Afghanistan was the frontline of the United States declared War on Terror twenty years ago. This led to the US invasion of the country after the September 11 terrorist attacks, where there was a search for Osama bin Laden, and other leaders of the Al-Qaeda movement. The Taliban were dislodged as punishment for providing safe haven for Al-Qaeda, leading to a twenty-year occupation in an experiment to bring a democratic society to a country where power was traditionally decentralized in the hands of tribal warlords.
The Afghanistan war and occupation cost the US a staggering US $2.25 trillion. The war resulted in the deaths of 66,000 Afghan military forces and police, 47,000 civilians, and 50,000 Taliban fighters. On the US side 7,400 solders, contractors and allied security forces lost their lives.
Over the last few months, the Taliban was able to fill the void left by withdrawing US and allied forces very easily, moving back into Kabul without the need to fight. The speed of this was so quick that US and allied personnel are being evacuated in scenes of panic at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Overnight, the country was renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA).
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has left a massive geo-political vacuum. Due to the perceived sudden nature of this event, although the withdrawal was staged over a long period of time, it's now uncertain what exactly will happen and which nations will be the winners and losers.
Is this a US withdrawal from Central Asia? Hardly, as the US didn't project power from Afghanistan, the US presence being primarily concerned with internal security. The US withdrawal has freed up resources and stopped a financial sink-hole. However, with no more physical presence in Afghanistan other dynamics will occur, changing the regional balance of power.
China has the most to gain with its presence throughout Central Asia. China has a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and is developing one with Iran. China is also working with Russia under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization(SCO), which Iran is joining. With many Central and South Asian countries as members, this block could act as a buffer to US trade and diplomatic influence across the region.
China has a number of potential strategic interests it can now pursue with Afghanistan. China shares a 50km border with Afghanistan on the Eastern side of Afghanistan's Badakhishan. This will allow direct air routes to both Kabul and Iran. There are currently no direct roads or railways between China and Afghanistan, so the easiest route from China to Afghanistan will be through Pakistan, along the CPEC route, which is largely completed to Peshawar. This will also by-pass areas potentially controlled by the Northern Alliance.
The new land route to Iran will enhance China's ability to trade with Iran and the Middle East, without relying on the sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf patrolled by the Indian and US navies. China can increase its oil supply from Iran at discounted prices while side-stepping US sanctions. In addition, the Taliban government in Kabul will provide China with the opportunity to mine rare earth metals, where China controls 80 percent of current world trade.
China is said to have agreement from the Taliban that it will not assist the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uyghur organization that aims to establish an independent East Turkestan state where China's Xinjiang Province is today. China also sees that Afghanistan, as a location potentially nurturing extremist Islamic terrorist organizations, may divert US and other western military resources away from containing China in other regions.
A stable Afghanistan is very much in China's interest, and US withdrawal has given China a massive opportunity to extend its influence. China could also provide the new Taliban government an alternative source of funds, if IMF and World Bank funds are frozen.
Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan will be weary of a Taliban government. Over the decades there have been numerous border clashes, and involvement by Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in the last two Chechen wars. There were Taliban offensives along the Tajikistan border last month, where over 2,000 Afghan troops were forced over the border, and residents of Badakhshan fled across the border. This led to Tajikistan president Emomali Rahman mobilizing troops and requesting Russian assistance. Former Soviet Central Asia is being bombarded with Islamic propaganda, where there is a growing following of Salafism in rural areas, and an estimated 5,000 militants spread around the region.
Any persecution of ethnic groups by the Taliban could lead to wider frictions. Tajiks would seek assistance from Tajikistan, and Russia, while the Uzbeks would turn to Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Russia. Iran has assisted Afghanistan's Hazara Shiites fight against the Taliban, which has persecuted them.