New Afghan Realities: Options for China and Pakistan

On the 15th of August, 2021, the world witnessed historical events unfolding in Afghanistan at an electrifying pace following the US President Biden’s candid announcement of the US leaving Afghanistan after 20 years. As a result, the Taliban started advancing towards Kabul and finally reached the capital city while the world witnessed a change in the colours of the flag from red, black and green to white with the kalimah written on top. The journey, anticipated to be completed in months, finished within a few days with no resistance offered by over 250,000 trained but demotivated Afghan National Army soldiers. On the same day, the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani fled the country, reportedly to stay in the UAE with his family and reportedly carrying a huge burden of defeat and allegations. It was surprising for the world to see that a country of 32 million people remained unprotected despite 20 years of investment and training by the US and allied forces. The situation in Afghanistan has led analysts, researchers and other countries to propagate their own versions and interpretation of claims, portraying some as villains, some as victorious and flagging potential players and their strategic options.

In continuation of the discourse on Afghanistan, the author will try to explain the present situation in the country with the Taliban holding the reins, how they plan to run the country politically and engage with local and international stakeholders, apprehensions of the West and identification of key strategic players after the creation of a vacuum in political and geostrategic terms. The focus of this article will remain on what China’s next moves may be in this emerging scenario, China’s positioning vis a vis its geostrategic, economic and military interests, its engagement with the US, Russia, Pakistan and other players and the options available to Pakistan to develop a resonant strategy with China while simultaneously avoiding confrontation with the US and steering through the war of propaganda led by India against us.

The press talk by Zabeeh Ullah Mujahid, the first interaction of the Taliban with media, solves many riddles regarding the adaptability of “new Taliban” within the current scenario. A careful and informed analysis of this interaction, though which cannot be considered accurate given the fluid nature of events, leads one to gauge the present positioning of the Taliban, their terms of engagement with the internal political forces as well as regional and global countries and their future course of action giving broader parameters to the new state and government of Afghanistan. The spokesperson clarified the formation of a negotiations-based inclusive form of government within the Islamic Emirate, guaranteeing full protection of human rights especially those of women, children, foreigners-diplomats, members of the ousted government, the media and NGOs. He appeared candidly positive in responding to a question about the rights of women regarding employment and education outside their homes. On the same day, the world witnessed representatives of the Taliban appearing for interviews on Tolo News sitting in front of a female host. Similarly, he was clear about offering the freedom to work on projects organized by foreign nationals and governments. However, there is a great degree of fear and anxiety among people based on the Taliban’s historically repressive and coercive rule from 1996 to 2001.

Conspiracy theorists on social media alleged that the US had designed the immediate drawdown and the ultimate fall of Kabul, but it soon became evident that the morning of August 15 was not a very good one for Washington either. US President Biden had to appear on mainstream media to stand by his administration’s decision of pulling out of Afghanistan and pass the buck to the Afghan National Army and Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani. Many countries seem surprised at the showdown in Kabul at the hands of the Taliban because the Taliban had apparently been hunted down and dismantled by the US and NATO forces under the mandate of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) twenty years ago. Despite this, the world is seemingly moving on to accept the Taliban as a de facto reality and many countries seem to have developed a consensus on adopting a wait-and-see policy regarding what the Taliban profess theoretically and what they practice in reality. One thing is certain though that the West will be observing the Taliban with an electron microscope regarding their dealing with issues related to human rights, women’s and children’s education and rights, freedom of expression and freedom of media, terrorism, terrorist organizations or terrorists’ safe havens and domestic political engagements and foreign policy alliances and decisions. This has been made evident by the statements of US President Biden, US Secretary of State Blinken, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Johnson. Whether this policy of suspicion and observation by the West is right or wrong shall be analyzed by researchers on all sides with the passage of time.

Keeping the above in perspective, let us try to analyze the positioning and planning of China as a major regional power towards the changing scenario in Afghanistan after the creation of a strategic vacuum following the US drawdown, the pull out of NATO forces and the emergence of Taliban as masters of the moment. Like other major global powers, including the US, China is observing a wait-and-see policy as well. On the other hand, China is also earnestly following the policy of strategic engagement, not only with the Taliban but also other key players of the game including the US, EU, Russia, Iran and Pakistan. Certain quarters of analysts and policymakers were of the view that all was ripe for China to jump in and conquer the interests’ game. However, appreciably enough, the Chinese side, keeping China’s apprehensions and potential opportunities in mind, seems to be leaning towards engagement with the new face of Taliban.

Afghanistan shares a 46-mile-long border with the Xinjiang province of China which also has a Muslim Uighur population. As a neighbour, China’s major concerns include:

  • the mode of statecraft and governance by the Taliban-led government;
  • the response of Taliban towards the theological assertions of terrorism and any potential export of any such terrorist ideology across the border, especially in the context of the Chinese Uighurs separatist movement and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM);
  • the role of the US to be played in perspective of the declared US policy of 3Cs (cooperate, compete and confront) towards China and against US fears of China as an emerging, strategic and economic global power;
  • the use of India by the US as a regional ally challenging Chinese superiority in the region and abroad;
  • the potential danger of the rise of ISIL in Afghanistan leading to destabilization;
  • the potential eruption of the refugee and IDP issue that may lead to civil war;
  • the overall safety and security situation in the country linked with any potential investment in the social, development and military sectors; and
  • the $4 trillion Belt and Road Initiative linking China with Europe, Middle East, Central Asian Republics, Russia, Pakistan and Africa.

Since the US pull-out had become imminent, a high level Afghan delegation headed by Mullah Baradar had been hosted by China in Tianjin in late July, 2021. During the exchanges, both sides discussed their concerns and put forth assurances for the days ahead. Almost all concerns raised by the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi regarding security and order in the post-US Afghanistan were responded to by Mullah Baradar. It was also assured that China would be a key player in the development and settlement of the war-torn country and that Afghani soil would not be used against the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including China. Similar sentiments were echoed during the Taliban’s engagements with other players including US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the potential danger of “Syrianization” of Afghanistan is very high because of the volatility and fragility of the situation. A desired and peaceful outcome will depend on how the major players of this complex strategic game dispense with their responsibilities towards their own countries and the region. China and Pakistan, being key players, must exercise extreme caution and diligence while making decisions because a little nudge in the wrong direction can have devastating effects on the people of this region. No decision, including the decision to give recognition to the new regime in Afghanistan, must be taken in isolation without engaging with regional neighbours and other superpowers such as the US. Pakistan is going to be the pivot of the relationship between the new Afghan setup and China. Both Pakistan and China have a near-absolute convergence of interests in Afghanistan and the region. Similarly, other significant states like Russia, Turkey, Iran and the three bordering Central Asian Republics (CARs) must be included in the decision-making process. A new bloc comprising China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Turkey, based on mutual strategic interests such as the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan, is in the offing and is likely to include the US as well. Keeping the Afghan government as a major shareholder of the ensuing benefits, China must follow the policy of engagement in the region leading to investment and the establishment of joint ventures in socio-economic development, military training and institution building. China’s Belt and Road Initiative linking regions with each other is in the interest of all players and should be pursued fervently through this proposed bloc. Pakistan must also simultaneously do everything to mitigate the reservations of Iran in order to keep the greater objectives on track. In this testing time of history, the only available option is the policy of concerted and well-coordinated efforts by China and other members of the proposed new bloc towards the promotion of peace, order and development in Afghanistan.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Dr Naveed Atif

Author: Dr Naveed Atif

The writer is a senior civil servant, presently serving as the Assistant Inspector General of Police, Islamabad. He also has experience working with global organizations such as the International Organization of Migrants, UNODC and INTERPOL, dealing with complex issues including illegal immigration, migrant smuggling, readmission, repatriation and extradition, especially in GCC countries. He holds a Masters degree in Political Science with a major in International Relations and International Law and has keen interest in international conflict resolution, international security, human security, human rights and transnational organized crime.