China’s revealing Afghan strategy

O N MAY 9TH China’s foreign ministry was asked to comment on an atrocity in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Terrorists had detonated a car bomb outside a girls’ school, then two more bombs to kill pupils running for safety. At least 68 people had died, most of them children. The attack was aimed at girls from a Shia minority that is often targeted by Sunni Islamist groups, which have brought much misery to Afghanistan. Today such groups are jostling for blood-soaked advantage ahead of a full withdrawal of American forces, at the latest by September 11th this year, as ordered by President Joe Biden. China’s diplomats could have responded to the latest violence in several plausible ways.

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It would have been reasonable for the foreign ministry to tell the largest militant group, the Taliban, to rein in the mayhem, for China enjoys growing leverage over the Taliban’s leaders. That may seem counterintuitive. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has expressed hope that future Afghan governments will embrace moderate Islam: an apparent rebuke of Taliban-style zealotry. Across the border, in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang, officials have demolished mosques and banned young people from public prayers. In all perhaps a million Muslims, most of them from the Uyghur minority, have passed through re-education camps in Xinjiang, set up to cure them of excessively religious or “backwards” thinking, and to turn them into biddable workers, loyal to the Chinese motherland.

But the Taliban can be both fanatical and pragmatic, it turns out. Their leaders hope to rule Afghanistan soon, a quarter of a century after they first subjected the country to a reign of pious terror. Especially over the past three years, say scholars and diplomats in Beijing and other capitals, links between the Afghan Taliban and China have grown remarkably. Anxious for political recognition and economic backing from their giant neighbour, Taliban delegations have approved of Chinese plans to build motorways between Afghan cities. They claim to support a Chinese-funded project near Kabul to create one of the world’s largest copper mines, which has been stalled for years by concerns about ancient Buddhist ruins on the site and by fears of militant attacks.

Privately, it is said, the Taliban have signalled that they do not care about Xinjiang. That relates to China’s main interest in Afghanistan: to prevent that unhappy country from sliding into chaos and becoming a haven or transit corridor for Uyghur militants who, China is sure, lurk in the region. Those fighters, China believes, include some with combat experience in Syria, some trained by Iran, and others who hope to enter Xinjiang through lawless tribal regions of Pakistan.

It would have been reasonable, too, for China to have asked Pakistan to help stem the bloodshed. Pakistan is the Taliban’s patron, and has prodded the Afghan militants to establish ties with China. Pakistan likes to be useful to China, its most important sponsor. But the ministry chose a different response. After deploring the murder of the schoolgirls in Kabul, its spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, singled out America for blame. She charged that the “abrupt” announcement of America’s exit from Afghanistan had “led to a series of explosive attacks throughout the country”. She called on foreign troops “to pull out in a responsible manner and avoid inflicting more turmoil and suffering on the Afghan people”.

This is a new criticism. Chinese scholars and state media have spent years accusing American forces of straying beyond their original mission to eradicate al-Qaeda and of spreading turmoil with their naive dreams of Western-style nation-building. More recently, they have asserted that America will surely leave behind covert operatives after its troops leave, in part to make trouble for China. In short, China believes that America has stayed too long in Afghanistan, is departing too hastily and is not really leaving at all.

That line of argument is tangled enough. Making it more so, Chinese officials now call Afghanistan an area of possible co-operation with America, along with climate change and efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. When pressed for detail, including at a recent meeting with American counterparts in Anchorage, Chinese envoys are vague. A few years ago China and America did jointly train Afghan diplomats and police. These days China stresses the importance of its Belt and Road Initiative: how the infrastructure-building scheme can promote Afghan development and thus stability, such as by connecting the country to the sea via Pakistan.

Afghanistan once saw remarkable co-operation. Early in the war on terror, President George W. Bush’s administration designated a Uyghur group, the East Turkistan Independence Movement ( ETIM ), as terrorists. Chinese agents were allowed to interrogate Uyghurs detained in Guantánamo Bay. They told one Uyghur he was lucky to be in American hands, since “as soon as they got him back to China, he was dead”, his lawyer later told Congress. Such joint action is unthinkable now: the two sides are so far apart on Xinjiang. In 2020 the Trump administration delisted ETIM as a terror group, expressing doubts that it still existed. China says it is a grave menace.

To China, nothing matters more than stability