The second major attack on Chinese targets in Kabul in just weeks, this incident has served as a notice that the superpower’s ambitions for energy pipelines cutting across Central and South Asia might prove to be pipe dreams.
Like the United States and Soviet Union before it, China is being taught that being the pre-eminent power in Afghanistan is not necessarily a good thing. The unhappy fate of Marty Miller’s efforts is a cautionary tale for all who play the Great Game.
The Islamic State war on China
The man standing in the way of China’s ambitions to reshape Afghanistan is a one-time engineering student who was just two years old when the Taliban captured power in 1996 in Kabul. Belonging to a family with deep links to the Hezb-e Islami of the jihadist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—who was ejected from power in Kabul by the Taliban—Sanaullah Ghafari is believed to have been introduced to jihadist circles while studying at Kabul University, scholar Amir Jadoon and her co-authors have recorded.
Fighting under the command of Tajmir Jawad—a senior commander in the networks of Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani—Ghafari played a key role in facilitating suicide bombings targeting the Afghan government and the US.
Later, Sanaullah drifted into the Islamic State, rising to lead the organisation in 2020. The challenge he faced was significant. The Islamic State had been battered by US-led military operations and fighting with the Taliban. Extreme coercion and extortion, scholar Antonio Giustozzi writes, had also repulsed residents of the areas it controlled. For a while, the organisation seemed destined for extinction.
The rise of the second Islamic Emirate in 2021 gave the Islamic State the opportunity it was seeking. Frustrated rank-and-file Taliban, angry with the spoils of power being monopolised by powerful commanders, began shifting their allegiances. Ethno-linguistic chauvinism in the Taliban, analyst Atal Ahmadzai notes, helped the Islamic State draw in numbers of new recruits from the north and west of Afghanistan.
For its followers, the Islamic State represents authentic jihad, which will continue until the apocalypse. The Taliban’s relationship with China—the latter cast as an oppressor of Muslims in Xinjiang—is projected in Islamic State propaganda as core evidence of the Emirate’s inner corruption.
Even as it rebuilds itself, the Islamic State knows it must prevent the Taliban from stabilising—and to do that, it needs to be sure China’s economic plans foil.
The mirage of mineral wealth
The new oil deal with the Taliban, analyst Catherine Putz notes, is, in fact, an old agreement. Ten years after 9/11, then-Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the US deteriorated over its failure to act against Pakistan for supporting the Taliban. The Afghan government began courting China. Karzai handed a State-owned Chinese company a $3 billion contract to mine copper in Mes Aynak. China also committed to building a railway line to Torkham, connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan’s ports.
Karzai saw the projects as bribes for Beijing: The thinking went that Beijing, in return, would use its influence over Pakistan to push it to rein in the Taliban.
Late in 2011, Karzai’s Afghanistan signed a deal with the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), handing over rights to extract oil from the Amu Darya basin. Then-mining minister Wahidullah Shahrani announced in 2012 that the project had begun drilling for oil. Early the following year, he said commercial exploitation would begin in the summer.
The oil wells stayed dry, though—and six months later, amid escalating violence, CNPC staff left Afghanistan.
Like other great powers involved in Afghanistan, China hopes that it will be able to stabilise the country by unlocking its fabled mineral wealth. Faced with growing concern about the long-term costs of the Afghan campaign, US military commanders had begun talking-up claims of its mineral wealth. The resources, the Pentagon argued, could help lay the foundations for a self-sustaining Afghan State.
Experts like Frik Els have noted the claims were almost certainly exaggerated—and even less impressive if the costs of building infrastructure to process and transport the minerals were factored in. The Taliban insurgency, moreover, made the creation of this infrastructure almost impossible. The Mes Aynak project was abandoned in 2013, along with plans to drill in the Amu Darya basin.
The rise of the Taliban has seen China return—hoping its State-owned enterprises can lay the foundations for stability in Kabul.
China’s Afghanistan trap
Embracing the Taliban is a geopolitical necessity for Beijing. Although China has sunk limited capital in Afghanistan so far, scholar Vanda Febab-Brown has observed that stabilising the country is key to securing its far-larger investments in Central Asia and Pakistan. Insurgency in Afghanistan has ignited large-scale violence across Central Asia before. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—like China—rely on the Taliban to prevent jihadists from attacking from northern Afghanistan.
China also hopes to secure its energy security by building networks of pipelines across Central Asia. Although transporting oil by pipeline is expensive, Andrew Erickson and Gabriel Collins have noted, China sees this as a hedge against Western maritime embargoes.
Finally, China needs a friendly regime in Kabul to effectively target jihadists threatening the restive province of Xinjiang. Lu Shulin, China’s former ambassador to Islamabad, began engaging Taliban leaders before 9/11 to just that end.
Like Lu, US diplomats also hoped to be able to do business with the first Taliban Emirate. In a 1996 meeting with Russia’s deputy foreign minister Albert Chernyshev, US deputy undersecretary of State Robin Raphel said she hoped “peace in the region will help facilitate United States business interests, like the proposed Unocal pipeline”.
Later that year, Raphel arrived in Kabul, calling on the international community to “engage the Taliban”. “The Taliban does not seek to export Islam, only to liberate Afghanistan,” she said. The rise of the Taliban, the US hoped, would end the savage intra-jihadist fighting that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. The pipelines would pay for peace.
The dream that took the Taliban to Sugar Land ended with 9/11. Marty Miller’s dinner guest, foreign minister Muttawakil, ended up in a US-run prison facility at Bagram where he would spend two years. The romance with the Taliban sucked the US into an unwinnable two-decade war it had long sought to avoid—knowing the fate of the Soviet Union after it waded into the Afghan morass.
Even though China knows the road ahead is a treacherous one, it has no choice but to travel the route that led other great powers to perdition.