China to cushion Taliban from Western sanctions

MK Bhadrakumar

This week will stand out as a pivotal moment in Joe Biden’s presidency. It has been a humble moment yet bold and decisive, farsighted but tactical, and focused on America’s self-interests.

It underscores that the United States’ capacity to force its will on other countries – or even non-state actors – has dramatically diminished.

To Biden’s detractors and critics, this might seem a moment of weakness – that CIA director William Burns had to travel to Kabul to seek a concession from the Taliban leadership to extend the August 31 deadline for the evacuations at Kabul Airport, which Taliban political chief Mullah Ghani Baradar plainly refused.

Nonetheless, Biden belongs to the pantheon of world statesmen who have shown the ability to make difficult decisions and hold the line. He is utterly convinced that continuing the war in Afghanistan would damage America’s priorities of national regeneration.

Indeed, a confrontation with the Taliban in Kabul in this fading light of a twilight zone would have been sheer madness. The consummate politician in Biden also would have calculated the desirability of quickly ending the high drama of Afghan evacuation from the news cycles back home.

Besides, the evacuation itself was fast turning into a highly dangerous gambit – with Islamic State (ISIS) lurking around the airport.

Thus, on August 31, the Taliban will occupy Kabul International Airport. Meanwhile, they will no longer allow the brain drain of highly skilled professionals – doctors, engineers, etc. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has called on the West not to encourage the educated elite to flee.

The departure of Western troops on August 31 will be followed by the formation of a new government by the Taliban, an inclusive government with the widest possible representation. Undoubtedly, the Taliban are in the driver’s seat.

One of the items in the five-point plan British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put forward while convening a special Group of Seven leaders’ meeting on Tuesday regarding Afghanistan was “developing a clear plan for dealing with the new Afghan regime in a unified and concerted way.”

Johnson claimed after the meeting that the G7 “has very considerable leverage – economic, diplomatic and political.” The G7 seems to be opting for a policy of incentivizing the Taliban with carrots and sticks – humanitarian aid, international recognition, etc – with a view to retaining a measure of influence in Kabul.

The G7 statement after the meeting affirmed “a renewed humanitarian effort by the international community.” It says: “To this end we support the UN in coordinating the immediate international humanitarian response in the region, including unfettered humanitarian access in Afghanistan, and will contribute collectively to that response.

“As part of that, we will cooperate together and with neighboring and other countries in the region on supporting Afghan refugees and host communities as part of a coordinated long-term regional response. We call on all partners of Afghanistan to support this effort and wider regional stability through multilateral channels.”

This is smart thinking. However, there are strong undercurrents, as the statement by European Council President Charles Michel after the G7 leaders’ meeting testifies.

Significantly, the statement concludes by flagging the lessons “to draw from what happened in Afghanistan. These events show, that developing our strategic autonomy, while keeping our alliances as strong as ever, is of the utmost importance, for the future of Europe. In due time, I will propose a discussion on this question to my fellow leaders of the European Council.”

To be sure, the Taliban will not be cowed by the threat of Western sanctions. They are riding a nationalistic wave. They want to avoid the entrapment of the 1990s. They are in discussion with China – and Pakistan, of course.

Beijing is highly receptive. Therefore, what China expects becomes crucial. On Tuesday, Pakistani National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf had a call with his Chinese counterpart Zhao Kezhi, state councilor and the minister and party committee secretary of the Ministry of Public Security (the Chinese intelligence agency).

Yusuf later tweeted: “Pleasure to speak to my Chinese counterpart, Excellency Zhao Kezhi, on ways to further strengthen our bilateral relationship. We discussed the situation in Afghanistan and agreed to maintain close coordination, including countering spoilers. We are moving fwd with a joint vision.”

There was a time when Yusuf would have had “close coordination” with Jake Sullivan, national security adviser in the White House, on a “joint vision” regarding Afghanistan, but no more.

So, what does Beijing want? Hu Xijin, the influential editor-in-chief of Global Times, has written: “First, they [Taliban] draw a clear line against the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces that pursue ‘Xinjiang independence,’ and they do not support any activities aimed at destabilizing China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

“Second, they form an open, inclusive and broadly representative government, bringing a complete end to the civil strife for a permanent peace. They should also contribute to ease the regional situation and promote the well-being of the Afghan people, providing no more pretexts for possible future interventions by outside forces.

“Third, they keep distance from the US and other forces that turn out to be hostile to China. They should refuse to act as a pawn for those forces to jeopardize China’s strategic interests. Instead, we hope they are committed to developing friendly and cooperative relations with China and other neighboring countries and integrating into the common cause of regional peace and development.

“Fourth, they promote the moderation of basic domestic social policies, boost the development of human rights, protect the rights of women and children, and turn Afghanistan into a moderate Islamic country.”

Beijing is almost certain to provide a firewall for the Taliban government against Western pressures. Put differently, the US influence in Afghanistan has touched ground zero. 

Yusuf’s reference to “spoilers” and Hu’s advice that the Taliban government should “keep distance from the US and other forces that turn out to be hostile to China” should be carefully noted.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements are also lately warning against “using terrorism to seek geopolitical gains by force” and calling on regional countries to “work together to eradicate all terrorist groups.”

Pakistan has handed over to the Taliban leadership a list of wanted terrorists. Islamabad’s move to publicize the highly sensitive conversation with China’s intelligence czar carries a loud message – that the two countries’ national security interests overlap and a joint effort is in the cards to roll back inimical forces.