Why the Taliban takeover is a mixed bag for China and Pakistan
Responsible Statecraft spoke with Fatemeh Aman in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its impact on its neighbors.
How can the Taliban’s victory impact Pakistan and China?
The extensive excitement seen in Islamabad over the Taliban seizing power has left Afghans and many in the region suspicious that Pakistan may have been actively involved in the Taliban’s victory. All regional players have been dealing with radical Islamist movements and can be impacted by the Taliban’s takeover of the country. However, the situation is more complicated for Pakistan, which is generally affected negatively by radicalism and yet still supports Haqqani-style groups. China, Islamabad’s closest ally, is another country that can be impacted by the Taliban’ victory.
Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Taliban control virtually all of the country, how will these developments affect Pakistan’s regional policy in general?
Pakistan’s regional policies are essentially India-centric. Its Afghanistan policy is controlled and directed by the military and has generally been accompanied by both conflict and diplomacy. Pakistan’s military has refused to end its support of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction active in Pakistan’s North Waziristan. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently admitted the existence of links between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, and the Haqqani network but denied that ISI controls it.
On September 4, ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed met with the Taliban commander in Afghanistan to discuss “Issues relating to Pak-Afghan security, economy, and other matters.” He expressed confidence that “everything will be okay” in Afghanistan during an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 in Kabul. In response to what he hopes will happen in Afghanistan, the general said: “We are working for peace and stability in Afghanistan.” That was less than reassuring for people who blame Pakistan for the Taliban takeover. The video clip “#EverythingWillBeOkay” quickly trended on Twitter.
Generally, a regime that, in any case, is not pro-India is a good outcome for Pakistan. But it does not mean that Islamabad won’t be concerned about possible links between the Taliban and international terror groups.
How can Pakistan be harmed by the Taliban’s grip on power?
The new wave of Afghan refugees to Pakistan is the least damaging impact for Islamabad. Pakistan’s military may see an opportunity in the Taliban’s victory to dampen the resurgence of Pashtun nationalism at home. PM Khan praised the Taliban’s takeover, declaring that Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery.”
However, the harm could be extensive. The Taliban victory can inspire other militant groups and undermine the counter-extremism policies that the government claims to pursue. It can motivate far-right extremist political parties, such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, TLP, and other groups that have politicized and polarized Pakistan’s conservative groups.
The Taliban’s victory is now likely to boost other militant groups across the region. In Pakistan, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has significant bases in Waziristan and which seeks the overthrow of the central government, is a group that can be embolden ed by the Taliban’s grip on Afghanistan. The Taliban’s victory could also lead Baloch separatists and other militant groups to conclude that political violence is an effective way to achieve their secessionist goals.
In July, only weeks before the Taliban’s takeover, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Hameed warned lawmakers in parliament about the security situation in Pakistan and the region after the withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces from Afghanistan. They said well-trained Afghan Taliban militants are present across Pakistan, adding that, while the army could launch attacks on the militants immediately, such a campaign could also backfire.
On September 8, a day after the new, all-male government was announced in Kabul, Pakistan’s foreign ministers, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, hosted a virtual meeting of his counterparts from China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The ministers agreed that “terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, ETIM, TTP, BLA, Jondollah and others should not be allowed to maintain a foothold on Afghanistan’s territory.”
Pakistan has asked the Taliban to hand over TTP fighters included on a list provided by Islamabad who had escaped to Afghanistan after the Pakistani 2014 military’s offensive against their insurgency and subsequently joined the Taliban in their war against the Afghan military and government. The Taliban apparently rejected the demand out of fear that “If the Afghan Taliban tried to force the TTP [to surrender], then some of its commanders can join [Islamic State-Khorasan],” a former TTP leader was quoted as warning.
How are Pakistan’s relations with a Taliban government likely to evolve, bearing in mind that the border is still the subject of dispute?
Border disputes will not be resolved so easily even though Pakistan has apparently completed 90 percent of the fence along its 1,622-mile-long border with Afghanistan, whose construction began in 2017. The Durand Line, which was drawn by Britain in 1893 to secure control of the strategic Khyber Pass, cuts through Pashtun and Baloch tribal regions. The boundary has since been the biggest cause of resentment by Pashtuns in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite the enormous support Pakistan provided to the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban refused to recognize the Line as their common border. It remains to be seen if the new generation of the Taliban will be more flexible on this issue and how much pressure Islamabad will be inclined to exert to gain a favorable resolution.
How will Taliban rule impact China’s presence in Afghanistan?
Afghanistan occupies a critical area for China as it borders Tajikistan, one of the most important Central Asian countries for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. While Beijing had invested significantly in many economic projects in Afghanistan under the ousted government, it also maintained contacts with the Taliban in recent years. If the new regime can achieve a greater degree of stability in Afghanistan, China’s investments in mineral mining and construction projects could expand significantly in the coming years. For their part, the Taliban themselves have called China their “most important partner”
That said, Beijing may find it challenging to deepen its engagement in Afghanistan if it retains its harsh policies toward its Muslim population, or if the Taliban provides safe haven for insurgent groups particularly the predominantly Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement, from elsewhere in Central Asia. Central Asia is the main land corridor in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to link China to the Persian Gulf, Western Asia, Russia, and the European Union.
Among all Central Asian states, Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s immediate northern neighbor, is the most critical to Chinese security given its geographical location as an effective buffer between Afghanistan and China. Reports of Beijing’s repression of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang have contributed to a growing Sinophobia across much of Muslim Central Asia where extremism, fostered in part by greater online connectivity, as well as increased Chinese involvement in training local police and security forces, seems once again on the rise. All Central Asia faces a challenge in that regard, but the threat is particularly alarming in Tajikistan.
Already, Chinese workers have come under frequent attacks in Pakistan, most recently in July, and such attacks could spread to Afghanistan if the Taliban chose to provide a safe haven for anti-Beijing militants.