‘Forever war’ no more . . .
As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan enters its final stages, questions about who will fill the anticipated security vacuum are coming into sharper focus. There is growing international consensus that given the Taliban’s recent territorial gains, the current Kabul government’s days may be numbered, with one credible estimate as little as six months. Concerns about the evolving security situation – and possible implications for China – have prompted Beijing to ensure that its relationship with the Taliban is on solid footing. The Taliban has been very receptive to these overtures, perhaps hoping that China will invest in the country’s infrastructure and natural resource projects.
Mutual agreement . . .
Beijing’s most immediate issue vis-à-vis Afghanistan is preventing Uyghur militants from attacking western China from Badakhshan Province. Badakhshan includes the Wakhan Corridor – the ‘panhandle’ carved out in 1893 by British India and Afghanistan to create a buffer between the Russian and British empires, which forms Afghanistan’s 97-km border with China. In the pre-9/11 era, the Taliban government is believed to have allowed a little-known group called the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) (previously called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM) to operate within its borders. The Taliban has gone to considerable lengths to reassure Beijing, but the latter is not taking any chances. Although the Wakhan Corridor is high-altitude and largely impassable, its border with Tajikistan is much more porous and lightly patrolled. In 2016, China began stationing troops in Tajikistan.
Regional positioning . . .
China is by no means the only regional power keeping an eye on events in Afghanistan. India, which previously officially avoided direct engagement with the Taliban, confirmed recently that it has opened backchannel dialogue with the group, presumably out of concern about ceding too much strategic space to other regional actors, not least of all Pakistan. It is possible that these various actors could work together to stabilize Afghanistan, perhaps through existing mechanisms like the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In the near term, however, eyes will be on the Afghan people as they brace for yet another tumultuous transition period.
- The Diplomat: Decoding India’s Taliban outreach
- Nikkei Asia: As US exits Afghanistan, China prepares for threat of security void
- War on the Rocks: China’s strategic assessment of Afghanistan