Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), US government watchdog charged with monitoring events on the ground, in its latest report described the situation in Afghanistan as “bleak” and echoed concerns that Afghan security forces are not ready to mount any meaningful resistance. The SIGAR head declares that the overall trend is clearly unfavorable to the Afghan government, which could face an existential crisis if it isn’t addressed and reversed. The Afghan government in Kabul will be fighting for its life and could well fall to the Taliban after the United States completes its military withdrawal from the country in August.
With the increased momentum in the Taliban’s gains in Afghanistan, various foreign governments are reaching out to them. The Trump administration had legitimised the Taliban not only through its peace overtures but also by signing the Doha Peace Accords 2020, which acted as a catalyst for US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the Taliban as an important military and political force in Afghanistan, and said he expected the Taliban to play an important role in the country’s “peace, reconciliation and reconstruction process.”
Beijing has invested heavily in Central Asia in recent years through its Belt and Road trade and infrastructure scheme, and China’s Foreign Ministry has previously discussed the possibility of extending the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan. During last week’s meeting, Wang referred to Afghanistan as China’s largest neighbor, and emphasized the fate of the country should be “in the hands of the Afghan people.”
China, which shares a border with Afghanistan, is concerned because militants of the banned Wang East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which is an “international terrorist organization”, find refuge in Afghanistan and try to wreak havoc in China’s restive Xinjiang region. So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the terror incident in Dasu. However, the Chinese team investigating the Dasu attack, which had come to Pakistan, found evidence that the ETIM had carried out the attack with the help of the banned TTP.
Chinese apprehensions are not unfounded. Al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the eastern, southern and south eastern regions, says a United Nations report prepared for the Security Council. The twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, submitted to the council last week, contains the latest information on ISIL (Daesh), Al Qaeda and their affiliates. The report notes that despite a US-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha in February last year, the security situation in Afghanistan “remains fragile, with uncertainty surrounding the peace process and a risk of further deterioration.” Referring to the militant group’s weekly newsletter Thabat, the UN report points out that Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces. Both the ETIM and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pose clear and present danger to China and Pakistan. The UN team warns that TTP “continues to pose a threat to the region with the unification of splinter groups and increasing cross-border attacks.”
No wonder that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his meeting, asked the Taliban to “completely sever all ties” with the group to promote regional stability. The question arises regarding China’s role in the Afghan peace talks; can it succeed where the US has failed? Mullah Baradar told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that it considered China a “welcome friend” of the Afghan people and said he appreciates the “fair and positive role” that China plays in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process. The reason is that unlike numerous Western powers, China neither tries to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, nor does it try to impose its own brand of democracy or governance.
External players can only accentuate the message that militancy based out of Afghanistan will not be accepted, while it should also be communicated that religious freedom and women’s rights must be assured. It is up to the Taliban to choose the path forward. They can either try and enter the mainstream, or stick to their mediaeval worldview and risk isolation from regional states and further conflict within Afghanistan. At its peak, formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban’s government was acknowledged by only three nations: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban are being treated as a ‘government in waiting’ by regional powers, because they are cognizant of the fact that in realpolitik, all channels of communication with various protagonists must be kept open. The Taliban have proved that they are a force to reckon with and if the Chinese leadership is engaging in tête-à-tête with the Taliban, let us hope it will have a sobering effect on the aggressive group and they will rein in ETIM as well as the TTP.