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 cliché 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)