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China needs a stable Afghanistan. But why achieving that is easier said than done

If Beijing achieves even a modicum of success in keeping Afghanistan stable and helps Taliban manage economic problems, it will be a huge propaganda victory for China.

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China is going to host foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries on 30-31 March. The avowed purpose of the Beijing-hosted meet is to discuss economic and humanitarian upheavals in the Taliban-ruled country. However, the real aim is to confer more legitimacy on the Afghan Taliban. It will be interesting to see how Islamabad plays its diplomatic cards in the meeting as the whole Pakistani leadership is seized with sordid political drama, with Prime Minister Imran Khan battling hard for the survival of his government.

The upcoming gathering will be the third such dialogue among China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, since the Taliban took over Afghanistan last August. The first such dialogue was hosted in Islamabad in September immediately after the Taliban seized power from the Ashraf Ghani regime. Iran had hosted the second meeting in late October in Tehran, which was attended by foreign ministers from China, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Following the Taliban’s military victory, several international sanctions were imposed on Afghanistan. The Western world went on to suspend financial and other humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan central bank’s assets were frozen in the United States. These restrictions have pushed the Afghan economy to the brink of collapse. No country, including its principal backer Pakistan, has recognised the Taliban regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Also read: Afghanistan is facing severe crisis under Taliban. It gets worse with its ‘women situation’

A stable Afghanistan is a challenge

The Taliban are yet to realise that Afghanistan’s history of political chaos causes fear in others that stokes the security dilemma and undermines regional security. The international community wants the Afghan Taliban to institute urgent reforms in its governing style, give representation to all Afghan ethnicities, and respect women’s rights to education and work. However, neither China nor Pakistan has let such concerns come in the way of their strong ties with the Afghan Taliban. When the US had withdrawn from Afghanistan, most of the countries had evacuated their citizens and embassies, but China, Russia, and Pakistan continued to function as usual.

Continuing economic and political engagement with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and appeasement of the Afghan Taliban to the detriment of its people has defined the response of some countries including China. The Chinese have many economic, political and security interests in Afghanistan. On security front, Beijing faces threats from some groups it has branded as terrorist organisations, which are believed to be operating from Afghan territory. Security threats affect China’s economic interests in Pakistan as well as Central Asia.

China’s economic interests in Afghanistan revolve around significant investments in the mining sector — Mes Aynak copper mine and the oil extraction contract in the Northern provinces of Farvab and Sar-e-Pol. But persistent political uncertainty and the non-recognition of the Taliban regime have made things difficult for China. In order to secure its multidimensional interests, China needs a stable Afghanistan. That is why even before the US exit, China had begun to scale up its engagement with the Taliban. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi had hosted a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in July last year.

But ensuring stability and order in Afghanistan has always been challenging. No external intervention has been able to achieve this objective. The dominant ethnicity of Afghanistan — the Pashtuns — has defied any form of imposed authority, even if it has meant continued chaos. And the majority of non-Pashtuns disagree with the politics and propositions of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

Now the great power competition has become more intensified after Vladimir Putin’s brazen invasion of a neighbouring sovereign country which has pushed Europe back to the early 20th century chaos.  As the war in Ukraine assumes extremely bloody and ugly proportions, the world is set to witness increasing weaponisation of trade, aid, supply chain components, medicines, energy and gas supplies, currency and minerals and much more. Will Afghanistan remain unaffected from this trend?

China has often portrayed American failure in stabilising Afghanistan as a debacle of the West’s governing paradigm. Besides economic and security interests, a major Chinese objective is to impose its own model of governance on Afghanistan. If Beijing achieves a modicum of success in keeping Afghanistan stable and helps the Taliban manage their economic problems, it will be a huge propaganda victory for the communist rulers of China.

Also read: Ideological changes in Kabul mattered little to India, till the Taliban came to power

Draw policies keeping Afghans in mind 

The battle for Afghanistan, in which geopolitics and democracy continue to be merged, is both regional and global in scope. On the global front, the Afghan question is tied to the larger puzzle whether the world will become bipolar or remain multipolar. China has many allies, the most important of which is Russia. But Putin’s Russia has demonstrated an incessant knack of creating troubles and making friends among outcast regimes. After the Ukrainian gambit, Moscow has very few allies. Maintaining its shrinking sphere of influence in Afghanistan is going to be costly, and expanding it will be costlier still.

China’s influence is considerable, but it is mostly transactional — based on tangible material inducements rather than any universal values. But while American hegemony continues to decline, the attractiveness of the democratic model is likely to endure despite its current ordeals. The Afghans are no exception, having experienced some notable experiments in democratic institution-making during the last two decades, however intermittent and imperfect they may have been. Such Afghans would expect the West to help them resist autocratic impulses of the Taliban regime and downsize the pernicious consequences of their arbitrary and discriminatory policies. Rhetoric aside, Beijing has no genuine interest in promoting such practices that strengthen the rule of law, participatory forms of decision-making and promote regional cooperation and sustainable development.

Pakistani perceptions of India are predominantly negative, emphasising its presumed hostility and threatening military power. This largely defines Pakistan’s attitude to India’s relations with Afghanistan. Islamabad appears to be betting that all Afghan rulers, including the Taliban, are incapable of governing, and that all external powers will lose interest before Pakistan does. Pakistan’s security establishment might be seen as having prevailed: by installing the Taliban in Kabul, it has established that Islamabad’s wishes will shape what happens in Afghanistan. But Pakistan and Afghanistan often fall into political stalemate on account of their long-standing border dispute and contesting support for different terror groups. There are ample grounds for resentment and ammunition for those Afghans who want to claim the Durand Line to be redrawn. Islamabad expects Beijing to serve as a mediator through a trilateral dialogue mechanism involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China.

Apart from the euphoria of American exit, Afghanistan is undergoing a difficult transformation, as the Taliban seek to build a viable state, a cohesive political community, a functioning economy, and a foreign policy. This requires a new set of governance and security arrangements in Afghanistan. However, with no consensus on the architecture of Afghan governance and security, India is left with strategic competition in its vicinity. In that competition, democracy remains vital to India’s values and strategy, even though New Delhi seems to have avoided spelling it out unambiguously.

India’s policy is to wait for the Taliban to get reformed as well as for Afghan people to demand a democratic-oriented regime. New Delhi’s willingness to send wheat, Covid vaccines and medical supplies to Afghan citizens clearly underlines its normative preference for the West-defined narrative of separating the autocratic regimes from the common people while disbursing aid. This is a good example of how the same issue is seen differently by different sides.

The author is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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