Shocking news came out of Afghanistan recently when the Taliban announced a $540 million oil extraction deal with the People’s Republic of China. The agreement, the Taliban’s first major energy investment contract since its 2021 takeover, represents China’s growing strategic interest in the Islamic Emirate. Despite the growing number of terrorist attacks targeting Chinese nationals in the region, the PRC is showing no signs of stopping its global imperial project in the Muslim world. Instead, this recent deal is a prelude to closer economic and security cooperation between Kabul and Beijing, a partnership that will jeopardize Washington’s vested interests in the region while limiting America’s ability to respond.
Conflicting Loyalties and Bedfellows
The January 5 extraction agreement was announced amid escalatory violence against Chinese nationals in Afghanistan. Last month, gunmen from ISIS-K, the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot, targeted a Kabul hotel popular with Chinese businessmen, injuring dozens though no foreigners were killed. Building off the December attack, ISIS-K returned with a suicide bombing outside the Kabul Foreign Ministry during a scheduled meeting between Taliban and PRC officials. The message could not be clearer as jihadists implement a strategy of destabilizing the Taliban’s grip by attacking its few financial benefactors, China being the biggest one.
Despite the growing terrorist threat and jihadists explicitly targeting Beijing in their propaganda, the PRC still signed off on a half-billion-dollar deal to exploit the country’s oil reserves. Why? Part of it is China’s growing demand for crude oil as the country reopens after three years of zero-COVID.
The Amu Darya Basin in northern Afghanistan where the extractions are to take place contains an estimated 87 million barrels worth of crude oil. But outside of Beijing’s energy needs is the resource gold mine that Afghanistan sits on. The emirate’s mostly untapped cache of iron ore, aluminum, copper, lithium, chromite, and other precious metals and rare-earth minerals exceeds $1 trillion. As the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Afghanistan is prime for resource exploitation by the PRC as China’s hunger for the metal grows with its increasing electric car demand. The recent oil deal is certainly going to be a stepping stone for Beijing’s growing economic tendrils with “a lot of Chinese companies nosing around Afghanistan” according to Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on China’s influence in the Muslim world.
Human Rights and Acts of Terror
Furthermore, the Taliban’s human rights record limits what the U.S. can do to counter Beijing’s malign influence. From banning women from receiving higher education to the summary execution of dissidents, the Taliban turned Afghanistan into a “human rights nightmare,” according to Fereshta Abbasi of Human Rights Watch. Because the recent energy agreement helps bolster the Afghan theocracy, the U.S. cannot simply offer itself as an alternative for Kabul. If America has its hands tied in curtailing China’s influence in the country, what can disrupt these two malign states from locking arms? Experts such as Professor Zhu Yongbiao of Lanzhou University have argued that the recent terror attacks demonstrate that the deteriorating situation in the country may cause “long-term threats on a large scale” for Chinese state-owned enterprises. However, Responsible Statecraft notes that while terrorism is a concern, “in the long run the Chinese will continue their engagement with the country” given the nation’s resources are critical for the Belt and Road Initiative.
Additionally, while jihadists are expected to ramp up their assaults on Chinese nationals and foreign investment in the new year, the regime in Kabul is actively cooperating with Beijing to maintain security.
Days after the December hotel attack, the Taliban launched several raids on ISIS-K hideouts in the country, acquiescing to Beijing’s calls to keep its citizens safe. Despite the PRC’s genocidal campaign against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the Islamic Emirate proves more than willing to kill other jihadis for closer relations with the atheist communists in Beijing. Washington is thus backed into a corner. Investing in Afghanistan would prop up a regime it fought to a standstill for two decades while the Reagan-esque idea of covertly supporting Islamic militants to fight a communist superpower is ridiculous to even the most ardent China hawks.
But shouldn’t all of this have been anticipated in the first place? The American withdrawal in 2021 left a vacuum that was would be filled by totalitarian states and terrorist groups. China, Russia, and Iran all have their fingers in the Afghanistan pie while the country continues to predictably backslide into a hub for extremists. Now America’s greatest adversary since the Soviet Union has access to one of the most resource-rich countries on the planet because of the U.S. decision to leave. Whether for or against the withdrawal, the geopolitical reality is that what happens in one region of the world will have ramifications across the globe. Afghanistan is not some irrelevant backwater in Central Asia, but a serious strategy consideration for America’s national security interests. China understands and so must the U.S.
About the author: Kyle Sajoyan was a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council. He has written for 19fortyfive and Small Wars Journal.