After withdrawing from Afghanistan, the U.S. left a power vacuum. The Taliban regime is officially isolated internationally, but the country has vast mineral resources — on which Beijing is keeping a close eye.
KABUL — An hour's drive outside Kabul, at the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, three men are drilling for water. It is day three of the construction work, and they are laying the foundation stone for a 130-hectare industrial park. They are being paid with Chinese money. The company China Town Kabul wants to use the industrial park to attract factories from the People's Republic to Afghanistan. The project has been approved by the Taliban, who have been in power in Afghanistan for a year.
In the city center some 40 kilometers away, one of the company's representatives, Gao Susu, sits in a sprawling armchair. "The security situation in the past year has improved," she says. She hopes this will attract investors. On a shelf against the wall, the Chinese flag and the Taliban flag stand together in a flag holder.
Filling the power vacuum
When the West, led by the United States, pulled out of Afghanistan after two decades of military intervention, it left a vacuum. The Americans had put some $2.3 trillion into the war, engaged in nation building and tried to turn Afghanistan into a friendly democracy. An ally in the region. In vain.
Others are now taking up the slack. Since the Taliban took power, Afghanistan has been officially isolated internationally; no country has yet recognized the new regime. Behind the scenes, however, China is striving to partially fill the Americans' vacuum. Politically, Beijing is seeking solidarity with the Taliban; economically, the Chinese want to get involved in mining and trade. Afghanistan's mineral resources are estimated to be worth a trillion dollars.
According to Gao, the planned industrial park near Kabul will initially only accommodate companies from China. First you want to address manufacturers of building materials, later also the consumer goods industry. The company China Town Kabul has already been active in Afghanistan for 20 years, and now others are to follow.
Politically, too, China seeks proximity to the Taliban. Months ago, Beijing called for Afghanistan's internationally frozen assets to be released and for sanctions to be lifted. At a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Ambassador to Kabul Wang Yu said China will "significantly expand bilateral cooperation with Afghanistan in all areas."
China vs. the U.S. in Kabul
Since the Taliban took power, the people of Afghanistan have suffered from economic hardship. Aid organizations speak of a hunger crisis. Beggars are part of everyday life on the streets of Kabul. Many have lost their jobs.
In this situation, foreign investment is generally good news, as it promises an upswing and jobs. However, China's efforts are probably not altruistic. Besides economic profit, there are also strategic interests at stake – and systemic competition with America.
One cost lives, the other brought hope.
Ambassador Wang then said the U.S. created problems in Afghanistan and did not help the people after they left. His words fit the narrative of the Communist Party. A State Department official recently posted photos of a Chinese and American military plane in Afghanistan.
The former brought relief supplies after a devastating earthquake, the latter was part of the U.S. evacuation mission last summer. "One cost lives, the other brought hope," Zhao Lijian wrote. "This is perhaps the biggest difference between China and the U.S."
Washington should be concerned about this development. The former supreme commander of Western units in Afghanistan, retired Gen. David Petraeus, warns of the consequences of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. This has enabled America's opponents to claim "that the United States is not a reliable partner and rather a declining great power," he recently wrote in an article for The Atlantic magazine. This is by no means trivial at a time when deterrence is becoming increasingly important. By name he mentions "a revisionist Russia, a self-confident China, an aggressive Iran and Islamist extremists.”
In March 2021, Moscow hosted a trilateral meeting with China, Pakistan, the U.S. and Qatar to discuss the Afghan Peace Talks.
A great power competition
In the government district in Kabul, a mural adorns one of the many walls designed to protect against attacks. It shows a map of the world and the flag of the Taliban, entwined with flowers. "The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants positive and peaceful relations with the world" is written next to it in English. The Taliban are officially trying to maintain neutrality in foreign policy.
Abdul Azim Hashimi, blue vest, black turban, is responsible for industrial parks in the Ministry of Commerce. When asked about Chinese investment, he is cautious. "We have paved the way for foreigners as well as Afghans to invest in Afghanistan," he says. After 20 years of foreign intervention in the country, the new rulers are keen to emphasize their own independence.
Stability is a top priority for the Chinese.
The facts speak otherwise. According to an analysis by the U.S. think-tank Washington Institute, Chinese representatives have met with the Taliban the most in an international comparison – 71 times over the course of the past year. The NATO country Turkey follows in second place (54 publicly known meetings). The author of the study writes that the Taliban's return goes beyond the West's focus on counterterrorism – it is also about great power competition.
In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a surprise visit to his Taliban counterpart. The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine was just a few weeks old, and so the meeting received little international attention. In Kabul, Wang planted a memorial tree "in the hope of a prosperous Afghanistan."
A day earlier, the Taliban had ordered that schools for girls in seventh grade and above remain closed. There were outraged reactions worldwide. China, on the other hand, repeatedly stresses that it does not interfere in the "internal affairs" of other states. In the area of human rights and freedoms, the Taliban have no conditions to fear for cooperating with Beijing.
Lingering fears of terrorism
To a certain extent, China is still cautious despite the increased commitment. China Town Kabul's Gao says when she speaks to Chinese business people, concerns about safety and risk play a big role. Beijing is also wary of concerns about a resurgence of international terrorism in Afghanistan: stability is a top priority for the Chinese.
Because international terrorism senses its chance in view of the vacuum left by the Americans in Afghanistan. A few weeks ago, the United States killed al-Qaida leader Aiman al-Zawahiri with a drone attack in the middle of the capital, Kabul. As a result, doubts arose about the Taliban's ability or willingness to fight the terror network.
According to a recent UN Security Council report, al-Qaida is not expected to launch direct attacks outside Afghanistan in the near term. In the long term, however, "al-Qaida is considered a significant threat to international security." The Taliban's rise to power is a facilitating factor, he said.
No easy decisions await Europe and the United States with regard to Afghanistan. But even a wait-and-see approach, says Ibraheem Bahiss of the International Crisis Group, is leading to power shifts in the region. "The West is reluctant to engage with the Taliban and offer economic aid," he says. This, he adds, opens the door to countries like China.
"If we want to prevent Afghanistan from falling into the sphere of influence of other major powers, we need to maintain a level of presence and engagement in the country," he says. Only a counterweight to China will allow the Taliban government to maintain a neutral stance in the great power competition, he adds.
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