China is Cosying up to Taliban, But It's a Rocky Road to Romance
There is no ‘one’ Taliban to buy out. Beijing will have to find a sound strategy to engage with the group.
They say one is known by the company they keep. In that case, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi doesn’t show up well, posing for a photograph with a group of Taliban leaders in Tianjin. This comes at a time when the United Nations is warning of unprecedented civilian casualties, deliberate destruction of schools and clinics, and large-scale looting, indicating that the Taliban claim of a “bloodless” takeover of the territory is very far from the truth.
But recall that picture of President Ronald Reagan meeting with Jalaluddin Haqqani — father of the present Pakistani prop Sirajuddin Haqqani — and hailing him and his men as “freedom fighters” during the Soviet-Afghan war. That was 1983. Fast forward a few decades, and another picture could emerge, this time of the US lauding Taliban leaders for their push to escape from Chinese hands. That’s Afghanistan, where the wheel usually turns in predictable ways. But Beijing is not Washington. Its strategy could be very different.
The Tianjin Meeting Was Very Public
China has held several secret and public meetings with the Taliban, including at the Chinese-run Saindak mine in Pakistan. The latest meeting was very public indeed, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry even announcing it on social media.
Nine leaders are said to have attended, including Chief negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who seems to have re-emerged as a person of influence after he was completely sidelined by Haqqani and his ISI sponsors. Baradar is old school and was virtually a brother to Mullah Omar. This, together with military exploits, and utter ruthlessness, ensured his dominant status.
In 2010, however, Pakistan detained Baradar in a joint operation with the US intelligence, releasing him eight years later after US prodding, when it needed a credible negotiator. Whether this experience will lead him to view China more favourably is unclear, but he had been chatting up Beijing even in June 2019.
Beijing, it seems, with its statement calling the Taliban “an important military and political force in Afghanistan … expected to play an important role in the country’s peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process”, is favourably inclined. That’s an acknowledgement of a very high order. China’s core requirement, however, is clear — to ensure “a clean break” of the group from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which, Wang said, posed a “direct threat to national security and territorial integrity”. There are also the pious “hopes” of the Taliban pursuing peace and inclusivity, even while emphasising China’s respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, in an obvious dig at all those who have gone in before.
Baradar made all the right noises, promising good relations with all. But the truth is that he is in no position to ensure that any agreement he reaches is actually followed.
At Doha, he and other Taliban delegates had to continuously consult with the leadership in Pakistan for every single detail. Baradar has clout, but he has to contend with not just Deputy Chief Haqqani, but also heads of some 16 commissions, and not to mention the ambitions of field commanders. Whether it is on peace, talks or even the ETIM, the will of the Taliban will have to be reinforced by other methods.
Using Investment As A Motivator
At first glance, it seems that the best bet for China is to promise financial aid in projects. So far, the Taliban have shown themselves to be open to this, promising to protect the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) gas pipeline, even as the group’s senior leader Suhail Shaheen “welcomed” Chinese investment.
China is no stranger to the Afghans. Beijing reached out to Mullah Omar in December 2000 with offers of investment, implicitly in return for stopping Uighur activities. It says much about Beijing’s strategy that despite the Taliban leader doing nothing much, it went ahead with the investment anyway.
China later promised a massive $3 billion investment in the Aynak copper mines and associated infrastructure. That remains largely on paper, despite Kabul’s threats to take the deal elsewhere. The same goes for promises to link up Afghanistan with China by rail, though that hasn’t materialised due to regional differences. Then there is the Five Nations Railway Project meant to give Afghanistan an outlet through Iran, which is languishing as well.
A project given to a Chinese state-run company to build a road in central Afghanistan has met a similar fate. Out of all the deals, it’s only the three oil blocks that seem to be functioning to an extent till recently. Now, with the Turkmenistan border also coming under pressure, these are likely to face difficulties.
Meanwhile, Global Times recently published a glowing story on how the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was to benefit Afghanistan, with the main artery being the Peshawar-Kabul highway. As of now, dacoity and double taxation are what truckers have to bear with, even on existing routes. There is also the distant possibility of Central Asia using Gwadar as an exit route for their exports, which won’t be welcomed by Russia. China knows all this, and therefore promises much and delivers little in financial commitment.
In simple words, Afghanistan is not a big prize for China in terms of the BRI. Besides, research indicates that more than strategic interests, Chinese corporate interests influenced investment, though Beijing’s concern for resource security did influence these decisions. In sum, the money won’t come in unless corporates are sure of returns.
Will China Use the Military Option?
Again, at first sight, it seems that a military option would be very low on the list for the Chinese, who have studied history better than most, even if they interpret it for their own convenience. However, reports have emerged frequently of China offering Kabul military assistance at different times, including the setting up of a mountain brigade in 2018, clearly meant for deployment at the Wakhan corridor. Prior to that, there were reports of Chinese patrols in the Little Pamir area. Again, rumours arose of Chinese vehicles in the Badakhshan area.
Proof of Chinese concern translating into actual military presence emerged when images of a Chinese military base in Tajikistan surfaced. It was cheek by jowl with the Wakhan area, heavily secured and fortified, and about 30 km from the Chinese border. This was, in fact, China’s second military base after it ventured into Djibouti. This is clearly an expeditionary base, which means that it is for use in the Afghan territory when necessary. With the Taliban not entirely united behind its leader, Beijing may have to do just that. Wakhan is the soft underbelly of China. There is no way it will be left unguarded.
Outsourcing The Job — Intel and Covert Ops
Then there is Pakistan, the near-permanent option that is being used by nearly everyone, including Russia, Turkey and the US. It didn’t need the language of the third strategic dialogue between China and Pakistan to underline the need to work “jointly”. Pakistan has been doing this for years — trading cooperation in “counterterrorism” for lucrative economic deals. Pakistan has the best intelligence on the ground, given that its proxies have been operating for nearly three decades. The Taliban, after all, are only the latest iteration.
China can easily outsource specific intelligence operations to the Pakistanis, which is fine, except that it then gives Beijing a certain dependence on Islamabad.
That’s probably unacceptable to the Chinese, as much as it has become unacceptable to Americans, who have for years been duped by the ISI into delivering Pakistani interests.
No longer. Washington has learnt the hard way, even as it reaches out to the ISI. It is possible that Beijing has learnt too, but it simply cannot replicate the Pakistan depth of intel. Its best bet could be the hedging strategy that has served it well so far. That also involves keeping Kabul and its intelligence services reasonably happy.
Beijing Needs A Reasonable Government in Kabul
Much like India, China has no wish to see a Taliban government installed and victorious. However, unlike India, it will try to deal with even an extreme fundamentalist group using its financial clout to keep it in good humour. However, the problem is that there is no “one” Taliban to bribe or buy out and no surety of who controls which territory at any given time and whether the religious factions present in that area will choose to throw out fellow Muslims to please a godless country.
Photo ops in the faraway Tianjin are all very well. But Beijing needs a coherent and reasonably popular government in Kabul that can then deliver on its diktats. That is called “democracy”. It’s an unpopular word in China, but in Afghanistan, it’s the only way out. Beijing, meanwhile, is in for a hard time. The learning curve that winds through Islamabad is only going to get steeper.
(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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