With the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces expected on or before September 11, 2021 from Afghanistan, China has, for several years, been working to build alliances with the Taliban as well as with the current Afghan administration. China has been doing this to help build its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into Afghanistan where there are rich deposits of rare earth minerals that China hopes to extract. If the BRI in Afghanistan succeeds in taking shape and should China take a lead role in influencing the future of the country, this will have several implications for regional and global economic security, the spread of Islamic extremism, and ultimately the security of the United States.
REGIONAL & GLOBAL ECONOMIC SECURITY
China is looking to become a global hegemony, and one way it plans to do this is by advancing its BRI which is an international infrastructure building plan designed on a dept-diplomacy arrangement. The goal of the BRI is for China to streamline trade. Through the BRI, China invests heavily in different countries’ infrastructure while depending on the beneficiary country to repay China for the infrastructure upgrades over time. The BRI may be a little risky on behalf of the Chinese as there are no guarantees that the loan recipient country will be able to repay.
One of China’s main purposes for investing in Afghanistan is for its rare earth metals (Saud, Ahmad 2018, 4). Afghanistan is a nation that is unlikely to repay China for invested infrastructure anytime soon. Because the repayment of the loans by not only Afghanistan, but several other countries as well, is unlikely, this threatens regional and global instability. However, China has different tools that it can use against non-payment. These include leveraging diplomatic action, dealing forcefully with a nation to vote on China’s side at the UN, or persuading a country to harass the US or other enemies.
There also remains a risk that the BRI may jeopardize global stability due to China’s heavy influence on the global economy. China plays a crucial part in the global supply chain. For instance, if the BRI fails in many states, then it will be difficult for China to see a return on investment, both economically and materially. This would lead to the potential for a catastrophic collapse of the global supply chain. Instead, China may lose critical BRI-supplied materials and its economy may be hurt. Consequently, Beijing’s ability to keep up with the global supply chain would likely be severely damaged. With so many countries across the globe relying on trade with China, the potential for a global supply chain breakdown could be costly.
The BRI also has regional effects around Afghanistan, since Beijing and Pakistan are interested in ensuring stability in the country. With the US and NATO forces out of the country and with the BRI in place, Pakistan will likely develop a more secure relationship with Afghanistan. This is because Pakistan is highly interested in keeping India from meddling in Afghan affairs (Khokhar 2020, 2). Pakistan wants to maintain close ties to both China and the United States but must tread carefully (Khokhar 2020, 2). This is because China supports Pakistan’s growth through the BRI, while the United States is interested in containing security threats. For example, China will have spent an estimated total of $60 billion in the Pakistani portion of the BRI by the time it is finished (Islam, Cansu 2020, 42). Thus, the ability of Pakistan to significantly grow economically is high. However, the United States provides financial aid to Pakistan to help fight counter-terrorism in its own borders as well as in Afghanistan’s borders. With China strengthening ties with Afghanistan, Pakistan will be economically stronger and have a better ability to defend itself against India. Thus, maintaining a strong economic tie to Afghanistan and China helps Pakistan’s economy, while maintaining close ties with the U.S. also strengthens its defenses against India (a Pakistani and Chinese foe). This again threatens regional security because an economically strong Pakistan will likely be viewed as a major threat to India. While China and India continue to feud over border disputes and China’s rising trade and infrastructure plans for Pakistan and Afghanistan, this will likely upset India and further degrade regional stability in South Asia.
THE SPREAD OF ISLAMIC EXTREMISM
If China builds the BRI into Afghanistan, the rise of Islamic extremism will likely increase. China is well known to have suppressed and persecuted the Uighur Muslims in its far West region. As the Taliban are radical Islamists, it is surprising that not much dialogue has occurred already between the two due to Beijing’s inhumane treatment of its Muslim population. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is comprised of many Uighur militants who have traveled to Badakshan province in Afghanistan (Yogesh, 2021). It should not come as a surprise that these militants may seek to push the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan (such as the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda) to help start a Jihad against China. This is especially true should the Chinese enter the country to construct or defend the BRI. This would further risk instability in the region and provide a breeding ground for more and stronger terrorist organizations once the predicted government takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan happens again.
It is apparent that China views the Taliban as the successor of the Afghan government in the near future. This can be seen by its hesitancy to work very closely with the current Afghan government as well as its lack of denouncing Taliban attacks on civilians even though it has been asked to do so by the current Afghan administration (Barczyk, 2021). Thus, China is working closely with the Taliban to develop the BRI and as a result has weakened their working relationship with the current Afghan administration.
Although the BRI has the potential to benefit the Afghan economy, the extremist views of the Taliban and other extremists may ultimately reject the presence of the Chinese in the country. If Chinese security forces are needed to protect the construction and maintenance of the BRI, this may upset Islamic extremists throughout the world since they view Afghanistan as a holy nation. Extremists may flock to Afghanistan to help protect the country against the foreigners. With the Taliban in power, they would likely support foreign terrorists to enter the country, develop safe havens, and harass the Chinese and others.
Foreign fighters could continue to flow into the country to fight against the Chinese, and donations to the militants could help keep the extremists well-financed. Furthermore, Beijing will not likely be willing in the long run to commit to a security presence due to the fact that the Russians, the United States, and NATO have had to retreat from Afghanistan. China would likely have learned the lesson that suppressing insurgents in Afghanistan is nearly impossible by now. Beijing would probably only commit troops to Afghanistan should the BRI projects in the country become sabotaged repeatedly and would likely only stay until the majority of rare earth metals can be extracted. With the likely Taliban takeover of the country, they would reap the economic benefits of China extracting metals which would further help finance Islamic extremists. In turn, this puts the United States at risk because the potential for various terrorist groups re-surging in Afghanistan would be a real possibility.
THE SECURITY OF THE UNITED STATES
The United States could see a revival of exactly what it fought against following 9/11 – well-funded and powerful terrorist groups popping up in Afghanistan left unchecked. The U.S. has stipulated that the Taliban will not harbor terrorists in the nation after it and NATO forces leave (2021. “Remarks by President Biden on the Way Forward in Afghanistan.”). However, the reliability and shady assurances of the Taliban make this promise unrealistic. With Chinese foreigners in the country, radical Muslims around the world may view this as a threat to Islam. The radical Islamists will view them as infidels, thus the rise and strengthening of terrorist organizations.
As these extremist groups receive donations and fighters from around the world, the U.S. can expect complex attacks against its homeland on the scale of the 9/11 attacks in the future. This is particularly due to the belief that many Islamic extremists harbor hatred towards America for invading and occupying their sacred land of Afghanistan for twenty years and killing many Afghan civilians (Morris 2020, 192). Additionally, many of these terrorist organizations view America as a threat to Islam and the American people as infidels whom they need to kill. Furthermore, although the United States has been swift to condemn the treatment of the Uighur population, this may not pacify current and future Islamic extremists who are immigrating to Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, ETIM, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups will likely instill into the militants a hatred towards America (Gelber 2019, 612). This would create a great risk to America’s security as lawless areas of Afghanistan would allow various extremist groups a sanctuary to hatch plots against the US and its assets abroad.
If Pakistan does indeed prosper and become very wealthy through the BRI, they will probably strengthen their military with or without Washington’s help. With a very financially stable Pakistan that is allied with China through the BRI, the ability of the United States to leverage Pakistan economically to prevent extremists from entering Afghanistan will be weak. Since India has already infiltrated Afghanistan, Pakistan may actually support terrorists that harbor hatred towards New Delhi (Ullah, Khan 2018 53, 54). This is in despite of Pakistan pledging to the United States that it will continue to root out terrorists from Afghanistan. Thus, terrorist operations will likely continue, giving them even more experience and a continued ability to plot attacks against the US.
Over the years, China has steadily been budding its relationship with Afghanistan. This has been done through diplomatic channels through the current Afghan government as well as with the Taliban. One of the main reasons for this is to help China gain access to rare earth metals that are abundant in Afghanistan. China is looking to invest its BRI program into Afghanistan for this purpose. However, there are several implications for regional and global security, the spread of Islamic extremism, and ultimately the security of the United States.
Regional security may be affected if Afghanistan or other nearby countries are not able to pay off their loans to China’s planned BRI infrastructure plans. China may use diplomatic action, such as pressuring the countries to vote on China’s side at the UN or persuading a country to harass the US or other enemies. Additionally, since China plays a crucial part in the global supply chain, if the BRI fails, this would lead to the potential for a catastrophic collapse of the global supply chain which would affect nearly all countries.
The Taliban have long disliked the presence of foreigners who do not follow Sharia Law from being in Afghanistan, and it is likely that conflict could occur with the presence of Chinese laborers in the country. Extremists may try to sabotage critical infrastructure to the BRI. The entrance of Chinese contractors into Afghanistan may result in a spike of radical Islamists seeking safe havens in Afghanistan and the ability to grow in power with little to no resistance from the Taliban. Extremists will likely see the harsh treatment of the Uighurs and America’s treatment of Muslims around the world negatively and may flock to areas of Afghanistan for shelter and protection.
With the rise of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and their ability to grow, the U.S. can expect complex attacks against its homeland. These groups may ultimately attack the United States on scales equivalent to or worse than the 9/11 attacks. Thus, following the pullout of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan and the rise of China in the country, the United States will likely face unprecedented terrorist threats emerging from Afghanistan.
China Urges Closer Afghanistan Ties as US Withdrawal Looms. AP News. June 4, 2021. Retrieved June 23, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-china-business-ece4d88d97f845a4c0e1d0e1be7bbb31
“Remarks by President Biden on the Way Forward in Afghanistan.” April 14, 2021. The
White House. Retrieved June 25, 2021 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches remarks/2021/04/14/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-way-forward-in-afghanistan/
Barczyk, Hanna. 2021. “China’s revealing Afghan strategy. A suspicious China prepares for
America to pull out of Afghanistan.” The Economist. May 29, 2021. Retrieved June 23,
Dibakar, Dutta. 2021. “Is China using the US exit from Afghanistan to expand its Belt and Road Initiative?” OpIndia. July 7, 2021 https://www.opindia.com/2021/07/is-china-using-the-us-exit-from-afghanistan-to-expand-its-belt and-road-initiative/
Gelber, Katharine. 2019. “Terrorist-Extremist Speech and Hate Speech: Understanding the
Similarities and Differences.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 22 (3): 607-622.
Gupta, Yogesh. 2021. “China’s Taliban outreach worries Kabul.” The Tribune. May 22, 2021.
Retrieved June 23, 2021 https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/comment/chinas-taliban-outreach-worries-kabul-256673
Islam, Md Nazmul and Esra Eymen Cansu. 2020. “BRI, CPEC, And Pakistan: A Qualitative
Content Analysis on China’s Grand Strategies.” International Journal on World Peace 37
Morris, Charlotte. 2020. “To what Extent has U.S. Foreign Policy Contributed to an Increase in Religious Inspired Terrorism since 1945?” Journal of Global Faultlines 6 (2): 186-203
Saud, Adam and Azhar Ahmad. 2018. “China’s Engagement in Afghanistan Implications for the Region.” Policy Perspectives. 15 (1): 127.
Ziring, Lawrence. 2002. “The United States and Pakistan 1947-2000: Disenchanted
Allies.” Asian Affairs, an American Review 29 (2): 119-120.