Delegation from militants meets Chinese foreign minister as Beijing seeks to extend influence in Afghanistan
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, left, the Taliban co-founder, and the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, meeting in Tianjin, China, on Wednesday. Photograph: Li Ran/AP
The Guardian-Emma Graham-Harrison
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said that Beijing’s interest in Afghanistan could be a “positive thing”, after China gave a warm and very public welcome to a senior Taliban delegation.
Nine officials from the militant group, which is eager for political recognition to bolster the impact of its military victories across much of Afghanistan, met China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, in the coastal city of Tianjin on Wednesday.
Photographs showed Wang welcoming Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar , the Taliban’s co-founder and head of its political commission, with open arms, then sitting down for talks with the Taliban delegation.
China hosted Taliban representatives in 2019, and is thought to maintain unofficial links with the group through its ally Pakistan.
Wang said the withdrawal of American and Nato troops, which will be officially completed by the end of August, “marks the failure of the US policy toward Afghanistan”. He called the Taliban “an important military and political force in Afghanistan”, and urged the group to make progress in peace talks.
Although the US might once have fiercely resisted Chinese attempts to increase their influence inside Afghanistan, now Washington’s priority appears to be staving off a collapse into full civil war.
Blinken, asked during a trip to India about the Taliban’s China visit, said a greater role for Beijing in Afghan affairs could be a “positive thing”. “Neighbouring countries of Afghanistan have an interest in the region … but no one has an interest in the region falling into an enduring civil war or the hands of the Taliban,” he told India’s CNN-News18 television. “If China and other countries are working on that interest, then it’s a positive thing.”
The Taliban launched a military offensive at the start of May and have since taken control of more than half of rural Afghanistan, encircled and threatened many large cities, and seized lucrative border crossings, including ones on the borders with Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Although peace talks have been under way in Doha for months, they have stalled since the Taliban began their campaign. Afghan government negotiators say that after months of military gains the group has become openly contemptuous, and has described negotiations as “surrender talks”.
The scale and speed of the Taliban’s advance appear to have taken many by surprise, from regional powers to US authorities – who have said in private briefings that Kabul could fall within six months.
Although most of Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Beijing, are happy to see the US bases and military infrastructure on their doorstep dismantled, they fear what may come next.
In the 1990s, after the Soviet forces retreated, Afghanistan slid into civil war, which allowed al-Qaida to find a foothold and sent millions of refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries.
Beijing is especially concerned about the prospect of Afghanistan becoming a base for Uyghur militants from China’s western Xinjiang province, where authorities maintain vast networks of internment camps for mostly Muslim minorities.
Afghanistan and China share a border, although it is only 47 miles long and sits in the Himalayas at more than 4,000 metres (13,000ft), deep in snow most of the year, so would not make an easy transit route.
Wang said the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) … poses a direct threat to China’s national security and territorial integrity. Combating the ETIM is a common responsibility for the international community”.
A Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, confirmed that Baradar had promised “the territory of Afghanistan will not be used against security of any country including China.”
China also has commercial incentives to build ties with the Taliban. Afghanistan’s rich mineral reserves have drawn investment from Beijing for decades, and it sits on important trade routes if security can be improved.
Chinese interests in neighbouring Pakistan have been a repeated target for militants, but the Taliban has promised to woo China rather than attack it. The Chinese said in a statement that the Taliban hoped that “China will be more involved in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process and play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development”.
But the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, urged international leaders to challenge the Taliban’s presentation of themselves as a government in waiting. “These are not the Taliban of the 20th century … but the manifestation of the nexus between transnational terrorist networks and transnational criminal organisations,” he said.
The Afghan government has shifted military strategy, focusing its resources on protecting cities and strategic areas such as border crossings, and hopes to fight to a stalemate that will force the Taliban back to the negotiating table.