasts. A very different perspective than Freddie’s interview of the naive CNN reporter which struck me almost dumb. It is evident to people many thousands of miles away that Taliban PR is just that and it couldn’t last more than a nanosecond.
I am going to guess that China will win this scramble to power.

lou perrotta
lou perrotta
2 years ago

Naive or just telling us what she was seeing on the ground? Not sure how someone thousands of miles away can assume superior knowledge… unless they just believe MSM.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  lou perrotta

Let’s see if this Taliban leopard will change its spots Lou Perrotta. I’m going to bet I’m right as history should tell a cautionary tale to observers and media. This reporter (from MSM) was encouraged because despite shouting Death to America, the Taliban seemed really nice. Well, well. I would call that naive.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

She didn’t say they were “nice”. She gave a picture of the situation as it was in central Kabul which our media were ignoring.
You cannot tell the true picture, only those who are there on the spot can do so. I believe she gave a balanced report, whereas our media crave sensationalism which they are achieving by only reporting from the airport.
At the end of the day the situation will be normalised. to some extent. with diplomacy, something which has been in short supply since the beginning of this century.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I could not read this article, I thought it cr *p and utterly just his lurid take on things. I rather doubt he knows anything of the Afghani people, culture, history, other than that they are savages in his mind.

I also thought Freddie’s CNN reporter was dreadful – the absolute pinnacle of how the MSM wants fluffy Blond Women to cover Muslim situations, ones who know nothing at all of the topic.

Henly, ‘Dirty Laundry’

“I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something-something I can use
People love it when you lose,
They love dirty laundry

Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here
I just have to look good, I dont have to be clear
Come and whisper in my ear
Give us dirty laundry

Kick em when theyre up
Kick em when theyre down
Kick em when theyre up
Kick em when theyre down
Kick em when theyre up
Kick em when theyre down
Kick em when theyre up
Kick em all around

We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who
Comes on at five
She can tell you bout the plane crash with a gleam
In her eye
Its interesting when people die-
Give us dirty laundry

https://www.letssingit.com/eagles-lyrics-dirty-laundry-s77vnk1
LetsSingIt – The Internet Lyrics Database

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“but it was also of a pack of brutal man-children fooling around with expensive toys they will eventually break. “

“This gang of fanatics is only just getting started. The problem with monsters is that they are difficult to control”

“If you think the Taliban are a mob of disheveled thugs, you’d be right.”

Who is this idiot writer? I looked at it earlier and had to put it down. I could not even read this closely to see what he thinks China and Russia will be up to as he is so obviously biased and culturally stunted that all must be seen through his Liberal Prejudice.

David B
David B
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Add his conviction that theirs is a “perverted” Islam to that list of biases

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  David B

I would guess the writer is a part of ‘Perverted Liberalism’ where good and evil are gone, and correct and incorrect substituted. Where ethics are situational, and morality relative – and His Sort are the arbitrators of those.

How utterly degenerate and perverted Muslims think us, and with every bit as much right.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

Yea, well, it is what it is. At least, now we Americans can concentrate on defending our own nation, which is much more secure since bin Laden and his thugs demonstrated our need for a TSA-operated internal airport security infrastructure.
No more 911s for us. Let the thugs of the world swagger through central Asia. The United States is peace-loving nation of civilized citizen. We will have an easier time managing that peace now.