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MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book “The Comrades and the Mullahs” authored by Dr Stanly Johny and Mr Ananth Krishnan. The authors were in conversation with Mr Srinath Raghavan, historian and author; Mr Aziz Amin, Former Principal Secy. to Ashraf Ghani, Former President, Afghanistan; and Dr Vinitha Revi, independent scholar.

Dr Stanly Johny

International Affairs Editor, The Hindu

Afghanistan has got a very complicated history. It is popularly known as the graveyard of empires. In the mid-19th century, the British went into Afghanistan. In the 20th century, the Soviets entered Afghanistan and in the early 21st century, Americans went there. There are interesting similarities between all these three great power interventions in this country. The British went there in the 19th century as they wanted to create a buffer zone to stop the Russians from getting into Afghanistan, as it was on the Indian border. They did not want Russian influence to reach British India. They brought down Ghouse Muhammad Khan’s regime and replaced it with Shah Shujah Durrani’s regime in Kabul. But within a few years, the British had to withdraw from Afghanistan and while withdrawing, all the camp followers and British soldiers were massacred, except one medical officer who escaped to tell the world about horrors they faced.

Soviet Invasion

In the 20th century, in 1978, there was a communist revolution in Afghanistan. In 1979, during the Christmas night, the Soviets crawled into Afghanistan. Under their presence, there was a regime change. The President was brought down and assassinated and there was a new President in Kabul. The main goal of Soviets was to ensure that the Communist regime survived and to make sure that the Soviet influence in Afghanistan stayed. But 10 years down the line, the Soviets had to withdraw from Afghanistan in ignominy. Within a couple of years, the Soviet Union itself would disintegrate.

9/11 and the US Anger

Then the Americans, in 2001, went into Afghanistan because of the 9/11 attack. They brought down the Taliban regime and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was founded, supported by the Americans. At the zenith of their presence in Afghanistan, they had more than 110,000 soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. If you go down the reports from 2001 to 2004, Afghanistan had relative stability; it had Parliamentary and Presidential elections. Everybody expected that Afghanistan had finally become a stable country. The Taliban had withdrawn into Pakistan or Talib Afghanistan’s mountainous regions. But twenty years later, the United States, the world’s most powerful military force and the largest economic power had to cut a deal with the Taliban and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, practically handing the country over to the Taliban. Interestingly, the Soviets troops pulled back from Afghanistan in 1989, after 10 years of presence. Two years later, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the communist government in Afghanistan of President Mohammad Najibullah collapsed. In the case of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, 15 days ahead of the United States completing its withdrawal, the government in Kabul had fallen and the Taliban were already in Kabul.

The Questions

There are interesting questions like why Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Why have great powers always shown interest in Afghanistan? What makes Afghanistan so special and what led to the rise of the Taliban? Now with the United States exiting Afghanistan, what does the new situation mean for the regional countries, especially China, which has become the second largest economy and the most powerful military force perhaps, and for India?

The geopolitical contest between the United States and China is going to be one of the most defining foreign policy contexts of the 21st century. The Chinese got rid of the Americans from their backyard in Afghanistan. India has stayed engaged with Afghanistan throughout, except for a brief period in the 1990s when the Taliban were in power. India’s policy was to deal with the government of the day. Afghanistan had seen several regime changes.

Initially, there was monarchy. In 1973, the Dawood Khan’s Republic replaced the monarchy. Within a few years, there was a communist coup and the communist government was in place until early 1990s. When it collapsed, the Mujahideens took over, followed by the Talibans, till the US intervened in 2001. With the return of Taliban regime now, India faces strategic challenges.

Azim Amin, Former Principal Secy to Ashraf Ghani, former President of Afghanistan

The Chinese policy towards Afghanistan has always been viewed through the prism of Pakistan. China’s engagement with the previous government was heavily influenced by Pakistan. And so it is now. However, the situation has changed in Afghanistan and the current Afghanistan presents both opportunity as well as risk for the Chinese government.

Opportunities for China

The Taliban which now controls the government has very strong relations with Pakistan; Pakistan is very close to China. Therefore it presents a lot of opportunities to the Chinese government, for expanding its political influence in the region.

Being a global power, you definitely need a sphere of influence, particularly in your neighbourhood. Afghanistan is in a very strategically located geography. Being at the backyard of China, it is important for the Chinese government to have a stable and friendly government that does not pose threats to its security, political and economic interests.

The Hype about China

Although there was hype in the Chinese media and by the Western scholars and the netizens who said that the vacuum created by the US leaving Afghanistan is going to be filled by China, we see that it has slowly become far from reality as of now, because Beijing is not keen to pursue it, particularly in the short term. Since the Taliban takeover, it has been cold in its approach and is in a position of waiting and observing.

China is keeping its engagement with the Taliban to see how it can build mutual trust with them in their own interest. China’s policy towards Afghanistan has primarily been dominated by security concerns, followed by economic concerns. Afghanistan has vast mineral resources and China wants to expand its influence. The Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is the hallmark of Chinese global ambitions.

The Threats

China’s other concerns include cross-border drug trafficking. They want to make sure that the drug produced in Afghanistan does not get into mainland China. It is also concerned with the security of its projects and assets in the cities in the surrounding region and in Afghanistan as well. Recent events have shown an uptick in violence. It has alarmed many pundits in Beijing. The spurt in violence by the Islamic State of Pakistan and Khorasan (ISPK) and ETIM founded by the Uyghur militants are deemed by the Chinese to be of primary concern. These groups have gained in strength, resources and organisation since the Taliban have taken control. Attacks have intensified in Pakistan’s northern areas of Balochistan. The Karachi suicide bombings targeted the Chinese Confucius Institute’s personnel. These have made China wary of the Taliban and their promises. They are worried by the presence of non-state actors within Afghanistan. Uyghurs have established strong military relationship with ISPK now, which was not the case previously.

My information is that the discussions that took place between the Taliban leadership and Chinese foreign minister early this year revolved around neutralising threats and potential threats to the security of China.

From Warm to Cold

Expecting Taliban to crack down on Uyghurs, Al Qaeda and other militants will have political consequences for Taliban. So far, the Taliban have not been recognised. Maintaining coherence and relationship on the one hand and mollifying international partners in regional countries on the other, is an incredibly difficult task. Many of the Taliban fighters have developed personal relationships, even married and established ideological bonds with these fighters. Their immediate priority is to keep the Taliban rank and file cohesive and this is the key to the longevity of their rule. They very well know the consequence of upsetting these groups who may join the ISPK—Taliban’s existential enemy. The warm reception that Taliban got in China earlier has now turned into a cold response.

Ananth Krishnan

The China Correspondent, The Hindu

Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize the PRC in 1950. Diplomatic relations between the two nations were established five years later. The most significant development in those early years was a model agreement to settle the China-Afghanistan boundary. On 2nd March 1963, incidentally the same day China signed the controversial border agreement with Pakistan that India continues to reject, China and Afghanistan announced that they would enter formal talks, which made quite a good progress. By August 1963, they had a draft agreement and by end of the year, they signed a boundary treaty, which most observers agree, largely favoured Afghanistan, as it largely followed the boundary of the 1895 Britain-Russia agreement, which saw China give up its claims on the Wakhan corridor.

The Sino-Soviet Split

The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which took place during the Sino-Soviet split and a phase of difficult relations between China and the Soviet Union was a huge factor in how Beijing looked at the security of its western borders. Beijing jumped into the efforts to support the Mujahideen against the Soviets. The PLA even trained Mujahideen fighters in Xinjiang, something that is very unthinkable today. Now fast-forwarding to 1996, the Taliban coming to power hardly inspired their confidence, since there was a suspicion of their links to extremist groups, especially those that China believe, are active in Xinjiang. Beijing’s initial outreach to the Taliban was very tentative.

Different Response to 2.0

Beijing responded very differently to Taliban 2.0 though, twenty five years later, which reflected not only the changed global situation but also China’s own changing ambitions as well as a sense of its place in the world. Two concurrent trends are important to note here. The first is America’s exit as well as in the lead up to America’s exit, their growing weariness to sustain nation building projects in Afghanistan. The second is Xi Jinping’s entry into power in this period and the launch of the BRI in 2013—the year that he became President. The launch of the BRI which had a clear focus on China’s neighbourhood, dovetailed with Ashraf Ghani coming to power in Kabul and beginning his administration with a push for infrastructure projects. He went to China on his first overseas visit and declared China as a strategic partner. China remained in touch with Ghani till the very end. They did not explicitly back the Taliban against him. They may well have preferred an outcome in Kabul where there was some kind of power sharing agreement, which many people expected to happen at that time.

Two Messages

Two noteworthy messages were conveyed in July, which somewhat reflected the Chinese approach to Afghanistan. The first is, welcoming the fact that Afghanistan now belongs to the Afghan people and its future is in the hands of its own people. Of course, that’s an implicit reference to the end of American presence in Afghanistan and secondly, an expectation that the Taliban will make a clean break with terrorist organisations that had a connect to Xinjiang.

The second factor is that there is still some weariness in China. Even in 2021, several Chinese experts expressed caution against assuming that Taliban 2.0 would be very different from the first version. They were broadly right in their assessment, perhaps more than some Western experts who, for whatever reasons, were putting forth the argument that Taliban 2.0 will be different. The public statements from China, which almost welcomed the Taliban’s return, are more of propaganda driven by the schadenfreude of the US exit and scoring points against Americans, rather than reflecting a sense that China would open its wallet in Afghanistan in a big way.

Memories Don’t Fade

Beyond this sort of outward welcoming of the Taliban’s seizure of power, there was a more complicated response in China to the Taliban coming to power. Many Chinese carry memories of Taliban 1.0 and especially the destruction of Bamiyan Buddhas. They are wary of extremist Islamist groups, and to be honest, of any kind of Islam, if you look at what’s happening within China today and in the Xinjiang camps.  At the same time, the state media was doing its best to remake perceptions of the Taliban within China, diluting the hardline views and instead trying to present them as the real figures from the grassroots of Afghanistan. A lot of this was just hyped.

Projects on Hold

In 2020, the total Chinese FDI in Afghanistan was about 4 million dollars. That is less than 3% of its investment in Pakistan. China’s two biggest projects in Afghanistan are a) developing a copper mine in Mes Aynak and b) an oil field in Amu Darya. Both remain inactive. This was perhaps in the period when there was an American troop presence and more stability and security than what you have today. Even in this period, they were unable to get their projects going. There were recent attacks on some Chinese personnel and projects in Pakistan. Even in Pakistan, Chinese companies currently have put their plans on hold. A lot of the 62 billion dollars of investment spoken about have not really materialized.

One consistent theme is, Chinese do not want to repeat the mistakes of the West. They don’t want to put in dollars that they won’t recoup, let alone set boots on the ground. But on the other hand, they are taking more steps to insert themselves as a power player. We are seeing that not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the neighbourhood. We have seen that in Sri Lanka and in Nepal. They are willing to be involved in domestic politics to a degree not seen before in the past. They are willing to take more steps to protect their security. Take, for instance, the new base they are helping to construct in Tajikistan. According to reports, they have stationed some of the People’s Armed Police force, who are in charge of internal security in Xinjiang.  So we are seeing a more assertive China that’s willing to take some amount of risk. But at the same time, at least for now, it is still a generally cautious player that does not want to repeat the mistakes of others.

Srinath Raghavan

Historian and Author

In view of the security concerns that China has about Islamist terrorist organizations operating in the western province of Xinjiang, they have taken extraordinary steps and put in a great degree of surveillance and control, through a system of camps, for their own Muslim people. There is an upsurge against that. The Chinese are concerned about the attitude of the new Taliban government towards these groups. Are they going to support them on the basis of fraternity of Islamic brotherhood? In the past, the Taliban acted along some of those principles. That’s how they gave asylum to various groups, including Al-Qaeda and for which, they paid a very heavy price. Will they go down the Pakistan route of saying that China is so important to us that even if we support various groups, we will respond to China specific concerns by cracking down on terror. Think of what happened in Pakistan, right in the mid-2000s—the infamous Lal Masjid incident, which led to the fall of General Musharraf. Since Chinese nationals were targeted, he used the Pakistani troops to flush out that area. It then spiralled out into things that he could not control.

Two Options

The Chinese have these two broad options. One is that the Taliban while continuing an Islamic agenda operates much more like Pakistan, which is directly responsive to China’s interests. The second is, trying to understand how Afghanistan will potentially fit into China’s foreign policy. We are at an interesting turning point in the BRI itself. One of the key things about the BRI was that it was a Eurasian initiative. It was an attempt to link, under Chinese initiative and leadership, a series of territories, markets, production centres and consumption societies, all across Central Asia, leading all the way to Europe. The Ukraine war has effectively put paid to, at least the European side of the BRI, for the foreseeable future. The Chinese are going to find it extremely difficult to do anything west of Russia. That puts a huge question mark on the future of the BRI itself. We have the really affluent societies in Western Europe and without them, what BRI will achieve is an open question the Chinese will be asking themselves.

Restrict BRI to Asia?

The answer may well be that China forgets the European side of it and double down on BRI in the context of Central Asia and Southeast Asia. That may well be a possible response but it’s not very clear. The way Chinese have dealt with in most parts of the world, we can see that they are interested in possible Returns on Investment (ROI), that is, projects which have worked for them. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. These are not simply purely political decisions. Sri Lanka is going through a crisis but surprisingly, China has not been that active. In fact, India seems to be so much more active in the way they’ve responded to the immediate crisis of Sri Lanka. So there is no reason to assume that the Chinese will do something by way of investments in Afghanistan. Purely from a political perspective, the country has to stabilize. The economy has to have some legs to stand on. The Taliban government has to provide some framework of governance. None of that, at this point of time is exactly evident to any of us. The only thing clear is that the Taliban’s ideological agenda remains broadly the same. Some of the harder edges may have been softened out. But the broad plan is still the same. What that means for the future of Afghanistan’s economy is an important question.

Is Afghan’s Status Hyped?

The geopolitics that is going to happen, particularly in the heartland areas of Central Asia is going to be driven by a number of considerations, which in some ways, is what the US-China rivalry is all about today. It is not the Cold War of the old style where it was a military or a purely ideological competition between two systems—the democracies in the free world versus autocratic China—but actually the competition is much wider. It is more about patterns of development, technology and innovation. It is about who can be more acceptable and competitive with others. From that perspective, Afghanistan will remain an important laboratory, within which, to observe this kind of new geopolitical rivalry between United States and China. The other question is: how important is Afghanistan geopolitically? I think it has a somewhat inflated reputation as being in a very central location. A more careful look at the history of the last 200 years will tell that Afghanistan has not always been that important. It has been important from time to time. The British had their own reasons to try and initially subjugate Afghanistan. A look at the history of Afghanistan, you can see their continued status of neutrality or non-alignment. In fact, in the 1950s, 60s and even early 1970s, Afghanistan got economic aid both from the United States and the Soviet Union. Some of the most iconic developmental projects were done by both parties at that time. Only in the 70s, when the Soviet Union decided to take control of the regime, things changed. Then again, till the Taliban came along, Afghanistan was on nobody’s radar. Post-2001, it again became important. So the geopolitical interest in Afghanistan has not necessarily been continuous and sustained. We could well see another phase where Afghanistan ends up becoming a country, which not everyone is particularly interested in. It could become a backwater, as it was during various times. So I don’t think that we need to put an exaggerated importance on Afghanistan. This is particularly important point for Indian policymakers to understand, because our Afghanistan policy is more or less seen through the prism of Pakistan. Over indexing the fact that Afghanistan matters to India in the context of Pakistan, or in the context of China can actually lead to other consequences or problems for us. We do not have a land border with Afghanistan and it is very difficult for us to have any significant political influence with a regime like the Taliban.