Inroads for China in a Taliban-led Afghanistan?

With the US in retreat and the Taliban seizing control of Kabul, it looks like Afghanistan and the region will see major security and geopolitical shifts. Where does China stand in all of this and what cautious moves will it make?
Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. (AFP)
Taliban fighters sit on a vehicle along the street in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. (AFP)

Afghanistan, China’s neighbour, is going through the most tumultuous upheaval seen in the last 20 years. In latest developments, the Taliban have gained control of the capital Kabul. The political climate of the country looks set to change forever.  

Since the US military withdrew from Bagram Air Base near Kabul in early July, many predicted that the civil war between the Afghan government and the Taliban would inevitably intensify. But few expected the former, trained and kitted out by the US, to yield so quickly and to concede most of the country’s territory within a month. The Taliban have already captured almost all major cities as well as Kabul.

In October 2001, a US-led coalition started the Afghanistan War against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, helping Afghanistan to form the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Since then, the US has incurred over 2,000 casualties, 20,000 injuries, and approximately US$1 trillion (roughly S$1.35 trillion). In the end, even before US troops have fully left, the Taliban have returned, wiping out the US’s huge investments in Afghanistan over the past two decades.   

Chaos as the US pulls out

US President Joe Biden announced new measures in response to the situation in Afghanistan on 14 August. The US would deploy approximately 5,000 troops to ensure an orderly and safe drawdown of US and allied personnel and the evacuation of Afghans who had fought for their cause. They would also support President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan leaders in the latter’s efforts to prevent further bloodshed and to pursue a political settlement, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken would engage with key regional stakeholders. The US has also conveyed to the Taliban representatives in Doha that “any action on their part on the ground in Afghanistan, that puts US personnel or our mission at risk there, will be met with a swift and strong US military response”.  

The deployment of 5,000 US troops is to ensure that Americans are evacuated as quickly as possible and not to fight the Taliban. What they really want is to avoid the tragic scenes of the US’s withdrawal from Saigon, Vietnam in 1975.

People crowd together in support of Afghanistan and against the Taliban, in front of the White House in Washington, US, 15 August 2021, on the day Taliban insurgents entered Afghanistan's capital Kabul. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)
People crowd together in support of Afghanistan and against the Taliban, in front of the White House in Washington, US, 15 August 2021, on the day Taliban insurgents entered Afghanistan's capital Kabul. (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

Biden said that in over two decades of war in Afghanistan, the US has invested nearly US$1 trillion dollars and trained over 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police. “One more year, or five more years, of US military presence would not have made a difference if the Afghan military cannot or will not hold its own country,” he noted. Biden added that two Republican and two Democrat presidents have presided over an American troop presence in Afghanistan — he is the fourth — and he “would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth”.  

Biden’s attitude clearly shows that while the US is not happy doing so, it has decided to leave the Afghanistan quagmire alone and nothing will change its mind. The deployment of 5,000 US troops is to ensure that Americans are evacuated as quickly as possible and not to fight the Taliban. What they really want is to avoid the tragic scenes of the US’s withdrawal from Saigon, Vietnam in 1975.

Pressured at home and abroad, Ghani said in a televised address on 14 August that his top priority is preventing “further instability, violence and displacement” of the people. He added that he has started extensive consultations with elders, political leaders, representatives of the people and international partners, and would be sharing the outcomes of the meetings soon.

Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit in the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 13 August 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP)
Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from the northern province due to battle between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit in the courtyard of the Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan on 13 August 2021. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP)

In contrast to Biden’s anxiety, Ghani’s comments seemed calm and steady. But everyone knew that Ghani could not control the situation in Afghanistan, and his government was losing chips to bargain with the Taliban. True enough, as of 16 August, the Taliban have taken Kabul and Ghani has left Afghanistan.

With the US unable to handle the Taliban even after 20 years of effort, the international community cannot effectively intervene in the situation in Afghanistan, and can only urge the Taliban and Afghan government to hold talks.

China hopes to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal conflict

As expected, China has also chosen to stay neutral when it comes to Afghanistan’s internal conflict. On 14 August, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that Javid Ahmad Qaem, Afghanistan’s ambassador to China, hoped for China to exert pressure on the Taliban to end its violence.

The fact that Qaem could only convey the Afghan government’s request through media outside of mainland China rather than through Chinese state media already indicates that China does not want to get involved in Afghanistan’s internal conflict, but is abiding by its usual principle of non-interference in other countries’ domestic politics and not helping either side, in the hope that Afghanistan will resolve its own problems.

... even as the Taliban are sweeping over Afghanistan, China has reached an understanding with the Taliban to lay the foundations for expanding future cooperation.

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Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in Tianjin, China, 28 July 2021. (Li Ran/Xinhua via Reuters)

Of course, this does not mean that China is unmoved by the situation in Afghanistan. On 28 July, the Chinese authorities released news of Foreign Minister Wang Yi meeting Taliban political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. Wang said the Taliban should build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy, and make a clean break with all terrorist organisations including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Baradar told Wang that the Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China, and hopes that China will play a bigger role in Afghanistan’s future reconstruction and economic development.

The discussions indicate that even as the Taliban are sweeping over Afghanistan, China has reached an understanding with the Taliban to lay the foundations for expanding future cooperation.

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Taliban fighters and local people are pictured along the street in Jalalabad province, Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. (AFP)

However, understanding and cooperation between China and the Taliban does not mean that China will quickly acknowledge Taliban rule. On 12 August, China was represented in multilateral peace talks for Afghanistan held in Doha, Qatar. A statement following the meeting said that foreign capitals would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force”.

To the Taliban, seizing power in Afghanistan is just the beginning of taking back governance. What is more difficult is changing its extremist image and building an inclusive political framework. Otherwise, it will be difficult to end the fighting in Afghanistan, much less talk about rebuilding.

The strife in Afghanistan marks the failure of the US policy in Afghanistan. US influence in central Asia and even the Middle East has taken a heavy hit. Responding to the corresponding changes in geopolitics, regional security, and social order is both an opportunity and a test for China.

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