Negotiations between the Afghan government delegation, comprising government officials and civil society leaders, and the Taliban started last week in Doha, Qatar. Representatives from the international community visited and promoted a productive peace process — showcasing the complexity of the Afghan conflict. The signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement this past February paved the way for this direct dialogue, prompting Afghanistan’s neighbors to become more involved to prepare for an eventual U.S. withdrawal.
Even in a time of intense geopolitical competition between the United States and China, stability in Afghanistan is one of the few shared interests remaining. It is a task that requires international support. The peace talks were delayed for over six months due to argument over prisoner releases; meanwhile, the Taliban increased the severity of their attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration is staying course with its initial plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2021. The move toward troop withdrawal will likely not change even if President Donald Trump loses his re-election bid this November. His opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, also believes that American forces need to be dramatically reduced to under 2,000 and that the expensive war in Afghanistan needs to end.
An inevitable consequence of this U.S. retreat is that other great powers will fill the military and economic vacuum left in Afghanistan. China’s interest in Central Asia is far reaching and it will look to use Afghanistan as a corridor for its “March West.” The only uncertainty is how this will affect a future Afghan government and its development as a regional economic force.
China’s Military Push in the Region
Since U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad embarked on his shuttle diplomacy to encourage peace talks in 2018, China and Pakistan have been inviting the Taliban to discuss regional security and stability within Afghanistan. Similar to the U.S., China worries about their internal security being threatened by Afghan-based terrorist groups. In exchange for China’s support for the Taliban to be included in the Afghan government, there is an understanding that the Taliban must prevent Uyghur secessionist groups from China’s Xinjiang region from crossing the border and settling in bases in Afghanistan.
This assurance is especially crucial to the Chinese Community Party’s topline agenda to combat any separatism or unrest in Xinjiang. That priority has prompted the Chinese government to crack down on the Uyghur Muslim minority, even placing them in concentration camps in what is internationally condemned as cultural genocide. The same goal led China to offer to build key highway networks for the Taliban to prompt the militant group to reduce violence and establish peace in the country.
Although China has continued to deny that Beijing is interested in building overseas military bases, it was reported early last year that China built a second foreign military base in Tajikistan, near the strategic Wakhan Corridor – the strip connecting Afghanistan to China. The base is supposedly in place for counterterrorism efforts against Uyghur militants and combatting other insurgents crossing the border into western China. Similarly, in 2018, the Afghan Embassy in Beijing confirmed that China is helping Afghanistan set up a mountain brigade in the north, but said that there will no Chinese troops on Afghan soil.
However, there have been reports from the Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan that a Chinese expert delegation visited Kabul and discussed a location for the base in 2018. Further plans have not been revealed. After the U.S. withdrawal, Beijing’s intentions will become clearer and Kabul may be incentivized to accept military assistance — especially since China has already asked for similar counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban — whether the civil war ends or continues.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is not an anomaly but part of a broader, bipartisan push from American policymakers to withdraw forces from overseas conflicts, even in the Middle East. Only a few hundred Americans are left in Syria to protect oil fields and Trump and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi of Iraq recently stated that troop levels in Iraq will decrease to 3,000. This vacuum is widespread, and the recent Beijing-Tehran strategic agreement is a testament to that. The security and trade partnership outlines enhanced joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development and intelligence sharing. As China further postures itself in South Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East, the influence of the West will rapidly dwindle, with Afghanistan no exception.
China’s Rising Economic Presence in Afghanistan
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s modern-day silk road project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – serves as the country’s foundation to project massive economic influence coupled with enhancing partnerships in security, trade, and energy. China’s flagship BRI project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), could be expanded to Afghanistan to further connect the Central Asian republics under a Chinese umbrella. The primary reason Chinese investment in Afghanistan has been sluggish is due to intense instability and American presence, but those key aspects may suddenly change in the coming future.
Afghanistan’s natural resources are estimated to be worth around $1 trillion, and Chinese companies have been taking notice. For instance, in 2008, the Chinese Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and the Jiangxi Copper Company Limited (JLC) consortium won a 30-year lease to extract the second largest copper deposit in the world (valued at least $50 billion) for $3.4 billion. In 2011, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) won a $400 million bid to drill three oil fields for 25 years, containing roughly 87 million barrels of oil. However, the development of the mine and oil fields have not progressed at all, which has left the Afghan government frustrated.
China preemptively won these contracts and are biding their time until Afghanistan becomes more stable to conduct their economic operations. That also helps explain the Chinese push to quell violence by directly talking to the Taliban and offering them industrial projects. Moreover, Beijing may very well be building a strategic relationship with Kabul and the Taliban to ensure similar contracts can be won in the future to generate momentum for their BRI expansion.
Since the launch and expansion of CPEC, Beijing has gained influence and leverage over Islamabad. China recently convinced Pakistan to open five key border crossings with Afghanistan to facilitate bilateral trade and the transit trade of Afghan exports to India – decreasing Afghanistan’s dependence on the Chabahar port in Iran. Pakistan’s willingness to allow exports to rival India as tensions escalate in the Kashmir region reveals China’s ability to persuade regional partners to do its bidding to set the foundation to propel BRI. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s ambassador to China confirmed that the country is looking forward to having the same kind of relationship China has with Pakistan. Enhanced Chinese development will most likely also be in the form of loans to the various institutions of Afghanistan.
Michael O’Hanlon — a senior fellow and the director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution – argues that once the U.S. withdraws, if China makes smart investments in Afghanistan, it will be beneficial to both parties. He states, however, that Kabul must “be aware of the financial terms; China tends to seek equity after providing loans with high interest rates that the host nation sometimes defaults upon.”
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has rejected loans from China before as he understands the crippling debt and economic dependence associated with it, a sentiment also pushed by Washington onto Kabul. However, as the Americans leave, a future Afghan government may prove to be more inviting to Chinese companies and assistance for another nationwide reconstruction project. In Afghanistan, peace is a prerequisite to development and China’s willingness to invest and expand displays the importance of Afghanistan as a military and economic corridor.
Afghanistan’s Governance in the Future
The Afghan peace negotiations are riddled with uncertainties: when a ceasefire will occur, how long the peace talks will take, and what system of governance will be formed. The Afghan peace team and the Taliban hold vastly different beliefs about women’s rights and autonomy, the role Islam should play in state affairs and how democracy should be implemented. This gap in values will most certainly cause delays and leave ordinary Afghans frustrated.
Once U.S. troops leave next year, the democracy Afghanistan manifested in the past two decades may also begin to gradually collapse. Corruption among high-level officials and limited government control in most Afghan provinces have proved that democracy in Afghanistan has always been an illusion, meant to satisfy expectations of the United States in order to continuously receive aid. Once the illusion fades, so will the act of protecting that façade. There will be a clash between Afghans who want to expand and progress democracy and those who simply used it for political capital and financial incentives.
China’s growing influence in Afghanistan may even shift Afghan governance styles to resemble Beijing’s — one that is more hierarchical and with autocratic tendencies, a system that the Taliban does not oppose. The next few years will be crucial in efforts for rebuilding Afghanistan and the people who call it home will finally know the truth: Will real change be ushered in or is this simply another familiar phase in the recent tragic history of the country?
Sohrab Azad is a freelance journalist currently based in Erbil, Iraq, and the founder of Advocates for a Prosperous Afghanistan, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. Follow Azad on Twitter: @azadsohrab