US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent decline of their power in the region has provided an opportunity to strengthen an anti-American alliance in Central Asia. The ascendant Taliban regime in Afghanistan is rapidly becoming more of a challenge to the US than prior to the US invasion in 2001. Simultaneously, US failure in the country will reverberate beyond Afghanistan and stain US credibility as a global leader of the democratic world. The US withdrawal has left a power vacuum in the country and a cabal of US adversaries is posturing to fill the void. A new “Great Game” has kicked off in the region, and Washington’s adversaries are off and running.
Tehran and its regional allies cautiously welcomed the new regime in Afghanistan. Despite disagreements over theology and mutual distrust, Iranian leadership openly embraced the Taliban takeover as an example of obsolete US foreign policy in the region. Strategists in Tehran have been emboldened by US failure in Afghanistan and are hopeful it could be a harbinger of similar setbacks across the region.
However, Tehran is reluctant to establish lasting partnerships with the Taliban regime, primarily due to the Taliban’s systematic targeting of Afghanistan’s Shi’a population, regardless of any promises. Nevertheless, the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan opened new geopolitical opportunities for Iran. Iran is presenting itself as the only reliable actor in opposition to US leadership and economic cooperation between the two has already grown since the US withdrawal. This economic cooperation has been dubbed by both a “resistance economy.”
China and Beijing’s increased support for the Taliban remains a concern for US policymakers. Beijing’s interest in Central Asia remains primarily economic and is related to its Belt and Road Initiative. With the withdrawal of Western funding, China is seeking to strengthen Afghanistan’s economic dependency on Beijing. An economic partnership is also in the interests of the Taliban, who are desperate to supplant Western funds (which accounted for 80% of the country’s income) with stable alternatives. China is a perfect partner for the Taliban, as Beijing will not question the Taliban on human rights issues, but a flashpoint for the relationship could present itself if the Taliban voice opposition to China’s treatment of the Uyghur community or export religious extremism into the Xinjiang province.
Russia has also been emboldened by the US withdrawal to regain some of its lost influence in the region. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has already offered Russian support in building a stable and “inclusive” government in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Moscow will not tolerate the exportation of religious extremism from Afghanistan and will quickly react to threats to its Central Asian partners. Following the US withdrawal, Russia was quick to stage a military exercise in Tajikistan to signal to the Taliban their resolve to combat any further incursions.
Continuing narratives about the decline of US global power will only further enhance the confidence of its primary challengers in Central Asia. US withdrawal from Afghanistan has multiplied security concerns in the region and weakened the US ability to confront them while strengthening adversarial actors.