The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) may wish to review its 15-year mission in Afghanistan. The country is not the top-priority counterterrorism theater for NATO and, due to its distance from Western markets, provides negligible economic benefits for the alliance.
In order to preserve hard-won humanitarian gains, however, NATO should explore potential partnership and cooperation with Chinese forces in Afghanistan. While any cooperation should proceed on the basis of a clear-eyed assessment of potential costs, risks, and benefits, China could prove to be a relatively benign actor in Afghanistan. Moreover, Sino-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan could potentially lead to broader counterterrorism cooperation, providing ballast to the broader – and critically important – U.S.-China relationship.
China could become the primary security guarantor in Afghanistan for a simple reason: it is the least distrusted country in the region. India, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia are all distrusted by the Afghans, distrusted by each other, lack sufficient resources to provide security, or all of the above. While China is not uncritically admired by all the countries in the region – India, notably, is wary of China’s alignment with Pakistan, its forays into Southeast Asia, and its maritime claims in the South China Sea – it does enjoy highly workable relationships with all the players in Afghanistan.
NATO should consider supporting a Chinese security presence in Afghanistan for security and humanitarian reasons. A Chinese security presence in Afghanistan could potentially prevent a failed state from metastasizing, providing important counterterrorism benefits to NATO while ensuring that Afghanistan does not export chaos to its nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan. In addition to this security rationale, a Chinese presence in Afghanistan could preserve hard-won humanitarian gains, particularly in the areas of women’s rights and early childhood education. While China is unlikely to frame any commitment to Afghanistan in terms of human rights, Westerners should also realize that Chinese economic development projects in Afghanistan could provide massive benefits for the Afghan people – so long as these projects are truly win-win. A constructive Chinese presence in Afghanistan would provide evidence of China’s emergence as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system and should be welcomed by the West.
Chinese interests largely overlap with NATO’s in Afghanistan. The Chinese fear instability and extremism from the Central Asian countries that border sensitive Xinjiang province. There is basis to these fears: according to the International Center for Counterterrorism, a disproportionately large number of Islamic State suicide bombers hail from Tajikistan, while ISIS’s highest military authority is rumored to be a Tajik national. Moreover, Central Asian militants are fighting on all sides of the war in Syria. Instability in Afghanistan could absorb and create terrorist potential, potentially destabilizing the region.
In addition to these security concerns, China has substantial economic interests in Central and South Asia, necessitating a stable Afghanistan. China’s ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt project has several land corridors that pass through Central Asia. China enjoys a close relationship with Pakistan – the Chinese embassy in Pakistan is its largest in the world – and has a strong interest in Pakistan’s economic development and political stability. Chaos in Afghanistan could spill over into Pakistan, imperiling Chinese investment projects. Pakistan’s economic importance to China is not minor: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, encompasses pledges of over $46 billion in soft loans and investment. Finally, Afghanistan has significant natural resources, including copper, iron ore, rare earth elements, and lithium. A more robust Chinese security presence in Afghanistan could support China’s economic interests and the region’s development.
Cooperation between NATO and China in Afghanistan could have broader implications. A successful counterterrorism partnership in Afghanistan could potentially lead to enhanced global counterterrorism cooperation. Counterterrorism cooperation with China is not without risks to NATO: the Chinese apply a harsh, often brutal campaign in Xinjiang and Tibet provinces. Cooperation with China could also tarnish ISAF’s counterterrorism “brand” if, for instance, the Chinese use or are perceived to have used excessive force against civilian targets, or respond ham-handedly to allegations of collateral damage. Nevertheless, NATO capitals should consult amongst themselves, the Afghans, regional partners, and the Chinese to see what counterterrorism cooperation with China is possible and desirable.
Wang Mouzhou is the pen name of a former NSA intelligence officer. This article represents his own personal opinion.