China is facing a pushback in Afghanistan as Islamist militants increasingly target Chinese interests
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 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.
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 university is 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.
Many economic and investment opportunities have been discussed, and the Taliban has even alluded to keeping major mining projects reserved for Beijing.
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.
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.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +