As the US gets ready to withdraw from Afghanistan, I am reminded of another historic moment — the end of the Cold War — when people readily floated conspiracy theories. The American departure looks sudden because a lot of people did not want to think about it. It will leave a certain political, geo-political and emotional imbalance that many are trying to fill — by imagining a new future for the region. One assertion is that Afghanistan’s future will now be dominated by China. Indubitably, Beijing has ample cash in its pocket to compete with the US or the European Union but that does not necessarily mean it is ready to pour in resources in a conflict-ridden country, or step into American shoes. Most likely, what we are looking at are numerous pairs of shoes – some will get filled, some won’t. But eventually, what we may observe will be an Afghanistan with lesser Western influence.
Beijing may not be in a hurry to take on the responsibility of minding the Afghan house ridden with conflict, though there is a general trend developing to report Afghanistan taking this particular direction.
The Chinese are ‘deadly serious’…
There are journalists working on stories, like the recently published article in the The Daily Beast, that talk about rising possibilities of Chinese business investment in Afghanistan.
Reportedly, Beijing is busy cultivating resources inside Afghanistan, including both the government in Kabul and Taliban, to secure support for its numerous projects to strengthen both the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Much that the idea is tempting, one is reminded of Henry Kissinger’s instructions to American President Richard Nixon before the latter’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing. What the Secretary of State had gleaned from his various secret visits to China, to pave the way for a Beijing-Washington reproachment, was succinctly put in a memorandum to the President, on 5 February 1972:
“The Chinese leaders are deadly serious people who will not be swayed from their convictions by anything that in their view smacks of opportunity or convenience…. This reflects the tension between their sense of history and their imperative for movement…..They take a long view. They see history on their side.”
Beijing will wait for cues…
China will invest in Afghanistan but it may not be in a hurry to do so. Beijing would not like to step into an American political puddle. Rather, it will allow various Afghan stakeholders to think through President Joe Biden’s message. The message from Biden is that the the US will provide financial help in short term and may also keep a watch out for the government in Kabul but ultimately, Afghans are now on their own and will have to sort out things either between themselves or with the help of regional actors that have more to gain or lose, compared to the US, due to the geographical imperative.
As far as China’s long-term planning is concerned, it seems to have got what it wanted — the US forces out of Afghanistan. This is something that both Beijing and Islamabad have wanted since 9/11. Sources, who have a close view on Afghanistan, I spoke with were of the view that Beijing was equally involved, as Pakistan, Russia and Iran, in ensuring that the Taliban strengthens against the system of government Washington was trying to plant in the country. According to a source, China was party to training Taliban commanders who were sent back to Afghanistan to train more men to fight American forces, thus increasing the cost of continued presence on the US. These forces have the resources to keep fighting for a long period. But what was started in earnest cannot be easily stopped.
…and take it slow
Although the battle, amongst local Afghan competitors like Taliban, other militias and government forces, will continue, it is not likely to create the stability needed for investment. It wouldn’t make sense for Beijing to get into crossfire and unnecessarily draw the attention of any of the fighters. It would like to remain being considered ‘unlike the US’ as its investment comes without political conditions. Multiple government sources in Afghanistan indicate that despite its better reputation, China has so far been slow and cautious in investing its money.
China’s investment caution is visible in Pakistan as well with key projects put on slow burn. This has less to do with Islamabad wanting to appear friendly before the West. The Riko Diq copper mine is a case in point. China has been interested in this project since the early 2000s but is not keen to relieve Pakistan of the burden of a $5.8 billion fine awarded by the World Bank for non-compliance of contractual commitments made to a global joint venture for developing the mines. Notwithstanding lower copper prices, Beijing sees an opportunity here — why pay a higher sum for resources that could eventually be exploited at a lesser cost. Given that Afghanistan’s instability seems to be eating into the confidence of Pakistan’s corporate sector, which is apprehensive of violence returning to the country, there is a lot for China to gain in the long run. Pakistan and Afghanistan are likely to turn to China if they want to cash in on their natural resources.
In Pakistan, Beijing has benefited from the good narrative that was built about China when America faced resistance. China’s Pakistani partners never tire of telling the world how Beijing is historically more reliable than the US. That it does not abandon and is certainly not politically demanding. However, China would be guarded against militancy resurfacing in its own territory and influencing the mood in its Muslim populated areas. After all, CPEC was introduced to develop Xinjiang and generate economic incentives routed through Pakistan that would help in counter-extremism efforts. China would be mindful of its own territory but won’t necessarily intervene in the organic chaos in Afghanistan. Even Pakistan could be a worry for Beijing. There are reports of militants returning to areas in Gilgit-Baltistan where a Taliban commander and his team were recently seen addressing the local population.
Any confidence that China has at the moment is very short term and dependent on two factors.
First, none of the militant forces are consolidated enough to pose a real threat to Beijing. There is a lot of infighting that will keep the militants distracted. The presence of Daesh in Afghanistan could, in the short term, checkmate the Taliban. Besides, the attention of the Taliban will also be diverted by the government in Kabul and the army — a reminder of American influence in the region. The Afghan army may not be the strongest, but it certainly has some capacity to fight.
Second, China will continue to operate and communicate through Pakistan, which remains the biggest stakeholder in Taliban’s success or failure. Irrespective of the impression from Islamabad that the security services are extremely nervous about Taliban presence, the Afghan militants remain Rawalpindi’s biggest asset.
Beijing’s necessary push to Rawalpindi
If China wants to bring stability in the region, it would have to convince its key strategic partner, Rawalpindi, to start disinvesting from a policy that encourages Islamist forces in Afghanistan and benefits from the absence of a stable political structure. Over the decades, Pakistani establishment has invested in the Taliban fearing Pushtun nationalism rather than Islamism. But the Taliban did not support the idea of converting the Durand Line into a permanent boundary, the fear of liberal nationalists is greater. Although multiple sources in the Pakistani establishment, including the former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt General (retd) Asad Durrani, have said that the Durand Line dispute is technically resolved, the issue remains alive. Durrani had made this remark during Pakistan-Afghanistan track-II in Kabul where this author was also present. Additionally, though the Pashtuns in Pakistan are now better rooted, the thought of a Pashtun connection across the frontier is not dead. In South Asia, poor governance coupled with authoritarianism is a perfect recipe for encouraging sub-nationalism.
The problem, however, does not end with convincing Pakistan to change its policy vis a vis Afghan militias because one is not sure of the former’s capacity to control the later. While the closeness of the Taliban with Pakistan’s military is no secret, army chief General Qamar Bajwa appears confused when it comes to admitting this association. It’s not just about Pakistan’s negative image but the fact that he may not be able to control the Taliban’s every move and, hence, the cost to Pakistan may escalate. Under these circumstances, the Chinese can only think of small-time tactical investments. For now, the only strategic benefit may have been American departure.
Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)