A tripartite meeting will be held in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan on May 6, which will be attended by the representatives from China, the Taliban, and Pakistan. Taliban Minister of Foreign Affairs Mullah Amir Khan Mutaqi will participate as the Taliban representative. According to reports, as Mutaqi is on the United Nations sanctions list, he would not have been able to participate in this meeting. However, the sanctions committee of this organization has temporarily granted him a travel exemption to Pakistan based on the request of Pakistan’s Special Representative to the United Nations. This comes while on November 29, 2022, and February 22, 2023, Pakistani officials visited Kabul on two occasions, meeting with Taliban officials and sharing their concerns and demands with the group. Both countries have more influence on the Taliban than any other country, and they have not only continued their close engagement with the Taliban but also called on other countries to join them.
After the return of the Taliban to power, many meetings centered on the countries of the region have been held to address the current crisis in Afghanistan, where China and Pakistan also participated. But convening this tripartite meeting in Islamabad with the participation of representatives of China and the Taliban has prompted inquiries. The most important question in this regard is what will Beijing and Islamabad say to the Taliban? To answer this question, it is necessary to address the following points:
There is a link between this meeting and the Doha meeting, which was chaired by the UN Secretary-General regarding Afghanistan. It means that this meeting is a continuation of the previous one. If the Doha meeting had not been held, there would be no clue of holding the Islamabad meeting. It seems that the transmission of the message of the countries participating in the Doha meeting to the Taliban is one of the points that can be discussed in this meeting If this assumption is correct, the messages from Beijing and Islamabad to the Taliban representative will likely contain admonitions and warnings rather than good news. They will tell the Taliban representative that the world will not take a step to recognize their regime until they implement the demands of the world.
The stubbornness and single-mindedness of the Taliban seem to have even offended their supporters and admirers. It is accurate that Beijing and Islamabad are friends of the Taliban, but it does not mean that they will prefer the Taliban amidst the conflict between the world and the Taliban. The world is on one side and the Taliban group is on the other side. For almost two years, the world has not been able to push the Taliban back from its position even slightly, and it is obvious that the continuation of this situation will cause discomfort and dissatisfaction even for the followers of this group.
1) Islamabad is worried about the growth of terrorism in Pakistan. Therefore, the top of the agenda of this meeting will encompass emphasis on the necessity of suppressing Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and demanding cooperation from the Afghan Taliban in this regard. Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban was warm and friendly in the beginning, but after a surge in TTP attacks in Pakistan, the two sides are not talking about consolidating their friendship but rather about endeavoring not to break their relationship. In the official visits of Pakistani authorities to Kabul, it is said that the tone of Pakistanis was not friendly, but authoritarian.
In the beginning, the Pakistanis appeared happy that they would find an open hand to interfere in Afghanistan with the Taliban becoming effective, but the result was otherwise. The TTP broke the ceasefire with the Pakistani army, resuming its attacks against the Pakistani military forces, to the point where the Pakistanis claimed that the group was launching terrorist attacks against Pakistan from Afghanistan. It seems that Pakistan is serious and determined in its fight against TTP and will take any measure necessary to suppress this group, even if that path passes through the territory of Afghanistan. National security is not a commodity that countries can trade.
Pakistanis are trying to ensure their national security by suppressing the TTP, even if these efforts lead to the displeasure of the Taliban and the severing of relations with this group. So far, the Taliban have not been able to meet Pakistan’s demands for cooperation to suppress the TTP, causing Pakistan not to be willing to contribute to the recognition of the Taliban by the world compared to the past. Nonetheless, Pakistan has not completely lost interest in this issue. For example, at the beginning of the Taliban’s return to power, former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan traveled to different countries in the region for the purpose of encouraging these countries to recognize the Taliban.
2) Maintaining the unity between Pakistan and Afghanistan is a concern for China. One of China’s efforts has been to separate Afghanistan from India and bring it closer to Pakistan, but not to make it a sphere of influence of this country. One of the points that will probably be discussed in this meeting will be the necessity of maintaining unity between Pakistan and the Taliban. In order for China to implement its economic plans properly, the friendship between Pakistan and Afghanistan is vital in the past, present, and future. During the presidency of Hamid Karzai and Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, the border conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the suspicion of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban became acute from time to time, destroying the ground for improving the relationship between the two countries.
After the Taliban came to power, the border conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan has not become as acute as it used to be, which is seen as an opportunity for rapprochement between the two countries by China. The border conflict does not mean the daily conflicts of the Taliban border guards with the Pakistani border guards, but the claims of both sides about the historical border conflict. China thinks that if it cannot end the conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan in a radical way, at least it can keep the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban free of tension in the short term so that the tension between Pakistan and the Taliban does not harm China’s economic ambitions. On the other hand, China did not have an influence on the pre-Taliban governments as much as it does now. China still has influence over Pakistan and can use its influence to bring this country closer to the Taliban, probably thinking that the current situation in Afghanistan is favorable for strengthening the relationship between the Taliban and Islamabad so that it can better implement its economic plans through this deal.
Moreover, using the influence it has on the Taliban, China probably wants to encourage this group to cooperate with Pakistan to suppress the TTP- what Pakistan has not been able to do so far. It seems that such a request from Pakistan has been placed on China’s table. If this possibility is accurate, this is the last option for Pakistan to resort to convincing the Taliban to cooperate in suppressing the TTP. If China’s mediation regarding the need for Taliban cooperation with Pakistan to suppress TTP does not work, the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban may get tougher.
3) China supports the establishment of stability in Afghanistan and does not want a country in its neighborhood without a legitimate government. China considers instability, chaos, and extremism in Afghanistan to its detriment; therefore, it supports the inclusive legitimate government in Afghanistan. China’s emphasis on creating an inclusive political structure is a point that can be included in the agenda of this meeting, realizing that the Taliban alone cannot provide stability in Afghanistan. According to China, stability in Afghanistan can be ensured when a comprehensive and legitimate political structure is established. This country was unhappy with the presence of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. However, it did not welcome the withdrawal of these forces, realizing that the irresponsible withdrawal of the United States and the return of the Taliban to power would be detrimental to stability in Afghanistan.
China has long-term economic goals in Afghanistan and to achieve these goals, ensuring stability, and ending the conflict in the neighborhood of this country in Afghanistan is necessary. In the absence of stability in Afghanistan, China has realized that the cost of operationalizing its economic plans will double. China knows that the instability in Afghanistan will not be limited to this country and will spread to Pakistan and Central Asia as well. Places that are included in China’s big economic plan are called the “New Silk Road”. In this meeting, the Chinese Foreign Minister may explain to the Taliban in a bare and serious tone that they should be prepared to create an inclusive political structure with broad rules. China will continue to encourage Pakistan to play a positive and constructive role in Afghanistan. It is explicit that China does not want to send military forces to Afghanistan nor want to impose a certain political and economic model on Afghanistan. It still does not want to make Afghanistan its sphere of influence. It can be understood from China’s behavior before and after the Taliban came to power that China often pursues economic goals and rarely pursues security-political goals.
China is worried about the presence of East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) forces in Afghanistan. The need to suppress the forces loyal to this movement by the Taliban will be an important point discussed in this meeting. China thinks that forces loyal to this movement are present in northern Afghanistan, which is connected to China’s Xinjiang province, the main center of this movement, through the Wakhan Corridor. The suppression of this movement is important for China because if China has security concerns in Afghanistan, it is only ETIM.
China’s most important demand from the Taliban boils down to the suppression of this movement. The lack of political stability in Afghanistan and the spread of chaos and extremism in this country have worried China more than ever. As can be seen, the Taliban have not yet met this demand of China. Beijing is afraid that the forces of this movement will make ties with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-Khorasan (ISS-K) to increase the security threats to this country.
The Chinese consider the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan disastrous, thinking that the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan carries a heavy responsibility on China: one is that, as a major regional power, it should work harder than any other country to strengthen the security of the region – starting from Pakistan to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Iran. Second, to strengthen its national security by suppressing the ETIM. China thinks that confronting the Taliban and exerting pressure on this group is not fruitful, that is, instead of encouraging this group to suppress the movement, it may encourage the Taliban to cooperate with this movement, which is to the detriment of China.
Until now, the Chinese think that the continuation of the policy of engagement with the Taliban is a way forward and functional, and probably if it does not encourage the Taliban to suppress the forces loyal to this movement, at least it keeps the group away from supporting the movement. Beijing used to have only economic goals in Afghanistan and was quietly seeking to achieve them, but after the whispers of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially the definitive withdrawal of that country, China’s economic goals are mixed with considerations and security concerns. This country is suspicious of America because it assumes that if the tension between Beijing and Washington rises, America will support the ETIM, which could be a serious danger for China.