The end of 2019 brings some good news to the long-running saga that is the Afghan conflict, with the US and Taliban leadership announcing a temporary ceasefire. This is a prelude to the signing of a peace agreement between the two parties that would bring the 18-year war to a close.
The as-yet-unsigned peace agreement stipulates that America will rapidly reduce its troops in Afghanistan (currently around 14,000) in return for Taliban guarantees that they will not host international terrorist groups that threaten the US or its allies. Additionally, the Americans would release 13,000 — yes, 13,000! — Taliban prisoners over the coming months. Once the US has withdrawn, the Taliban would then hold talks with the Afghan government.
This sounds like fantastic news, and it would be, were it the whole story. The truth, however, as so often in Afghanistan, is much more complex.
Afghanistan is in a parlous state with a worse and deteriorating security situation, over 2.7 million refugees and a recent heavily-marred presidential election, which saw a narrow win for the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, on a turnout of just 28%.
It is against this backdrop — little changed for the past five years — that President Trump has announced his desire to withdraw American forces from overseas conflicts and commitments. Afghanistan was a prime candidate: the US could see that they had failed to achieve barely any of their objectives (as has been made very clear in the recent Afghan papers published by the Washington Post). The US duly dropped its previous red line that the Afghan government was included in the talks — for the last decade the Taliban had refused to speak to what they call a “US puppet” — and the talks began in Qatar.
However, it is not clear that the senior US leadership understands why they lost the war in Afghanistan. Quite simply: this is because the US and its allies characterized the Afghan war as one of supporting an Afghan government against Taliban insurgents; whereas in reality it is a 40-year multi-focal civil war with local tribal, narco, and other criminal interests fighting over hyper-local issues, and sucking in outside sponsors. Violence is driven much more by local disputes over land and water than over ideologies like democracy and Islamism. Fighters and commanders change sides all the time, and survival is paramount in decision making.
The difference is important. Political insurgencies, like the US imagines it is facing in Afghanistan, can be solved with a combination of military pressure and negotiations where concessions are made. Multi-focal civil wars only fizzle out when outsiders stop supplying money and weapons to on-the-ground actors, and these same locals engage in local reconciliation efforts. The US has effectively been fighting the wrong type of war in Afghanistan.
And it seems that this misunderstanding is going to be repeated in the peace deal. If it is signed as currently described, the Taliban leadership guarantee that they will not host transnational terrorists on Afghan soil. But the Taliban leadership is not in control of most of the violence in Afghanistan — that is in the hands of local warlords and drug militias — so they will not be able to enforce their side of the bargain, even if they wanted to.
So what is likely to happen if, as looks highly likely, the peace deal gets signed?
In a crude analysis, western military support has enabled the Afghan government to keep control of the country’s main ring road and its provincial centres. Most, or much of, the rural areas are in the hands of local actors with various temporary allegiances. The absence of this military support will likely cause even more of the country to slip into local hands, disintegrating even further. Levels of violence and numbers of refugees will increase. There is a real possibility of government collapse.
Uneasily watching this is China, with whom Afghanistan shares a border. Arguably, China has greater interests in Afghanistan than the US has had, once it had completed the initial post-9/11 routing of the Taliban government. Broadly, these interest break down into three baskets: economic, counterterrorism and geopolitical.
On the economic side, China has invested in multiple large-scale projects in Afghanistan since 2001, not least a $4.5bn copper mine near Kabul and a $300m petroleum project in the north of the country. These effectively freeload off security that has been underwritten by the US and its allies. Secondly, counterterrorism: from the Chinese perspective the Afghan-bordering Xingjian province is a hotbed of terrorist activity, with links to networks in Afghanistan.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, China views Afghanistan as a key location in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Not only does the country border the northern route (from China, through the ‘Stans, to Europe), but Beijing is actively considering a so-called “Five Nations Railway” from China, through Afghanistan and Iran, to the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.
China also announced last year that Afghanistan is going to be linked up to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a $62 billion series of infrastructure projects originally designed to link China to Pakistani seaports, but with eventual plans to join Pakistan to central Asian energy markets.
The strategic question for China is whether to continue pursuing these interests in Afghanistan: all of these avenues require a level of stability and security in the region above the current levels, let alone if the country disintegrates after the US withdrawal. And if China does decide to continue on its current path, the even more difficult question is how it should set about securing these interests in Afghanistan.
Does it, at one extreme, go down the route taken by the West, and before it Russia, deploying soldiers around the country? After all, it currently has small missions training Afghan troops in Badakhshan province, in areas that border China, so could we see something like this expanding across key places in the country?
Presumably this would involve partnering with the Afghan government and mentoring and training its forces. But would China’s authoritarian, statist, centralising approach work in a land that, as my 93-year-old grandmother observed to me before I first went there, is so full of unrepentant individualists?
Perhaps China merely funds and arms a faction in Kabul (a government?) in order to keep secure the areas of the country important to it? But would this work, or would the money end up building villas in Dubai for the Afghan warlords most able to take advantage of their largess? Are there other options, involving proxies or other nations? Pakistan, for instance, has previously worked closely with China on Afghanistan.
How does China achieve its aims without getting their hands stuck in the Afghan mangle, like so many have before?
This will be the year of the US withdrawal. It will also be the year that Beijing has to make up is mind on Afghanistan. To those of us in the West who think that China is an unstoppable behemoth, this dilemma is a useful reminder that the world’s soon-to-be largest economy also faces real-world, least-worst, strategic choices — just like the rest of us.