An atmosphere of insecurity and unrest has once again engulfed Afghanistan as the Taliban terrorist organization has intensified its efforts to regain full control of the country in the wake of the withdrawal of US troops.
Twenty years ago, when then-US president George W. Bush launched a global war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda after the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Washington’s action was viewed as decisive in defeating the menace of terrorism.
Alas, the manner of the US troop withdrawal, and the rhetoric that accompanies it, has emboldened the Taliban.
US President Joe Biden saying that the US went to Afghanistan for nation building has appalled Washington’s NATO partners and other allied countries.
The question is not why US forces are returning from Afghanistan, but how peace, security and development can be ensured there.
The Taliban’s success in unsettling Afghanistan’s civilian government will push the country toward an era of darkness, hopelessness, insecurity and misery.
Sadly, the situation is unfolding quickly in that direction, with the US and its allies helplessly observing the Taliban capturing one city after another.
The Taliban’s return to power will also jeopardize the regional security environment.
One country that sees an opportunity to expand its regional influence in managing Afghanistan’s peace and security, thereby protecting its national interests, is China.
In the past, China did show interest in the country, but it preferred that the US engaged in its internal affairs, as peace and security in Afghanistan helped China maintain its own security and carry out developmental activities in Xinjiang, which is adjacent to Afghanistan.
When the administration of then-US president Barack Obama in 2013 began peace talks with the Taliban, Beijing, which had already emerged as a major economic and military power in Asia, began to feel the need to reorient its policy toward Kabul to protect its interests in case of a US withdrawal.
There are several reasons for China wanting a stable Afghanistan.
First, political unrest, terrorist activities and violence could have a bearing on the security of Xinjiang.
The region is dominated by the Uighur Muslim community, and there is a possibility that terror organizations, including the Taliban, could provide support to Uighurs fighting for independence from China.
Thus, to prevent the emergence of Afghanistan as a training base for anti-China activities, it is imperative for the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) to invest its political capital in stabilizing the country.
Second, as one of China’s aims is to replace the US’ power in Asia and beyond, Beijing sees the withdrawal as a strategic opportunity to expand its foothold in South Asia, which could enable Beijing to challenge India’s predominant position in the region.
Third, as Afghanistan geographically connects China to the Middle East and beyond, the country assumes significant importance in the expansion of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Fourth, as Afghanistan is believed to have the world’s largest unexploited reserves of iron, copper and other natural resources, China also sees economic benefits in ensuring stability and development in the country.
China has emerged as Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor, with investment in roads, railways and other infrastructure projects.
Fifth, China’s friendly ties with Pakistan would be aided by the close nexus between the Taliban and the Pakistani establishment if China had some role in managing the country.
With its interests in Afghanistan and having realized the Taliban’s importance in promoting security, China, alongside Russia and Pakistan, previously initiated peace talks with the Taliban.
Beijing has also used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to work with Middle Eastern countries to address peace, security and development in Afghanistan.
While China continues to support Afghanistan’s civilian government, it also sees a major role for the Taliban in the country’s stability.
When Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) hosted a nine-member Taliban delegation led by chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in the northern city of Tianjin last month, he described the Taliban as an important military and political force, and opined that the Taliban should play an important role in Afghanistan’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process.
On the other hand, the delegation assured China that they will not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against China.
While the Taliban’s onslaught does not hold promise for the future of Afghans, time will tell if China succeeds in filling the leadership vacuum, or if its involvement marks the beginning of the end of China’s imperialist posturing.
Sumit Kumar is a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University.
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