China's Growing Troubles in Afghanistan

Beijing inherits the millstone

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Even though Beijing has apparently been coordinating with the Taliban for almost two years, the victory over Kabul has not led to a quick end to the troubles that China faces from within Afghanistan. On the one hand, the presence in northern Afghanistan of ETIM, which is fighting for independence for Xinjiang, remains active, and on the other hand, the growing presence of transnational jihadis willing to extend their campaign into Central Asia and China, is making Beijing uncomfortable.

What’s most disappointing for Beijing is that its offer of aid and development in exchange for the Taliban’s guarantees of peace and security has not led to any meaningful changes. The Taliban, specifically, haven’t taken any credible actions either against the ETIM, or provided a credible guarantee to Beijing that the Afghan territory won’t be used against Beijing.

Beijing’s problems, however, are compounded by the fact that the current Taliban regime is dominated by well-known hardliners – in particular, the Haqqanis – who are known to have been providing crucial support, as the June 2021 UNSC report documents, to the ISIS-K, which was founded by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, making the Taliban regime essentially a ‘pro’ jihad rather than an ‘anti’ jihad configuration.

In the recent meeting between Chinese and Taliban representatives in Doha, the subject of ensuring an Afghanistan free from anti-China elements, transnational jihad dominated the agenda. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who met Wang Yi, is reported to have said that the Afghan Taliban attach great importance to China's security concerns and will resolutely honor its promise and never allow any forces to use Afghan territory to harm China. 

While Afghan Taliban representatives have been telling the Chinese media that a large number of ETIM fighters have “left” Afghanistan, the Chinese themselves do not see this as a credible claim, particularly when Uighurs are showing signs of increasing collaboration with the ISIS-K. The suicide attack in Kunduz that killed scores of Shia Muslims was carried out by a Uighur Muslim affiliated with the ISIS-K, shaking Beijing’s fears of growing radicalization both in Afghanistan and in Xinjiang, where it has been running for quite some time the so-called ‘mass education’ camps to deradicalize an entire community.

According to a recent report published in Global Times, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, “Chinese security experts have warned that even a small number of them will still pose a threat to China's security.” The report further adds that “the Badakhshan province, which shares a border with Tajikistan, is the major place for the ETIM members in Afghanistan” where many ETIM fighters recently fought alongside the Taliban against Kabul.

For China, therefore, there is a direct ideological affinity to worry Beijing between the Taliban and the ETIM, although Beijing has not been foregrounding this alliance in defining or shaping its ties with the Taliban.

Even though Beijing has for long been emphasizing the need to dismantle the ETIM and other networks that pose an extremist threat to its interests, relying on the Taliban assurances is not the only step that China has taken, or will continue to take.

Two weeks ago, Tajikistan’s parliament announced that China will fund the construction of a ‘security outpost’ near Vakhon village in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province in the Pamir mountains that border China’s sensitive Xinjiang province and Afghanistan’s volatile Badakhshan province, where, according to the Chinese sources and the UNSC report, the ETIM is based.

While the very location of the post indicates that it is specifically targeted on Afghanistan to monitor the inter-country movement of transnational jihadis, it also indicates that Beijing is hardly likely to accept the Taliban’s verbal guarantees without credible, physical action against these groups. Unless the Taliban can do this, Beijing, very much like other states in the region, is highly unlikely to extend recognition to the regime as well.

Indeed, that was the message that China gave in the recently organized Xiangshan Forum in Beijing, a security conference arranged by an official think-tank of the military to promote China's views on security.

Therefore, China’s recognition of the Taliban is not inevitable, unlike how some reports in the western mainstream media have been projecting.

In other words, even though there has been a lot of interaction between Kabul and Beijing post-August-2021 and China, unlike the EU and the US, has been extending friendly statements, there are palpable, unresolved tensions underlying their bilateral ties.

Enter the US

Considering that Beijing’s charm offensive has not worked so far and that famine threatens a government singularly unprepared to handle it, the US is considering stepping in and potentially releasing Afghanistan’s US$9 billion in foreign currencies held by the US Federal Reserve, a decision that could potentially turn the game against China in a significant way.

As the reports indicate, the disclosure in Brussels early this month that the US is developing a “roadmap” for recognizing the Taliban regime must have caught Beijing – and even Moscow – by surprise.

In simple words, if the US is able to use its control over Afghanistan’s finances, it could very well establish its influence in ways to prevent China – and Russia – from bringing Kabul into their axis.

Thomas West, the new US special representative who has replaced Khalilzad, said that the US does intend to “engage forthrightly and in a clear-eyed manner with the Taliban and with shared interests and objectives.”

While the objective remains to defeat the ISIS-K and al-Qaeda, the US can pretty much shape geopolitics to its advantage by trading the US$9 billion for a Taliban regime that directly or indirectly shows sensitivity to the US rather than to China or Russia.

Therefore, for China, despite all the talks about integrating Afghanistan with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Afghanistan, even after the US withdrawal, remains a challenge.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel

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