China woos Taliban as U.S. military departs Afghanistan

China‘s foreign minister hosted a high-level Taliban delegation on Wednesday, signaling an uptick in Beijing‘s bid for influence in Afghanistan at a moment when U.S. and other foreign troops are leaving and the Islamist militants are seizing large swaths of territory from the U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed not to abandon Afghanistan. He was visiting India on Wednesday as part of the Biden administration’s effort to rally the massive South Asian democracy as an ally against communist China‘s expanding geopolitical clout in the region.

“Even as we withdraw our forces from Afghanistan and NATO and others withdraw their forces, we remain very much engaged in Afghanistan,” Mr. Blinken told reporters in New Delhi, a key stop on his tour of Asian and Middle Eastern capitals. “We have not only a strong embassy there, but also important programs that continue to support Afghanistan economically, through development assistance, through security assistance.”

The comments offered a sharp contrast from what was unfolding a few thousand miles away in China‘s northern city of Tianjin, where Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi feted a group of nine Taliban representatives.

China said in a statement after the meeting that Mr. Wang assured the group that Beijing believes the Taliban will “play an important role in the process of peaceful reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan.” The Taliban waged a nearly two-decade insurgency against the government after being ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In a noteworthy twist, Mr. Wang expressed hope that the Taliban would crack down on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). He called the group a “direct threat to China‘s national security,” according to Reuters.

Beijing characterizes ETIM as a Muslim extremist and separatist group active in China‘s Xinjiang region, a far corner of which shares a short border with the finger-shaped geographic enclave of northeastern Afghanistan.

Mr. Wang’s reference to the ETIM in a meeting with the Taliban — itself an Islamist militant organization — raised eyebrows in Washington.

The Biden administration has accused Beijing of heavy-handed repression of Muslim groups in Xinjiang and engaging in a “genocide” of ethnic minorities there. In a move that outraged Chinese officials last year, the Trump administration removed ETIM from State Department terrorism lists.

Chinese propaganda on Wednesday was more broadly focused. It criticized U.S. policy in Afghanistan as a “failure” and asserted that China is poised to step in and successfully mediate between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. China also eyes major economic gains in Afghanistan, which could serve as a key overland link to President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road development program.

Chinese analysts see the U.S. military pullback in Afghanistan as a clear strategic defeat on par with the Soviet Union’s retreat in the late 1980s, which set the stage for the first Taliban regime.

“The hasty withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan marked the failure of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, and it is an opportunity for the Afghan people to stabilize and develop their country,” said an article published by Global Times, a newspaper closely tied to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.

China could play the role as a better mediator between the Afghan government and the Taliban for its smooth and high-level communication with both sides, whose peace talks may be stuck in a stalemate for a long time,” said the article, which emphasized that the Taliban delegation in China reiterated “a previous promise of never allowing any force to use the Afghan territory to endanger China.”

The stepped-up Chinese diplomacy comes in the wake of President Biden’s decision to proceed with a full U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.The move set into motion a geopolitical scramble among regional powers, including China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and Turkey — all of which are poised to try to benefit from the strategic vacuum.

Afghanistan was the central prize in the 19th century “Great Game” battle of empires. Some say it looks like it will reprise that role in the coming years.

China has been making the most nuanced moves. It signed a 25-year strategic partnership in June with Iran, which borders Afghanistan to the west, and has pushed billions of dollars in infrastructure loans over the past decade to Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan to the south and the east.

“No one’s paid any attention to what China’s plans are for Afghanistan,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. who now heads the South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute, recently told The Washington Times.

“Chinese mining companies have been hovering around Kabul for mining contracts for a while now,” Mr. Haqqani said.

The extent to which a Taliban surge to power in Kabul would enhance Beijing’s ambitions remains to be seen.

The Taliban leadership appears to be weighing its options. Delegates also have visited Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan in the past month while the militant group has expanded its hold on strategic territory inside Afghanistan.

Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst with the Rand Corp., said the U.S. troop withdrawal is removing “the most formidable obstacle to total Taliban takeover of the country.”

Concerns are soaring about a possible refugee crisis and humanitarian disaster. “The prospect of renewed Taliban rule has sparked major anxiety among the region’s powers,” Mr. Grossman wrote in a recent commentary published by Foreign Policy.

In early July, he said, Indian Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar “visited Moscow and Tehran while Taliban representatives were in each city, raising questions about whether back-channel negotiations are ongoing.”

Mr. Jaishankar met with Mr. Blinken in India on Wednesday and repeated to reporters India‘s long-standing position that “Afghanistan must neither be home to terrorism nor a source of refugees.

“It is essential that peace negotiations are taken seriously by all parties,” the Indian minister said. “Unilateral imposition of will by any party will obviously not be democratic and can never lead to stability, nor indeed can such efforts ever acquire legitimacy.”

Mr. Jaishankar said “the gains to Afghan civil society, especially on the rights of women, minorities and on social freedoms over the last two decades, are self-evident.”

“We must collectively work to preserve them,” he said.

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