From free rider to engine driver in Afghanistan?

Uwe Hoering, July 2021

The pull-out of their armed forces by the U.S. and other NATO allies, the escalation of violence, and the spectre of indirect or direct rule by the Taliban have triggered a flurry of diplomatic activity by neighbouring countries, both near and far. These include regional heavyweights such as India, Pakistan and Iran, Russia and China. Fuelling just as much speculation is how the new, as yet uncertain, situation might unfold. After all, the withdrawal will make the country an epicentre for regional power struggles.

Afghanistan is at the intersection of economic and political interests. It has raw materials. And it is the hub for energy and transport corridors, both in the east-west direction with the ‘Belt’ between Xinjiang and Europe, and from south to north: India, for example, is desperately seeking an answer to Belt&Road with the transport corridor NSTC. The new situation therefore evokes all kinds of conflicting ambitions. A prerequisite for realizing these intentions and influencing Afghanistan’s future would be a government in Kabul that could organize the distribution of benefits internally and internationally. At the moment, however, no one would probably be willing to bet on such a stable regime.

Beijing under pressure to make a move

In the imaginative games about the future, the focus is, not surprisingly, on the spectre of China. There is no question that the withdrawal poses a new challenge to Beijing’s national and regional security and economic ambitions in particular: Until now, China, which even shares a small piece of border with Afghanistan, has been labelled a ‘free rider’ that has allowed its economic interests (mining, oil) to be secured by NATO forces. Behind the scenes, however, Beijing apparently long ago became an active player in finding solutions to the messy state of affairs.

The present cancellation of the one-trillion-dollar intervention adventure, which has also cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused enormous suffering among refugees, is now forcing Beijing to pay more attention. After the military coup in Myanmar, another conflict zone is opening up here, throwing up obstacles to China’s expansionist ambitions in the region.

Observers cite Beijing’s worries about a rise in Islamist forces in the western Chinese province of Xinxiang, for example through Uyghur fighters based in Afghanistan, as one reason for greater engagement in Afghanistan. In addition, there are concerns about the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. In neighbouring Pakistan, in particular, opposition to the large-scale CPEC is growing; there have been a number of attacks on symbols of Chinese presence, such as the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan Province or Chinese diplomatic missions.

Cooperation despite conflicting interests?

But Beijing is by no means the only player, let alone strong enough to bring about stabilization on its own. All the major regional actors have their fingers and pawns in the game: Pakistan is propping up the Taliban, despite claims to the contrary. India, in its feeble plans for alternatives to BRI in Central Asia, has so far relied on the current Afghan government, which is now on the way out. Moscow would like to consolidate and expand its own influence in Central Asia, bloody experience notwithstanding.

But perhaps the interest of neighbouring countries in stabilization, on the other hand, is sufficiently strong to turn competitors into allies. There are certainly hopes that Beijing will play a more active and substantial role. The challenge is to reconcile its own interests with those of its neighbours in a regional dialogue. Nota bene: Neither Europe nor the United States will probably be able to play a role in this.

Instead, a key position is opening up for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), originally a security alliance that initiator Beijing would like to expand into an economic partnership. It has the invaluable advantage that, as a regional organization, it includes all countries that play a role in setting the course for the country’s future. However, its effectiveness is still limited, according to widespread opinion, because interests are drifting apart.

And if you are not willing …

At the same time, the Belt& Road perception of bringing peace and prosperity through economic development and political cooperation is under scrutiny. Such a process will take time, and the conditions for it are deteriorating. This is why Beijing has long since adopted a Plan B that includes the deployment of private paramilitary security services in regions where Chinese investments and citizens are at risk. Simultaneously, it is expanding military cooperation in particularly important countries such as Pakistan. Chris Devonshire-Ellis, an enthusiastic supporter of the Belt&Road, even speculates on a joint peacekeeping force of China, Russia, and Pakistan. Despite protestations of not wanting to interfere in internal affairs: The downhill slope is becoming more slippery for Beijing to slide into military adventures.

Translated with (free version)

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