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Beijing and Taliban Build an Alliance as U.S Credibility Wanes

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Beijing is aggressively expanding its footprint in Afghanistan, striking major deals with the Taliban while the US influence in the region wanes. Chinese investors are scrambling to tap Afghanistan’s wealth of minerals and resources, meeting with Taliban officials to request access to lucrative marble mines. 

This comes on the heels of Beijing signing a $150 million contract with the Taliban to extract Afghan oil. Beijing also plans major infrastructure projects linking Afghanistan to its Belt and Road Initiative. The isolated Taliban regime is embracing China’s overtures, guaranteeing security for its investments in return.

 This growing alliance deals a severe blow to America’s leverage in the region following its chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal. In its wake, rivals like Beijing are swiftly filling the power vacuum left by the US exit. 

The Biden administration’s flawed pullout enabled the Taliban’s rise while allowing China to gain a strategic foothold in America’s backyard. As China’s star rises in Afghanistan, the US is paying the price for its rushed retreat.

As the U.S have been trying over the past two years to isolate the Taliban, through monitoring humanitarian aid, and destabilizing diplomatic relations with other countries.This stance has changed dramatically since China engaged in substantial investment and deal-making in Afghanistan, aiming to tap into the war-torn country’s mineral riches.

On 4th of March, Chinese investors showed great interest in Afghanistan’s mining sector, particularly the country’s marble reserves. A delegation of Chinese traders met with Afghanistan’s acting Minister of Mines and Petroleum to enquire about investment opportunities in marble mines. The investors praised Afghanistan’s mining opportunities.However, security issues remain a major concern for foreign mining investors in Afghanistan’s unstable environment

In 2023, Chinese state-owned companies signed a $150 million oil extraction contract with the Taliban, with plans to eventually invest over $540 million. China has also shown interest in Afghanistan’s reserves of copper, iron, and lithium. Beyond resources, China seeks to build infrastructure connecting Afghanistan to its global Belt and Road Initiative.

Also In 2023, China began constructing a road linking Afghanistan’s Pamir Mountains to China’s Xinjiang region, yet after the completion of the first road link, analysts expect Beijing to be cautious about giving its war-torn neighbor full access to its land border because of security concerns over terrorists and separatist militants.

For the isolated Taliban government, China’s business overtures have provided a crucial economic lifeline as most Western nations refuse formal recognition. The Taliban has guaranteed the security of Chinese investments in return, seen in the absence of attacks on Chinese interests by Taliban opponents since mid-2023.

The burgeoning ties culminated in the exchange of ambassadors between Beijing and Kabul in late 2022 and early 2023. This legitimized the Taliban in China’s eyes right as most countries still view them as an unacceptable pariah regime. It demonstrated that China cares little for the Taliban’s human rights abuses, only its ability to protect Chinese assets.

While China does not officially recognize the Taliban government, they have a representative currently in Beijing rather than a simple chargé d’affaires, which is usually the case when countries do not recognize governments by not requiring official documents from their representative. 

China’s cozying up to the Taliban directly undermines US efforts to make recognition of the new government contingent on moderating the regime’s harsh practices. With China readily doing business, the Taliban feels little pressure to reform or make concessions. This reveals the waning American leverage over Afghanistan’s trajectory after abandoning the country.

More broadly, China’s Afghan outreach is driven by its regional competition with the US. Building economic and political influence there prevents the US from maintaining Afghanistan as an ally against Chinese power. It also gives China greater access to Central and South Asia to counteract the US’s alliances with India and Pakistan.

And China can now threaten to destabilize Afghanistan to deter US support for separatists in Xinjiang. After US Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022, a Chinese official pointedly mentioned US vulnerability in Afghanistan as a factor deterring further provocations.

Clearly, America’s global leadership has taken a hit from the Taliban-China alliance. The Biden administration’s Integrated Country Strategy for Afghanistan even identifies China as one of the “predatory powers” benefiting from America’s withdrawal. This shows that the disastrous pullout didn’t just abandon Afghans to Taliban brutality but also endangered US interests.

The administration’s recent suggestion that it is now open to dealing with the Taliban reflects an attempt to counteract Chinese influence, though likely too little too late. America has already lost crucial leverage while China’s regional clout grows. This is the highly predictable result of departing Afghanistan without any transition plan.

In no small part, the Biden administration has itself to blame for this geopolitical setback. Its rushed exit both empowered the Taliban and created a vacuum for adversaries like China to fill. The chaotic drone strikes and abandonment of Afghan allies during the pullout further diminished America’s standing.

Even prior to the withdrawal debacle, the Biden administration wasted years negotiating with the Taliban without tangible progress, then excluded the Afghan government from talks. This undermined the legitimacy of American allies in Kabul while emboldening the Taliban.

The State Department’s after-action report on the Afghanistan withdrawal is littered with excuses that aim to deflect responsibility rather than truly reckon with the disastrous mismanagement that occurred. In blaming forces out of the administration’s control like COVID-19 and congressional delays, the report glosses over the poor policy and planning decisions that created the chaotic exit.

What’s particularly shocking is the report scapegoating Americans who remained in Afghanistan and others who stepped up to assist with evacuation efforts. It admonishes them for not having the foresight to depart earlier, despite the fact the administration itself was caught completely off guard by the Taliban’s rapid advance.

And, the report has the audacity to claim that private veterans and advocacy groups trying to save lives “hindered” the evacuation and put State Department employees at risk. In reality, these individuals heroically filled gaps left by the lack of government preparation, saving thousands of desperate Afghans when the official response proved inadequate.

Rather than showing humility, the State Department arrogantly asserts that its belated evacuation was the best anyone could expect under difficult circumstances. This stubborn self-defense in the face of clear incompetence does not inspire confidence that lessons have actually been learned or meaningful reforms will follow.

True accountability would require painful admissions about underestimating the Taliban and overestimating the Afghan military’s willingness to fight. It would scrutinize why intelligence failed to predict the imminent collapse of Kabul and why evacuation plans were so hastily cobbled together. Responsible leadership also means acknowledging the heartlessness of leaving Afghans who aided America behind to likely death or reprisal.

But the tone of this report is of an administration more interested in finger-pointing and face-saving than confronting hard truths. Unless political appointees and career officials humbly acknowledge their mistakes, more foreign policy debacles are inevitable. No number of excuses can obscure the reality of the Afghanistan withdrawal’s profound human costs and damage to American credibility. 

On a much broader scene, the Doha Accords or the United States – Taliban deal which was signed four years ago, has revived some interesting points. The most important point according to the Taliban government spokesperson “If you have read the agreement, it is written that the U.S. would normalize its relations with the future government in Afghanistan, remove the sanctions and restrictions, and cooperate, which the U.S. does not”. While on the other hand, the U.S accuses the Taliban for not fulfilling their terms which according to the Doha Accords are “to engage in meaningful dialogue with fellow Afghans leading to a negotiated settlement, an inclusive political system”.

Overall, the Chinese alliance with Afghanistan’s new rulers is a consequence of strategic missteps and lack of foresight by the United States. America’s credibility as a partner has been severely damaged, likely benefiting Chinese aims for years to come. Reasserting US leadership in the region and globally will require rebuilding trust and strategic messaging – a difficult task after the miscues of recent years.

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