By Dr. Mohamad Zreik
US President Joe Biden has made a strategic decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, after twenty years of military presence under the pretext of eliminating terrorism and spreading democracy. Twenty years later, the Taliban has become more powerful and influential and has seized all the joints of the state and major cities easily and in a record period, which leaves many questions about the role that the United States was playing in Afghanistan and its relationship with the Taliban. Paradoxically, the superpower, accompanied by an alliance of powerful armies, could not eliminate an armed group not too numerous.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was one of the political promoters of the US (Western) intervention in Afghanistan, has expressed his shock at the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw military, and considered this decision “tragic, dangerous, unnecessary and idiotic.” Tony Blair led Britain to participate in the US campaign against Afghanistan in 2001 under the administration of President George W. Bush. In a scathing statement to the US leadership, Blair said, “the absence of consensus and cooperation and the deep politicization of foreign policy and security issues clearly weaken the power of the United States.”
Consequently, US allies feel mistrust in the absence of coordination and political and security cooperation on international issues of common concern. In the end, Blair recommended the US administration to develop a strategic diplomatic plan to put “maximum pressure” on the Taliban, and said: “We need to make a list of incentives, sanctions, and actions that we can take, including protecting the civilian population, so that the Taliban understands that their actions will have consequences.”
Some political analysts have argued that “US blood and money is wasted in the quagmire of Afghanistan.” Others view the decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan as a terrible blow to the credibility of the United States: its credibility as a partner, and its moral standing in global affairs. However, President Biden indicates that the United States has returned with force again to the international arena. Will President Biden find a door for the United States to exit peacefully from the thorny issues that successive administrations have been involved in twenty years ago?
The current international scene is much different from the era of the beginning of the twenty-first century, China has become more powerful and possesses the second economy in the world, Russia has regained its strength and is working to form a Eurasian alliance, and Iran is expanding rapidly in the Middle East despite US sanctions. President Biden is aware that the United States will lose time and money in futile wars in the Middle East, because the imminent danger to the United States comes from East Asia and more specifically from China. Therefore, the United States seeks to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific and South China Sea, and establishing more political, economic, and military alliances in Asia with the aim of undermining Chinese progress.
International newspapers published pictures of evacuating Americans by helicopter from Saigon, Vietnam, fifty years ago, and recently from Kabul, Afghanistan, indicating that the US strategy has not changed since then. The context of international events today is fundamentally different from what it was in the 1970s. The United States – indeed, the West in general – is involved in many conflicts, but it is not the clear winner. The Afghan collapse could be a disaster, in the war known as the War on Terror. But Washington’s failure in the broader struggle between democracy and authoritarianism can be seen only as a serious setback. The main question is whether the allies of the United States, such as Israel, Japan and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, will feel reassured about the recent US decision, or will they be afraid and insecure about the future of their country, which is closely related to US foreign policy.
The Western model that promotes the spread of democracy in the world has proven its failure, which increases the chances of the Chinese model based on cooperation, partnerships and a common destiny without interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. Therefore, it seems that the Chinese model, one of its tools, the Belt and Road Initiative, is more attractive, has many economic benefits, and brings security stability. The US withdrawal may turn into an opportunity for China to fill the void and build strategic partnerships with this country rich in natural resources and with a distinguished geographical location between South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.
US President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan in his address to the American people last week. For him, this decision reflects the rearrangement of US interests, and gives it a better position to deal with the new challenges of the twenty-first century, as he makes clear to allies and adversaries – on both – its priorities that determine if it will spend its resources here or there. Following the American decision, the foreign ministers of the European Union held an emergency session and criticism was directed at Washington, which is one of the rare times that Europe blames the United States publicly and explicitly, because what it did in Afghanistan may cause an influx of refugees to European countries, as it would return Afghanistan a platform for terrorism in Central Asia. “This era is over,” said the Latvian defense minister, “and unfortunately the West – and Europe in particular – is showing its weakness to the world.” German politician Armin Laschet, a candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, described the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan as “the biggest disaster that NATO has seen since its founding.”
The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan may bring to light the project of laying gas pipelines from Russia through the Black Sea to India through the territory of Turkmenistan and then Afghanistan. This gigantic project may change the world’s energy map, which may severely affect fuel prices. The danger here lies in the ability of the Taliban, if the pipelines pass through its territory, to control international energy prices to some degree, and to exploit this by manipulating the oil exchanges to their advantage. After talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Moscow last Friday, Putin said the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan shows that efforts by the West to impose democracy are futile. “It is necessary to end the irresponsible US policy, which aims to establish democracies in other countries according to principles that are incompatible with their societies, without taking into account historical, national and religious characteristics, and in complete disregard for the traditions in which other people’s live” Putin added.
The Chinese government has not yet taken a decisive position regarding what is happening in Afghanistan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the Chinese government will take its position after the formation of a government in Afghanistan, but the Chinese government is open to communication and dialogue with the Taliban. The two sides showed their goodwill when a Taliban delegation met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. In this context, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that her country “maintains contact and communication with the Afghan Taliban.”
This US decision will have long-term repercussions and impacts on security and stability in Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East, and may affect the narrow Chinese borders with Afghanistan, which has a Muslim majority of Uyghurs. The effects may extend to the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. China is focusing on enhancing economic connectivity with Afghanistan by building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, from which Kabul will eventually benefit. China-Taliban cooperation will deal with security, border protection with China, and non-use of Afghan territory for actions that endanger China’s security.
Geng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, said several terrorist organizations, including the “East Turkistan Movement”, have gathered and developed in Afghanistan, hoping that Afghanistan will not become a “terrorist paradise again.” Through its contacts with the Taliban, China will seek to draw red lines, and confirm that the development of any relationship in the future depends on maintaining China’s security. The Taliban described China as a “friendly country” and welcomed it for the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan. The movement’s spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said in a press statement that his movement will ensure the safety of Chinese investments in Afghanistan. For his part, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese newspaper, Global Times, Hu Xijin, believes that China establishes its relations on the basis of mutual benefit, noting that if China goes to Afghanistan, it will not seek to fill any void, based on its foreign policy, which raises the slogan “respect for the choices of the peoples of all countries.”
During an emergency session of the UN Human Rights Council, China’s envoy, Chen Xu, said, “the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries should take responsibility for the human rights violations committed by their armies in Afghanistan,” adding, “under the banner of democracy and human rights, the United States and other countries are carrying out military interventions in other sovereign countries and imposing their own model on countries with a vastly different history and culture,” noting that this brought “great suffering” to the peoples of those countries.
The West considers the countries neighboring Afghanistan to fall into the trap sooner or later. British analyst Richard Kemp, a former commander in the British army, likened Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia to a flock of vultures, which will fall on the Afghan carcass after the withdrawal of the United States. For its part, China considered that it would not allow itself to fall into the trap of military entry into Afghanistan, which was the graveyard of three empires: Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. China considered that the arrival of the Taliban to the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, which is located on the mountainous border with Xinjiang province; estimated at 80 square kilometres, may provide a safe haven for Uighur Muslim separatist rebels. This prompted China to recognize the Taliban and hold talks with them with the aim of security coordination in the future.
The relationship of the Taliban with the “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” and its successor, the Turkistan Islamic Party, is solid since the 1990s. They have established training camps in Afghanistan since the “jihad” against the Soviet occupation, and it remained strong after the “Taliban” took control in 1996 of 90% of the territory of Afghanistan. What increases China’s concern is that in 2020, the United States removed the “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, after the Security Council had designated it a terrorist organization under Resolutions 1267 and 1390 on September 11, 2002, for its association with Al-Qaeda. China considers that this organization may have increased its logistical and financial resources, manpower and weapons since Washington removed it from the list of terrorist groups in 2020. A report issued by the United Nations Security Council indicated that the “East Turkistan Islamic Movement” is not only present and operating in Afghanistan, but also has a “transnational agenda”.
China will not neglect Afghanistan, as it is a strategic region on the Silk Road and a major economic partner, since the meeting of the Chinese ambassador in Kandahar with the leader of the “Taliban” movement Mullah Omar in December 2000, Chinese investments in Afghanistan began to increase and multiply dramatically, there are more than 100 Chinese companies, all affiliated with the Communist Party in various fields in Afghanistan, including oil and gas exploration, mineral sectors, communications, transportation and military supplies. In 2008, two Chinese companies obtained mining concessions in the “Mis-e-Ainak” mine, which was said to contain the second largest copper deposits in the world. China plans to build road and rail infrastructure projects between Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, and the Afghan capital, Kabul. So, the consolidation of China’s presence in Afghanistan will depend on Beijing’s success in reaching an understanding with the “Taliban”.
China will not fall into the trap of military entry into Afghanistan, which was the tomb of the three greatest empires, but will seek to intensify political communication and economic projects. China needs the Afghan land, which is rich in mineral deposits of copper, iron, sulphur, bauxite, lithium and rare earth elements necessary for the technology industry. On the other hand, the presence of the Taliban in power may threaten the security of the Silk Road, despite the Chinese communication with this group. The former commander of Indian forces in Kashmir, Deependra Singh Hooda, notes to the Washington Post that the resurgence of the Taliban is boosting the morale of Pakistan-based armed groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Pakistani Taliban. This makes Islamic militant groups more powerful and violent from Kashmir to Xinjiang. To reassure China, Taliban spokesman Muhammad Naim pledged that “the territory of Afghanistan will not be used to harm the security of any country.”
*Dr. Mohamad Zreik is a PhD of International Relations, a researcher specializing in China’s foreign policy towards the Arab region. The views expressed in this article are his personal.