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China’s Clouded Future in Afghanistan

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China’s Clouded Future in Afghanistan

Will Islamic State Khorasan Province push Beijing to abandon Kabul?

China’s Clouded Future in Afghanistan

The first consignment of Chinese commercial goods arrives by train through a new economic corridor linking China with Afghanistan, Sept. 22, 2022.

Credit: Chinese Embassy in Kabul

More than a year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the country is now facing a new terrorist threat that is making it more risky and difficult for China to commit to the region.

While the Islamic State (IS) has been weakened globally since its territorial defeat in 2019, it continues to thrive in Afghanistan. A new U.N. report on the threat posed by the group published in early February describes Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) as effectively establishing itself as “the primary rival” to the Taliban. The group continues to launch monthly attacks in Afghanistan and is now carrying out more impactful bombings than previously. Over the past several months it mounted dozens of attacks injuring dozens of people, including a suicide bombing against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul January that led to more than 50 casualties.

One could dismiss such attacks in the first months following the takeover and give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt as they were trying to consolidate their rule. However, it is now abundantly clear that the Taliban are simply not able to ensure security in places such as Kabul. The fact that ISKP has been increasingly able to mount major attacks against targets such as the Foreign Ministry or Kabul Longan Hotel in December 2022 point toward the fact that Taliban’s security provisions are failing heavily. This is despite frequent and abundant reports of them dismantling ISKP hideouts across the country over the past year.

However, in a more concerning development, ISKP is now also trying to drive a wedge between the Taliban and countries that are relatively supportive of the new regime in Kabul. This has been seen primarily in ISKP efforts to target diplomatic missions such as the Russian and Pakistani embassies in September and December 2022, respectively. In particular, ISKP is actively targeting China, which has become especially close with the Taliban regime.

Indeed the Taliban arguably perceive Beijing as a potential source of economic investment following the U.S. withdrawal. China on some occasions has reinforced Taliban hopes by suggesting Beijing plans to increase its engagement not only economically, but also in the area of security.

Islamic State’s targeting of China in its propaganda can be traced back several years ago. In 2015, IS released one of its songs in Mandarin, urging Chinese Muslims to join its ranks. But it is only recently – since the Taliban came to power – that we have seen a concentrated effort by the group to promote its message on China. Already last year, reports by some media (and the United Nations) indicated that a suicide bomber who attacked a Shiite mosque in Kunduz in October 2021 was an ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang.

ISKP’s online propaganda has become increasingly targeted toward China in recent months. The group recently declared liberating Uyghurs as among its great interests while threatening attacks against Chinese, U.S., and Russian interests. In a sign of this, in December 2022 the group attacked a hotel in downtown Kabul popular with Chinese citizens, injuring at least five of them.

It is reasonable to assume that ISKP’s increased focus on its campaign against China is rooted in the permissive environment for jihadists that Afghanistan currently provides. Among other consequences, the lax security environment enables cooperation between various groups. Already last year the U.N. reported that ISKP has been actively recruiting fighters from the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) under the leadership of a “Uyghur team.”

However, it is in the most recent report that the organization clearly points toward potential cooperation between ISKP and the TIP, a group China has been historically the most wary of (although Beijing conflates the group with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, and generally uses that name). The U.N. report notes that the two have been cooperating in issuing propaganda in the Uyghur language, exchanging personnel and military advice, as well as planning joint attacks and joint purchase of weapons. This is particularly significant as the TIP has been previously aligned with al-Qaida, a rival of ISKP.

ISKP’s campaign against China could lead to several possible developments, none of which augur well for Afghanistan. More than a year after the Taliban takeover, China’s economic presence continues to fall short of promises. A recent documentary published by Al Jazeera examining the influx of Chinese entrepreneurs to Afghanistan portrays a rather bleak picture of where things might be headed. The truth is that despite more favorable rulers in Kabul, Beijing is likely to remain extremely cautious of its commitment to the country and not risk a major security incident. In December 2022 China urged its citizens to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible following the suicide bombing against the hotel in Kabul.

Historical precedent also shows that Beijing has no problems changing its course of its policy 180 degrees once things get too difficult. China’s government previously did so in Angola, for instance, although for various different reasons. Beijing has been generally cautious once things begin to escalate even if it has strong interests involved, such as in the case of Sri Lanka.

There is also another potential issue that will very likely motivate China to think twice about its commitment to Afghanistan: Pakistan. Islamabad seems headed toward a deep economic and security crisis, with the latter being almost certainly an outcome of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. China’s close ties with Pakistan and its major investment in CPEC make Beijing uncomfortably exposed to any instability. And in a scenario in which Pakistan becomes particularly destabilized, Afghanistan would almost certainly suffer even greater consequences and plunge deeper into crisis.