Since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, the global community has refused to “recognize” the new government until it establishes an “inclusive” regime comprising all sections of society, including women, whose access to education remains a key stumbling block for the West.
Leading the charge is former invader U.S., which has frozen around $7 billion of Afghan funds from the country’s central bank, leaving the war-torn state’s economy on the verge of collapse. Frustrated by Washington’s unwillingness to release the funds prior to the fulfillment of “preconditions,” the Taliban are increasingly turning to China—perennially at odds with the U.S. and eager to find new avenues for its flagship Belt and Road Initiative—in the hopes it would fill the vacuum left by the West to shore up Kabul’s economic prospects.
Appreciating China’s relationship with the Taliban, spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told Newsweek that Beijing had a more “pragmatic” approach that did not seek to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal matters—such as equal rights for women. Reiterating the Taliban government’s claims that demands for girls’ education and freedom of movement for women amounted to “blatant” interference in their country’s internal affairs, he said that the West should not dictate any terms. “We will decide on girls’ education with the passage of time, according to our norms,” he said.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had imposed a harsh interpretation of sharia on women, barring them from leaving their homes without male chaperones or full face coverings. Their return to power last year was accompanied by promises of change—most notably by members of Pakistan’s former PTI-led government—but the reality has been far different. Secondary schools for girls remain shuttered, while recent instructions from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice have reinstated rules requiring adult women to cover their entire body and face in public. Some provinces have even tightened gender segregation rules, banning men and women from dining out together or visiting public parks on the same day.
The recent surge in repression of women has prompted the U.N. Security Council to take note, with calls from the West citing a “moral responsibility” to act. By contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed that China respects the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, and would adhere to a policy of non-interference in its internal affairs.
Pakistan, which shares a porous border with Afghanistan, maintains that the Taliban must acknowledge “valid” expectations of the global community. “Regional countries, including Pakistan, even the [Organization of Islamic Cooperation] and international community at large have expectations as to how the Taliban government responds to inclusivity, human rights and countering terrorism,” Foreign Office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar told Newsweek. “The education of girls is part of our expectations and they should take rational steps toward this,” he added.
But with China knocking on its door, the Afghan government is increasingly unwilling to accept the West’s preconditions for recognition of its rule. Spokesman Zabiullah said he was optimistic that trade with Beijing would produce economic opportunities that would assuage the impact of U.S. sanctions on Kabul. “We want trade and economic ties with China and with our other bordering neighbors and are ready to become part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),” he said, hoping this would generate employment opportunities in the country.
Part of China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative, CPEC is a multi-billion dollar infrastructure development project that aims to promote regional connectivity and trade. Both China and Pakistan have expressed willingness to include Afghanistan in the initiative, with State Minister for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar telling Newsweek that it was a plank of Sino-Pak ties. “Our position on CPEC is clear,” she said. “Messages have been sent loud and clear that CPEC and our relation with China remain a top priority and there should be no slackness in the regard,” she added.
To achieve this, however, both Pakistan and China require a stable and secure Afghan that is no longer beset by insurgency. “A peaceful and stable Afghanistan is essential for cross-regional connectivity, and is of vital importance for Pakistan in the context of our refocus on geo-economics,” said Foreign Office spokesperson Iftikhar. “China and Pakistan are open to extending CPEC/BRI to Afghanistan,” he said, adding that any opportunity to restore durable peace and stability in Afghanistan should be welcomed.
“Our objective through the six countries’ format is to forge a regional consensus on addressing the challenges confronting Afghanistan, including the imminent humanitarian and economic crises, and to ensure long term peace and development in Afghanistan,” he stressed.
Filling the gap
Foreign policy experts believe it is inevitable for China to fill the vacuum created by the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, as geopolitical alignments shift in the new Cold War brewing between Washington and Beijing. Former Pakistani diplomat, Asif Durrani, told Newsweek that China has long desired access to Afghanistan’s rare earth minerals. “As far as the U.S. is concerned, it is out of Afghanistan. Even the South Asian region on a larger context, as India abstained on the Ukraine issue. China is a more backable ally than Americans,” he said.
Describing it as “bizarre” for the U.S. to demand an inclusive democracy under the Taliban, he questioned why this stance had not been reflected previously. “Were Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai democratic? They were parachuted and became presidents because Americans wanted them to be. So where was democracy?” he said, adding that even the demands for women’s rights were hypocritical, as the U.S. did not have similar demands for Saudi Arabia despite the Gulf kingdom’s repressive laws.
He said that the U.S. also could not absolve itself of the mess it had left behind in Afghanistan. “The trump card the U.S. can use is human rights and women’s rights but what about the rights of millions it trampled worldwide? Americans have killed half a million people in Afghanistan and Iraq and similarly in Libya and Syria,” he said.
Similarly, former diplomat Khurshid Kasuri said that the sole barrier to Afghanistan joining CPEC was security concerns. “China has long harbored an interest in Afghanistan’s untapped reserves of natural resources, but the security situation in the country has prevented further investments and procurement,” he told Newsweek.
Afghanistan has vast reserves of untapped rare earth minerals—lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, and veins of aluminum, gold, silver, zinc, mercury, and lithium—with some estimates placing their value at $3 trillion. These resources are increasingly vital for the global economy, as they are essential components in a wide range of electronics, from electric vehicles to satellites and aircrafts. Even prior to the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government, China was amongst Afghanistan’s top 5 trading partners—fifth in terms of exports, and fourth in imports.
According to spokesperson Zabiullah, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s unannounced visit to Kabul in March had developed an “understanding” that Beijing would help exploit Afghanistan’s resources. “Exploitation of rare earth minerals in Afghanistan is a chance to end our economic woes and raise our living standards,” he said.
Among recent confidence-building measures undertaken by China and Afghanistan is a meeting of foreign ministers of Kabul’s neighbors—Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan—hosted by Beijing. The Taliban have also pledged to take constructive measures, including reviving the long-pending Mes Aynak cooper mine, whose lease was granted to the China Metallurgical Group for $3 billion in 2007.
Not out yet
Arwin Rahi, a former adviser to the governor of Afghanistan’s Parwan province, told Newsweek that despite China’s overtures, the U.S. still exercised a considerable amount of influence through its foreign aid; the dollar as global currency; the World Bank; the IMF; and sanctions. “Obviously, it’s better to have a base on the ground, but the U.S. has other capabilities to gather intelligence in Afghanistan and strike targets at will, should it choose to do so,” he said. “The bottom line is: the U.S. influence has declined, but it certainly is still an important player in the region.”
This is borne out by statistics; the U.S. has remained the single-largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan even after the Taliban’s return to power, committing over $700 million in aid.
Referring to the Aynak copper mine in Logar, whose contract was also awarded to China, Rahi said it reflected the timelines at work. “Fourteen years have passed since [the deal was inked], but no copper has been extracted yet,” he said, adding that while the Chinese would undoubtedly like to link Afghanistan to CPEC, it remained to be seen whether or not Afghans were ready to avail themselves of this opportunity.