The Problem in a paragraph- China has economic and domestic security risks with an unstable Afghanistan, from BRI projects in the region and the shared border in Northern Afghanistan/Western China. The Taliban are a major risk factor because they cannot be trusted to keep their commitments to domestic stability and security, and follow an ideology of governance that promotes instability and terrorism. The CCP cannot call upon reliable allies to do the fighting if conflict arises, as the regional security framework is lackluster and Afghanistan’s neighbors have either vested interest in the Taliban and militant groups operating openly, or do not trust Chinese ambitions for the larger region. China and the Taliban have mutually conflicting goals and visions for Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban (referred hereafter as the Taliban) have a history of bad faith dealings following a pattern of using force to change conditions on the ground that undermine peace plans, betraying agreements once they acquire what they want, and actively breaking promises they make while professing to honor them.
One example is the promise the Taliban has made to Beijing about the Uighur militants and keeping Afghanistan free of them. According to one report, Akhtar Mohammad Khairzada, deputy governor of Badakhshan, has claimed foreign fighters have come to the region and served with the Taliban. Other officials and analysts have claimed the Taliban is bolstering their ranks with Uighur, Turkic, and Uzbek, and other foreign groups due to the strategic location of Badakhshan between Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan. The additional manpower from these groups helped the Taliban to wrestle for control in Maimi district, and generally become a major force in the region.
While promising to prevent Uighur crossings into Afghanistan, the Taliban still hosts training camps to train fighters for ongoing conflicts and “war”. As of 2020, the Taliban is still operating a training camp for war on the Chinese border region of Badakhshan- the Abu Ubaidah Ibn Jarrah Training Center. The Taliban has an active militant training camp on the border with China, one that is in the same territory as Taliban affiliated Uighur militants. They are actively recruiting and trying to attract fighters with a focus on fighting a “war” despite the USA withdrawing. While the Afghan Taliban has claimed they would prevent Uighur insurgents, Uighur militants have been crossing into Afghanistan, particularly in Badakhshan, despite Taliban claims to barring Uighurs from entering the country. Currently, these militants are going to fight for a local branch of Islamic State or as part of the Taliban.
The Taliban cannot speak with a unified voice as they are made up of different groups that were loosely unified in their fight against the Soviet Union and the United States. The early Taliban derived their power from the support of militias raised in the Madrasas in rural areas, and could barely control them during the early 1990s. Today, the Taliban still has the problem with internal unity and has been vague to avoid angering rank and file members. In one example, several members of the Taliban joined ISIL-K after internal disagreements over the direction of the movement. The nature of alliances and commitments is such that different factions making up the Taliban can break off and join other groups, with a risk to the overall strength and cohesion of the Taliban as a political entity.
There is no reason to believe the Taliban has changed for the better. The areas under Taliban rule are reporting violence and repression by the group similar to what was reported in the 1990s. The Taliban may be more sophisticated for an international audience and promote a moderate image abroad, but they are just as violent and repressive as they were in the 1990s. In most of the territories the Taliban have taken over, women’s education has either ceased altogether or is severely limited. Part of this reflects local commanders having leeway to enforce Taliban decrees as they see fit, but mostly this is part of the way the Taliban traditionally treated women’s education. Musicians in areas the Taliban is actively threatening are worried that the Taliban will return to banning music and killing musicians. The educated youth of Afghanistan are also fleeing the country, despite Taliban assurances their freedoms and successes will be protected. Based on their present actions, the youth have no reason to believe the Taliban leadership, as the actions on the ground indicate the Taliban is acting the same way it did when it took over the country back in the 1990s.
Chinese action in Afghanistan as a risk
Beijing has taken steps to increase Chinese influence in Afghanistan, and some of it undermines long-term stability goals in the country.
On the economic side, Beijing is using BRI projects to hold off other nations from investing in Afghanistan. One example was in December 2011, when the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a $400 million bid to drill in three oilfields in the Afghan provinces of Faryab and Sar-i-Pul, a contract lasting for 25 years. The fields hold only 87 million barrels, a fraction of Iran’s oilfield capacity, but China has not drilled the wells. Another example is the Mes Aynak mine, which Beijing secured, but has done little to develop since winning the bid. The cost to Kabul for the lack of activity in the Mes Aynak mine is estimated at 2 billion USD, almost the total amount the mine contract was worth in 2007. Meanwhile the Taliban has been illegally mining the region for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth in precious metals. For Kabul, the mine is a major economic asset to the country, which in 2018 relied on foreign aid for 40% of GDP. While Beijing is holding back on the mine, they are reportedly in negotiations with the Taliban for infrastructure contracts.
In terms of security, China has stationed PLA troops in Badakhshan, but the Afghan government balked at Beijing’s attempts to create a Chinese military base in the region. Beijing also attempted to force the Afghan government to take Chinese navigation and internet systems and Chinese military hardware, which Kabul believes would have rendered them dependent on China for security goods. When rebuffed by Afghan government officials, Beijing started doling out equipment to rival political powers and the Taliban in Badakhshan. Beijing also sought to cultivate local power brokers and undercut the national Afghan government. Such behaviors have increased local resentment towards the Chinese presence in communities that had been promised gains from the BRI. It also poses a security risk to Kabul as Beijing is effectively cultivating potential rivals to regional authority from Kabul.
Lastly, Beijing is undermining trust with Kabul. On December 10, 2020, Kabul authorities broke up an alleged Chinese spy ring in the capital, one that had been operating for seven years before it’s discovery. Indian intelligence helped Afghan authorities in uncovering the spy ring, which was working with the Haqqani Network to track down Uighurs in country. The alleged spy ring was made up of Chinese nationals who were attempting to set up a fake cell of the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) to ensnare Uighur separatists in Afghanistan. The alleged spy ring was discovered by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, after receiving intelligence on the ring from the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s foreign spy agency. The arrests of Chinese nationals were coupled with authorities seizing arms and drugs found with the suspects. The Haqqani Network, which the alleged spy ring was attempting to infiltrate, has been driving insurgent conflict in Afghanistan for 40 years.
As China moves into Afghanistan for economic, security, and geopolitical reasons, Beijing has made a bet on the Taliban becoming the political power in Afghanistan. They also have investment and security concerns in the country that force China to be present. Yet the Taliban cannot be trusted to be a responsible actor on the international stage and follow a domestic policy that will force them into conflict with China and other border nations, possibly internationally.
Jihadist groups are starting to orientate their focus on China in response to China’s rise in geopolitical power and military expansion and modernization efforts. One example of a new wave of Jihadist attention towards China is the Jihadist cleric, Abu Zar al-Burmi, is active in recruitment and driving the focus against China for actions against the Uighurs and Rohingya and more generally against Islamic populations. He’s active in Pakistan and Afghanistan and his rhetoric has strongly focused on China’s activities in Central and South Asia. While the United States, Russia, and the West in general, are still considered enemies, China is joining that list of target nations.
For the Taliban, this means more Jihadists groups will come to Afghanistan to fight against China and possibly launch attacks in the region, which the Taliban may not actually care much about. October 2020, the Afghan Taliban claimed it was under no obligation to sever ties with al Qaeda. The Taliban has strong links to al Qaeda even in 2021, despite pledges to distance themselves from the international terrorist group. Historically, al Qaeda helped strengthen the Taliban in Afghanistan and spend decades developing overlapping allegiances between the two organizations. The Taliban is attempting to maintain their relationship with al Qaeda while convincing the larger international community that they can be trusted to keep Afghanistan free of terrorist organizations. One example is when Taliban officials floated the idea of treating al Qaeda fighters as “refugees” in Taliban controlled territories. As of February 25, 2021, the Taliban has made little effort to actually rein in al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the terrorist group is currently gaining strength in country under the protection of the Afghan Taliban.
The proposed solutions Beijing has for Afghanistan also seem undermined from the start. Relying on other nations to curtail the risks in Afghanistan is fraught with other goals Beijing is pursuing at the potential determent of their would-be allies. Islamabad uses the Taliban to check Indian geopolitical influence and has a history of supporting militants, but their connections are not as easily disentangled due to domestic connections between these groups and the Pakistani military and parts of government. One example is the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and their relationship with the Afghan Taliban. While Islamabad doesn’t want a total Taliban victory due to fears that it could galvanize their own domestic insurgents, they may not have much of an option to confront them in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan has their own issues with China. In 2010, China gained part of the Pamir region as part of a concession by Tajikistan in return for assistance with security. The Pamirs are resource rich and located primarily in Tajikistan, but strategic in location for potential military operations in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In 2020, a Chinese historian published an article on official outlets of the PRC claiming the entire Pamirs belong to China historically and should be returned. Citing only Chinese sources and arguing for taking back the entire region, the article stirred anger both in Tajikistan and Russia. This also stoked fears and suspicions that Beijing is going to try to annex the territory after building up the military infrastructure and power, and that the BRI and other promises by Beijing are just temporary measures to stall response. Beijing may offer to work with Dushanbe to fight militants on the border, Dushanbe and other Central Asian nations are likely looking at how such asks might position them into subservience or weakness to Beijing. With 52% of the country’s debt owed to China and increased Chinese military presence close to the Wakhan Corridor, Tajik government officials may worry about being used as a staging point for military operations in Central Asia and being pulled into Beijing’s larger plans for power projection in Central Asia.
Russia is a complicated factor as well. Beijing is using the Shanghai Cooperative Organization to project influence and write economic and technological standards in Central Asia, putting Moscow’s traditional influence and geo-strategic goals at risk. Chinese hackers targeted Russia recently with a specialized malware that allows remote access and self-destructs after its’ mission is finished. Despite claims of greater partnership between Moscow and Beijing, both are far from an effective military and political alliance, with underlying tensions over whether Beijing will pursue their own goals at Moscow’s expense and who would be in the junior position in any such alliance. The BRI and SCO are being used by Beijing to increase clout in Central Asia, and Moscow is attempting to thread a path that keeps Russian influence without being encircled and vassalized by Beijing.
While Beijing might propose a multi-national coalition or utilization of the SCO, Beijing’s own actions telegraph a willingness to use said institutions to further geo-political ends at the expense of allies. If Beijing tries to rally neighbors to take on militants in Afghanistan, those neighbors each have a reason to not commit to fighting militants. Beijing will either have to commit to forces on the ground in Afghanistan or somehow convince those neighbors to send troops and take on active military roles in country. The former poses a risk to prestige and drawing Beijing into the same trap other major powers faced, the latter requires fundamental changes to Beijing’s foreign policy and getting involved in the domestic affairs of other nations overtly.
Beijing is making the same mistakes prior nations have made in Afghanistan. First, Beijing is undermining Kabul’s ability to fight the Taliban while making deals with the Taliban. Second, Beijing is trying to promote China as a peacemaker in Afghanistan’s conflict. Third, Beijing seems to be trusting the Taliban. Fourth, Beijing’s policies domestically against Muslim Uighurs is making them a target internationally for Jihadists, including those active in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Now conflict will likely happen with either a total Taliban victory or Afghan civil war. In an Afghan civil war, the Taliban and remnants of the government will be unable to stop foreign insurgents from coming to the country and setting up for attacks on neighbors. Yet in the case of Taliban victory, the Taliban takes control of the country entirely and goes back to their old ways. There is no indication that the Taliban has improved socially, and their goal is at odds with Beijing’s- the establishment of an Emirate following the model the Taliban attempted in the 1990s. The rank and file will likely promote closer ties to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups who would seek haven in Afghanistan. Once ready, they launch attacks in Xinjiang, requiring Beijing to respond.
In either case, if Beijing does not respond, domestic security and legitimacy of the CCP are at risk. Yet if Beijing gets involved, they risk being trapped in Afghanistan fighting an insurgency. Unlike a war with Taiwan, or in the South China Seas, or India, this would be a war of necessity as Afghanistan is both the gateway to Central and South Asia, and shares a land border with China. If the Taliban take control or if there is a civil war, China becomes vulnerable to terrorist attacks that would threaten the CCP’s legitimacy at home and economic and political interests in Central Asia. Unlike the USA, China will always have the risks associated with an unstable Afghanistan. Yet Beijing’s actions are ensuring their ambitions will be on a collision course with the Taliban.
If the Taliban were to moderate, it would pose a risk for the Taliban as an organization- either rank and file break off and form their own groups or defect to rivals. That in turn poses a threat to the Taliban’s hold on power and could escalate into civil war if enough defect to rivals. These are the same fighters that the Taliban traditionally used to enforce decrees in cities and to fight rival warlords. This organizational threat will play into the hands of insurgents coming into Afghanistan and incentivize Taliban leadership to maintain ambiguity on their policy stances even as their militias impose policies that violate Taliban promises to the international community.
Lastly, there is probably not much appetite for the larger international community to engage militarily against the Taliban in retaliation for violated promises. Most nations will probably leave Afghanistan to the Taliban and raise only threats of sanctions or other non-military means of punishment. Yet this won’t mean much to the Taliban, as it allowed both domestic atrocities against the Afghan people and provided haven to Al Qaeda and Jihadist insurgents back in the 1990s.
For China and the CCP, this poses a serious problem. The Taliban may take them up on offers of infrastructure development and raw resource extraction, but the Taliban’s ultimate goal is the establishment of their Emirate, one based on their ideological and religious views. The CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative may offer the Taliban money, but they will choose their Emirate over foreign economic integration and this means that the CCP has to deal with an ideology that is at odds with the vision of the CCP for the region.
Their would-be allies in the region also have cause to distrust coalitions to fight the Taliban. The CCP tends to pursue goals through dual purpose initiatives and activities. Nations that border Afghanistan will see the insurgents as a threat, but they also see risks in following Beijing’s lead, such as territorial losses in Tajikistan or facing domestic chaos in Pakistan. While all can agree on the threat posed by insurgents, there is little trust that Beijing won’t use chaos in Afghanistan to advance their own agenda in Central and South Asia at the expense of Afghanistan and their neighbors.
Beijing cannot expect the USA or the international community to get involved militarily, and due to the shared border and ambitions of the CCP, Beijing will have no choice but to take the lead in any future military conflict in Afghanistan. Its not a conflict they want, but it is one they would have no choice but to engage with.