Since the Taliban’s return to power, the U.S. Federal Reserve has frozen just under $10 billion of Afghanistan’s assets. With a harsh winter about to settle in, 23 million people of Afghanistan’s population of 39 million are at risk of starvation. However, Afghanistan may be able to rebuild trade relations with its superpower neighbor, China, providing much-needed stimulation to its economy. More specifically, China may incorporate Afghanistan into its international project, the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), within the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Under this project, Afghanistan could potentially become a trade hub connecting the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe. Additionally, Afghanistan has an untapped rare minerals market potentially worth as much as $3 trillion. However, to initiate trade relations with China, Afghanistan has to show that it will oppose Uyghur separatists, can quash the ISIS threat in the region, and cut off ties with all terrorist groups, namely Al-Qaeda and Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Pakistani offshoot of the fundamentalist group. This article will explore the Taliban’s capacity to clear the first condition.
China’s primary concern with the Uyghurs is that they will join up with groups such as ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda, which would likely motivate these groups to attack China. China has therefore conditioned its investments in Afghanistan on the Taliban preventing this from happening and cutting any ties with the Turkestan Islamic Party (TRP) and all other terrorist groups. The Taliban has responded to China’s concerns by relocating members of the Turkestan Islamic Party from areas in Afghanistan close to its border with China to areas deeper within Afghanistan. While this may seem like a significant movement toward China, the Taliban did exactly this to allay China’s fears in 1996, but they refused to turn the militants over to the Chinese government, allowed the TIP to operate in Afghanistan, and maintained relations with them. Currently, the Taliban has yet to indicate whether they will turn over the militants they have captured to the Chinese government.
The Taliban is in a precarious situation with the Uyghurs. On the one hand, Afghanistan would likely be unable to build trade relations with China without showing commitment to keeping the Uyghur separatists away from the Chinese border and from ISIS-K. On the other hand, because there is strong support for the Uyghurs both within Afghanistan and among more idealistic Taliban members, too much opposition from the Taliban against the Uyghurs would stir animosity toward the Taliban. Meanwhile, ISIS-K has shown strong support for the Uyghurs with Islamic State-affiliated publications vowing vengeance on China for its persecution of the Uyghurs. Therefore, the Taliban’s efforts to combat the Uyghurs would drive them, as well as some Afghans and Taliban members who would support the Uyghurs to join ISIS-K. Not only would this further instability in Afghanistan, making Chinese investment too risky, but it would turn China’s fears of the Uyghur separatists joining up with ISIS-K into a self-fulling prophecy. ISIS-K, aware of this potential outcome, carried out a suicide bombing on a Shiite mosque in Kunduz, killing over 50 people in Afghanistan, and specifically pointed out that the attacker was of Uyghur descent.
While China can make a lot of money incorporating Afghanistan into CPEC, the project would likely not be worth the risks and obstacles unless Afghanistan’s instability and extremist groups did not pose a domestic threat that could be stabilized through economic stimulation. Given the paradoxical situation that the Uyghur dilemma poses for Afghanistan, China has to temper its expectations of Taliban opposition to the Uyghurs, accepting that too much opposition from the Taliban against the Uyghur separatists will likely exacerbate the domestic threat. Meanwhile, if Chinese investments in the region stimulate Afghanistan’s economy and transitively improve the Afghan people’s quality of life, people will likely be less inclined to join terrorist organizations which would mitigate the domestic threat for China.