For protocol-obsessed Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, it was unusual to pay an unscheduled visit to Taliban’s acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani at the latter’s massive US-built ministry compound in Kabul last week, after meeting Taliban’s acting foreign minister and deputy prime minister. As a prominent face on UN and US terrorist lists, Haqqani leads the Haqqani network, “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” according to former US military official, Admiral Michael Mullen.
The unscheduled visit was preceded by the report of intelligence cooperation between China’s Ministry of State Security and the Haqqani-led Taliban’s main intelligence directorate. Afghanistan’s descent from Pax Americana to Pax Pakistan is fast gaining momentum. The Taliban-China-Pakistan triangle represents an important dimension in the emerging dynamics.
Prior to this construct, Afghanistan and China’s relations were endowed with mutual curiosity, respect and a healthy distance. One of the fascinating features took place in the 14th century when there were diplomatic exchanges between China’s Ming Dynasty and the Timurid Empire. Both empires were keen to be treated as co-equal in accordance with royal protocol in their imperial capitals, Beijing and Herat. Kamal ud-Din Behzad, the father of Persian/Islamic miniature painting, had portrayed visiting Chinese princes in one of his masterpieces.
Fast forward to the late 20th century when China joined the Western-led coalition to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by supporting the Mujahideen groups, including the Haqqani network. The post-9/11 US intervention presented China with conflicting priorities. On the one hand, its early support to the militant groups in Afghanistan helped the rise of China’s version of Al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which aims to separate China’s largest province, Xinjiang. On the other hand, China’s growing economic ambition and its dual geo-strategic competition with the US and India forced Beijing to pursue a hedging strategy towards Afghanistan.
The introduction of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) pushed the hedging strategy towards the centrality of geopolitics in Beijing’s South Asia strategy, despite reservations of a number of Chinese security officials and commentators.
For its part, the Afghan government provided a South Korea-type cooperation with China: the US as Kabul’s key security partner and China as its key economic and investment partner. Granting Afghanistan’s largest mining contract to a Chinese company, the huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, concretised this vision.
The Afghan government was also forthcoming, cooperative, and perhaps naive in helping China’s counter-terrorist efforts. Despite the absence of any legal basis, a number of ETIM suspects were handed over to Chinese authorities. Beijing, however, remained cautious in getting involved closer with Afghanistan. It kept the engagement symbolic in gesture and poetic in rhetoric. Beijing later joined others in the charm offensive race of the Taliban by hosting their delegation and also offering material support.
The Doha Agreement between the Taliban and the US in February 2020 and the ensuing inglorious departure of the US not only realised Washington’s wish of ending its “endless” war, it also brought joy to the region’s anti-American coalition that was desperate to see America’s humiliation in Afghanistan.
Black security hole
However, the post-America honeymoon was short-lived. In less than seven months, Afghanistan has become a humanitarian catastrophe for its people, a deep scar on the West’s conscience and credibility, a black security hole for the region, and the Taliban an outcast for the World.
The Taliban-China-Pakistan triangle lacks the necessary means to address Afghanistan’s mounting challenges. More importantly, there are serious and irreconcilable differences between China and the Taliban and by extension Pakistan. Realising China’s geo-economic ambitions and projects require a region free from terrorism and proxy warfare. China’s hope that the Taliban would sever their ties with other terrorist groups, particularly the ETIM, remains wishful thinking.
For the Taliban, maintaining their ideological coherence and alliance with their Islamist associates is far more important than believing in China’s pipe dream in the form of linking Afghanistan to an already stalled CPEC. However, the Taliban are shrewd enough to maintain an ambiguous stance as they did in the late 1990s when the US wanted Al-Qaeda’s expulsion from the Taliban-controlled territory.
Per credible source, the Taliban have promised the Chinese officials of their plan to relocate ETIM fighters and their families from areas near the Chinese borders to other parts of the country, almost an identical offering to the US in the 1990s.
Pakistan’s reliance on Islamist proxies is China’s Achilles’ heel. Its massive terrorist production infrastructure is far more entrenched and enduring than China’s built projects in/for Pakistan.
For the Islamist militants, China as a godless, Islamophobic and occupying power is an important and legitimate target. And Western intelligences’ decades of fraternity with Islamist militants and Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambition would provide additional bonus.
The way forward
There is hardly any credible voice who believes in the capacity of Pax Pakistan to help stabilise Afghanistan, when the world’s most powerful alliance Pax Americana failed to do so. The politics of alliance and exclusion, both domestically and externally, have brought Afghanistan to its current catastrophic state. An inclusive, participatory, development-oriented political system supported by regional powers and guaranteed by global powers is the way forward in Afghanistan.
As a neighbour of Afghanistan and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China should lend its support to such an inclusive process. The alternative would be either a permanent black security hole or an Islamist dystopia on China’s doorsteps, which would suck China and others, including Pakistan, into its orbit sooner or later.
The author is director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former senior policy adviser in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He tweets @DrMoradian1. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)