Afghanistan: The Chinese Ultimatum

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May 4, 2021: China has some very large investments planned for Afghanistan. China increased its economic aid after 2014 and pledged billions for the development of a copper mining complex. This was derailed at the end of 2020 when Afghanistan arrested ten Chinese citizens and accused them of being MSS (Ministry of State Security) agents seeking to establish and maintain links with Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan. China denied that and demanded an apology and repatriation of the ten Chinese. The Afghans refused and soon revealed their evidence. Chinese agents were already working with the Haqqani Network to find Turkish (Uighur) Chinese in Afghanistan and report their presence to the Afghan police, who had been cooperating to extradite any Uighurs illegally in Afghanistan back to China. Most of these Uighurs were refugees but some had joined Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda, which often operates alongside the Taliban. The MSS team had been operating in Afghanistan since 2014, or even earlier. In addition to finding Uighurs, the MSS was also monitoring the capabilities of Islamic terror groups in Afghanistan.

After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, China refused to replace Russia as the Sugar Daddy for North Korea, Cuba and individual terror groups everywhere. China will deal with corrupt governments, but only if it's profitable for China. That’s the main reason the Chinese will not deal with Islamic terrorists. The Chinese have no illusions about Islamic terrorists being ignorant, delusional religious zealots. China will not do business in a country that has not got its Islamic terrorism problems under control. Pakistan qualifies, and that was because for the last seven years Pakistan has been making war on most Islamic terrorists within its borders. This dependence on China for weapons and massive investments means Pakistan is less able to support the Taliban as they did in the 1990s, when they literally created the Taliban and provided military necessities like weapons, ammo and advisors during the subsequent civil war.

The current Afghan government is much stronger than it was in the 1990s and the current government sides with the majority of Afghans who oppose the Taliban and the drug gangs. China also refuses to tolerate illegal drug production. This makes the drug gangs nervous, because they have been a major supplier (of cash) to the Taliban since the 1990s. That has to worry the Taliban, or at least the more rational ones, because the drug gangs are run by Pushtuns as is the Taliban, and Pushtuns, as a group, follow family or clan interests before anything else. The drug gangs will offer to switch sides before they will back another Taliban attempt to conquer the entire country. With the drug gangs their goal is making money, for the Taliban it is religious fanaticism.

China is tempted by the trillions of dollars’ worth of natural resources in Afghanistan, but so far has found that the Afghans are too corrupt and unreliable to do business with. Another negative about Afghanistan is that it is a major source of heroin and other drugs that China will not tolerate. The few nations that have let a local narcotics operation get too big risks turning into a narco-state and that never turns out well for the nation in question. China continues to remind Afghanistan that China will always stand ready to do business with nations that can provide law and order in return.

When you agree to Chinese terms, anything is possible. For example, China and Iran recently signed a 25-year military-economic cooperation deal that will make Iran as dependent on China as Pakistan already is. Iran has an alternative to China in India, which Iran maintains good diplomatic and economic relations with. China and India are locked in a bitter and increasingly violent border dispute. In this case geography and history matter as Iran and India have been trading and interacting for thousands of years while China was a distant mystery on the other side of the world’s highest mountains. One of the India-Iran historical interactions was joint control of Afghanistan when the ancient Silk Road caravan route between China and the rest of Eurasia was a valuable economic link between strangers.

China has leverage, but not control, over Pakistan and Iran. If China opposes another Taliban attempt to take control of the entire country, chances of Taliban success decline to miniscule levels. Pakistan and Iran understand that and crack down effectively on any such Islamic terrorists. Afghanistan has not demonstrated similar capabilities yet and will get no Chinese investments until they do.

As if to prove the Chinese assessment of terrorism in Afghanistan, since May 1st Taliban attacks have increased to over a hundred a day. This has led to more casualties for the Taliban than for the security forces and nearby civilians. The Taliban were trying to show their anger at the U.S. moving their departure date from May 1st to September 11. The Taliban are trying to make a point but don’t realize they are making the wrong point, often to the wrong people.

May 3, 2021: The Taliban suspended planned negotiations with the government. No great loss there because government negotiators expected these talks to begin with demands that the government submit to Taliban rule or face destruction. The current government has a more realistic analysis how things are going to work out. The main reason the government agreed to negotiations is to make it easier for more cooperative Taliban factions to work with the government against the drug gangs and Pakistani interference. Twenty-five years ago, the government the Soviets have left behind in 1989 had finally succumbed in 1992, mainly because the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the end of economic and military aid that left that government with Kabul, and not much else under their control. This time American and other donors plan to continue their economic and military aid after all foreign troops are gone, but only if the current government continues to resist domination by the Taliban and drug gangs. The post-1989 Afghan government had to face rebels who were viewed as heroes throughout the Moslem world and to much of the non-Moslem world. Not so today, where Islamic terrorism is condemned and opposed everywhere. Same with the drug gangs.

May 1, 2021: Since the February 2020 ceasefire deal between the Taliban and the United States, the Taliban sought to reduce casualties among the remaining foreign troops, while increasing their attacks on civilians and Afghan security forces. Some Taliban seemed surprised that local civilians quickly organized armed defense militias. That sort of resistance is nothing new and has become more common over the years. The official Taliban line is that people are now more willing to submit.

April 30, 2021: Despite all the Taliban threats, and increased violence, the economic continues to grow. While GDP declined five percent in 2020, that was due to the worldwide covid19 recession. That has abated and economic activity is growing worldwide. Afghanistan is on its way to three percent GDP growth in 2021 and four percent in 2022.

April 28, 2021: Afghan defense officials revealed that they are negotiating with foreign equipment maintenance firms to replace some of the current contractors that are leaving because Western troops will be gone by September. The Afghans have to persuade the foreign firms that their personnel will be safe. While the U.S. does not forbid Americans from being in Afghanistan after September, they warn that Americans in Afghanistan will be prime targets for kidnappers and killers, usually of the Islamic terrorist variety. Foreign contractors can demand “danger pay” but the Afghans may not be able to afford that because they are dependent on foreign aid, mainly from the United States. The aid comes with the warning that if the U.S. determines that the aid is being misused it will stop. The Afghans will protest that without the aid the government and Afghans will suffer. That is an argument that has less impact now because foreign aid donors have learned that it is not worthwhile to send money to areas that steal most of it when there are other disaster areas that use the money more effectively. Countries like Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, that are perpetually rated the most corrupt in the world, have found that they are literally being cut off from access to foreign aid. During the Cold War Russia or the U.S. would often be willing to donate in return to access to countries abandoned by foreign aid donors. That no longer works. One reason Russia lost half its population and a third of its territory with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 was the amount of cash that was used to prop up foreign states that were not worth it. That included North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and a many more nations considered the most corrupt and unreliable.

At the moment the Afghans have to deal with another Taliban attempt to conquer the entire country. The Afghan government believes the Taliban is in a weaker position than they were 25 years ago when first tried it. That prospect has already divided the Taliban even more than in the past.

April 14, 2021: The United States has changed its Afghanistan departure deadline from May 1st to September 11, 2021. This new departure date us symbolic as it is two decades after the al Qaeda terror attacks in the United States that triggered the invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for al Qaeda leaders and Islamic terrorists in general.

The departure might still be delayed or cancelled but it has been underway for over a year and heavy equipment of the last 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan is already being packed up and shipped out. The remaining American troops have closed their bases and are now living in Afghan bases. The Afghan Taliban are confident that they will be able to overthrow the current elected Afghan government and once more have an opportunity to conquer the entire country. While those ambitions are not a sure thing, nations adjacent to Afghanistan are taking measures to protect themselves.

Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Central Asian nations all have different plans for handling another Taliban attempt to take over Afghanistan. Pakistan, or at least the military, believes they still have sufficient clout to compel the Taliban to follow orders and not create another Islamic terrorist sanctuary. Not all the military leaders are so confident and most elected politicians see a resurgent Afghan Taliban as a disaster for Pakistan. One aspect of this is Pakistan spending a lot of money to reinforce border security with Afghanistan, making everyone more dependent on the few legal crossing points. These crossings are based on a good road and staffed with border guards and customs officials who enforce whatever the current rules are about who or what can go either way and how much you have to pay, legally or illegally. The Iran border is even more dangerous if the Taliban try to take control of western Afghanistan or continue attacking Shia Afghans. Iran is the largest and most powerful Shia majority nation in the world and takes that status very seriously and violently when Shia are attacked in neighboring countries. Unlike the 1990s, Iran now has lots of combat veterans defending the Afghan border. There are also Afghan Shia militias inside Afghanistan that are loyal to Iran, or at least to protecting Afghan Shia. These militias contain thousands of Afghan Shia veterans of service as Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Iran also has a newly built port for landlocked Afghanistan, and Central Asia, to use. India supplied the money and Iran the territory for a highway and railway going from western Afghanistan to a new Indian ocean port near the Pakistani border. That makes it more difficult for Pakistan to threaten Afghanistan with loss of road access to the outside world if the Afghans do not comply with Pakistani demands.

The Afghan Taliban is trying to play Iran and Pakistan against each other but that has proved difficult because Iran considers the Taliban a Pakistan controlled operation and Iran has manipulated the Taliban rather than been threatened by them.

Meanwhile the local coalition that prevented the original 1990s Taliban from conquering the entire country is now stronger and more determined. This Northern Alliance (of northern non-Pushtun tribes) were the first to publicize, before 2001, the presence of Pakistanis in the Taliban and the control Pakistan always had over the Taliban. That support became more obvious after 2001 when Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Taliban leadership in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), something the Taliban were unable to hide given the number of prominent Taliban living openly in the Baluchistan capital. In 2021 the Afghan Taliban are seen as dependent on Pakistan and the Afghan drug gangs to survive. One thing most Afghans can agree on is that Pakistan and the drug gangs are not good for Afghanistan.

 

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