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China Won’t Repeat America’s Mistakes in Afghanistan

Beijing wants stability. That could serve some U.S. ends.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy.
Chinese foreign minister meets with Taliban leader
Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meet in Tianjin, China, on July 28. Li Ran/Xinhua via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As the United States departs Afghanistan and Kabul falls, China is not showing up with an army. It is showing up bearing gifts to all parties, not least the ascendant Taliban. Beijing’s prospects, therefore, are already looking much better—and cheaper—than the U.S. state- and military-building project.

Beijing’s traditional worry in Afghanistan has been regional instability and the prospect of cross-border aid to Uyghur militants in Xinjiang—or the provision of a safe refuge for Uyghurs fleeing Chinese oppression. But the Taliban will likely have learned from the experience of the past two decades not to harbor terrorist groups, especially groups like al Qaeda that might target the West or other big-power players such as China, Russia, and even India. Thus, the Taliban would be wise to carefully constrain their activities to Afghanistan and maybe the Pashtun borderlands with Pakistan. The Taliban have already been distancing themselves from Uyghur resistance and militancy. Instead, they have been reaching out to China.

The appetite of the Taliban to spread insecurity in the region has been curtailed. And this makes them more reliable partners to other regional players with an interest in stability—above all, to Beijing.

As the United States departs Afghanistan and Kabul falls, China is not showing up with an army. It is showing up bearing gifts to all parties, not least the ascendant Taliban. Beijing’s prospects, therefore, are already looking much better—and cheaper—than the U.S. state- and military-building project.

Beijing’s traditional worry in Afghanistan has been regional instability and the prospect of cross-border aid to Uyghur militants in Xinjiang—or the provision of a safe refuge for Uyghurs fleeing Chinese oppression. But the Taliban will likely have learned from the experience of the past two decades not to harbor terrorist groups, especially groups like al Qaeda that might target the West or other big-power players such as China, Russia, and even India. Thus, the Taliban would be wise to carefully constrain their activities to Afghanistan and maybe the Pashtun borderlands with Pakistan. The Taliban have already been distancing themselves from Uyghur resistance and militancy. Instead, they have been reaching out to China.

The appetite of the Taliban to spread insecurity in the region has been curtailed. And this makes them more reliable partners to other regional players with an interest in stability—above all, to Beijing.

China has no interest in Afghanistan’s own politics or governance—and certainly not in the kind of human rights or state-building efforts that the United States and its NATO partners attempted, haphazardly, to encourage. For its part, Beijing sees Afghanistan in part through the lens of its Belt and Road Initiative. China has already built extensive transportation infrastructure through the Central Asian countries north of Afghanistan and continues to build at pace both there and in Pakistan to Lahore and Gwadar.

The Taliban’s triumph may be the basis for a surprising peace in the region, if not a comfortable one for many of those who have to live under it.

Afghanistan sits rather awkwardly between those two main land routes that were originally envisaged in 2013 as the core of the Belt and Road Initiative—before it later became a sprawling international project. Instability and conflict in the borderlands of Afghanistan have threatened to spill over in both directions from the very beginning of Beijing’s ambitions. China has long attempted to secure the routes wherever it could, mostly in partnership with other governments, such as Pakistan’s, without risking confrontation with the United States.

China’s main interest in Afghanistan is that conflict doesn’t spill beyond its borders. In many ways, the stability the United States brought to Afghanistan provided the suitable backdrop for Beijing to expand its own regional ambitions while Washington paid the heavy financial and human costs. Beijing has no inherent affinity or interest in any Afghan party. At most, it would have preferred not to have a strong U.S. ally on its western border—and, given the extensive contact between the Pakistani and Chinese military and intelligence establishments, was probably influenced by Islamabad’s own long-term distrust of the weak Kabul government. As long as those objectives are met, Beijing does not care who wins or whether peace is achieved through a negotiated compromise or by the gun. None of the original routes of the Belt and Road Initiative needs to traverse Afghanistan, and Chinese investment there is likely to be short-term and easily pulled out in the likely event of further instability. It can be deployed—or withdrawn—on largely immediate political terms.

Beijing had a good working relationship with the Kabul government and hopes to have a similar practical relation with any emerging government which may take over. China currently has investments in a copper mine outside Kabul and oil fields in the north. There is also a Confucius Institute at Kabul University. Much of this may not survive the takeover, but the Taliban have also already indicated that they would welcome Chinese investment to rebuild the country.

The Taliban’s triumph may be the basis for a surprising peace in the region, if not a comfortable one for many of those who have to live under it. The new masters have historically close ties to Pakistan, have an increasingly close ally in China, and have also cultivated closer ties with Iran, their erstwhile enemy, as a consequence of two decades of U.S. occupation. The confluence of interests toward regional cooperation not only between the victors of the Afghan conflict and China, but also with China’s close regional allies in Pakistan and Iran, is remarkable.

But these circumstances are fragile and rapidly changing. The Taliban have proved in the past that they are independent-minded and belligerent above all else. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence will always be a wild card in regional affairs, and there are plenty of other, smaller jihadi groups operating in the region that could undermine cooperative efforts between the bigger players. Pakistan will have to tread carefully, as it will not be keen on seeing its own version of the Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, inspired by seeing their counterparts across the border forming an Islamic emirate. And China’s own approach to diplomatic engagements is also a major risk factor: If Beijing tries any of its increasingly abrasive, so-called wolf warrior diplomacy against the major players, for whatever ill-judged reasons, things could revert to their chaotic norm.

Beijing is therefore very cautious in the way it is approaching the Afghanistan problem. The last thing the leadership in Beijing wants is to be mired in the kind of quagmire the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in—or to face Islamist blowback if things go off the rails. The Chinese government’s activities have been quiet because it wants to maintain as much global deniability as possible. China’s leaders are working the diplomatic back channels hard, but any visible engagement in the country will be concealed through obscuring veils: Any economic investment will be led by ostensibly private companies, any issues relating to security for economic projects will be managed by private mercenary groups, financing and guarantees will likely go through many middlemen, and so on. This will deviate quite substantially from the usual investment diplomacy playbook that Beijing has honed over the past two decades, where its efforts are usually highly public and serve propaganda purposes both domestically and internationally.

Even if an Afghanistan free of U.S. influence may play into China’s hands for now, the implications of the U.S. withdrawal may be serious for Beijing.

But neither the success nor failure of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan need necessarily be a bad thing in light of Washington’s original primary objective after 9/11, which was to ensure Afghanistan did not become a haven for terrorist groups. If Chinese intervention manages to support stability in the region, it will be more likely than the United States’ own efforts there to stamp out the kind of jihadism that might spill over to the West. And if China tries to get more deeply involved and fails to bring peace, it could be Chinese investment interests that start absorbing the attention of jihadis fighting external enemies.

Even if an Afghanistan free of U.S. influence may play into China’s hands for now, the implications of the U.S. withdrawal may have serious consequences for Beijing. The Biden administration is hoping the resources and, more importantly, attention that Washington would otherwise be utilizing in Afghanistan can now be redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to counter the expansionist ambitions of Beijing, including against Taiwan and in the South China Sea. With the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States may lose all traction in that part of South Asia, but the region is no longer of imminent strategic interest for the White House. The Indo-Pacific is. Shifting focus to the latter conflict theater could be a much better investment in countering China in the long term—even if it has come at the cost of U.S. pride and at a terrible price for Afghan civilians.

Azeem Ibrahim is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and a director at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Radical Origins: Why We Are Losing the Battle Against Islamic Extremism and The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide.
 Twitter: @azeemibrahim

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