The Taliban Takeover In Afghanistan Draws A Mixed Global Response
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
The collapse of Afghanistan's government and the return of the Taliban to power are getting very different responses around the world. What some nations view as a precursor to a revived terrorist state, others see as a comeuppance for the U.S. and, more broadly, the West. And in some capitals, it's seen as both. We're joined now by three NPR international correspondents for a sense of how the events are playing out - Charles Maynes in Moscow, Emily Feng in Beijing and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.
Eleanor, let's start with you. Europe, a big partner of the U.S.-led coalition that invaded Afghanistan almost 20 years ago. What are leaders there saying?
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Yes, the Europeans went into Afghanistan with the U.S. out of sympathy after the 9/11 attacks, you know, invoking NATO's Article 5, which means an attack on one is an attack on all. But there's been complete shock over what's happening and wall-to-wall coverage of it in the media. Europeans right now are also scrambling to get out their diplomats and citizens. You know, Germany, Britain and France have sent in troops to help evacuate their diplomats. No one is really openly criticizing the Biden administration so far. French President Emmanuel Macron thanked the U.S. for its help in evacuations.
But clearly, leaders are trying to put distance between their militaries and what's happening on the ground in Afghanistan. Both Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that their military involvement in Afghanistan ended in 2014. That's when the Europeans essentially pulled out their troops. That was during the first big drawdown of troops under the Obama administration. I guess we've seen the toughest language from Germany so far. One high-up German official called this NATO's biggest debacle since the organization was founded.
MARTINEZ: Wow, biggest debacle. OK. Now, Charles Maynes, let's turn to you in Moscow. Russians suffered their own failed war in Afghanistan in the '80s. How is that maybe experience affecting their reaction to the U.S. withdrawal?
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, you know, for Russians, there's some satisfaction to be had in watching the U.S. fail bigger and harder. After the - after all, the Soviets were there for nearly a decade, the U.S. for two. The line of thinking seems to be, nothing quite eases the sting of national humiliation more than watching someone else get humiliated. And so Kremlin officials have been pointing out differences in the U.S. and Soviet defeats, noting, for example, the Soviet exit was more orderly or that, oh, by the way, our Soviet-backed puppet government lasted a full three years. The U.S. one - backed one last - collapsed almost instantly.
Now, Russia also argues it's learned from past failure in Afghanistan. It has little interest in trying to reshape the society; you deal with the devils you know. And so the Kremlin has spent recent years developing ties with the Taliban and other groups, preparing for really any outcome, and that seems to be paying off for the Taliban's - with the Taliban's return. Russia's Embassy in Kabul is still operating, only now under Taliban protection. In fact, its ambassador was on location - on local media here, praising the Taliban conduct so far and says he'll tour the city with them today.
MARTINEZ: Emily Feng in Beijing. Unlike the Europeans and Russia, China never sent its military to Afghanistan. So it's a bit of a - more of an observer. What are you hearing there in China?
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Well, first and foremost, there has been a lot of schadenfreude, which you saw in this phone call that China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, did with Secretary of State Antony Blinken today. The phone call is mostly Wang berating Blinken over what he called the failures of U.S. military inventions - intervention, saying that the U.S. needed some serious reflection. And observers here in China have immediately drawn comparisons between Afghanistan and Taiwan, which is this island democracy the U.S. has promised to defend if China were to invade it. And although defending Taiwan and occupying Afghanistan are two slightly different things, China is trying to sow doubt in the Taiwanese that the U.S. would come to their defense if needed.
But China is also concerned because for the last 20 years, mostly the U.S. has paid the cost of keeping Afghanistan relatively stable. But China shares a short border with Afghanistan, and should the country collapse, that could cause instability in China. So you see Beijing trying to play both sides this week. About three weeks ago, China's foreign ministry officially received a Taliban delegation in the port city of Tianjin here. And the Taliban is a political force, right? It's not a government. But the event was conducted as if, you know, a state head was visiting.
MARTINEZ: Emily, what are China's interests in what happens to Afghanistan?
FENG: Security is paramount. China is really worried about terrorism spilling into western China along the border with Afghanistan. And what China's most worried about is this Turkic ethnic minority called the Uyghurs. They're worried Uyghurs could escape into Afghanistan and train in methods of terrorism and then use that country as a base to attack China. And they're worried because the Uyghurs do have some motivation to attack China. Beijing's been accused of human rights violations against them, including waging genocide because it's detained hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs in China on the belief that they're predisposed to terrorism, which is not true.
So during that Taliban meeting I mentioned, last July - this July - China made the visiting Taliban leaders promise that Afghan soil will not be used to train Uyghurs who will attack China. And on top of security, China is sort of interested in building infrastructure or maybe developing mining projects in Afghanistan. But right now they're just trying to figure out whether the country's stable enough for them to, you know, take a backseat.
MARTINEZ: Charles, let's go back to you for a second in Moscow. Russia and Afghanistan - you mentioned they have a long, difficult history together. How would you explain Russia's ongoing concerns about Afghanistan?
MAYNES: You know, what happens in Afghanistan also has big security implications for Russia and former Soviet republics in Central Asia. These are Russia's allies to this day. You know, let's remember that back in 2001, President Vladimir Putin welcomed the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and the reasons were simple. You know, Russia had its own problems with Islamic extremism - it still does in the region - has problems with the drug trade coming out of Afghanistan, and the U.S. presence there provided Russia with security on the cheap. Now that the U.S. is gone, there's real concern over what happens next. Most immediately, that's the prospect of thousands of refugees streaming across the Afghan border into Central Asia, destabilizing essentially weak and corrupt authoritarian governments in places like, say, Tajikistan. There are also worries that extremists may be among these people and that they could make their way into the Russian homeland.
And, you know, a final note - Russia has a shared security agreement with its Central Asian allies, akin to NATO's Article 5 that Eleanor mentioned. And so while there's little or, frankly, no desire to go into Afghanistan proper, Russia's military could easily get pulled into operations in Central Asia if things get out of control.
MARTINEZ: Eleanor, you're going to get the last word in Paris. What do European leaders say are their biggest concerns with the Taliban's return to power?
BEARDSLEY: So the first fear is terrorism, that Afghanistan become a breeding ground again for international terrorism, and, more immediately, immigration. They fear another huge wave of migration like we saw in 2015 with Syrians and also Afghans. Basically, Europeans feel they're going to be the first to pay the price for America's failure. They're on the front line from the military - the fallout from this military and humanitarian disaster.
MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in Paris, Charles Maynes in Moscow and Emily Feng in Beijing. Thank you, all three of you.
MAYNES: Thank you.
FENG: Thanks, A.
BEARDSLEY: Thank you.
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