On the surface, the U.S. had a humiliating defeat, dashing out of Afghanistan after twenty years and $2 trillion. Worse, the same Taliban that the U.S. defeated in a few weeks in 2001 have now taken over the country after 20 years of terrorism and war of attrition. Sort of like the Vietnam War. From a geopolitical point of view, Pakistan and China have emerged victoriously. The Chinese state media have been gloating about America’s defeat. Is this another nail in the coffin of the American Century? Is this the beginning of China’s dominance of Central Asia and beyond? Not so fast.
How China Played Kingmaker
First, it’s not a coincidence that the Taliban visited China in late July and then Kabul and other provincial capitals fell quickly without a single shot. Consider that Afghanistan is larger than France (in area) and has 35 million people. And it took just 75,000 Taliban guys with guns and pickup trucks to conquer the entire country?
And why didn’t the 300,000 soldiers in the Afghan military fight back? The narrative simply doesn’t add up.
It’s more than likely that the Chinese government gave the Taliban suitcases full of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, which were used to bribe the top military and police leaders in Afghanistan. This is how deals are done in China — for example, the chairman of a large state-owned bank in China got $250 million in bribes and had closets full of cash. (For more info, lookup Prof. Yuen Yuen Ang’s articles and videos on China’s “corrupt meritocracy.”)
Bribing the Taliban was a great investment for China, which not only embarrassed the U.S. but now will have a lot of leverage over Afghanistan, a strategic neighbor. In addition to the cash, China would help the Taliban get U.N. recognition and block U.S. actions at the U.N. Security Council.
In return, the Taliban promised to kick Uyghur separatists out of Afghanistan and join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Win-win.
Note: China’s cleverness and hypocrisy in bonding with the Taliban are quite astonishing. First, China doesn’t accept refugees from Afghanistan, not even a few thousand. The xenophobia and Islamophobia of the Chinese government are also illogical, considering that China’s labor force is shrinking and the CCP is asking people to have three children. Second, consider how China puts Uyghurs in re-education camps for “offenses” like having a Koran, growing beards, wearing burqas etc. Third, students in Hong Kong are charged as terrorists by the CCP for just online comments — when the Taliban have literally killed tens of thousands of people through terrorist attacks.
Of course, the Taliban are also playing the double game. They hate the communist Chinese “kuffars” and would love to replicate their Islamic Emirate in Xinjiang — the so-called East Turkestan.
Best-case Scenario for China
In the ideal situation, Afghanistan will become a strategic link between China and Iran. There will be oil/gas pipelines and highways through Afghanistan; and China will get lucrative deals to extract $1 trillion worth of copper, iron ore, Lithium, oil/gas, and rare earth minerals. The Taliban will be happy with their Sharia Law and all the commissions they get from China while doing no work.
Ergo, Xi Jinping and Baradar (co-founder of Taliban and the presumed state leader) will happily live ever after.
While that sounds like a paradise, here are some hard realities that will make those plans wishful thinking:
Reality #1: Dependence on the U.S./E.U.
The Afghan government depends on the West for 50-60% of the budget — the aid comes through IMF and the World Bank. So, unless China is willing to fork out $3-$4 billion a year, the Taliban government will have to listen to the West in key issues.
Then there are U.S. sanctions which can cripple the new Taliban government and isolate it. The US can also weaken the Afghan currency and cause economic pains.
You can get rid of American soldiers but you still have to bow to American bankers.
Finally, the current political leader of the Taliban was in Pakistani prison from 2010-2018 and was released by the USA. Below is a photo of Baradar with Pompeo in Qatar. So, probably the CIA still has some leverage with him.
Reality #2: Poverty, Corruption, Opium, Terrorism
Afghanistan has a lot of problems, which won’t go away quickly, if ever at all. Half the population lives on $1 or less per day. Corruption is endemic and only 60% of the adults are literate. The Sharia Law under the Taliban will only exacerbate poverty since half the population (women) will have a tough time going to school or work. The Taliban was dependent on narcotics (opium/heroin) for about a third of its “revenue.” None of these structural problems and criminal activities are going to disappear.
After 40 years of terrorism, Afghanistan is full of terrorist groups. The Taliban fighters who were blowing up bridges, schools and hospitals for the last 20 years are not going to become shopkeepers or civil servants. Most will likely join other terrorist groups, since that’s the only lifestyle they know. The suicide bombing at Kabul airport on Aug 26 is a confirmation that terrorism will continue to plague and define Afghanistan’s future,
Reality #3: Factions and Puppet Masters
Just like any other group, there is a spectrum of Taliban leaders. Some are religious hardliners, some are hardcore terrorists (like the Haqqani network), and some are willing to compromise to get international recognition. The moderate group has been in charge of the propaganda so far — hence the claims such as “inclusive government” and “women can go to work” etc. But, in reality, the Taliban are still like Neanderthal men who have already banned music in public and are spray-painting posters of women’s faces in Kabul:
The Taliban will also be pulled in all directions by different countries.
While Pakistan has the most influence, it also creates a lot of resentment. Pakistan funded, armed, and trained the Taliban for decades hoping to acquire a vassal state. Without the safe haven in Pakistan, the Taliban would not have survived. The Taliban would attack the US soldiers in Afghanistan and run across the border into Pakistan. Pakistani cities like Quetta and Peshawar have been “Taliban Central” for two decades. In such Pakistani cities, Taliban leaders live in security, wounded Taliban militants get treated in hospitals, and dead Taliban terrorists get grand funerals. Not surprisingly, Taliban recently said that “Pakistan is our second home.”
Here’s a 12-min documentary — Jihad 101 — on madrassas (Islamic schools) in Pakistan that are incubators of jihadists.
Mosques, NGOs, and charities in Pakistan funnel hundreds of millions of dollars from Gulf States and elsewhere to recruit, mold, train, and arm the Taliban (and also similar groups to fight in Kashmir). As Wikileaks showed a decade ago, Pakistani intelligence services regularly met with Taliban leaders and helped them plot attacks on U.S. soldiers, bombings of embassies, and assassinations of Afghan leaders. And all this happened when Pakistan was receiving billions of dollars of aid from the USA.
Soon, other countries like China, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, and Russia will also be micromanaging the Taliban to various degrees.
Needless to say, decision-making will be chaotic and difficult.
Reality #4: Natural Resources aren’t Easy to Exploit
Afghanistan may be the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium” but extraction won’t be easy. In 2007, China signed a $3 billion contract for a copper mine in Afghanistan and even made a security deal with the Taliban in 2016, but nothing came out of it. The natural resources in Afghanistan are in rugged terrain and the country lacks basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water. Add corruption and terrorism, the entire idea becomes a pie in the sky. It will take 10, 20 or 30 years … if the country remains stable. (Afghanistan is the 3rd most corrupt country in the world. For example, the transportation ministry collected $300 million one year and gave the government only $30 million).
Reality #5: Anti-Taliban Population and Groups
Taliban does not control the entire country still. Panjshir Valley is still independent and fiercely anti-Taliban. The leader of Northern Alliance even wrote an op-ed in Washington Post, asking for U.S. support.
Well, guerrilla warfare is a low-cost and easy strategy to ruin a government. So, whatever the Taliban did to the Americans for the last 20 years, can now be turned against the Taliban. With a few million dollars per year, the U.S. can support these groups to make the Taliban life miserable.
Also, the new generation of Afghans born and raised under the American-style society over the last 20 years are not going to easily accept the Sharia Law and other restrictions.
Note that, while the U.S. gets a lot of bad rap, Afghanistan’s population doubled in the last 20 years, life expectancy grew by 9 years, child mortality fell by 50%, and millions of girls were able to attend schools.
Reality #6: Al Qaeda, Uyghur Militants and others
Taliban and Al Qaeda came out of the Mujahideen movement of the 1980s. The former stayed home and the latter went abroad. But they are closely linked by ideology, experience, and even marriages. Similarly, the Uyghur separatists (ETIM and TIP) have been fighting alongside of Al Qaeda for the last seven years in Syria.
While Taliban 2.0 won’t be able to invite Al Qaeda and ETIM for dinner at the new palace, there will be secret channels to continue the relationship. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border will continue to be a jihadist haven that has even foreign groups like ISIS.
Then there are other terrorist groups in Pakistan — like TTP (Pakistani Taliban) and BLA (Balochistan Liberation Army). These groups have been targeting Chinese projects for the last couple of years and they will only intensify. Just this year, they have killed 10 Chinese workers, halted a dam project, and came close to killing the Chinese ambassador. Ironically, these anti-China terrorist groups will be inspired by Taliban’s success.
The China dream of infrastructure and Central Asian dominance won’t enjoy smooth sailing. In fact, China’s entire economic empire — the Belt and Road Initiative — might end up as a costly mistake. Post WW2, America invested in Japan and Germany, two industrial nations with proven efficiency, rule of law, smart population, and successful past. Those turned out to be exemplary investments. However, China is lending big money to developing nations full of corruption, poverty, and instability. This is unsustainable. Venezuela has been a big flop for China; Sri Lanka was textbook debt trap diplomacy; many African countries are reeling under Chinese debt; and Afghanistan will likely become a financial trap. Or even a geopolitical and military trap.