Afghanistan as a Site of U.S.-China Competition

By Colin P. Clarke, Mollie Saltskog
Friday, February 17, 2023, 8:16 AM

The chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country thereafter ushered in a host of geopolitical challenges for South and Central Asia. The resulting power vacuum in Afghanistan could lead the country to become a safe haven for transnational terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, much like it did prior to the 9/11 attacks. Despite assurances about the United States’s “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capabilities, the lack of boots on the ground in the country and no military basing in the region raise questions about Washington’s ability to deal with terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan. And perhaps for the first time in two decades, countries in the region are grappling with a scenario in which the absence of American troops makes them, as well as their interests, potentially less safe, too.

In an era of increased strategic competition between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), some analysts have pointed to the withdrawal as potentially benefiting U.S. adversaries. But the picture is more complicated. The United States and its allies refuse to recognize the Taliban-led government, as have all other countries worldwide. However, authoritarians in Moscow and Beijing were quick to engage the Taliban and pledge economic aid to advance their own goals in ways that were tangible but that fall short of formal recognition. Still, due to high-profile terrorist attacks against foreign interests, Russia, China, and Pakistan, in particular, are coming to terms with a more dangerous Afghanistan. Even as the Russians, Chinese, and Pakistanis are welcome guests of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there are other subnational entities operating throughout the country, in particular, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K). Accordingly, the Taliban do not have a monopoly on the use of violence and in many cases are unable to successfully combat the growing threat of terrorism from other violent non-state actors.

The Taliban’s struggle with conducting counterinsurgency has been evident from the moment U.S. forces withdrew in August 2021. For the past year and a half, Taliban security forces have been plagued by a low-intensity yet persistent IS-K insurgency. On Jan. 11, a suicide bomber launched a terrorist attack targeting the Afghan foreign ministry in Kabul. IS-K claimed responsibility for the attack that killed five and reportedly was also targeting a visiting delegation of Chinese officials. The incident was the latest in a string of IS-K-orchestrated attacks targeting embassies and hotels housing foreign delegations in the country. IS-K has already attacked Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani targets in Afghanistan. Even though the Taliban have emphasized their determination to root out terrorist organizations, especially IS-K, the current security situation complicates such efforts. From the perspective of regional powers, but especially Beijing, filling the power vacuum left behind by the U.S. withdrawal will remain untenable if the Taliban remain unable to defeat IS-K and provide at least a modicum of security throughout Afghanistan.

The PRC’s Primary Interest in Afghanistan: Security  

The primary interest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as it relates to Afghanistan is to ensure stability and security in the broader Central Asian region and in China’s western provinces. In July 2022, during the International Conference on Afghanistan in Uzbekistan, the PRC special envoy opened his speech with: “I believe strongly, as you would all do, that the situation in Afghanistan today matters a lot to humanity, and to regional and global security and stability, in spite of many other changes in the world.” President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have issued similar statements calling for prioritizing peace, security, and stability in Afghanistan. Prior to the U.S. withdrawal in 2021, the CCP was already acutely aware of the potential security implications of a diminished U.S.-led security guarantee in the region. In 2019, the Washington Post revealed the presence of a PRC military outpost in Tajikistan, which had reportedly been active for around three years and sought to allow access to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. 

Since then, the CCP has laid the groundwork for constructing additional border outposts in Tajikistan in furtherance of safeguarding the porous border with Afghanistan against jihadist terrorists that Beijing believes are determined to attack China. Over the past decade, Beijing has expanded its security footprint in the region under the guise of counterterrorism, with an aim of protecting its investments and infrastructure that underpin the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This has been done through a combination of bilateral training and security agreements, as well as multilateral forums, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO, a PRC and Russia-led regional security forum, has enabled the CCP to increase its diplomatic and military efforts in Central Asia, which serve to expand Beijing’s security footprint in the region and project power beyond China’s borders.

The CCP views Central Asian states as a bulwark against the perceived terrorism threat posed by Uyghur jihadists with ties to separatists in Xinjiang, where security forces have incarcerated over 1 million ethnic minorities and committed egregious human rights abuses. We the authors remain highly skeptical of any claims by the CCP that transnational terrorist organizations maintain deep ties to alleged extremists in Xinjiang. In fact, in 2020, the Trump administration removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the U.S. State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations, citing “no credible evidence” of the group’s existence in the past decade. The PRC, by contrast, claims that the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) and ETIM are one and the same, and that the organization presents a potent threat in both capabilities and intent to attack mainland China. The plight of the Muslim minority Uyghur population in China, coupled with growing anti-Chinese sentiments in BRI countries like Pakistan, places Chinese nationals and Chinese business interests at risk in Afghanistan and the region. When China does find itself in the crosshairs of jihadist propaganda, as it has been recently with IS-K, the grievances are centered around China’s treatment of its Muslim minority population in Xinjiang.

The CCP has been vocal with the Taliban about its security interests and concerns about terrorists regrouping in the country. In 2021, PRC Foreign Minister Wang met with the Taliban’s political chief, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Tianjin. A readout of the meeting stated that the Taliban regime provided guarantees that it would “absolutely not allow any forces to do anything harmful to China in Afghanistan’ territory.” Yet will and capability are not the same thing. Even as the Taliban have attempted to clamp down on attacks in Afghanistan, their forces have repeatedly failed to do so. As such, Chinese and other foreign interests will remain vulnerable.

It is likely that the PRC’s global financial, political, and diplomatic clout is incentivizing the Taliban regime to attempt to rein in terrorist organizations it still exerts influence over in order to cultivate much-needed economic and trade opportunities for the country buckling under international sanctions. In July 2022, for example, the PRC announced it will waive 98 percent of import taxes on goods from Afghanistan and resume issuing visas. Wang has also repeatedly called for the United States and the international community to lift sanctions and unfreeze assets. 

The PRC’s Secondary Interest in Afghanistan: Economic Opportunities

The CCP’s economic goals in Afghanistan focus primarily on resource extraction of valuable minerals, especially rare earth minerals. Minerals that can be found across Afghanistan include iron, copper, and gold. But the country also sits on what is believed to be some of the world’s largest deposits of lithium—a rare earth mineral critical to developing technology for the green economy of the 21st century, such as electric vehicle batteries. These minerals could be a boon for the PRC’s development and provide a competitive advantage over the CCP’s strategic rivals in this area. The CCP will likely present mineral resource extraction to the Taliban as a win-win: It would offer the Taliban economic relief from international sanctions while giving the PRC access to critical resources needed for President Xi’s stated goal of leading a “global green industrial revolution.” 

The first commodities deal publicly unveiled between the Taliban regime and a foreign company was centered on oil extraction with a Chinese energy company, Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company (CAPEIC). There have also been reports that the Taliban are in talks with a PRC state-owned mining company, Jiangxi Copper, to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine in Logar province, which is estimated to house the world’s second-largest deposit of copper. Of note, both of these contracts had previously been agreed upon with PRC firms under the leadership of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and PRC firms and are now seemingly renegotiating such deals with the Taliban-led government. 

And while there seems to be great promise for China economically, experts have cautioned against overestimating the PRC’s opportunities in Afghanistan, particularly since there are still serious security issues in the country, including in provinces where natural resources are located. The chicken-and-egg dilemma endures: Extraction of these minerals is difficult, if not impossible, without security. To benefit from resources extracted, transportation infrastructure must exist, be reliable, and be secure from sabotage and attacks by any violent non-state actors. In addition, the previous contracts between PRC firms and the U.S.-backed Afghan government never materialized, likely due to a combination of structural, contractual, and financing issues, as well as widespread corruption and security concerns. 

It is thus, perhaps, more productive to see PRC economic investment in Afghanistan in the short term as a carrot for the Taliban to continue to mitigate any potential security threats emanating from terrorist organizations in the country. In the long run, the CCP likely hopes economic development will breed stability and security, along with lucrative resource extraction and potential trade deals. However, the PRC’s more immediate goal is likely to incentivize the Taliban to see eye to eye with Chinese security priorities, not only for mainland China but also for the region, as PRC investments span across Central Asia as well as neighboring Pakistan into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The Taliban’s Failure to Stabilize 

Despite the CCP’s concerted efforts to approach its relationship with the Taliban pragmatically, with economic incentives and a concrete security agenda, the reality of the current situation in Afghanistan is highly volatile. While blaming the U.S. and Western countries for the ongoing financial and humanitarian disaster in the country, the Taliban appear more focused on oppressing women’s and girls’ rights than on managing a modern economy and state. In 2021, Afghanistan ranked first of all countries worldwide on the Global Terrorism Index. This trend continued in 2022 under Taliban rule, with a string of deadly and devastating attacks targeting civilians, especially minorities. The Taliban are fighting a bloody insurgency on two fronts, one against IS-K and one against a coalition composed of the National Resistance Front and other former government-aligned groups. The recent targeting of foreign delegations in Kabul is a symptom of the ongoing security issues in the country. 

There are two primary reasons why the Taliban have failed to stabilize Afghanistan and, thus, are unable to ensure the safety of foreign delegations and investments. 

First, the Taliban’s long-standing relationship with terrorist organizations, especially al-Qaeda, means that Western countries, especially the U.S., will continue to launch counterterrorism strikes against targets in Afghanistan. The fact that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was in a safe house in central Kabul when he was killed in a U.S. drone strike speaks to the level of protection the Taliban still provide to al-Qaeda. A 2022 U.N. report assessed that al-Qaeda “enjoys greater freedom in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.” To some extent, the Taliban likely exert significant command and control over al-Qaeda, including dissuading them from planning and conducting external operations against a partner country of the Taliban. For example, it is likely not a coincidence that the Taliban, in 2021, reportedly relocated TIP (al-Qaeda affiliate) fighters stationed in the northern Badakhshan province bordering China. Experts such as Lucas Webber have noted the difference in threats and vitriol of TIP propaganda targeting the CCP during the 2008 Summer Olympics as compared to the 2022 Winter Olympic games in China. The most pressing question related to the Taliban’s relationship with transnational terrorist organizations is how long they could remain loyal to the Taliban and how long the Taliban will enjoy full control over the planning of external operations of these groups.

Second, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch, IS-K, is currently waging a relentless insurgency against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. IS-K has proved capable of orchestrating deadly terrorist attacks throughout Afghanistan, including targeting Taliban leaders and foreign delegations. According to the U.N., between August and December 2021, IS-K conducted 152 attacks in 16 provinces, compared with 20 attacks in five provinces during the same period in 2020. This trend continued in 2022, with IS-K waging a terrorism campaign that included targeting of religious minorities in Afghanistan, such as the Shiite Hazara community. There are also reports of IS-K attempting to capitalize on ethnic divisions between the majority Pashtun Taliban to recruit ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Taliban are evidently either unwilling or unable to protect religious and ethnic minorities throughout the country. These attacks by IS-K are aimed at fueling sectarianism and tribalism that will further divide the country and likely produce more violence in the near future. 

The failure of the Taliban to stymie terrorist and insurgent activity, including that which threatens foreign delegations and neighboring countries, discredits the regime and jeopardizes its diplomatic and political relations with regional powers. The Jan. 11 attack, which targeted a PRC delegation outside the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the second attack in two months targeting Chinese nationals. On Dec. 12, 2022, IS-K claimed responsibility for the bombing of a hotel in Kabul, with a statement from the group saying that the targets were “Chinese communists and Taliban elements.” PRC nationals are not the only ones finding themselves targeted by IS-K; both the Russian and Pakistani embassies in Kabul were attacked in the latter half of 2022. Despite Taliban assurances, the violence emanating from Afghanistan has spilled over to neighboring countries. A report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies illustrates that cross-border attacks from Afghanistan militants and terrorist groups have increased since the Taliban takeover. In 2022, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan carried out 89 terrorist attacks in Pakistan. IS-K carried out at least 23 attacks in 2022, compared to eight in 2021. In April 2022, IS-K also claimed to have fired rockets into neighboring Uzbekistan (something both the Taliban and Uzbekistan have denied). 

As discussed, the CCP’s stated reason for engaging with the Taliban is to prevent security threats to mainland China and neighboring countries in Central and South Asia, where the PRC maintains a deep network of investments, interests, and citizens. With Chinese nationals now the target of two deadly attacks in the past two months, it seems apparent that PRC nationals, projects, and economic interests have been identified as an attractive target by IS-K, likely to delegitimize the Taliban leadership and hinder Sino-Afghan cooperation. Researchers have noted that, in 2022, IS-K started to specifically target “Chinese imperialism” in its rhetoric and propaganda publications. Moreover, regional spillover violence threatens PRC interests and could impact the CCP’s goodwill vis-a-vis the Taliban.

The Taliban’s security dilemma also has broader implications for the United States. Most apparent, as terrorist organizations continue to enjoy sanctuary in Afghanistan, the threat of renewed capabilities to target the U.S. and partners abroad increases. Geopolitically, if the CCP assesses that its security and economic interests in the region are threatened by the security situation in Afghanistan, the PRC will likely increase its security footprint in both South and Central Asia. An increased PRC security footprint in these regions brings with them a host of security issues, including a purely kinetic counterterrorism strategy centered around surveillance and oppression, emerging technology exports that prop up authoritarian strongmen, and increased political influence for the CCP in said countries.

Almost 18 months after the United States left Afghanistan, the lack of a U.S. security blanket in the country is becoming increasingly noticeable. As the strategic competition between the United States and the PRC intensifies, especially in the areas of energy, emerging and dual-use technologies, and research and development, so does the competition for resources. The security situation on the ground in Afghanistan is, however, complicating opportunities for resource extraction and trade, including threatening the PRC’s security posture in the country and the broader region. With ongoing volatility, Afghanistan will remain a denied environment for regional powers and neighboring countries alike. This will have direct consequences not only for countries like China but also for the broader U.S.-China strategic competition.