On the 28th July, Abdul Ghani Akhund, known as Mullah Baradar, visited Tianjin where he met with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Baradur is one of the original founders of the Taliban, and was given the name as an honorific, meaning ‘Brother, by Mullah Omar, his great friend and mentor. He is tipped to become the Taliban President of the country, and arrived on a Qatari Air Force C-17 this week, his first time back in the country since 2001.
We don’t know what they talked about, except those items that were released at the time. The official line from the Chinese was that they hope the Taliban, “will put the interests of the country and nation first, hold high the banner of peace talks, set the goal of peace, build a positive image and pursue an inclusive policy”.
Meanwhile on the Afghan side, Baradar is quoted as saying, “that Afghanistan should develop friendly relations with neighboring countries and the international community. It hopes that China will be more involved in Afghanistan’s peace and reconciliation process and play a bigger role in future reconstruction and economic development. The Afghan Taliban will also make its own efforts toward fostering an enabling investment environment.
This is a major step up for China in the region, irregardless of the fact it has a 47 mile border with Afghanistan. Despite pleadings from the Afghans and the Americans to allow the border to be opened for economic purposes, the Chinese, fearing radical Islamist support for the Uyghur minority in the border Xinjiang province, refused. Part of the reported July deal is that the Taliban will ensure that no such incursion happens.
The reference to reconstruction and economic development fits very nicely with China’s whole belt and road initiative, particularly as the Afghan pan handle and the Wakhjir Pass which constitutes the only reasonable crossing was in times long past part of the original Silk Road. Only in 2009, the Chinese built a spur to the Karakorum Highway to within 7 miles of the border, so ambition is clearly there.
What is also there for the Chinese is the approximately 1 trillion US dollars-worth of mineral wealth in Afghanistan, particularly copper and rare earth materials especially Lithium. Afghanistan was famously described as the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium” by a leaked Department of Defence report in 2010.
China currently produces 23% of the world’s lithium, but despite interesting experiments in the plains of Tibet, it is an expensive hobby. Afghan lithium, if the Americans are removed and the Taliban can stabilise the country for them, now that might be more lucrative.
It is no surprise that the latest and so far, inordinately successful Taliban offensive ramped up a notch after that July meeting. The Taliban may not have had an air force, but they now have political air cover.
The Great Game is what foreign policy, and on the ground activities by the great powers in the region, is called. It is a phrase coined back in 1840, by a British officer, Captain Arthur Conolly, in hope that British involvement would lead to an improved situation for the Afghans. He had his head chopped off in Bukhara two years later for his trouble.
Back then it was a game played by the UK and Russia, later France became involved. Russia pulled out and now the US and the UK have too. But what we can see is that China is now picking up the cards. Russia is too.
The one significant local player of the game that has yet to clearly show its hand is India. With China seemingly muscling in, it cannot be long before Delhii starts to put some cards on the table. What they are we do not yet know.