As NATO Leaves Afghanistan, Will China Be New 'Godfather'?

New Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is betting on Beijing to cement peace and help rebuild the economy. But China will play its cards carefully, especially its historic alliance with Pakistan.

Agfhan President Ashraf Ghani and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
Agfhan President Ashraf Ghani and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
Frédéric Bobin

KABUL — A new geopolitical map is insidiously emerging around Afghanistan. With the withdrawal of most of the NATO troops in late December, marking the end of the 13-year-long post 9/11 war, the new chessboard of influence is taking shape. And new players are stepping forward.

China, above all, is inexorably making its way into the picture. Officials and experts in Kabul have begun to ask whether Beijing is bound to replace Washington as foreign godfather of a still dependent Afghanistan.

Although it has recovered — in theory at least — its military sovereignty, Afghanistan still clearly does not have the financial means to sustain itself. The withdrawal of NATO and of the Americans comes after a presidential election that brought a new man to power in Kabul in September: Ashraf Ghani, who has a clear vision of the ongoing transformation. He sees in China a potential to cement peace in Afghanistan, partly because Beijing has the means to put pressure on Pakistan, where the refuges of the insurgent Taliban are centered.

As an example of this new era, two Taliban leaders exiled in Qatar are said to have visited China in November, the Pakistani daily The News reported on Jan. 2. According to Aimal Faizi, the spokesperson of former President Hamid Karzai, quoted by the Afghan press agency Pajhwok, this visit was reportedly “arranged by the Pakistani secret services.”

Until now, the Beijing regime played a fairly low-profile role in Afghanistan. It approved the post 9/11 Western intervention that aimed to overthrow the Taliban, with which anti-Chinese militants had found refuge alongside the other branches of the international jihadi network of that time. Exposed to threats of some Muslim Uyghur separatists, in the Xinjiang province, China has always displayed an extreme nervousness regarding any agitation along its central Asian borders. Nothing that troubles Kabul leaves Beijing indifferent, as the two countries share a 200 kilometer-long border.

Chinese companies make their move

Still, China has carefully refrained from any military presence in Afghanistan, leaving the burden to the Americans and their NATO allies. In this way, it spared itself the resentment of Afghan opinion towards the foreign occupation over the years.

Instead, China's entry into Afghanistan has taken a more economic road, with many of its public companies moving in. In 2007, Beijing won the Mes Aynak copper mine exploitation contract in the Logar province, south of Kabul, the first sign of its strategic intention to control a part of Afghanistan's mineral wealth.

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Archaeologists at the Mes Aynak copper mine — Photo: Jerome Starkey

With the withdrawal of NATO, has the time come to move onto a much more political stage? Through two diplomatic forums — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Heart of Asia group — the Chinese seemed these past two years more interested in helping to promote stability in Afghanistan.

“As long as the Americans were fighting in Afghanistan, the insecurity in the country did not necessarily displease China,” a NATO diplomat points out. “Beijing does not want large and permanent American bases in Afghanistan, anywhere near its border. But now that the Americans are disengaging, the Chinese are discovering the virtues of stability.”

Unfortunate signals

The Chinese economic establishment also goes in this direction. “With its acquisition of shares in copper and hydrocarbons, China is now forced to be concerned about the stability of Afghanistan,” notes Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former member of the Taliban who joined the High Peace Council (HPC) in Kabul.

Those close to President Ghani hope Beijing will use its historic influence over Pakistan in order to drive it towards a more positive attitude regarding Afghanistan. Karzai had vainly attempted to convince Islamabad to put pressure on the Taliban leaders — in Pakistan — to engage in peace talks with Kabul. But his successor is taking the offensive again by playing the Chinese card more openly, expressly asking Beijing to use its weight to force the cooperation of a reluctant Pakistan.

There is in Kabul a sort of "Chinese hope" floating in these times of transition. Yet some wonder if the Afghans are not overestimating the concern Beijing has towards their future? At the Mes Aynak copper mine, work has still not begun, seven years after the contract was signed. Worse still, the Chinese company is looking to renegotiate this same contract in order to free itself from a whole set of commitments to which it initially agreed.

Some worry that the Chinese will be satisfied to have frozen the mine over which they have the rights for 30 years. “They are doing here what they are doing in Africa,” says Javed Noorani, an independent researcher.

As for China's leverage and intentions over the peace process, it is still far too early to assess Beijing’s role. China has, of course, reasons to sympathize with Kabul’s cause, itself victim of the jihadist sanctuaries in the Pakistani North Waziristan region that, for a long time, received Uyghur fighters

It is also in China's interest to get more involved in the stabilization of Afghanistan, but it will not do so at the expense of its good strategic relations with Pakistan. The historical alliance between China and Pakistan, based on their common interest to weaken India, is too important to be sacrificed for the sole sake of Afghanistan.

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