Difficult Trek on Silk Road in Afghanistan

Without a durable peace in Afghanistan, gloomy shadows continue to loom over China’s ambitious Silk Road initiative. The Chinese are quite preoccupied with the issue and are investing time and money in the effort to solve the Afghan puzzle.

That is why China’s political involvement as well as a soft military presence in Afghanistan have increased markedly over the past two years or so, departing from their role in solely attempting to mediate negotiations through the now largely-dysfunctional Quadrilateral Co-operation Group (QCG) to actually participating in joint anti-terror operations. All that for seeking a secure route for successful implementation of Silk Road projects.

While within China there is some hope that extension of Chinese capital would help to reduce tension between Afghanistan’s pro-west forces and the militants, the fact that the US has no intention of de-militarizing the country means the essential context for infighting will continue to exist and cause disruption on a scale that would in practical terms hinder the way for a smooth implementation of Chinese projects.

China is acutely aware of this grim reality and the challenge it is posing. Now Beijing’s life has been complicated by the decision by the decision of US President Donald Trump in Washington, announced last week, to leave Afghanistan to America’s generals. For a start, according to news media in the US, it means the addition of 2,000 to 4,000 US troops on the ground, on top of the 8,400 now there. While that is not a major commitment, it is an indication that the US plans to stay.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Chinese government researchers recently met with foreigners in Beijing for a discussion billed as “Afghanistan Reconnected”. Sun Yuxi, the first Chinese ambassador to Kabul after the Taliban were bombed out of power in late 2001, correctly summed up the stakes as follows: “If the way and connectivity through Afghanistan is not open, it would be like an important vein being blocked on the Belt and Road, which leads to many diseases to this organ.”

A particular focus of that meeting was on how to carry out trade and investment in the country that remains torn apart and enmeshed among the Afghan and US forces on the one hand, and the Taliban and the emerging IS-K, or Islamic State Khurasan, the provincial division of the Islamic State designated for the nations of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Significantly, IS-K fields a sizeable bunch of Chinese combatants.

Wang Xin, the deputy director of the Beijing-based Center for China & Globalization think tank, said there is potential for China to play a big role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction because Central Asia needed infrastructure and help developing its mining industry – fields in which China is known to excel. It was “utterly inadequate” to develop Afghanistan by just providing humanitarian aid, Wang added.

The Chinese are clearly not happy with the way the former US president Barak Obama’s nation-building project has failed to deliver a meaningful material change in Afghanistan’s ground situation—something that has directly contributed to, for instance, very slow progress the Mes Aynak copper mine, one of China’s biggest projects.

As such, what would have been the country’s biggest foreign investment project has actually turned out to be a big disappointment, partly due to inadequate security provisions derailing mining plans. It took even the Afghan Taliban almost eight years to pledge not to attack the site.

While the mine was expected to yield US$350 million annually, the target now looks unrealistic for 2017 and perhaps not even attainable by 2020. While the contract awarded to Chinese companies had stipulated the construction and establishment of a 400 MW coal-fired power plant and the building of a railway from Hairtan to the Torkham dry ports, little has been achieved so far, leading the contracting companies to ask for modifications in the contract—a proposal that has received little encouragement from Kabul.

The lack of progress has led to the sacking of Shen Heting, the former general manager of the China Metallurgical Group Corp and the man who was at the center of winning the contract for China in 2007.

Commenting on the situation leading to Shen’s excommunication from the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Lian, a professor at Peking University, was reported to have said, “What is happening with the Chinese investment in Afghanistan shows that the future of some of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ projects is not a straight path,” adding further that “Countries with internal security problems like Afghanistan are likely to lag behind more on cooperation with China than some others,”

Given this, the largely stalled project, about 25 miles southeast of Kabul, is a grim reminder of possible risks for-- and stands as a stark rejoinder to -- Chinese investment abroad as Beijing continues to promote its Belt and Road initiative in more than 60 Eurasian countries via trade and investment.

And while the Taliban have refrained from attacking Chinese projects, Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation since the emergence of IS-K certainly carries no guarantees about not attacking and targeting Chinese interests. On the other hand, the presence of the Chinese fighters in IS-K means that the organization will find in Chinese projects a ready-made attack opportunity.

Even if direct attacks don’t take place, the very presence of IS-K and the Taliban and the effectiveness of their recently carried out attacks is leaving the Chinese dream in doldrums.

This was clearly evident from the language of China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang’s press briefing that he gave after the April attack on an Afghan military base that killed 140 people.

"China is concerned about the escalation of violent conflicts in Afghanistan," said Geng, calling on all parties to actively participate in an "Afghan-led and Afghan-owned" peace and reconciliation process, and safeguard the country's peace and development.

What is also evident here is seemingly misplaced hope of reducing tension by just funnelling money into Afghanistan. Had this strategy been successful, billions of dollars the US has ever since 2001 poured in Afghanistan would already have buried the Taliban and peace would have returned to the country.

Therefore, the question remains: what can the Chinese capital do what the US’ could not? The story of Mes Aynak mine reveals that the Chinese capital stands no better chance of success than the US nation-building program ever did.