The expanding Taliban’s new bond with China across a narrow border is set to greatly impact the region, and further diminish human rights
Two apparently separate developments in the past few days could go a long way to determining the future of Afghanistan. One is a meeting in the Chinese city of Tianjin between the Taliban’s political chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, at China’s invitation. The other is the Taliban taking control of Badakhshan Province in Afghanistan.
The background to this is that, with the US pull-out from Afghanistan nearing completion, the working assumption of most states in the region is that the current Kabul government will not last long. The Taliban now control most of rural Afghanistan and also several key border crossings.
The crossings give them control of many highways and also an increased revenue source. For example, the recently captured Spin Boldak border crossing into Pakistan could easily bring in $1 million a week in freight taxes.
There are reports that the Taliban are still prepared to make a political settlement, and that may be possible, since going the military route could cause thousands of deaths and drag on through the coming winter. Warlords are already re-emerging, and some ethnic groups, such as the Hazara, are forming their own defensive militias to oppose further Taliban advances.
Because of this, and even given the success so far, a settlement does have its attractions. However, it would require a major, if not the majority, role in governance of the entire country, and even then would be seen by the Taliban as merely a step on the way to complete control.
That could be their bottom line, but given the progress they have made across rural Afghanistan so far this year, a collapse of government forces and then of the government itself cannot be ruled out before winter. That will be one calculation made by the more influential of the neighbouring countries – Iran, Russia, India, Pakistan and China – with China the one to watch.
These countries will also be concerned with US policy but it is clear that the US is pursuing “remote warfare” and is likely to intervene only if the Taliban allow a serious emergence of al-Qaida and Isis elements. Even then, the response will be centred around airstrikes, armed drone attacks and selective use of special forces and CIA personnel.
Pakistan will hardly baulk at a Taliban takeover, given its connections with the Taliban, especially those established long ago through the army-dominated Inter-Services Intelligence organisation (ISI). Extreme Islam may be feared, even by the Pakistani army, but Indian dismay over a Taliban takeover would more than make up for that.
India has invested heavily in Afghanistan and has the most to lose from a Taliban takeover. Compared with that, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north will have, at most, minor roles in the future of the state. In the west, Iran will seek to maintain its current influence, while remaining wary of the Taliban.
Trade links are important but a key factor for Tehran will be trying to control any surge in opiate smuggling across the border, given the scale of Iran’s domestic addiction problems.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will seek to expand influence, while avoiding significant financial or military commitments, but China is in a very different position, which is made even more interesting by the Taliban’s recent paramilitary action in the extreme east of Afghanistan.
Although Spin Boldak is regarded as a key border, an even more significant one (even though it is currently closed) could be the Wakhjir Pass at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor, which is the most eastern point of the Badakhshan Province.
The narrow finger of land extends for about 350 kilometres north-east of Afghanistan and varies in breadth from about 15 to 60 kilometres. With a population of under 15,000, it has few roads and towns and is more a collection of small settlements of various ethnicities.
This apparent geographical anomaly is a legacy of ‘The Great Game’ of the nineteenth century, a border delineation originally agreed in 1893 between the Russian empire to the north and British India to the south (now Tajikistan and Pakistan respectively) and originally designed to buffer rivalries by avoiding a common border.
The current relevance is that the eastern end of the corridor borders China at the Wakhjir Pass. China maintains occasional military patrols on its side, which is part of Xinjiang Province. On the Afghanistan side, the Taliban have just taken control of the corridor as one part of overrunning Badakhshan Province. Thus, with the Taliban and China on either side of a common border, the significance of the China/Taliban meeting in Tianjin becomes greater.
The potential for physical contact across the border is at present limited. At an altitude of 4,923 metres (16,152 feet), the pass is closed for four months or so each winter and even in summer is used by only a few local people, principally herders. Its potential, however, is great.
There have been some road improvements in the corridor and China has upgraded a military road on its side, but construction of a metalled highway, possibly with a high-altitude tunnel, is well within Chinese capabilities.
Human rights at risk
The potential for both sides is considerable. China could obtain new routes through Afghanistan to Iran in the west, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the north and down to western Pakistan’s new Gwadar Port in the south, itself part-financed by China.
It could also resurrect its earlier interests in Afghanistan’s formidable mineral reserves, including copper, chromite, lithium and rare earth elements, as part of developing extensive economic and political links with a new Taliban-controlled country.
The Taliban could benefit hugely from Chinese investment in the Afghan economy, and while the advantage may seem to lie with China, an important Taliban quid pro quo would be restraining the Uyghur paramilitaries of Xinjiang Province who are currently fighting for them. This requirement for China formed part of the recent talks in Tianjin.
The Chinese state and its leaders would clearly benefit, as would the Taliban, but human rights on both sides would suffer. For the Uyghurs, their subservience to the demands of the Chinese state would be unabated and for huge numbers of Afghanis, especially women, rigid Taliban rule would become more secure and long-term.
There are indications that some Western governments, including the US, see increased Chinese involvement in Afghanistan as a welcome stabilising development. However, this doesn’t take into account how huge the cost would be for people on either side of the border. This is yet another toxic outcome of a disastrous two-decade war that ordinary civilians are left to suffer through, as the West walks quietly away.