The Taliban’s rapid return to power in Afghanistan has drawn more criticism for the US withdrawal, including that the US is ceding strategically valuable ground to China.
That warning has come from current and former US officials and other observers, but experts told Insider that the US exit likely presents China with new concerns about its neighbor and costs the US little in terms of strategic positioning.
In a mid-June interview, Gen Frank McKenzie, who oversees US military operations in the Middle East, said he suspected China would pursue economic interests in Afghanistan after the US departure.
“I think they would like to get in for the mass mineral deposits that exist on the ground in Afghanistan and in other places,” McKenzie told Military Times.
Later that month, Rep. Mike Waltz, a Republican and former Green Beret, suggested that Afghanistan’s Bagram airbase could be useful for operations against China — specifically against ICBM facilities in western China.
“If you are ever asked to undertake any type of unconventional warfare activities against the Chinese Communist Party, it’s notable that most of their new nuclear capabilities coming online are in western China, 400 miles from Bagram,” Waltz said to Gen. Richard Clarke, the head of US Special Operations Command, during a hearing.
“It doesn’t help us, I don’t think, reputationally in connection with the competition with China, and it doesn’t help us geostrategically, either,” H.R. McMaster, a retired general and former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said this week.
“Wherever the US sets foot, be it Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, we see turbulence, division, broken families, deaths and other scars in the mess it has left,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Tuesday.
Despite its rhetoric, Beijing has plenty worry about.
China’s interests in Afghanistan “are dominated by security considerations” in the near- to medium-term, Daniel Markey, a professor in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, told Insider in July.
Beijing’s chief concern is the Taliban or other fundamentalists, including Uighurs, causing trouble either indirectly through threats to Chinese interests in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, or directly through activity in China, particularly in Xinjiang Province, said Markey, an expert on South Asia.
The US withdrawal has also renewed discussion of Chinese economic involvement in Afghanistan, but with heightened instability and uncertainty about Afghanistan’s new rulers, it’s not clear that China stands to benefit.
The US at times encouraged Chinese investment in Afghanistan, but “results were modest at best,” Markey said. Two major projects begun there a decade ago stalled, and talk of extending the Belt and Road Initiative amounted to little.
A Taliban spokesman said in July that the group would guarantee the safety of Chinese investors and workers in Afghanistan, but security concerns will likely continue to limit Chinese investments there, which are modest but important, Sean Roberts, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, told Insider in July.
“The security of these interests benefited from the US military presence,” added Roberts, an expert on Central Asia.
China has already “cultivated direct ties” to different groups in Afghanistan, Markey said. The possibility of renewed resistance to Taliban rule in northern Afghanistan may mean China will have to continue navigating between those factions.
Beijing is likely to rely heavily on Pakistan to maintain stability in Afghanistan, but whether competing factions in Islamabad can unite in that goal remains to be seen.
“I believe that Beijing would prefer not to become entangled with either the internal politics or the security situation” in Afghanistan, Roberts said, “but this will be increasingly more difficult to do given the US military withdrawal.”
Just as the US withdrawal does little to improve China’s security situation, it has limited effect on the US’s ability to counter China militarily, according to Gil Barndollar, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.
Afghanistan’s roughly 60-mile border with China is mostly high-altitude, impassable mountain terrain. “You’ve got this tiny little piece of Afghanistan that borders western China. That doesn’t give you a heck of lot,” Barndollar told Insider.
That region is far from Chinese industrial, military, and population centers, and in a major war the narrow frontier “makes the Chinese problem with targeting anything coming through there much easier,” added Barndollar, who twice deployed to Afghanistan as a Marine.
The Biden administration has discounted the value of a military presence in Afghanistan for countering China and other neighboring countries, including Iran.
“One small silver lining is that this is now somebody else’s problem,” Barndollar said. “We should be looking forward to unloading that problem on … regional powers.”
‘A real test’ for China
China has moderated its embrace of the Taliban in recent days, after its welcoming language prompted backlash at home.
“The top priority for the international community is to help and encourage different factions and ethnic groups in Afghanistan to … find an open and inclusive political framework that is accepted by the Afghan people,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Friday.
It’s unclear if China can help stabilize Afghanistan, but the US shouldn’t necessarily object if it tries, Roberts said.
“I think the US should welcome China’s involvement in Afghanistan rather than view it as a threat,” Roberts said. “It presents a real test of whether Beijing can be a responsible actor on the world stage.”
Asked in July if the Pentagon had any strategic concerns about an increased Chinese presence in Afghanistan, chief spokesman John Kirby told Insider that “our hope” is countries seeking involvement in Afghanistan “do so with the Afghan people the foremost in mind and … with a spirit of supporting a negotiated political solution.”
While critics have said the shambolic withdrawal means Afghanistan will need continued US attention and resources, Biden himself has argued the benefits of ending the war are clear.
“Our true strategic competitors — China and Russia — would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely,” Biden said this week.