US-China-Pakistan: Aid and Interests in Afghanistan

America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 left the country plagued with political, security, and humanitarian challenges. At present, Afghanistan’s economy is near collapse and its people are on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, which could potentially exacerbate instability in the region and beyond. Afghanistan’s national currency is facing hyper depreciation, foreign exchange reserves in Central Bank of Afghanistan are shrinking, and people are unable to buy basic goods to sustain their living. According to the World Food Program (WFP), 98 percent of the Afghans did not have enough to eat by the end of November last year, and 14 million children face life-threatening hunger. The future of woman’s rights in Afghanistan is also endangered. Afghanistan’s faltering economy and rising security threats present a newfound challenge to the Taliban regime and other regional countries.

While significant tension exists between China and the US, shared political and security interests in Afghanistan provide common ground and potential for regional cooperation. Why would it serve the interests of the US and China to cooperate in Afghanistan despite being at loggerheads in virtually every other aspect of bilateral relationship, or more specifically, do they have shared goals in the country?

Mutual American and Chinese Interests in Afghanistan?

The US and China share a unique set of socioeconomic, political, and security challenges in Afghanistan. The looming threat of Islamic State of Khurasan (ISIS-K) presents a new challenge to the region. Strengthened by US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ISIS-K has carried out some of the deadliest attacks as of late, including the attack at Kabul airport that killed 200 people including 13 American service members. With weak political control, mounting domestic challenges, and limited resources, the Taliban are less able to effectively address ISIS-K alone.

Aside from ISIS-K, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and ineffective governance of the Taliban regime allow terrorist groups, such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to operate with impunity and become a source of instability in China and Pakistan respectively. Although a UN report issued in June last year suggested that the Taliban has tightened its control over terrorist groups, a more recent UN report published in February 2022 revealed that the Taliban regime has done nothing to limit the activities of foreign terrorists including Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, and other regional groups. In fact, the report finds that terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in the country than at any time in recent history. Failure to curtail ISIS-K could allow the group to exacerbate instability in Afghanistan, creating the potential for the country to become a source of regional terrorism.

In addition, reports suggest twenty million Afghans are on the brink of famine, which could exacerbate instability by pushing more towards terrorism. According to a report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 97 percent of the Afghans could plunge into poverty by mid-2022. Locals and experts in Afghanistan have reported that such a situation has encouraged terrorist groups like ISIS-K to recruit unemployed Afghans facing hunger and starvation.

On one hand, China desires stability on its Western frontier and to reduce the threat of terrorism. On the other, the US is keen to support human rights and also prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven. For Pakistan, the threat of cross-border terrorism, especially from the TTP, presents a primary challenge. As a result, the two countries, along with Pakistan, share an interest in peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

China’s Priorities and Interests in Afghanistan

China has invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan ($3.5 billion since 2005), particularly in its mineral resources, and has expressed willingness to invest billions more after the Taliban’s takeover. However, Afghanistan is currently more of a problem for Beijing to manage than an opportunity to exploit. In fact, China is so interested in stability that terrorism is, perhaps, a greater motivator than Afghanistan’s mineral wealth or its potential to become part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Immediately following the Taliban’s takeover, Beijing expressed its desire to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban to ensure that it cracks down on Uighur militants operating under the ETIM from Afghanistan. While experts dispute the severity of threat posed by Uighur militants, Beijing perceives these militants to be a major security concern not only for internal stability (which it also uses to justify its repressive, ‘preventive’ counterterrorism policies in Xinjiang), but also as a major security hazard for its trillion dollar’s BRI and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In the context of CPEC, China and Pakistan share concerns about the presence of Baloch militant groups and the TTP terrorists, the former of which previously targeted Chinese investment projects and workers in Pakistan.

Considering the political and socioeconomic turmoil in Afghanistan, it is possible that Uighur militants can gain more ground in Afghanistan and possibly collude with the ISIS-K. In fact, the suicide attacker in Kunduz in October of last year was an ethnic Uighur from Xinjiang, China’s only Muslim majority province. The fact that the Uighur militants might operate in affiliation with the ISIS-K has raised significant concern in Beijing and has therefore incentivized engagement with the Taliban to maintain stability.

American Priorities in the Region

Having spent billions of dollars over two decades and lost thousands of lives, the US has left Kabul with two major concerns: to ensure Taliban’s respect for human rights, especially women’s education and right to work, and to stop Afghanistan from becoming yet another haven for terrorism. In fact, these are two major US demands from the Taliban before the agrees tp unfreeze Afghanistan’s assets (many of which have already been stripped from the country by the Biden administration) and lift sanctions. On January 24, 2022 the US participated in talks in Oslo with its European allies to discuss the situation in Afghanistan. Following the meeting, which was also attended by Taliban leaders, the US-Europe Joint Statement settled on the need to address the humanitarian crisis and urged the Taliban to uphold their commitments to counterterrorism and human rights. 

Immediately after Taliban’s takeover on August 17, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi seeking cooperation in Afghanistan’s orderly transfer of power and in establishing an inclusive government. Again on August 30, Blinken called Wang Yi and discussed prospects for the US-China cooperation on Afghanistan. While the two agreed on the need to address shared challenges in the war-torn country, their priorities and conditions for cooperation differed. Blinken emphasized the need to pressure the Taliban to ensure Afghan people’s access to humanitarian assistance, uphold commitments to human rights, and guarantee that the Afghan territory will not become a hotbed for global terrorism. Although Wang Yi warned that the post-withdrawal conditions offer “an opportunity to various terrorist groups in Afghanistan to resurge,” he took a critical view of America’s ‘double standards’ on counter-terrorism (criticizing removal of anti-China ETIM from the US list of terrorist), and urged all parties to make contact with the Taliban and proactively guide them to combat terrorism and violence.

Wang Yi also pointed to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US against the Taliban regime which has created barriers for the provision of aid assistance to the Afghan people. In a recent report prepared by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), Willian Byrd attributes the abrupt cut-off of aid– around $8 billion annually –plus the freezing of $9.4 billion of Afghanistan’s assets by the US as the primary reasons for the deteriorating economic situation in Afghanistan. However, the US has relaxed sanctions by issuing ‘general licenses’ that allow aid agencies to provide relief to the Afghan people while maintaining economic leverage over the Taliban to prevent human rights abuses and terrorism. Yet, the Afghan banking system is still held hostage by the US sanctions. The banks are not willing to risk investment in sectors sanctioned by the US which reduces macroeconomic activities to the detriment of the socioeconomic stability of the Afghan people. Also, the frozen assets of $7 billion will be released by the Biden administration, but through a controversial order that split the assets in half between the Afghan people and victims of 9/11, a move that the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai termed as an ‘atrocity against Afghans’.

The UN has also launched its One-UN Transitional Engagement Framework (TEF) to spend $8 billion to save Afghan lives by providing ‘food, services, and community systems’ in Afghanistan. Although the US continues to be the leading donor with a commitment of $308 million in aid, these measures fall too short of addressing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. China has also started to deliver its promised aid of $31 million, including food and medicine, while Pakistan has pledged $28 million worth of food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

While speaking at the online event on January 27, organized by the Atlantic Council on “Lesson from the Afghanistan experience; Protecting future US assistance for the Afghan people”, some experts, such as John F. Sofko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), warned about the lack of on-ground oversight that could potentially divert foreign aid to the Taliban regime before reaching the people. However, William Byrd concludes in his report that the risk that humanitarian aid “will materially support the Taliban in a substantial way is acceptably low compared to the costs of a continued economic implosion.” Even if the risk of diversion is present, there is the potential for Pakistan and China, whose missions are operating in Kabul, to compensate for the lack of Western diplomatic presence when it comes to on-the-ground oversight.

Pakistan’s Priorities in Afghanistan

Much like China and the US, the primary motivation behind Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan stems from its domestic security from cross-border terrorism. Although Pakistan has supported the Afghan Taliban for a long time, the latter’s military takeover and weakened political control has become a challenge for Islamabad. Despite numerous military operations such the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the tribal regions along its Western frontier, the TTP operating from bases in Southern Afghanistan continues to represent a whole of a society threat to Islamabad.

Since the Taliban’s takeover, terrorist attacks from across the border have increased. According to a report by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), the TTP carried out 95 attacks in 2020 and the number was 44 in the first half of 2021. Following Taliban’s takeover in Kabul, the TTP activities have increased and between July and September 2021, they have carried out 44 cross border attacks that killed 73 people. Apart from the TTP, the spillover of the ISIS-K in affiliation with the TTP presents an even greater threat to Pakistan’s domestic security and stability. The Afghan Taliban’s apparent refusal to break off ties with their ‘ideological twin’ TTP is a major concern. In fact, the Taliban regime seems to have influenced Islamabad’s policy choices – asking for a negotiated settlement with the TTP – which eventually failed in October last year followed by a rise in terrorist attacks.

In addition to security imperatives, Pakistan expects large-scale influx of Afghan refugees. It is already hosting three million Afghan refugees, many unregistered, dating back from the Soviet invasion in 1979. Pakistan’s economy is less able to support more.

Highlighting Pakistan’s role in future stability in Afghanistan, Elizabeth Threlkeld, Director of South Asia Program at Stimson Center, argues that positive relations with Pakistan are necessary to foster stability and development in Afghanistan. However, the road to peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan is still blocked by a number of challenges including sovereignty concerns, security interests, cross-border ties, geopolitical dynamics, connectivity and trade. While Taliban’s takeover in Kabul may apparently have consolidated Pakistan’s influence in the country, the former’s position on the Durand Line, recent events of tensions over border fencing, and Afghan Taliban’s support to the TTP highlights cracks in the otherwise amicable relations between Pakistan and the Taliban regime. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Dr. Moeed Yousuf’s recent visit has allowed the two countries to coordinate on border management, discuss humanitarian aid, and agree on trade in local currencies as a remedy for the collapse of Afghanistan’s banking system; however, the border fence issue remained unaddressed.

While differences with regional countries on Afghanistan have been abound, Pakistan shares an interest in the Taliban crackdown on terrorist groups and stop Afghanistan descend into a breeding ground of terrorism.

US and China in Afghanistan: Not a Zero-Sum Game

China’s role as the principal aid provider and investor in Afghanistan is of paramount significance to post-war reconstruction efforts. Criticism in Washington of China’s growing presence is marginally legitimate; yet, instability presents an opportunity for the two competing great powers to cooperate on shared political and security interests without compromising on their core values. For the US, this should be more consistent with President Biden’s foreign policy approach as outlined by Secretary Blinken that “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” The predicament in Afghanistan presents an opportunity for the two great powers to collaborate and build consensus on confronting shared security challenges in the region.

Given China’s close communication with the Taliban regime, the Taliban has already distanced itself from the Uighur militants and promised to crack down on the ETIM affiliates in Afghanistan. Similarly, America’s engagement with the Taliban can help motivate action against ISIS-K and other terrorist organizations including the ETIM and the TTP to curb regional and global terrorism. American aid to the Afghan people could enable the Taliban to focus on rising security challenges that it, too, shares with the US, China, and Pakistan. This does not necessarily mean recognizing the Taliban regime, but leveraging socioeconomic assistance so that the Taliban can take stronger action against Al-Qaeda, ISIS-K, ETIM, Bloch insurgents and the TTP, and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for other terrorist activites.

While some experts have framed recent events in Afghanistan as zero-sum game where America’s loss is framed as win for China and vice versa, Andrew Scobell, distinguished fellow at China Program at the USIP, argues that the collapse of the pro-Western government and takeover of Taliban does not translate automatically into significant gains for China. Instead, challenges in Afghanistan require a coordinated response from China and the US. China is already involved in providing political and socioeconomic support in Afghanistan. The Biden administration needs to maximize the scope of diplomatic communication with Beijing and Islamabad, and coordinate efforts to address these shared challenges in Afghanistan.

At this critical juncture, Afghanistan presents challenges and opportunities for both China and the US, and their cooperation by working together in addressing humanitarian challenges is inevitable to counter the shared security threats in the ‘Heart of Asia.’

Islamabad in the Lead

Pakistan could take a leading role in facilitating cooperation and coordination between the US and China. Despite Western concerns about Pakistan’s assistance to the Taliban over the last two decades, Islamabad has remained a primary diplomatic and political partner for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s takeover in Kabul, the Taliban regime has sought Pakistan’s help in developing a political consensus on alleviating the socioeconomic conditions in the country. Its Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi visited Pakistan for the troika- plus meeting with representatives from China, Pakistan, Russia, and the US in November last year while Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yousuf’s recent meeting with Afghanistan’s acting deputy Prime Minister and FM Muttaqi helped strengthen humanitarian and economic engagement. The recent Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit convened by Islamabad in December 2021 was also welcomed and attended both by China and the US. Furthermore, in November, 2021 Pakistan hosted diplomats from the US, China, and Russia in the ‘troika plus’ meeting which was focused on finding ways to avert a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. More such initiatives and tripartite efforts among the three capitals could facilitate political stability and socioeconomic recovery in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s role as facilitator aside, Islamabad has also stressed that the international community engage the Taliban and respond ‘positively and generously’ to the UN appeal for humanitarian assistance under its UN-TEF. In a statement on January 28 2021, Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram warned against renewed chaos, conflict, and return of terrorism in the absence of a robust humanitarian assistance to the Afghan population.

China and Pakistan have many times urged the US to unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets and called upon the international countries to expedite humanitarian aid to the Afghan people. In the most recent meeting between Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, the two leaders discussed the extension of the multi-billion project of CPEC to Afghanistan and pledged to revive the China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral foreign ministers dialogue. The Biden administration has also indicated easing sanctions on the Taliban to help the Afghan people. Linda Thomas Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, has stated that “while Afghan Central Bank reserves held in the United States are subject to ongoing litigation, we recognize calls to examine making available reserves to help the people of Afghanistan.” While the funds are now available in half, the Biden administration needs to step up its humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people or at least rescind its controversial to split the Afghan central bank’s assets. While the three countries share the fundamental security interests in Afghanistan, their coordination and shared working mechanism is necessary to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is experiencing socioeconomic and political turmoil and is struggling to feed its people. Islamabad enjoys relatively greater influence in Kabul and is the Taliban’s principle diplomatic and political conduit to the international community, and Pakistan can help facilitate joint US-China action on Afghanistan. Although China is engaged and willing to continue reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, its approach towards a coordinated response should be unconditional and separated from other areas of competition in its bilateral relations with the US. Pakistan’s role as a facilitator depends largely on how Islamabad is able to resolve its own differences with the Taliban, such as with regards to border disputes and cross-border terrorism as well as maintaining a neutral approach towards its ‘iron brother’ China and the US as its long-term partner in counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

The onus is on China, the US, and Pakistan to develop a coordinated response towards alleviating the socioeconomic situation in Afghanistan and encouraging the Taliban’s counter-terrorism efforts. Failure to do so will have damaging consequences for the region and beyond.