With the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan underway, a regional response to Taliban’s military victories has started to take shape: all the powerful regional neighbors of Afghanistan including China, Iran, Russia and its client states in Central Asia have no aversion to the Taliban ruling the war-torn country.
Nature abhors vacuum and the same is the case with politics; one empire is gone while another is waiting to fill the vacuum. Americans are packing their bags to go home while the Chinese seem excited about filling the void. “Now China enters — armed not with bombs but construction blueprints,” reads an opinion piece authored by Zhou Bo, a Chinese expert on strategic affairs, and published by The New York Times a few days ago. Zhou was a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army from 2003 to 2020, and is an expert on the Chinese Army’s strategic thinking on international security.
“Afghanistan has long been considered a graveyard for conquerors — Alexander the Great, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States. Now China enters — armed not with bombs but construction blueprints, and a chance to prove the curse can be broken,” reads Colonel Zhou’s opinion piece.
In Colonel Zhou’s opinion, both Afghanistan and China respectively have what each of them needs the most. “With the US withdrawal, Beijing can offer what Kabul needs most: political impartiality and economic investment. Afghanistan in turn has what China most prizes: opportunities in infrastructure and industry building – areas in which China’s capabilities are arguably unmatched – and access to $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper and cobalt. Though critics have raised the point that Chinese investment is not a strategic priority in a less secure Afghanistan, I believe otherwise.”
Zhou also opines that, “Chinese companies have a reputation for investing in less stable countries if it means they can reap the rewards,” and they have successfully done so in many African countries. Chinese plans for Afghanistan do not envisage any type of military presence but they do have plans to bring Afghanistan into its sphere of influence by adding new routes in the One Belt One Road initiative.
“If China were able to extend the Belt-and-Road from Pakistan through to Afghanistan — for example, with a Peshawar-to-Kabul motorway — it would open up a shorter land route to gain access to markets in the Middle East. A new route through Kabul would also make India’s resistance to joining the Belt-and-Road less consequential,” reads Colonel Zhou’s opinion piece.
All this would mean a massive Chinese investment in Taliban led Afghanistan. The Chinese economy is hungry for natural resources as raw material for its industry and if Colonel Zhou is to be believed, there are $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan. One can imagine the level of investment China would be ready to make to get a hand on these untapped mineral resources that it earnestly needs for its industrial growth.
With this background, the regional political consensus over Taliban’s military victories appears to make sense. It seems that the Taliban now are seen by regional players as a bulwark against the regionally perceived danger of the rise of ultra-radical and ultra-extremist Sunni groups in Afghanistan. Daesh is the prime example of such groups; ISIS presence grew in Afghanistan between 2014 and 2016. Russia and Iran have even equipped the Taliban with modern weaponry to launch operations against the Daesh presence in Afghanistan. The Chinese are particularly worried about the presence of militants belonging to Eastern Turkestan Movement in the Afghan territory close to the Wakhan corridor. According to Colonel Zhou when Mullah Baradar visited Beijing, “China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said… he hoped the Taliban would ‘make a clean break’ with the East Turkestan group because it ‘poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity.’”
Pakistan also became worried about the rise of ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan and its alliance with Pakistan’s local terror groups, a phenomenon that led to sectarian terror attacks in border towns of Pakistan between 2018 and 2019.
This regional consensus of which the Taliban appear to be prime beneficiaries has the potential to create a conducive environment for preventing another civil war in Afghanistan. This evolving regional response is highly favorable to the Taliban primarily because in the past, civil wars in Afghanistan have always been fueled by one or more of the neighbors of this war-torn country providing weapons, training and finances to one or the other side in the internal conflict. Now it seems all the neighbors are happy with the rise of the Taliban as a dominant military force in the country.
All this contrasts markedly with the Taliban’s lack of organizational, administrative and political capacities to conduct the affairs of the government on modern lines.
Taliban thinking and concepts about rule and governance are drawn from medieval political philosophies and outdated interpretations of the Holy Scripture. This makes them patently unfit for running the affairs of a country that would have to conduct the twin tasks of eradicating sectarian militancy and religious extremism, while at the same time absorb massive amounts of foreign investment as well as state of the art technology.
Any attempt to preserve militancy and extremism in its original form, while making space for foreign investment and state of the art technology in Afghan society could prove to be disastrous.
After all, the history of terrorism and militancy in the wake of 911 amply proves that technology and religious extremism are a lethal combination. A large number of deadly terrorists over the last 20 years were tech-geniuses from internationally or nationally acclaimed universities. On the other hand, the transformation of the Taliban into a conventional force will reinforce the strength and appeal of radical Sunni groups that are operating in Afghanistan.