China is sending strong signals it will soon grant official recognition to the Taliban. Image: Getty

The Taliban have warned that there will be consequences if the Biden administration extends the timeline for its deployment at Kabul Airport beyond August 31.

Britain is pressing for an extension backed by France and Germany, while US President Joe Biden remains ambivalent despite the war lobby in his country piling pressure on him. 

On the ground, the evacuation at Kabul Airport remains a daunting task. Most certainly, such a massive evacuation cannot be completed in another week. There is no knowing even how many hundreds or thousands of Americans may still be in Afghanistan. 

It is implausible that the Taliban won’t negotiate; there is remarkable consistency so far in their hesitancy to confront the US. To be sure, Pakistan also must be working behind the scenes to avert a flashpoint. 

However, the clash at Kabul Airport on Monday involving American and German soldiers shows that the situation is dynamic and liable to change from hour to hour. The Pentagon briefing on Monday played it down, calling it an “incident,” and continued to maintain that the US military and the Taliban have a good working relationship. 

Biden is under immense domestic pressure on the botched-up evacuation. Therefore, the Taliban’s cooperation is vital. But the Taliban’s plan is to announce the new government only after the foreign troops have fully evacuated.

US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. Photo: AFP / Wakil Kohsar

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has been quoted as saying, “There will be no new government in Afghanistan until the last US soldier leaves the country.” 

Herein lies the catch. The Taliban plan was to go ahead with the formation of an inclusive government within two weeks so that the legitimacy of state power was enhanced. This would also be the advice of Russia, China and Iran, which are interested in an orderly transition without much delay. 

A statement by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on Monday underscored the importance of “responsibly” restoring the legitimacy of state power “through an inclusive peaceful dialogue with the interests of all social, political, ethnic and religious groups taken into account.”

Importantly, the SCO flagged its intention “to join international efforts to stabilize and develop Afghanistan with the central coordinating role of the UN.” 

The Global Times reported on Monday that China is deliberating on its investment strategies in Afghanistan in anticipation of Western sanctions against the Taliban. The state-owned enterprises reportedly may prefer a wait-and-see approach, but private companies are “eager to tap into a market where ‘a thousand things wait to be done.’” 

The Chinese companies are banking on the Taliban’s goodwill and hope to cash in on the Western sanctions. 

The Global Times report openly flaunts “China’s successful diplomacy with the Taliban, which lays the foundation for the safe and smooth operation of Chinese businesses in Afghanistan.” Second, the report assumes a radical improvement in the security situation.

Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on August 16, 2021, after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war. Photo: AFP

There is even optimism regarding the commencement of work on the giant copper mine project in Mes Aynak (reputed to be one of the world’s largest untouched copper deposits, which contains some 450 million metric tons of ore worth at least US$50 billion).

Another Global Times commentary last week asserted that China is determined to pursue cooperation with the Taliban to extract Afghanistan’s vast rare-earth metals that are estimated to be worth anywhere between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.

It disclosed that unnamed US mining companies have hitherto enjoyed exclusive privileges in exploiting rare resources in Afghanistan but the Taliban takeover is “undoubtedly a heavy blow to US economic interests.”

On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed the hope that “Afghanistan will form an open, inclusive, and broadly representative government, adopt moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies and conform to the aspiration of its people and the common expectation of the international community.” 

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also stated Beijing’s “hopes to see an early end to turbulence and restoration of economic and financial order” in Afghanistan.

He said, “China stands ready to continue to play an active role in promoting peace and reconstruction in Afghanistan, and helping the nation to enhance the ability to achieve self-development and improve people’s livelihood.” 

This is the nearest China has come to announcing its strategy to spearhead the Afghan reconstruction. No doubt, the Belt and Road Initiative is poised to take a big leap forward in the region.

Nine Taliban representatives meet with Chinese officials in Tianjin. In the center are Taliban co-founder Mullah Baladar and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

China is positioning itself accordingly. With both Pakistan and Iran as close allies, China’s economic and strategic footprints are slated to expand phenomenally in the Central Asian and West Asian region. 

Indian strategists should anticipate all this instead of bandwagoning with the US and lingering in the shade brooding. The single biggest outcome of the Afghan developments will be that the leitmotif of regional politics is shifting toward geo-economics. And early birds, as they say, catch worms. 

The investments in Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran should not go to waste. The new thinking to plow a fresh start to India-Iran cooperation dovetails with the huge economic challenges and opportunities of Afghan reconstruction. Bold thinking is needed. Like China, India should connect the dots and move ahead with a holistic picture and long-term perspective.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.