Opinion: China may end up being the biggest beneficiary of the Taliban power-grab in Afghanistan

Beijing can turn the unfolding situation in Afghanistan to its own advantage, argues Benyamin Poghosyan in this op-ed. Afghanistan has significant minerals, including rare earth metals, which China will be glad to import. Beijing could also include Afghanistan in the “Belt and Road initiative” and use it as another land route towards Iran and the Central Asian republics via Pakistan, and through Iran via Turkey or via Armenia–Georgia–Black Sea route to Europe.

The recent upheaval in Afghanistan has sent shock waves across many countries. Since the signature of the peace deal between President Trump's administration and the Taliban movement on 29 February 2020, many experts had argued that the Taliban will take power in Afghanistan at the end of the day. When President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, the countdown started. How long will it take for the Taliban to enter Kabul – two years, one year, maybe months? At the beginning of August, when the Taliban started to retake provincial capitals, the US intelligence community predicted that the Taliban might isolate Afghanistan's capital in 30 days and take it over within 90. However, what happened in the next few days surprised many, if not all. On 15 August, Afghanistan President Ghani fled the country, Taliban fighters entered the capital, and chaos emerged in Kabul international airport, as both foreigners and many locals sought to leave the country.

What are the consequences of the quick collapse of the Afghanistan government? Some pundits argue that this nightmare will have no negative implications for Washington, while the chaos in Afghanistan will soon become a headache for Russia and China. According to this perspective, Americans deliberately left Afghanistan in a disorganised fashion to put additional pressure on their main geopolitical rivals – Moscow and Beijing. Instability and terrorism will penetrate Central Asia, where both Russia and China have strategic interests. It will create another front for Russia in addition to problems in Syria, Ukraine, Belarus, and the South Caucasus, thus depleting more Russian resources and the ability to cope with the arc of instability around its borders. The instability in Central Asia may complicate China's economic activities, including implementing the Belt and Road initiative, and jeopardise the secure supply of natural resources, especially natural gas and oil, from Central Asian republics to China. Meanwhile, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan may trigger instability in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, establishing an additional source of support for separatist movement there.

However, this logic has some apparent flaws. The failure of the American efforts to establish a modern Westernised society and state in Afghanistan is a massive blow to the image of the superpower. US President Biden's statements that the US had no intentions of nation-building in Afghanistan does not sound convincing. The incursion into Afghanistan and later in Iraq was not only part of the war on terror. It was also motivated by the “liberal hegemony” grand strategy to spread liberal democracy in different corners of the world. The launch of this strategy coincided with the “Unipolar Moment”, the period of US absolute hegemony, which started in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This “Unipolar Moment” started to fade away in 2007-2008, coinciding with the world economic crisis. In the last decade, the world faced a tumultuous transformation of the global order from unipolarity to a multi-polar or poly-centric system. It is almost impossible to assess how long this period may last, but it will probably take decades.

The Trump administration accepted these changes by embracing the “return of the great power competition” notion and inserting it in its strategic documents, including the December 2017 National Security Strategy. This topic was also central in the Biden administration's “Interim National Security Strategic Guideline”, published in March 2021. In the context of the changing global order, the US failure to reach its goals in Afghanistan will serve as another proof of “America's relative decline” and the arrival of multi-polar world order, where the US ceases to act as the only decision-maker.

As was mentioned in a recent article in the magazine Politico, Biden's cabinet members and their deputies held around three-dozen “scenario planning” meetings following the president's April announcement that US troops would be out of Afghanistan by 11 September. They covered everything from securing the US Embassy and handling Afghan refugees to how to best position the US military in the region in case things spun out of control. Many more sessions were held at the Pentagon, the US Central Command in Tampa, the State Department, and other agencies. However, it still was not enough to prepare for the utter collapse of America's two-decade, $2 trillion effort designed to prop up the Afghan government. Biden had insisted the Afghan military would fight; it largely did not, and secretary of state Blinken had scoffed at the notion that Kabul would fall over a weekend, and yet it did. The apparent mistakes by the US defence and intelligence community to analyse and understand the evolving situation in Afghanistan and to be better prepared for the possible outcomes will add skepticism among the US allies and partners regarding the US assessments and recommendations on issues of global and regional security dynamics.

The fate of the US allies and partners in Afghanistan, many of whom may be left by the Americans to the mercy of the Taliban, is another issue that will tarnish the US's image globally. Americans are involved in many parts of the globe, but after the debacle in Afghanistan, many will think twice before partnering with the US.

Meanwhile, Russia and China potentially may come to terms with the Taliban, and in this scenario, the US withdrawal may become not a headache but a boost for Beijing. Afghanistan has significant minerals, including rare earth metals, which China will be glad to import. Beijing could also include Afghanistan in the “Belt and Road initiative” and use it as another land route towards Iran and the Central Asian republics via Pakistan. Chinese goods may reach Europe from Iran both via Turkey and Armenia–Georgia–Black Sea route.

In recent years several international railway projects have been launched in Afghanistan. The first railway between Iran and Afghanistan was launched in December 2020, linking the northeastern Iranian city of Khaf to Afghanistan's western city of Ghoryan over a 140 km track. Once completed, the 225 km Khaf-Herat network would help transport six million tons of goods and up to a million passengers annually. On 2 February 2021, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan agreed to a roadmap to build a 573-kilometer railroad from Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan to Peshawar in Pakistan via Kabul, while the existing railway already connects Mazar-e-Sharif with Termez in Uzbekistan. Will these projects be sustained after the Taliban take-over? If they will, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may provide more benefits than problems for China. Meanwhile, the discussions on the future of Afghanistan may occur within Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will be another sign of evolving multi-polar world order.  

What are the implications of the evolving situation in Afghanistan for Armenia, if any? Some Armenian experts argue that the situation in Afghanistan will force Russia to focus more resources toward that region. It may result in a decrease in Russian involvement in the South Caucasus, which in turn, may create more room for Turkey to strengthen its positions here. Others are afraid of the potential influx of refugees via Iran or the increase of attempts to use Armenia to route illegal drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Europe via Iran. However, these concerns are exaggerated. At least for now, Russia has enough resources to deal with potential instability in Central Asia and does not need to relocate troops from Armenia or Nagorno Karabakh. The Afghan refugees' final destination is Europe, not Armenia, and they will use the Iran–Turkey–EU route. Few may seek to enter Armenia, but this will not trigger a crisis. The levels of drug production in Afghanistan were much lesser in 1996-2001 than during American control over the country. Thus, it is difficult to predict the significant increase in drug production in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, and in any case, Armenia was never a significant route for illegal drug trafficking to Europe. Armenia is a CSTO member and if situation deteriorates in Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, CSTO may take some steps. However, no one in CSTO will ask Armenia to contribute significant resources to Central Asia, given security problems faced by Armenia along its borders with Azerbaijan. CSTO may ask Armenia to make some symbolic gestures, but nothing more.

Thus, the upheaval in Afghanistan will not have any direct and short-term implications for Armenia. The only thing which should bother Armenia is the potential growth of Turkey’s regional role, given its improved relations with Pakistan and contacts with the Taliban. This may contribute to the overall increase in Turkey’s geostrategic potential, which may create complications for Armenia. 


source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
Photo: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Afghan Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin, China, on July 28, 2021. (picture courtesy of Xinhua News Agency, Beijing).


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