Afghanistan Peace Process and Regional Actors

Witnessing various conflicts for many years, Afghanistan has been occupied by the United States of America (USA) after the 9/11 attacks. In the pre-occupation period, the Taliban was the prominent actor the country. While the U.S. was trying to overthrow the Taliban, the group regarding the U.S. as an “invader” decided to fight against it. Therefore, being a nightmare for Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Afghanistan has been tried to be controlled by the U.S. since 2001. However, after the election of Donald Trump as the President of the U.S., the Washington administration started to pursue a policy of withdrawing from regions not directly benefitting them. One of the places where this policy was implemented was Afghanistan.

A series of negotiations have been held between the parties in Afghanistan since 2010. The Kabul administration, the Taliban and the U.S. are the main actors in these talks. However, apart from these, there are other actors such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan that can affect the peace processes. Although it is difficult to predict how the peace process in Afghanistan will result, the effects of regional actors cannot be ignored. For example, “spoiler actors,” known as peacebreakers in peace talks, cause the developments to be interrupted, even resulted in failure.

It is important to emphasize that the U.S. under the Trump administration wanted to pull out of this entangled situation in the country with the peace process in Afghanistan. This is similar to the position of the USSR, which had to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1988. However, the U.S. does not want the territory of Afghanistan to be used by organizations that pose a security threat to Washington and its allies in case of its withdrawal. The Taliban, on the other hand, intends to get foreign troops out of the country and to establish an administration under the Islamic rules. The Kabul administration, headed by Ashraf Ghani, the President of Afghanistan, demands a ceasefire and the continuation of the republican system.

Aside from the important differences between the parties, there is also a serious issue of trust between the Kabul administration and the Taliban. As a matter of fact, the attacks carried out by the Taliban in spite of the negotiations increase the insecurity. Therefore, even though progress has been made in the talks, the process is very fragile.

Considering the effects of regional actors on the process and the policies they are pursuing; Russia initially supported the invasion in 2001 in order to bring the United States to a deadlock and take advantage of the Washington administration’s fight against radical religious terrorist organizations. However, growing stronger over time, Russia became uncomfortable with the presence of American soldiers in Afghanistan, the gateway to Central Asia, its own “backyard.” When the withdrawal of the U.S. became an issue, Moscow, seeking to play an active mediator role in the process, also started some initiations for peace talks.[1]

Moscow targets to undermine the U.S., to create the necessary environment for Afghanistan to stabilize and to increase its own effectiveness in the region. The closure of U.S. bases in Central Asia and Russia’s recent agreements with Kyrgyzstan[2] show that Moscow is trying to move to the south.

Against the U.S., Russia supports the Taliban and accepts the organization as an actor. Moscow also reinforces the negotiations in Afghanistan in case of a possible US withdrawal. However, this approach of Moscow cannot be interpreted only through the demand of the U.S. to withdraw from the region and its desire to move south. Russia is disturbed by the conflicts originating in Afghanistan, the drug trade and the spread of radical elements to Central Asia as well. Especially the inability to establish a state authority in the region offers a living space for organizations such as the terrorist organization of State of Iraq and the Levant (DEASH).

The situation is considered as a major threat both by Russia and other countries in the region. However, according to the historical experiences, it is challenging for Russia to have influence in Afghanistan. However, Moscow does not want Afghanistan to fall under the influence of Iran, China, Pakistan and India. That is why, it can be suggested that having relations with the administration to be established after peace will be in the interest of Russia. Moreover, since Russian decision makers experienced that armed groups in Afghanistan cannot easily be defeated, they adopted a strategy of actively promoting a negotiated peace. Although Moscow has the opportunity to interrupt the negotiations in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban, it appears that by acting in accordance with its interests, it finds the peace talks in the region favorable.[3]

China is in favor of a stabilized Afghanistan within the scope of the Belt and Road Project. The destabilization of the region, on the other hand, threatens the security of the project. Therefore, if the U.S. withdraws, economic relations between Afghanistan and China are likely to develop. This would increase China’s influence in the region. Afghanistan is an important country on China’s western route, but Beijing is also uncomfortable with radicalization in Afghanistan. He believes that this situation may cause instability in its own land as well.

Fearing that developments in the region will affect the Uighur Turks in particular, China has similar fears along with the U.S. and Russia. That is why Beijing establishes relations both with the Kabul administration and the Taliban. Its support for the Taliban is to further undermine the U.S. At this point, it is possible to say that China leans toward the peace process by expecting that the U.S. will withdraw. Moreover, Beijing promotes rapprochement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where seeking to exploit its geopolitical position and regional influence. However, one of the biggest criticisms against China is the debt trap application. It is believed that the Beijing administration, which is claimed to have used this in Pakistan, can implement a similar policy in Afghanistan, where the U.S. withdraws, by giving various loans. Therefore, the main reason that Beijing cannot implement such a policy against the Kabul administration for now is the American presence in the country.

In a statement made by the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan on 30 January 2021, it was declared that Afghans must have self-determination and that no one could use Afghanistan for their own interests. In this statement, China tried to show its similarities with Afghanistan through its emphasis on exploitation and imperialism and pointed out to peaceful development. The statement is also a proof that Beijing wants the U.S. to leave the region, as well as showing the policies it will follow after the withdrawal.[4] Supporting the peace talks, the expectation of the Beijing administration is the withdrawal of the U.S. and the administration to be established will not pose a security threat for China.[5]

Iran, on the other hand, sees the U.S. presence as a threat to itself both in the Middle East and Afghanistan and is afraid of being surrounded. Wishing the U.S. to withdraw from the region, Tehran prioritizes to establish good relations with the actors in Afghanistan by repositioning itself according to the agreements made between the parties. That is why Tehran maintains both good relations with the Kabul administration and develops various relations with the Taliban. The main reason for Tehran to act in this way is that Iran does not want Sunni Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Such administration would mean an increase in the influence of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the region. Thus, Tehran intends to prevent Islamabad, its most important rival in the region, from gaining influence over Afghanistan. In this perspective, another crucial issue is the Chabahar Port. Iran is trying to gain an advantage over Pakistan’s Gwadar Port by opening Afghanistan to the world through this port.

On the other hand, it is feared that Iran, gaining experience of waging a proxy war in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, will follow this policy in Afghanistan as well. For instance, the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria consists of Afghan Shias, the number of militias in the brigade is estimated to be between ten thousand and twenty thousand.[6] Therefore, Iran is one of the most important foreign actors with the capacity to disrupt the peace process. However, Tehran administration supports the peace process due to the possibility of the U.S.’ withdrawal.

Pakistan is one of the actors that has the most prominent role in ensuring peace and stability in the region. Acting jointly with the U.S. during the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s relations with Washington started to deteriorate after a while. Therefore, Pakistan became closer to China and established crucial relations. Not only the Islamabad administration wants Afghanistan to stabilize in order to increase its influence in the region but also not to undermine the initiatives developed under the Belt and Road Project.

On the other hand, Pakistan, stuck between Iran and India, projects the normalization of Afghanistan in its north and creating a strategic depth to the north with the Taliban’s influence.[7] For instance, while India has close ties with Afghanistan, Iran, on the other hand, has recently tried to establish constructive relations by accepting that the Taliban is an actor in the region. The rapprochement of Shia Iran and Sunni Taliban is against Islamabad under rivalry of Iran-Pakistan in the region. There is also the possibility that Pakistan’s influence will decrease in this equation. Therefore, Pakistan tries to protect its interests against Iran and India at least by preserving its influence in the country. It is known that there are strong relations between the Taliban and Islamabad administration. There is intimacy between the parties, especially in sectarian terms. It is even claimed that Pakistan persuaded the Taliban to negotiate.[8] However, there are various allegations that Pakistan supports terrorist organizations. Pakistan wants to weaken the allegations and strengthen its relations with both regional and global actors, especially with the Kabul administration. Therefore, it supports reconciliation, not the conflict in Afghanistan and does not interfere with the country’s internal affairs. Nonetheless, Pakistan is one of the most decisive actors that can affect the outcome of the peace process in Afghanistan.[9]

Evidently, there are many equations in Afghanistan that can disrupt peace negotiations. An important part of these equations is between the Afghan administration, the U.S. and the Taliban. Considering the possibilities over the U.S. lately, it is possible to say that there are two possibilities in front of US President Joe Biden: to withdraw its soldiers or to fight with the Taliban again. The Taliban declares that if the U.S. does not withdraw its troops by May 1, 2021, it will attack again.[10] It is suggested that Biden will risk conflict instead of retreating by choosing the second option. Besides, Biden states that the Taliban continues to attack and does not disconnect from the terrorist organization Al Qaeda.[11] Especially the presence of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan in the region discourages the Washington administration to withdraw. The withdrawal of the U.S. would create a political, military and economic gap in Afghanistan. The actors mentioned above would also want to fill this power gap.

Apart from the U.S. factor, states such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan stand out as actors with the capacity to influence the outcome of the process. These four actors agree on the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region. In fact, each of these states has the possibility to sabotage the process if the peace negotiations proceed in a way that hurts their interests. For instance, Russia may provoke the Taliban, making it difficult for this organization to accept the agreement. Similarly, Pakistan can use its connections within the Taliban to encourage various attacks on US elements. On the other hand, Iran can turn the conflicts in Afghanistan into a proxy war and cause the talks to be interrupted. This situation makes the peace process even more fragile. However, the priority of these states is the withdrawal of the U.S. from the region. Therefore, the policies of these actors will be shaped by the decision of the Biden administration.

[1] “Taliban Rusya’nın Barış Görüşmesi Davetini Kabul Etti”, Deutche Welle,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[2] “Kırgızistan’a Rus Yapımı S-300 Füze Sistemleri ve Silahlı İnsansız Hava Araçları Ulaştırılacak”, TRT Avaz,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[3] Ekaterina Stepanova, “Russia and the Afghan Peace Process”, PONARS Eurasia,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[4] “China Plays an Active and Constructive Role in Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Process”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs the People’s Republic of China,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[5] Sohrab Azad, “China’s Stake in the Afghan Peace Process”, The Diplomat,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[6] Saurav Sarkar, “Iran’s Afghanistan Balancing Act”, South Asian Voices,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[7] N.V. Subramanian, “Iran has Afghan Peace Role”, The Diplomat,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[8] Aamir Latif, “Experts Say Pakistan’s Role in Intra-Afghan Talks ‘Crucial’ “, Anadolu Agency,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[9] Mehreen Naushad, “Pakistan and the Afghan Peace Process”, The News International,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[10] “Taliban: Joe Biden ABD Askerlerini Mayıs Ayına Kadar Ülkeden Çekmezse Saldırılar Yeniden Başlar”, BBC News Türkçe,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

[11] David Zucchino-Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “What to Know About the Afghan Peace Talks”, The New York Times,, (Date of Accesion: 06.03.2021).

You can send us your opinions, criticisms and any relevant information, documents, photographs, etc. regarding this study via the share button on the right.

Emrah KAYA
Emrah KAYA
Emrah KAYA, 2011 yılında Akdeniz Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun oldu. Yüksek Lisans derecesini 2014 yılında Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde hazırladığı “Latin Amerika'da Sol Liderlerin Yükselişi ve Uluslararası Politikaya Etkisi: Venezuela-Bolivya Örneği” başlıklı teziyle aldı. Doktora eğitimine yine Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nde devam eden KAYA, tez aşamasındadır. Kaya'nın başlıca çalışma alanları; Latin Amerika, Güvenlik, Terörizm ve Barış Süreçleri’dir. Kaya’nın çeşitli kitap ve dergilerde yayımlanan çalışmalarının yanı sıra yerel ve yabancı medya kuruluşlarında analizleri yayınlanmıştır.