Will China fall in Afghanistan, graveyard of empires?

August 30, 2021 10:35
The Pentagon once called Afghanistan  the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, with deposits of up to US$1 trillion of lithium and other minerals. Photo: Reuters

In January 1842, a single British soldier rode a mortally wounded horse into Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. He was the only survivor of an army of 16,000 that had invaded Afghanistan in 1839 and captured Kabul.

The greatest defeat of the British Army in south Asia, it persuaded the leaders in London not to include the country in their empire. Since then, Afghanistan has defeated the world’s two other superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States and earned the name “graveyard of empires”.

Is China about to make the same fatal mistake?

Of the big powers, Beijing has been the most favourable to the Taliban, the new rulers of Afghanistan. On July 28, in Tianjin, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held an official meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, co-founder of the movement, and called it a “pivotal political and military force” in the country.

Unlike many western countries, Beijing has kept its embassy in Kabul open and operational. On August 24, its ambassador Wang Yu met senior Taliban officials there.

Beijing rejoices at the chaotic withdrawal of the U.S. after 20 years, its biggest foreign humiliation since the retreat from South Vietnam in 1975.

It has two main objectives in Afghanistan. One is economic – to develop the copper, lithium, rare earth and other minerals which the country has in abundance. The other is military – to prevent the country being a base for those who want to make Xinjiang an independent state.

In 2018, state-owned China Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper secured the licence for Mes Aynak, one of the world’s largest copper deposits with 450 million metric tonnes, 40 kilometres southeast of Kabul. It is a UNESCO heritage site. But mining work has not begun.

The Pentagon once called Afghanistan the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, with deposits of up to US$1 trillion of lithium and other minerals. But none of the projects signed so far have materialised, due to corruption, war, political strife and the lack of roads and railways to transport them. The county is landlocked.

With the withdrawal of the Western powers, it is also bankrupt. Before the fall of Kabul, it had foreign reserves of US$9 billion, of which US$7 billion is held at the Federal Reserve in the U.S. Washington has frozen that sum, as well as other moneys it controls.

In 2020, foreign aid accounted for 43 per cent of the country’s GDP of US$19.8 billion. But, with the arrival of Taliban, the IMF has suspended an allocation of US$440 million and Germany has suspended aid of US$300 million. As a result, banks in Kabul have been shut for two weeks and residents cannot take out their money.

Ajmal Ahmady, former head of the central bank who has just fled into exile, wrote in the Financial Times on August 24 that it was not realistic to expect large investments from China, Russia or Pakistan.

“In 2019, as Afghanistan’s Minister of Commerce, I attended the second Belt and Road Initiative Conference in Beijing. However much we tried, Afghanistan was never part of the BRI and I do not expect it to be part of the initiative in the future … Such investments cannot replace the combined financial firepower of the main bilateral and multilateral donor agencies,” he said.

According to the United Nations, Afghanistan accounted for about 80 per cent of global heroin and opium supplies in 2019, generating between US$1.2 billion and US$2.1 billion. The Taliban earned US$460 million in taxes from opium growers last year.

Beijing has considered, and rejected, Afghanistan as a partner in the BRI, because it does not have the economic, technical and financial conditions nor the infrastructure. So Beijing’s priority will be to try to create a stable country which can feed its own people and not export terrorism.

In this, it has much to be anxious about. The Taliban have just renamed the country the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. Their movement is driven by religious ideology more than money, economic development or desire for regional power.

The Sinicisation of Islam and restrictions on religious life in Xinjiang are the most serious since the Cultural Revolution and more severe than in western countries that have been targets of jihadi attack.

So there is a serious risk that religious movements in Afghanistan, if not the Taliban itself, may declare the Xinjiang government a legitimate target of their anger because of its “oppression” of the faithful and use the country as a base for attacks.

In formulating its policy, Beijing should study carefully the mistakes of Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S. and avoid them.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.