Why you should care
China alone has the clout with all major players in Afghanistan to push for peace.
After two decades in Afghanistan, the Biden administration has announced that the U.S. will withdraw all troops on Sept. 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that sparked America’s longest war. This story was first published in September 2019.
When Abdul Ghani Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, touched down in Beijing in June, 2019, he and 12 of his colleagues were greeted by Chinese officials and treated like state guests. China is rounding up millions of its own Uighur Muslims and locking them up in internment camps. For the Taliban, though, Beijing rolled out the red carpet.
China only announced the visit by the Taliban after the team headed by Baradar had left the country, and still hasn’t revealed who represented Beijing in those talks. But days later, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad announced that his latest negotiations with the Taliban had been his most successful yet. Khalilzad then flew to China for a meeting later that month.
The sequence of events in June is part of increasing evidence pointing to China’s growing role as the country that is best placed to play guarantor of any future stability in Afghanistan. Last April, Beijing joined Washington and Moscow in calling for the Taliban to return to talks after a communications breakdown. Then in July, China persuaded Pakistan — a longtime backer of the Taliban — to support that call.
China wants to help the U.S. because they share a common interest in a stable Afghanistan.
Barnett Rubin, New York University
Trade tensions between Washington and Beijing make cooperation between them complex, says Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan from New York University. Yet experts say that China will have a central role. Of the world’s major powers, no other country can match China’s clout with both the elected government of Afghanistan and with Pakistan [and therefore, with the Taliban]. China is the biggest investor in Afghanistan — $3.5 billion since 2005, according to the American Enterprise Institute. And while relations between the U.S. and Pakistan are strained — Trump tweeted in November 2018 that its former Cold War ally had “not done a damn thing for us” — Beijing is today Islamabad’s biggest economic and military benefactor. It has invested more than $60 billion in Pakistan, where a highway connecting the port of Gwadar to Xinjiang in China is the centerpiece of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Those investments in both countries are also what gives China the impetus to try and fill any power vacuum to safeguard its regional economic and security interests.
“China wants to help the U.S. because they share a common interest in a stable Afghanistan,” says Rubin.
Still, there are limitations to what China can do, which have been on display. The U.S. has been urging China to press Pakistan to get the Taliban into the same room as Afghan officials. But the Taliban has long rejected formal talks with the Afghan government, accusing it of being an American puppet, though it now must hold those conversations as part of the deal it has signed with the U.S. China’s investments in Pakistan — and their centrality to the BRI more broadly — are a double-edged sword: They also give Islamabad leverage over Beijing, which doesn’t want to upset such a vital partner too much. And when Washington was a major partner of Islamabad, for several years it tried to get Pakistan to change course on the Taliban, without success. For Pakistan, the Taliban represents a vital insurance policy against the influence of India in Afghanistan, where elected governments have tended to lean toward New Delhi. To expect Pakistan to dump the Taliban at the behest of China would be naive, say some analysts.
“Pakistan will always act in its own interests before it acts in the interests of anyone else,” says Aziz Rafiee, an Afghan activist and executive director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum.
But Pakistan today is far more dependent economically on China than it ever was on America. Beijing has in recent months shown that it does wield some influence over Islamabad on its approach with extremists. Last May, China joined the rest of the U.N. Security Council in sanctioning Masood Azhar, the Pakistan-based terrorist who brought Islamabad and New Delhi to the brink of war earlier this year following an attack in Kashmir. China had earlier blocked such efforts at proscribing Azhar. Since the U.N. action, Pakistan has arrested several other militants accused of terrorism by India and the U.S.
Beijing is also making inroads with the Taliban to prevent an all-out war from spilling into Pakistan and Central Asia. Often, powers promise aid in exchange for a cessation of hostilities, but China has historically had a different approach, and that’s set to grow. “China prioritizes commercial investments and has never used aid as a carrot to dangle in front of parties to stop the violence,” says Raghav Sharma, director of Afghanistan studies at the Jindal School of International Affairs. China already has contracts to copper mines 25 miles from Kabul and oil in the north.
Sharma expects China to also strengthen the financing for Afghan anti-narcotics units and Afghan border patrols to ensure any violence stays contained within the country’s borders. China says it is worried that Afghanistan could serve as a haven for the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) — which it accused of terrorism in Xinjiang — if the country collapses, a threat that Sharma believes is overstated. “I think China just uses the ETIM card to justify the persecution of its own Uighur Muslim population,” he says.
There’s no exaggeration when it comes to the presence of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group in Afghanistan though, and that’s a cause for concern for both China and the U.S. The Taliban also continues to terrorize civilians and seize territory, all in a bid to improve its bargaining position in negotiations. But that plan backfired in 2019 when Trump abruptly canceled peace talks just three days before the anniversary of 9/11, citing the death of an American soldier on Thursday as inexcusable. “What kind of people would kill so many people to strengthen their bargaining position,” the president tweeted. “They didn’t. They only made it worse.”
When the talks were called off, some Afghans were relieved that U.S. troops wouldn’t be pulling out so soon. Now, with the deal signed in Doha, Afghans fear the violence will worsen when America withdraws unless China assumes a larger role in appeasing rival parties. “Any power vacuum in Afghanistan will affect neighboring countries because there is no way the bloodshed can be contained,” stresses Omaid Sharifi, a peace activist in Kabul. “That’s why Afghans hope China steps up because we know they have interests in the region.”