The dragon in the Hindu Kush: China’s interests in Afghanistan

April 20, 2009

The dragon in the Hindu Kush: China’s interests in Afghanistan


It appears that China is forging closer ties with post-Taliban Afghanistan. Afghanistan, meanwhile, is also undoubtedly interested in Chinese investment as it seeks to diversify its international relations away from the West. However, China’s increasing interest in Afghanistan creates a host of implications – within Afghanistan, China and the region as a whole.

Three reasons stand out as explanations for China’s increasing involvement.

First, China requires natural resources from abroad to fuel its fast-growing economy. Afghanistan possesses a critical set of natural resources. In 2008, China’s Jiangxi Copper Co. and China Metallurgical Group Corp. jointly invested approximately US$3.5-billion to acquire 100-per-cent mining rights to Afghanistan’s Aynak copper field, the world’s largest unexploited copper field. This contract was a significant victory for China, the world’s largest copper consumer.

Second, both China and Afghanistan share an interest in combatting the “three evils” of extremism, terrorism and separatism. For Beijing, these “three evils” are located primarily in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, which shares a 76-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan and is populated by Muslim Uyghurs. According to Beijing, members of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have been going into Afghanistan from Xinjiang since the late 1990s to receive training and support from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, thereafter re-entering China and conducting terrorist acts in an effort to gain independence.

This outcome is unacceptable to the Chinese Communist Party, whose legitimacy rests partially on its ability to keep China unified. The loss of Xinjiang might embolden Tibet to seek greater autonomy, if not outright separation; it might also encourage Taiwan to declare official independence. As a result, China has beefed up its border security in this area. Whether it intends to secure this border from within Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Finally, a stable Afghanistan can help China attain its broader regional interests. Bringing security and stability to Afghanistan will require bringing an end to the material and territorial support provided by Pakistani militants in the Afghan-Pakistan border region; this might help ensure the survival of a regime in Pakistan that remains friendly to China. Moreover, it can help protect Chinese strategic and economic interests in Pakistan that intersect with Afghanistan. China has invested heavily in the strategically important deep sea port of Gwadar in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan’s unstable southeast. The port lies some 400 kilometres east of the Strait of Hormuz, through which 60 per cent of China’s oil imports travel. It also provides China with a forward operating base from which to better project its naval power and ensure the safe passage of its seaborne energy shipments. A new rail line linking the Aynak copper mine with Gwadar is being considered, as is another linking Gwadar with China’s western line in Xinjiang province.

Having another player in the contemporary Afghan “great game” is a cause for both hope and concern. Beijing has an interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan as it provides a safe environment in which to exploit resources. In the short term, it seems China will free ride on the provision of security by NATO and Kabul. For instance, security for the Aynak mine is provided by the American and Afghan militaries.

This may develop into more direct intervention if China feels its interests cannot be secured; it might also apply pressure on Pakistan to rein in extremist elements in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. This could improve the overall security situation while providing an opportunity for co-operation between Chinese and Western forces. In any case, the security dimension will undoubtedly become more important for China should it invest further in Afghanistan.

There are also potentially negative implications. China’s involvements abroad are based on letting countries develop socially, political and economically at their own pace and in their own way. Greater Chinese involvement could further hold back Afghanistan’s social and political development. It could also make its rival India nervous about being buffeted from the west.

But whatever turn China’s involvement in Afghanistan ultimately takes, we must pay attention as this is a part of the world where we have invested much blood and treasure.

Thomas Adams is strategic studies staff officer with the Canadian International Council in Toronto. Arnav Manchanda is defence policy analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations in Ottawa.

Rights Watchdog: Ban Warlords From Afghan Election

April 19, 2009

Rights Watchdog: Ban Warlords From Afghan Election

KABUL (Reuters) — Afghans accused of human rights violations over three decades of war should be barred from running in the August 20 presidential election, a commissioner of the state-appointed rights watchdog said.

Western backers of Afghanistan, which is in the grip of a growing Taliban insurgency, have pledged extra troops for securing the poll and for paying most of the cost of $230 million for the vote, the second direct one in the country’s history.

The official nomination of candidates is planned for next week, and names that have appeared on unofficial lists include warlords linked with past crimes, Ahmad Nader Nadery, officer of the Independent Human Rights Commission told Reuters in an interview.

Without naming names, Nadery said a culture of impunity since Taliban’s fall meant that human rights abusers managed to stand in the 2004 poll as candidates for president or one of two posts as deputies, and the case was same this time.

“We are concerned again with the lack of a mechanism that would properly screen individuals (with) past human rights records,” he said.

Afghanistan’s new constitution, drawn up after the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, says members or leaders of armed groups, as well as individuals sentenced by a court for war crimes, are not eligible to run for the office of president, Nadery said.

Afghanistan has been caught in a cycle of foreign interventions and civil war for 30 years. Leaders of many former warring factions — many of whom have been accused by rights groups of abuse — now occupy positions in the government of President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the multi-ethnic nation since Taliban’s ouster and won the 2004 poll.

Nadery said members of the public can complain to the election commission about past rights abuses by candidates, but neither the commission nor the government had drafted rules for a mechanism to bar warlords or abusers from office.

Afghanistan has not set up a special court to hear cases of past abuse, and Nadery said Karzai and his Western backers have lacked the political will to put warlords on trial for fear of stoking more violence while the Taliban insurgency rages.

“There is a false belief in the international community — if they touch the justice issue then this fragile peace will be challenged as well. Surveys and studies have showed that in Afghanistan it’s actually the other way round,” he said.

“People talk about justice and good governance as a means to promote peace. The Taliban are finding their way in the villages and provinces because people are disillusioned with the government officials,” he said.

“If you establish justice and good governance, and remove these people from office, you would actually help build confidence of the population in government. That in itself would serve as a preventive measure against the Taliban.”