Negotiators from Washington and the Taliban agreed to a seven-day truce on 14 February that could pave the way for a withdrawal of American troops, according to press reports.
The pressure on President Trump to end the conflict is substantial. The PEW Research Center states that, in 2018, 39% of Americans felt the use of military force in Afghanistan was the wrong decision and just 45% felt the opposite. However, there is one issue that threatens to derail the talks. In his book An Intimate War, Dr Mike Martin argues that the Taliban that has led the talks with the US is best referred to as ‘the real Taliban’. It is head-quartered in Pakistan and draws a potent mix of local and international support.
Martin, who served in Helmand with the British Army, avers that there is also the ‘local Taliban,’ which he characterises as being compiled of opportunistic groups aligned more or less along tribal lines. They side with the Taliban in order to attract funding, support and protection from the Afghan government and its local police forces. The latter, Martin argues, are also organised along tribal lines, and prey on non-aligned tribes.
If this is true then, as US negotiations are with the ‘real Taliban,’ it can have very little influence over its local proxies, which have been warring with each other since the 1800s. Continuing this logic, the US talks are not going to bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan; as US troops are withdrawn, the tribes will descend further into their status quo ante of local rivalries and competition for resources. This in turn, will lead to an increase in pressure on Afghan forces and open the door for the ‘real Taliban’ to regain influence.
Where does China fit into all of this? Afghanistan is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sharing borders with Pakistan and Iran. The former enjoys considerable Chinese support and the latter provides China with much of its oil, added to which, Afghanistan holds considerable reserves of minerals and hydrocarbons.
In short, Afghanistan represents a financial opportunity for China, as well as a strategic necessity. To build relations with Iran, and realise the commitments Beijing has made to Islamabad, further Chinese investment in Afghanistan will certainly follow. Furthermore, China has substantial wealth to gain; it has already won a contract, expected to yield $900 million (€830 million) in revenues, to exploit the Mes Aynak copper and Hajigak iron mines – though MT understands no minerals have yet been extracted. In September 2016 the first freight train reached Hairatan in northern Afghanistan, having travelled 3,000 km from China. Such trains are expected to bring Chinese electronics and technologies into Afghanistan and return loaded with marble, copper, talc and dried fruit to support China’s further growth.
All these interests converge on one point; security. If current negotiations are successful and the US withdraws with the attendant slide into insecurity predicted by Martin, all China’s interests in the area will be at risk. It stands to reason that a worsening of the security situation could prompt a robust Chinese response.
The options for this are varied and troubling for Afghanistan. China has an interest in the Frontier Services Group, established by Erik Prince of Blackwater fame and owned by a Hong Kong company. It was reportedly contracted in 2017 to provide regional security services in Somalia and could, perhaps, offer Beijing an option for the exertion of control over the region, emulating the Russian paradigm of establishing a footprint in Syria, Libya and Africa in general.
Alternatively, a degraded security situation in Afghanistan could present a casus belli for the People’s Liberation Army to conduct its first out-of-country military operation since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. In either case, if the US-Taliban talks fail to account for the local nuances that have made the entire counter-insurgency campaign in the region ineffective, it is unlikely that a peace will bring a lasting end to the conflict within Afghanistan.
Miles Quartermain in London for MON