Russia, China, Pakistan, and Iran held a quadrilateral meeting in Samarkand in Uzbekistan on Thursday; ostensibly, it is about Afghanistan. Yet the true goal of the meeting is to cast a long shadow over the Middle East, and Central and West Asia, showcasing the way that Russia and China want to upset the international balance by working with countries that oppose US hegemony.
These are all countries that are interested in a multi-polar – not uni-or-bipolar – international system, an issue they have pushed for years in various forums, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) or CICA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia), conferences that bring together non-Western countries.
This meeting in Samarkand is now the second meeting between Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan on Afghanistan. It was held on Thursday and is part of a series of meetings taking place among countries that neighbor Afghanistan. The countries’ foreign ministers represented them.
These four countries care about what happens in Afghanistan, not necessarily because Kabul is either very wealthy or very important, but more because it is situated in the middle of all these countries, and any chaos there can affect the wider region.
After all, these countries know that when the previous Taliban government hosted al-Qaeda in the 1990s, it led the US to Afghanistan and Iraq, while Russia has already fought one long war in Afghanistan – and doesn’t want another. Pakistan helped support the Taliban then, a move that ended with blowback that has ruined parts of Pakistan, turning the country over to extremists and weakening Islamabad in its other agendas.
Iran has concerns for the Shi’ites in Afghanistan and is looking for a road to India and China, the latter of which has also seen extremists drawn to Afghanistan or Central Asia, so it wants its own version of a new “silk road” to thrive.
In Samarkand, Russia has used the meeting mainly to slam the US. A statement put out notes that “the US and its allies must take responsibility for the complicated situation in Afghanistan, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan said in a joint statement following an informal meeting in Samarkand,” according to Russian state media.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said that “the ministers noted that the US and its allies should take responsibility for the current difficult situation in Afghanistan, immediately lift the unilateral sanctions imposed on Afghanistan and return foreign [Afghan] assets.”
The four countries oppose US bases in the region
At the conference, the four countries said that they oppose US military bases in the region, an embarrassing setback for the US, which had backed Pakistan for years, but Pakistan fueled extremism and anti-US views around the region, undermined its efforts against terrorism and was Bin Laden’s resting ground after fleeing Afghanistan in 2002.
They also touched on issues of refugees coming out of Afghanistan and also how it has been a center of the illegal drug trade, expressing concern for how the Taliban deprived women and girls of education.
The Taliban were hosted by Qatar for years, a major non-NATO strategic ally of the United States – meaning that, oddly, the US was also in Afghanistan, supporting Kabul against the Taliban while a US ally was hosting the Taliban. Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan likely couldn’t figure out the US logic of supporting those who host America’s enemies, but they are ready now to reap the fruits of that strange policy. At the same time, they want other countries to join them in moving away from a US-led international order.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian noted that a major meeting will soon be held in Doha regarding Afghanistan. Iran wants China, Russia, and Pakistan to have a more coordinated approach to Kabul.
While the issue of Afghanistan may unite these countries on some issues, there are larger issues involved: Iran and China have a new 25-year deal; Iran supplies Russia with drones and wants its support; Pakistan and China are partners. All this means that these countries have much to discuss, well beyond Afghanistan.
These kinds of meetings tend to loom large over the regions beyond where they take place, meaning that Russia and China are making waves in the Middle East that contrast to what the US is doing in it. Iran is threatening Israel and reconciling with Saudi Arabia while China is doing outreach to the Gulf; these movements are all entwined.