Britain burnt its fingers. The former Soviet Union exited in shame after ten years of occupation (1979-1989). So did the US, trying it for 20 years. All this happened in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires.
China, Afghanistan’s largest neighbour, was on the sidelines, watching empires sucked into Afghanistan centric geopolitics and blown away with the winds of war. USSR exited in 1989 and Afghanistan plunged into civil war. Taliban came out victorious to take control of Kabul in 1996. The purge of US’ war on terror pushed Taliban to the countryside. History repeated itself after twenty years of war of attrition. USA exited and the Taliban re-took control of Kabul on 15 August 2021.
Afghanistan will not remain in a power vacuum. While USA and allies were busy moving out, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan’s other neighbors were busy working out diplomatic ways forward to get the Taliban to adhere to peace and reconciliation
Political changeover on 15 August 2021 followed a couple of interesting developments. Chinese and Russians did not leave Kabul while Americans, Europeans and Indians left as Taliban forces were walking into Kabul. Taliban formed an interim government on 7 September 2021. A couple of the cabinet members are on the US terror list. Countries are yet to officially recognize the Taliban interim government.
Afghanistan will not remain in a power vacuum. While USA and allies were busy moving out, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan’s other neighbors were busy working out diplomatic ways forward to get the Taliban to adhere to peace and reconciliation. Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held a meeting on 14 July 2021 at China’s initiative. Afghanistan’s neighbors China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are members of the SCO while Afghanistan and Iran are observer states.
All of the neighbors have their cousins in Afghanistan and can exert some degree of influence on domestic politics. The objective of China’s initiative was taking Afghanistan’s neighbors into confidence and collectively preventing any chaos leading to civil war and contributing in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
The next meeting on 28 July 2021 between China’s Foreign Minister and Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was significant too. China clarified to the Taliban delegation, calling upon it to “make a clean break with all terrorist organizations including the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) and resolutely and effectively combat them to remove obstacles, play a positive role and create enabling conditions for security, stability, development and cooperation in the region”.
Baradar reciprocated, “The Afghan Taliban will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China”. The delegation also indicated Afghanistan’s willingness to develop friendly relations with neighboring countries and the international community. Most importantly, the delegation hoped for more China involvement in “Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process and to play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development”. The delegation committed to foster an enabling investment environment.
With changes in global geopolitics, the importance of Afghanistan’s geophysical location changed from being the buffer zone between British and Russian empires and battle ground of two super powers into a hub in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China with Central Asia, the Gulf and western Asia. Afghanistan’s neighbors are involved in BRI. Afghanistan joined BRI in 2016 and infrastructure development bank in 2017. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an important infrastructure in the BRI can connect the land locked Afghanistan to sea.
Besides becoming a potential hub of BRI, Afghanistan has rich mineral deposits. “Rare earths and other minerals such as lithium, beryllium and tantalum – necessary for making electronics and other high-tech product – as well as large iron and copper” are attractive to many in the east and west. China invested in copper in 2007. But deteriorating security situation stalled progress. The US did not invest but completed a geological survey of the whole country in 2016.
China, instead of ‘geo-political occupation’ seems to be on ‘geo-economic’ approach to win hearts and minds of the people in Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s economic infrastructure has reached a miserable condition through four decades of war. It needs robust investment to rebuild the country. Investment from the west is unlikely to come soon. China seems a quicker option. Not concerned with Sharia law or Taliban squeezing women’s rights, China has little reservation with the interim cabinet members’ dossiers. China will be interested to see Taliban’s disassociation with terror outfits and taking action against remnants of militancy and work for peace and reconciliation. These will be Taliban’s prerequisites to China’s investment.
Afghans are opposed to be ruled. China, instead of ‘geo-political occupation’ seems to be on ‘geo-economic’ approach to win hearts and minds of the people in Afghanistan.
- Author Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a security analyst and retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy.