A South China Morning Post report recently hinted that China may send a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of US troops there. Although the possibility was attributed to “analysts”, the news quickly attracted considerable attention in China, Afghanistan, and the US. Such speculation over Chinese peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan raises several issues regarding the peace process. First, the United Nations (UN)’s role in the Afghan peace process will be central after the US exit. Second, a future interim government of Afghanistan, which may be formed after the Istanbul conference, could possibly request the UN to send peacekeepers to its country. Finally, China may seek to play a role in advancing the intra-Afghan peace process by deploying a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan.
The UN’s likely central role
Sending UN peacekeepers to Afghanistan is not a novel idea. From 1988 to 1990, the UN set up the UN Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan (UNGOMAP). Soon after the US war in Afghanistan, the UN’s involvement in Afghanistan grew. In 2002, at the request of the Afghan government, the UN Security Council Resolution 1401 established the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Security Council has extended the mission’s work until 17 September 2021, stressing the importance of a comprehensive and inclusive Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political process to support reconciliation. The Security Council also emphasised advancing regional cooperation to promote security, stability, and development in Afghanistan. Now, the UN’s co-convening of the Istanbul peace conference with Turkey and Qatar equally highlights the international organisation’s presence and role. President Joseph Biden’s decision to withdraw all US combat troops from Afghanistan by 11 September of this year, marking the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, is meant to formally and completely transfer the intra-Afghan peace process to the UN.
All these opinions, statements, and testimonies have expressed certain expectations for China to take on certain responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Will China send peacekeepers to Afghanistan? One perspective is that the Trump administration’s unilateral exit negotiation with the Taliban suggests the need for multilateral cooperation. After the Doha peace deal was reached between the Taliban and the Trump administration on 29 February 2020, US experts and media have raised the idea of a regional approach to the Afghan issue. For example, The New York Times published an editorial appealing for regional cooperation. In addition, Afghanistan expert Barnett Rubin argued in a Foreign Affairs article that Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia) all have a stake in its future. In another article, I highlighted the importance of US-China (plus Pakistan and Iran) cooperation in building peace in Afghanistan.
Prompting China to step in to guard its own interests
Biden’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan before creating peace in Afghanistan will be a blow to China’s security interests surrounding Afghanistan, which may force the Chinese government to quickly respond to the situation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in reference to Biden’s withdrawal statement that Afghanistan’s “neighbours and other countries in the region that have basically been free riders for the last 20 years, as we’ve been engaged there with our NATO allies and partners” do not want to see a renewed civil war in Afghanistan. Blinken announced that those countries “are now going to have to decide, given their interests in a relatively stable Afghanistan, given the influence that they have, whether they’re going to try to use that influence in a way that keeps things within the 40-yard lines.” When speaking of China’s core interests and role in Afghanistan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad stated that he hoped that China could “rise to occasion” All these opinions, statements, and testimonies have expressed certain expectations for China to take on certain responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Facing the US abrupt withdrawal and concerns that the Kabul regime may collapse, China is most likely to see UN peacekeeping as the most feasible security approach to dealing with Afghanistan. However, there are serious reservations and challenges for China to participate in a UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. First of all, as pointed out in a Washington Post article, withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan does not mean that the US is turning away from Afghanistan; rather, the Biden administration is willing to make trade-offs to shift the US global focus from the counterinsurgency campaigns to focusing on countering China, in light of increasing military competition with China. That explains why Biden’s announcement of withdrawing from Afghanistan implicitly targets China. This linkage between the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and Chinese assertiveness reflects a shift in the Biden administration’s strategic and geopolitical views and actions.
This shift obviously predates the Biden administration. A leading US security expert Barry Posen advocated in 2017 during Trump’s Afghanistan policy review to “make Afghanistan someone else’s problem”. From a strategic perspective, a dramatic reduction of the US presence in Afghanistan — or even a complete drawdown — would likely realign regional actors in ways that would drive current US adversaries apart, forcing them to deal with difficult local problems, while encouraging other regional powers to seek better ties with Washington, according to Posen. In other words, withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan is a win, not a loss, for the US, said Posen. Blinken’s diplomatic wording of “free riders” to some extent echoes this line of thought. Under this geopolitical and strategic reconfiguration, the Biden administration is determined to leave Afghanistan, without first striking an intra-Afghan peace deal, while it continues to overlook the existing ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Uighur cause among militant groups has converged and even overlapped with mounting Western criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighurs amid the US exit from Afghanistan.
Power vacuum could be exploited by militant groups
From Afghanistan’s perspective, the US exit will certainly leave a power vacuum for domestic and foreign power contenders, including Jihadist groups and movements. In light of the statements and actions of some militant groups in and around Afghanistan, it is clear that some of them will undoubtedly shift their attention to China in the absence of US forces. Al Qaeda’s condemnations of China’s Xinjiang policy, ISIS’s direct threats against China, and the growing Uighur cause in other militant movements such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and even Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) (not to mention the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM and the Turkestan Islamic Party or TIP), suggest a probability that the “target vacuum” in Afghanistan could be filled by China’s military adventures in Afghanistan. In the past, the US war with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS in Afghanistan had overshadowed the latter’s anti-China sentiments from Badakhshan to Waziristan to Baluchistan, all pointing to Xinjiangistan. The Uighur cause among militant groups has converged and even overlapped with mounting Western criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighurs amid the US exit from Afghanistan.
China peacekeepers troops into neighbouring Afghanistan may spark geopolitical concerns on the part of the US. Chinese troops could gain operational experience, gather intelligence, and seek to protect Beijing’s national interests. US Department of Defense Press Secretary John F. Kirby repeatedly said that Afghanistan’s sovereignty should be respected, in response to reports of potential Chinese peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan. During a recent Senate hearing on US policy on Afghanistan, US Senator Chris Coons said he was surprised to read the striking story about the possibility of China sending a peacekeeping force to Afghanistan and sought Ambassador Khalilzad’s assessment. While Khalilzad did not rule out the possibility of UN peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan, he also did not directly address the issue of Chinese peacekeeping troops.
India as a counterweight?
India is knowingly sensitive to China’s activism in Afghanistan. Indeed, heated India-China competition is already extending to Afghanistan. A Hindustan Times report said that an alleged Chinese spy team in Afghanistan had been detained and deported by Kabul in December 2020. According to media reports, the Chinese team reportedly cooperated with the Haqqani network to collect intelligence on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or they were possibly creating a pseudo ETIM. The opposing India-Kabul and China-Haqqani alliances are emerging on the ground in Afghanistan. The reported case reflects increasing Chinese security concerns about post-withdrawal Afghanistan where the alleged ETIM or TIP may reappear. As the Chinese peacekeeping story spreads, rumours are beginning to circulate that India is planning to send its troops to Afghanistan after the US exodus.
The prospect of Chinese peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan may later emerge when the Kabul regime, as China’s traditional security partner, either becomes transformed as part of the interim government or even replaced by the Taliban. A UN solution of peacekeeping is certainly helpful to promoting peace in future Afghanistan, but China’s participation owing to geostrategic interests may complicate this mission.