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China’s Afghanistan Strategy May Be In Trouble
Kabir Taneja, ORF
2022-12-26
Region : North East Asia, China, Central Asia,
Issue : Security, Terrorism, Politics,
An attack on a hotel in central Kabul housing Chinese visitors and businesses by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) last week once again brought Beijing to the centre of the ‘new’ Afghanistan’s security problems, one that today is standing on a more precarious ground than it was a few months ago.
The ISKP has been filling in vacuums that, ironically, have been left behind by the Taliban as the latter continues its efforts to metamorphise from an insurgency and terror group to a state and political system seeking global recognition. Pro-ISIS propaganda publications targeting South Asia, such as ‘Voice of Khorasan’ which replaced, or subsumed, more hyper-local propaganda outlets such as ‘Sawt Al Hind (Voice of Hind)’ have upped their ante when it comes to anti-China rhetoric as part of extension of criticising the Taliban’s global outreach and the few developing relations it is trying to keep together. While for 20-years the Taliban built the rhetoric of the US presence in the country as an imperialistic conquest of their land and solidified their Islamist ideology around this war against crusaders, like the way it did against the erstwhile USSR, it today finds itself fighting against the likes of ISKP that see China from a similar lens. But of course, Beijing is not seen from a traditional imperial lens, but from an economic one, despite not yet putting in any notable amount of cash into the Taliban’s coffers.
Interestingly, Afghanistan is not the only country where China is facing a pushback from Islamist militants. Al Qaeda-aligned Islamist group Al Shabaab which holds control over territory in Somalia has also in the recent past become more vocal on its anti-China propaganda, and has previously targeted Chinese interests in countries such as Kenya and Mozambique.
The type of stability in Afghanistan that perhaps China had envisioned in fact may not materialise. Over the past months, China has held almost weekly consultations with the Taliban via its ambassador in Kabul. Many economic and investment opportunities have been discussed, and the Taliban has even alluded to keeping major mining projects reserved for Beijing. In preparation for this, the Taliban has even been working towards preservation of Buddhas in the country, a stark shift from 2001 when then Taliban Chief Mullah Omar led charge and destroyed the famous Bamiyan buddha statues as the world watched in horror. Today, they offer China Afghanistan’s natural wealth in exchange for investments, realising that their own Islamic Emirate may not flourish for too long as a hermit state, and that the current ruling classes such as the Haqqani Network and the Kandahari faction alike will need a strong and independent finance base to secure their respective interests and future both as part of a state, and potentially, against each other as well.
The narrative of China as a pound-for-pound replacement of US power in Afghanistan was always a flimsy one, as was any prevailing opinion in Beijing that it could solidify Kabul politically using money and the combined political will of the Pakistani military and the Taliban. This view was further fractured on two strategic fronts. First, the unwillingness of the Taliban to apprehend, disband or handover members of the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM or TIM) and its tributaries of Uyghur militants to secure Chinese interests. Previously, reports have suggested that the Taliban only moved ETIM and other Uyghur militants away from the Badakhshan province that bordered China, and that Beijing has developed a security outpost in Tajikistan to keep watch. However, anti-China rhetoric from these groups, along with ISKP, has only gone up.
Second, China’s potential use of Pakistan as a proxy in Afghanistan on the security front, or in short, using Pakistani blood at the forefront to secure its economic interests is also looking like a bleak prospect. The recent assassination attempt against Pakistan’s chargé d’affaires in Kabul claimed by ISKP has added another thorn in the Pakistan–Taliban axis. This attack has been preceded by regular attacks on the Pakistan–Afghanistan border, Taliban’s sheltering of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a group that continues to target Pakistan regularly using the strategic depth provided by the Afghan Taliban, and an increasingly more vocal divide between factions within the Taliban as Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has only been to Kabul once or twice from Kandahar since August last year, doubling down against offering any ideological discounts from the Taliban’s side to the international community, particularly the West, on issues such as girl’s education. A recent decree by the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education to ban all women from attending universityis another example of the Kandaharis stamping further control as internal churn continues to unravel over the future trajectory of the movement.
While there is no doubt that China with its economic heft can be a gamechanger in Afghanistan, it is also important to remember that regional and neighbouring states have a stronger grasp on Kabul and its Islamic politics. While international discourse frets over Beijing’s role in Afghanistan, specifically as ties between US-backed governments led by the likes of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were not particularly smooth with China, others have in fact made much more progress in influencing the Taliban politically and economically. Earlier this month, each centre of power and influence in Kabul, past and present, was in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) simultaneously. The UAE hosted Taliban’s acting defence minister Mullah Yaqoob who was accompanied by Anas Haqqani, while Karzai made his first foreign trip with a stopover in the country on the same day. All these visits happened not too far from where Ghani has taken refuge in Abu Dhabi since last year. This was a much more brazen and open show of growing influence, leveraging history, over Afghan affairs than China has ever managed despite the euphoria surrounding Beijing’s role.
Beyond the UAE, other states such as Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Qatar along with the West may have a more realistic chance of helping Afghanistan avoid a complete, long-term economic collapse than Beijing, which at the end of the day has narrow strategic and security aims and wider exploitative aims concerning with natural resources, infrastructure development and requirement for investing in foreign lands to feed its own domestic economy at home. This comes with an incredible set of risks as far as allying with the Taliban is concerned.
With a looming great power competition between US and China, struggles with mammoth, capital-intensive projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, and shaky global post-pandemic economic environment further aggravated by Russia’s war against Ukraine, it will indeed be surprising if China takes up the sole responsibility of keeping Afghanistan afloat.
This article originally appeared in Observer Research Foundation (ORF)
The views expressed above belong to the author(s)

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